Bruno Schulz’s “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” reads like someone telling you a vivid, detailed dream: a dream that they had while mourning the death of their father after an wasting illness.
Not everything that happens in the story makes sense after a first read. But the bizarre things the protagonist encounters seem to be symbols of his psyche, allegories of anxieties related to this period of mourning. When my grandfather died, I had dreams of him still being alive myself. But what if a Sanatorium advertised that you could meet your dead father again, if only you took the long train ride out to it?
This is that story and so much more. It is deliciously slow, languid, and bleak, constructing a mood of deadness and sleepiness from the first sentence onward. Yet the core of the story–a son who desires to meet and comfort his ailing father in the hospital where he’s staying–retains an emotional relateability that makes the story accessible, despite its dreamlike warping of time–and other, stranger appearances.
I think this may be my favourite weird story in the anthology so far. There are no ghosts or eldritch creatures here, unless the father can be counted a kind of ghost. Joseph, the protagonist, arrives at the Sanatorium after traveling a long railway line filled with labyrinthine cabins with almost nobody riding with him. One senses the train to be a kind of Charon guiding him into the underworld to see the shades of the dead.
Joseph has come to the Sanatorium to see his father, who has fallen gravely ill. However, when he meets Dr. Gotard, the doctor reveals that his father has actually died long before. He says, “You know as well as I that from the point of view of your home, from the perspective of your own country, your father is dead. [But] here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet” (250). In effect, time is relative at the Sanatorium and his father exists in two simultaneous states: at home, he is dead, while here he is alive.
Alive and always very sleepy. Even at the Sanatorium, there are two versions of Joseph’s father: the father convalescing who sleeps in bed and the busy father who runs a small shop in the town centre. In the shop, the son insists that his father should take it easy, that he’s sick and working too hard, but his father resists the draw of sleep. “It was obvious that only the excitement of his feverish activity sustained him and postponed the moment of complete collapse,” Joseph says (253). But his father says the business of the stall beats back his dreadful boredom: “And so one manages somehow to live” (251).
He means it literally. It’s as if his work not only gives him a reason to live, but makes it possible for him to live at all.
This strange doubling of Joseph’s father is far from the weirdest thing in this story, which is filled with atmosphere and strangely jarring images. The door to Joseph’s father’s room opens “like unresisting lips that part in sleep” (250), a metaphor that captures the mood exactly. When Joseph receives a parcel with a letter saying his order for a pornographic book will be delayed, he receives a strange telescope in compensation, which envelops him and advances “like a large black caterpillar … into the lighted shop–an enormous paper arthopod with two imitation headlights on the front” (253). Though the image seems phallic, its sheer strangeness defies any reductive Freudian interpretation. Yet, this surreal transformation seems to follow the logic of dreams.
At a later point in the story, war is declared. The nature of the conflict is unclear, but the enemy emboldens the discontented local townspeople. What follows is an ominous, dreamlike description of a fascist parade. The people
come out in the open, armed, to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants. We noticed, in fact, a group of these activitist, in black civilian clothing with white straps across their breasts, advancing in silence, their guns at the ready. The crowd fell back onto the pavements, as they marched by, flashing from under their hats ironical dark looks, in which there was a touch of superiority, a glimmer of malicious and perverse enjoyment, as if they could hardly stop themselves from bursting into laughter.(257)
The swastika is not mentioned explicitly, but it’s clear that these men are Nazis. If the black shirts and white bands are not enough of a hint, then the ironic glances and air of superiority are enough. I’ve personally seen these same faces in newspapers and online images, only they were wearing red MAGA hats instead of black shirts. Schulz could be describing a civilian parade in support of the Nazis or the white supremacist mob that demonstrated in Charlottetown–or even the recent mob that stormed and looted the US capitol on January 6th.
The invasion of the Nazis into the bizarre dream world upsets the order of life. Suddenly, his father is in danger. The Nazis appearing is particularly ominous, given the fact that the author himself, Bruno Schultz, would eventually be killed by the Nazis only five years after the publication of this story.
Joseph’s father tells him to return to the Sanatorium, which is when Joseph encounters the most bizarre thing guarding the entrance, a surreal Cerebus–an attack dog that has the form of a man. The man-dog chases him until it reaches the end of its leash. Joseph unchains the man-dog, pitying it, and earning its sympathy. The man-dog then follows him around as Joseph tries to get rid of it and find his father. Then he fears what will happen when his father encounters the dog. This is when he remembers that his father is, actually, dead. The dream is ending. He escapes the Sanatorium by train just as he arrived, and he never leaves it, wandering the many carriages as a beggar wearing a railwayman’s uniform.
It’s quite striking how the appearance of the Nazi-like figures presage the end of the dream, as if the threat they pose also disrupts the Sanatorium’s privileged relationship to time. So many images in this surreal piece beg to be interpreted at length, and the whole story proceeds with an inner logic of its own that cannot be easily grasped, but which seems to make sense on the level of dreams.
For example, what could be the dog’s significance? A chained man who appears from a distance to be a dog reminded me of what a dehumanized Nazi prisoner might look like. Yet, the image is sustained: the man-dog is fully a dog, though he has the exterior features of a man: “his jaws [are] wide open, his teeth bared in a terrible growl, … a man of middle height, with a black beard” (258). Why does it attack Joseph and why is Joseph so eager to get rid of it after he frees it from its chains?
In the end, what could the railway itself symbolize, particularly given Joseph’s decision in the end to live on it “continuously”? (259) Does the train represent a return to ordinary life, or to a state somewhere between life and death? It is notable that Joseph is never said to return home, to his native country where his father has died. He remains suspended between worlds, on the heterotopia of the constantly moving train.
“Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” is a rich story with many dimensions to it, and worth noting for the mood it creates and its beautiful description of the bleak forest surrounding the Sanatorium. This has certainly been one of the genuinely “weirdest” short stories in this anthology so far. It is also a profound exploration of the dislocation of grief.
Next week, I will be examining Robert Barbour Johnson, a pulp writer for Weird Tales magazine, and his weird tale “Far Below” (1939).