Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra) by Bruno Schulz, 1937
SANATORIUM UNDER THE SIGN OF THE HOURGLASS (Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra)
by Bruno Schulz, 1937
"Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass" ("Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra") is the title story in the second (and last) collection of short fiction by Bruno Schulz. It was first published in Poland in 1937. The story's length makes it something of an anomaly in the author's small but important body of work. Only "Spring," in the same volume, is longer. Schulz's collections, however, are virtually novels in their own right, even—like Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, an important influence—parts of a single multivolume work. Length aside, "Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass" is wholly characteristic of Schulz's extraordinary prose. It offers, to borrow Schulz's description of his first collection, Cinnamon Shops (Sklepy Cynamonowe, "a certain recipe for reality, posits a certain special kind of substance, the substance of that reality exists in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life. It contains no dead, hard, limited objects. Everything diffuses beyond its borders, remains in its given shape only momentarily, leaving his shape behind at the first opportunity."
In "Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass" not even the narrator's dead father remains dead. Modeled on the author's father, Jakub Schulz, a successful textile merchant who died in 1915, several months after fire had destroyed his business, the father plays as important a part in this story, and indeed in much of Schulz's fiction, as Kafka's father, Hermann, did in his son's writings. Whereas Kafka's father figure is a petty but nonetheless powerful tyrant engaged in an Oedipal struggle that inevitably ends with the son's defeat, the father in Schulz's fiction, however, is a far more sympathetic if ultimately ineffectual figure whom the son admires rather than fears.
In Schulz's fiction the factual and autobiographical are never more than points of departure for the author's prodigious imagination, which runs toward fantasy and fable. The son's journey by rail to the nameless sanatorium run by the enigmatic and elusive Dr. Gotard (modeled on the sanatorium in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, as well as on the health resort at Truskawiec where Schulz frequently vacationed) is rendered in terms of myth and dream. Once he has arrived, these elements become still more pronounced as time loses its linearity and becomes at once multiple and synchronous. Dead in one time, the father lives in another, and he does not just live but lives, as it were, a double existence. He is the patient confined to his bed who reproaches his son for neglecting him, and he is the merchant who has opened a new shop, small but thriving (a success that makes the son's visit seem unnecessary).
The son finds himself in a world that appears at once strange yet strangely familiar. Arriving at the father's shop by a curiously direct route, he learns that a letter has arrived for him, but what his father calls a letter turns out to be a parcel. It does not contain the pornographic work he ordered (and which he now learns is out of stock) but a "certain object" that the sender believes will interest his client. This object defies the son's ability to know or even name it except by relaying expressive yet ultimately inadequate similes. (The similes, like Schulz's larger style, reveal meaning as if through a veil and revel in their own imaginative excess.) Compared at first to a folded-up accordion, the object is subsequently likened to a telescope, an enormous phallic bellows, a labyrinth of black chambers, a long complex of camera obscuras, an automobile, a theatrical prop, a paper butterfly, a large caterpillar, and a paper dragon.
Nearly everything and everyone in the story undergoes similar, often ceaseless metamorphosis, including the father, of course, and a dog that the son greatly fears and that turns out to be a harmless old man whom the narrator-son soon abandons. The structure of the story follows a similarly Ovidian course, with the abrupt transitions between its five sections rendered as if the parts do make up a single, seamless, continuous whole (which in a very different sense they do). "The quick decomposition of time" that so disconcerts the narrator upon his arrival at the sanatorium soon begins to afflict the reader as well through the agency of a narrative that blurs all distinctions between dream and reality, fact and fiction, and cause and effect. The chief exception to the uncertain reality of the sanatorium and its environs, with its sweet air, black vegetation, bands of roving dogs, and occupation by an invading army, is the group of girls the son sees walking as if in possession of an inner rule, "the idee fixe of their own excellence." This is an "excellence" that, even though nothing more than a flattering delusion, is often sufficient to defeat the men in many of Schulz's stories and in most of his drawings.
As the story progresses, either conditions worsen or Joseph chooses to believe they do. Either his father is quite well, bustling about his shop, or he is dying in his bed. Either the son was right to place his father in the sanatorium and thus save the father's life, or he and his family have been "misled by skillful advertising…. Time put back—it sounded good, but what does it come to in reality?" For the son time proves cyclical rather than progressive. Deciding on no factual basis whatsoever that his father is dead, he exits the maze ("Where am I? What is happening here? What maze have I become entangled in?") by boarding the same train that earlier brought him to the sanatorium. This, however, is a train he is doomed never to leave, the train on which he will himself grow old, eventually being forced to sing for his supper, to repeat his story over and over, dressed in the same shabby railway uniform as the old man he met at the very beginning of his story. For Schulz, who found life interesting solely as the "raw material" for his writing and claimed that his "ideal goal [was] to 'mature' into childhood" and who, believing in the mythologizing of reality, contended that the tracing of the individual spirit must necessarily end in "mytho-logical delirium," the son's fate may constitute, in its own strange way, less a defeat than a celebration of the powerful imagination of an author able to conjure densest fantasy out of thinnest reality.
—Robert A. Morace