Frank Garrett, on translating Bruno Schulz’s “Undula”

The following excerpt is taken from the translator’s notes provided by Frank Garrett as an afterword to his brilliant rendering of “Undula” by Bruno Schulz, publishing this week.

Despite its original publication in 1922, the story begins with a sentence that reads like it could have been written in 2020: “It must’ve been weeks now, months, since I’ve been locked up in isolation.” Readers of Schulz will recognize the character of the maid Adela. They will identify certain Schulzian themes and vocabulary: among them, cockroaches, the hazy borders between dreams and waking life, nostalgia, masochistic eroticism, and references to the Demiurge, which I translate as Maker. So many of the themes and images that appear throughout Schulz’s writings also appear here in what seems to be, as far as we can tell, his first literary publication. As Lesya Khomych notes, in this one story we find the confluence of images from his artwork and literary images from his later writings.

Admirers of Schulz’s visual art will recognize the name Undula from a series, also from the early 1920s, of slightly erotic cliché-verre works published as The Book of Idolatry [Xięga Bałwochwalcza]. (In addition to idolatrous, bałwochwalcza can also be translated as slavish.) It has been claimed that these prints, some of which are held by the National Museum in Krakow, were to illustrate a new edition of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, first translated into Polish in 1913. The series depicts a man often groveling before a dominant woman wearing a blasé expression, and individual images seem to illustrate specific scenes from Sacher-Masoch’s novel. It was while conducting research in Lviv’s Vasyl Stefanyk National Scientific Library on reviews of an art show where Schulz exhibited some of his work for The Book of Idolatry that Khomych came across a short story that shared its unusual name with a woman featured in the artwork. The story had been published under the name Marceli Weron, but it was unmistakably the work of Bruno Schulz.

Like the Polish word undyna, the name Undula refers to the undine or the ondine, beings beget of water. The name can be traced back to the Latin unda, meaning wave, and it shares its root with undulant and undulate. Undula, then, means little wave or wavelet. We can imagine an allusion, no matter how slight, to Warsaw’s symbol of the sword-wielding mermaid, who has appeared on the city’s coat of arms since the early seventeenth century.

But Undula did not spring fully formed in Schulz’s imagination. We can trace her lineage back to the Greek goddess Venus and to the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great by way of Sacher-Masoch’s own heroine Wanda von Dunajew, who appears in his novel as a Venus, albeit one wrapped in furs. And what a name: Dunajew, with its nod toward the Dunaj, the Slavic name for the Danube River (Danube itself meaning something like born of dew) and ending with jew, pronounced yev, but gesturing, at least in English, toward Jew. Undula’s wavelet seems to likewise pay homage to the watery Dunajew, who in effect is a descendant of the Danube, which is what her name would mean in Russian. Yet she has a noble title, and one that is distinctly German: von Dunajew, making her name at once both eastern and western, both entitled master and (Danubian) Jew.

In addition to the overt theme of masochism, “Undula” echoes with other Symbolist and Decadent motifs. Schulz emphasizes dreams and phantoms throughout the story. The narrator’s pain manifests as a homunculus. As in his later stories, objects are unleashed from their backgrounds; they change and transform further as they are perceived by the narrator. In turn, what could easily have remained in the background as mere setting shifts to the foreground. The setting in effect becomes subject matter, destabilizing the story’s, the character’s, the narrator’s tenuous grasp on time-space.

Undula is out October 6, 2020. It can be ordered here.