sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass

I was eager to start reading Bruno Schulz’s ‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’ after the introduction promised me pages ‘crowded with verbal brilliance’. I was apparently about to experience ‘ecstatic reaches of simile’ and ‘metamorphic fantasies’ that at times would succeed in reaching depths that neither Kafka nor Proust (to which Schulz has been compared to) ever accomplished. 

Having recently read an article denouncing the superfluous use of the adjective, criticising the excessive use of the thesaurus, and favouring instead skilful direct prose, I was keen to read something flying the flag for the opposition.

“Right, well, here goes…” I thought, as I prepared myself for a literary awakening like no other.
And my, was I surprised. This book was a challenge. I have never encountered writing that requires quite the same form of focus. For example, Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’ was a challenge for me, largely due to my lack of understanding of its key themes (existentialism not exactly being a specialist subject of mine). But my struggle with that book was largely down to ignorance of its subject, which resulted in me persistently repeating sections of text until they began to make sense.

But with Schulz’s novel it was not a case of ‘understanding’ the text. Instead, it was his leaps and bounds of fantastical imagination that stumped me as a reader. Schulz’s use of language was not complicated, nor academic. Simply dense with detail; sumptuous and rich.

“Down below, the quick and silent work of night now begins in earnest. Greedy ants swarm everywhere, decomposing into atoms the substance of things, eating them down to their white bones…White papers, in tatters on the rubbish heap, survive longest, like undigested rays of brightness in the worm-ridden darkness, and cannot completely dissolve…And then thin veins of breezes rise from the bottom of the courtyard, hesitant and uncertain, streaks of freshness, which line like silk the folds of summer nights. And while the first shimmering stars appear in the sky, the summer night emerges with a sigh – deep, full of starry dust and the distant croaking of frogs.” 

I became lost in the world Schulz presented to me; for it was not the world as I had previously known it. Descriptions were detailed and vivid, as though magnifying each minute aspect of life to the extreme. Through each word, sentence or paragraph re-read, Schulz’s stories strengthened into magical marvels of descriptive prose. The pages throbbed with life and beauty, found in both the ordinary and extraordinary.

“The person sitting at the box office was only a wraith, an illusory phantom looking tired…fluttering her lashes thoughtlessly to disperse the golden dust of drowsiness scattered by the electric bulbs.”

I will admit that there were times when I found myself utterly lost, questioning the point of my reading this apparently nonsensical book; for often it felt as though flights of fancy were simply being patch-worked together. But when I did regain my way I was repeatedly amazed. I felt as though I was forging my way through a forest, beams of light occasionally piercing through the treetops, every so often stumbling upon clearings of glorious sunshine.

There is certainly something to be said for concise yet evocative prose. And there is nothing worse than wading your way through wordy text. However, when you take it to the other extreme – and combine it with an acute imagination – you can also understand why people are in such awe of Schulz’s brief yet mind-bending literary career.   

It is a book I would recommend with trepidation though, as it requires you to commit yourself to its reading. On the other hand, I am sure that it is something one could go back to time and time again, with greater delights being revealed upon each reading.
One Response to “sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass”
  1. JeanRZEJ says:

    >Sounds amazing. I've seen the Polish film adaptation which is itself amazing, although I don't recall any depiction of ants necessarily. This is not to say that insects are not involved, however. To fittingly describe the complexities of the film may take as long as the book itself, so I'll just recommend watching it and I'll take this as a recommendation to read the book. Nice blog, by the way. I vicariously lament the loss of your early morning Manhattan jaunts.

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