If we take the train as representing order, connection, regularity, a certain comfort even, then something is badly wrong with the train in Bruno Schulz’s ‘Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’ . A ‘forgotten branch line’, ‘archaic coaches’, ‘spacious as living rooms, dark, and with many recesses’ does not sound encouraging but what are we then to make of a train in which ‘[c]orridors crossed the empty compartments at various angles; labyrinthine and cold, they exuded an air of strange and frightening neglect’ (248)?
If that weren’t enough what few passengers there are seem reluctant to use the seats, which anyway do not seem to invite people to sit on them and the carriages are full of straw and rubbish, more like cattle wagons than passenger carriages. Passengers, what few there are, mysteriously come and go, yet no one seems to get onto the train, no one gets off. The narrator is finally deposited in the middle of nowhere, with not a station building in sight. As he turns away it is as though the train never existed to begin with.
The fluidity of the train’s appearance during the journey, the way it so quickly vanishes from his thoughts, suggests that the world the narrator inhabits is at the very least not subject to the usual constraints of the ordinary world. The narrator’s experience seems to be one of constant shifting of the world around him and yet, although he remarks on it – and indeed his noting the changes and dissonances of what he experiences forms the bulk of the story – at the same time he seems for the most part to accept it. Now and then a sense of dis-ease surfaces but this feeling quickly vanishes again. The narrator is aware that the story he tells does not somehow make sense but he leaves it to the reader to try to assemble a story, putting together incidents like one might marshal the carriages of a train which then runs, neatly and without deviation, along a track. Except, of course, as we already know, this wasn’t a normal railway to begin with.
And that is perhaps the most significant thing about this story. It refuses to run neatly, along the tracks of story while teasing the reader with the prospect that if she presses on, it might all start to make sense after all, because a story, like a train, has a destination, doesn’t it? But this is a story that resists the imposition of the framework, so many frameworks, that a railway proffers. It feels much more like a dream; it may have an internal logic, however odd this might be, and to reach a conclusion of sorts, but at the same time one can’t help wondering if there isn’t something else going on as well. Yet, even tracking the discrepancies does not illuminate the situation.
As the narrator leaves the train, the last vestige of the outside world if you like, he is swallowed up by the landscape, all greys and darkness,. ‘It was a strangely charged blackness, deep and benevolent, like restful sleep’ (249); at the same time, the narrator describes the landscape as exuding ‘a feeling of self-denial, a resigned and ultimate numbness that does not need the consolation of color’ (249). Neither of these seems to be a conventional description of the effect of a landscape but the landscape itself seems to lack the attributes one might expect, being instead a half-place, neither dark nor light.
Yet in some respects this is the most tangible of dream worlds. The narrator arrives at the sanatorium where his father is staying, demanding the room that he has booked by telegram. He is hungry, he wants food, yet every attempt to proceed normally is somehow interrupted or deferred. No one is available to see about his room; as he helps himself to a pastry (the narrator will become obsessed with pastries) he is interrupted. His first meeting with Dr Gotard, the superintendant, only deepens the mystery. The train comes only once a week yet Gotard sent the carriage to the station the previous day and says ‘you must have arrived by another train’ (250).
Potentially more revealing is Gotard’s explanation of what the sanatorium does:
The whole secret of the operation […] is that we have put back the clock. Here we are always late by a certain interval of time of which we cannot define the length. The whole thing is a matter of simple relativity. Here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet. […] Here we reactivate time past, with all its possibilities, therefore also including the possibility of a recovery. (250)
What does this mean? One wonders if this is one of those stories where the narrator is dead but hasn’t yet realised that fact. The train journey, with its distorted, disintegrating carriages, is perhaps suggestive of a journey beyond life. Is the sanatorium some kind of purgatory? Yet the key word perhaps is ‘possibilities’ for what the narrator also sees is different versions of his father, at one moment old and shrivelling, dreaming away the rest of his life, growing ever smaller by the day, in a cold, dusty, untended hospital; at another he is younger, more vital, starting a new business, selling cloth, dismissive of his son’s getting in the way in the shop.
As time passes – and how does time pass? According to his own account, the narrator is literally sleep-walking his way through his time at the Sanatorium, in between wondering whether he did the right thing in sending his father to the place.
Does anyone here get time at its full value, a true time, time cut off from a fresh bolt of cloth, smelling of newness and dye? Quite the contrary. It is used-up time, worn out by other people, a shabby time full of holes, like a sieve. (256)
The narrator seems also to be acutely aware that time is being manipulated in some way: ‘highly improper’ (256). We might think at this point of the hourglass of the title, which only marks the passing of time so long as it is turned when the sand runs through. The obvious drawback of the hourglass is that it needs to be constantly attended in order to maintain the telling of time. What happens to time, I wonder, when the hourglass is not turned assiduously. Does time keep going without something to mark its passing? Perhaps the narrator has found a place where the hourglass turns erratically.
The story is jerked out of its dreamlike state by the ‘incredible news that an enemy army had entered the town’ (257) but when the narrator and his father go to the town centre, the only people they see are ‘discontented townspeople, who have come out in the open, armed, to terrorize the peaceful inhabitants’ (257). If there is an army, a war, it seems to be somewhere else.
They passed by, not challenging anybody. All the streets filled at once with a frightened, grimly silent crowd. A dull hubbub floated over the city. We seemed to hear a distant rumble of artillery and the rattle of gun carriages. (257)
Yet the narrator, sent away by his father, returns to the sanatorium and there makes a startling discovery, that the huge dog chained there, ‘a werewolf of truly demoniacal ferocity’, is a man. Unusually for the narrator, who is normally indolent if not downright passive, he releases the man and takes him to his room. Here, the narrator notices that the town is burning, realises that his father is still in the town, and suddenly, mysteriously, his mother has appeared, and he bolts for the railway station.
These were the elements of some great and obscure intrigue, which was hemming me in. I must escape, I thought, escape at any cost. Anywhere. (259)
Back on the train, the narrator tells us he now travels continuously, living on the train. He is, by his own description, identical with a mysterious figure he saw at the beginning of the journey. Himself coming back? Is this another example of times possibilities? Or is the narrator dreaming? Or mad?
The reader can only speculate. The story teeters between rationality and strangeness, never quite committing itself to one thing or another. As when a train leaves the well-lit security of the station and heads out into the blackness of the night, the passenger glancing out of the window, speculating what might be out there, beyond the safety of the carriage, so this story sets off on a journey into the inexplicable, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen as the conventions of time and story break down.