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Dancing the Polka

Pornografia

by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Alastair Hamilton
Grove Press, 191 pp., $5.00

Ferdydurke

by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Eric Mosbacher
Grove Press, 272 pp., $5.00

Compared to Pornografia in subject matter and action, Lolita (to which Gombrowicz’s novel bears an obvious though superficial resemblance) is a veritable Odyssey. Pornografia treats of two elderly gentlemen, visiting a country estate in Poland in 1934, who imagine and then encourage an erotic relationship between two teenagers, (a boy) and (a girl). The narrator, Gombrowicz himself, promises to explain this use of brackets, but fails to do so; never mind, the reader is more likely to resent his arch dealings with quotation marks. The tow gentlemen erect a painstaking and tremulous construction of speculation and exegesis around gestures and actions for which there are innocent and obvious explanations, thus achieving an exceptionally refined form of voyeurism in that what is being watched quite possibly does not exist.

Why this disgraceful passion for spying on people?” the narrator asks himself, and later tells himself, “I ought to find some other occupation, something more suitable, more serious!”—a sentiment which after a while the most patient and well-disposed reader is likely to echo. But still this minute epic of uncertainty goes on: is there, isn’t there, something between the two youngsters? On one page they are feared to be completely indifferent to each other, which spells “the ruin of all our dreams”; on another we are told of a “warm idyll in spring,” so refreshing after “stifling, gray years of horror and exhaustion…during which I had almost forgotten what beauty was. During which I had smelt nothing but the rank stench of death.” This might seem to offer a clue. In a time of war, of absurdity, what can there be “more serious” or “more suitable” to do? When the narrator drives into the nearest town, he remarks casually that it had not changed, “it was just as it had been… And yet something was missing—there were no Jews.” The air of disdainful remoteness from the large and vulgar events of contemporary history brings Nabokov to mind. When a Resistance leader shows up at the house, the narrator is unable to “control a vague feeling of disgust for all this décor—action, Resistance, the leader, conspiracy—like a bad novel, a late incarnation of more or less insane childhood dreams…The nation and its romanticism constituted for me an undrinkable potion concocted to spite and anger me.” Like Nabokov, who can give the impression that the Russian Revolution was concocted expressly to spite him, Gombrowicz is an émigré writer.

But this game of incitement and panderism—for the elderly gentlemen are not content to wait passively for something to happen—hardly comprises a telling alternative to the gray game of war and patriotism and politics. The apologia, or diagnosis, when it comes, is not especially cogent or engaging:

I only took part in life like a whipped and mangy cur…But when at that age we are offered the opportunity of toying with blossom, of entering youth even at the expense of depravity, and if it appears that ugliness can still be used and absorbed by beauty, well…A temptation sweeping aside all obstacles, insurmountable! Enthusiasm, yes, what am I saying? folly, stifling, but on the other hand…No, it was mad! Quite unsuitable!

These heart-searchings resemble nothing so much as a parody of the pact with the Devil in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

The ambiguous apotheosis of youth and its freshness and beauty in contrast to the ugliness of age, the equivocal glorification of adolescence over adulthood—all this is only vaguely Humbertian. It is only vaguely anything. By the end of the book the girl’s fiancé (a young man but not in his first youth) has been killed along with three other characters, happily not including the teenagers, unhappily not including the two old men. The much anticipated and striven-for love-making has still not been arrived at.

ONE REALIZES and admires Gombrowicz’s sensitiveness and subtlety, but would like to know what he is being sensitive to and subtle about. Pornografia is a skillful composition of gossamer threads, and altogether different from the pronounced (if poeticized) physicality of Lolita. Noticing the superficial kinship with Nabokov, a British reviewer has remarked that Gombrowicz festers less. True, gossamer doesn’t fester. But this seems a doubtful point of superiority in the present case, for if a story of this sort doesn’t fester, it is hard to see what it can do. The oldsters are not sex maniacs, they are simply incomprehensible, simply weirdies. It would seem a perverse complaint to make at a time like the present, but one is sorely tempted to reproach the book with failing to live up to its title.

Gombrowicz’s earlier novel, Ferdydurke (first published in English in 1961, though published in Warsaw as far back as 1937), prompts the reflection that what is amiss with Pornografia is that it isn’t fantastic enough and so is merely odd. Ferdydurke is very nearly fantastic enough. The apparent preoccupations and theories of the later novel are already present here, indeed are more overt from the start. “If you yourself don’t think yourself mature, how can you expect anybody else to?” And “at heart man depends on the picture of himself formed in the minds of others, even if the others are half-wits.” Thus, where the elderly gentlemen of Pornografia can only watch and negotiate, the thirty-year-old hero of Ferdydurke finds he has actually turned into a fifteen-year-old schoolboy.

The senior is always the creation of the junior…Are we not fatally in love with youth?” And so we are treated to some ludicrous instances of “old age obsequiously toadying to athletic youth.” We are also treated to the asexual voyeurism offered by the later book, But the affinity here is seen to be with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy rather than with Nabokov. There is a comparable mingling of satire, more or less good-natured observations on human nature, a measure of deliberate and cheerful absurdity, and anecdotage for the sheer sake of anecdotage. There is also a similar mystification (the brackets in Pornografia are reminiscent of Sterne’s black and marbled pages beneath which many truths “lie mystically hidden”) and the author displays a like habit of addressing the reader in admonitory or encouraging or pseudo-explicatory style. “So I invite all those who wish to plunge still deeper and get a still better idea of what it is all about to turn to the next page and read my Philimor Honeycombed with Childishness, for its mysterious symbolism contains the answer to all tormenting questions.”

I doubt whether without knowing of the book’s strange and sad publishing history and its suppression in Poland one would have spotted its supposed (and premonitory) political relevance, ther one would have spotted its supposed (and premonitory) political relevance, though one perceives and appreciates its timeless and unlocalized mockery, as in the interchange with the headmaster,

Would you like to see the teaching body?”

With the greatest of pleasure,” Pimko replied. “It is well known that nothing has a greater effect on the mind than the body….”

and his description of his staff as “the best brains in the capital…Not one of them has an idea of his own in his head…All the members of my staff are perfect pupils, and they teach nothing that they have not been taught.” The book’s superiority to Pornografia consists in its density of anecdote and even (however “unrealistic”) of character—among other items there is a very funny bedroom scene involving an unusually large cast—and its greater willingness to be comic, grotesque, wild, fantastic. Frothier on the surface, it nonetheless impresses as a more substantial piece of work. Perhaps it doesn’t make much more sense than Pornografia, but it certainly provides more amusement.

What a bore is the everlasting question: What did you mean by Ferdydurke?” Gombrowicz has written in his Diaries. “Come, come, be more sensuous, less cerebral, start dancing with the book instead of asking for meanings.” He is against interpretation, it would seem. And yet there are passages in Ferdydurke so shrill and insistent (and passages so repetitious and tedious) that they will scarcely be denied “interpretation”: what else could they be crying out like that for? Even so, you can dance with the book quite merrily for much of the time, whereas with Pornografia you won’t stagger more than a few steps before tripping over your partner.

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