Something Childish

Diary, Volume 1

by Witold Gombrowicz, edited by Jan Kott, translated by Lillian Vallee
Northwestern University Press, 232 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Every so often one runs across a sort of fugitive from the literary world, a volume that seems to be forever on the run, flitting across frontiers, denied a residence permit, only one jump ahead of the immigration authorities and the secret police. There is often an element of playing hard to get about such books, which makes them still more of a legend and increases the potential reader’s curiosity.

Ferdydurke is a prime example. In an interview in the New Left Review Sartre once observed that the “naive” novel “is now quite impossible,” and went on to say that the analytic novel of the future had been invented by Gombrowicz, whose books were also designed “to self-destruct.” Yes, but who is this Gombrowicz? Intellectuals would know, perhaps; the common reader, although by now quite familiar with Sartre or Beckett, might still be baffled. Now that Ferdydurke is a Penguin paperback, beautifully introduced by the poet and Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz, all becomes clear.

Gombrowicz was a Polish gentleman, child of an old landowning family. (The word “child” is highly important in his context, as we shall soon find out.) He did not fit into such a heritage. Joining the Warsaw intelligentsia he began to write: unprinted essays, stories, and a play, Princess Ivona, written in 1934 and currently on tour in England, where it seems familiar to audiences accustomed to Beckett and Ionesco. He attracted no special attention until 1937, when Ferdydurke was published. Gombrowicz was then thirty-three. His book created a sensation in Polish intellectual circles, where an international future was predicted for this scandalous work. Then in 1939 came the German invasion. Polish discussion disappeared. It is worth remembering that throughout the war Sartre, whose novel La Nausée appeared just before it, continued to write and to talk in Paris. Gombrowicz was in exile in Argentina, where Ferdydurke was published in Spanish in 1947. Its author noted in his diary that “Ferdydurke had been drowned in the sleep-walking immobility of South America.”

Gombrowicz had in fact reached Buenos Aires before the Polish apocalypse, whether out of prescience or for some random reason is not now apparent. In his introduction to Volume One of the diary Wojciech Karpinski tells the story, admittedly legendary, of Gombrowicz taking passage for home on a Polish vessel just before war broke out, and an instant before the final whistle blew running back down the gangway with his two suitcases. What had called to him from South America? Something to do with emptiness, with the lack of meaning, with youth, or rather the idea of youth; perpetually unfulfilled in maturity? There is a suggestion that he never intended to stay in Buenos Aires, but had merely taken the opportunity offered by his acquaintance Stempowski, director of the Gdynia-America line, to make the inaugural voyage in his role as a Polish intellectual, landowner, minor celebrity. In that case his decision to “jump,” to maroon himself on another continent, seems comparable to that …

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