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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 involuntary step taken by Lord Jim, the great creation of an earlier Polish writer.

Conrad settled in England: Gombrowicz abandoned himself to isolation like another of Conrad’s characters, Martin Decoud in Nostromo. Decoud, the arch-intellectual, involving himself in a hazardous political adventure, cannot stand for more than a few hours the loneliness of an uninhabited island. Grasping that he has no existence outside the pages of a book, conversations, theories, the endless chatter of the bookish cafés, he shoots himself, or rather allows himself to be shot by himself. Gombrowicz was clearly very different, although in the contrast itself there is a kind of relationship. He once remarked, “I am not Gombrowicz the writer. I am just Gombrowicz, and not even that.” He did not depend upon intellectuals and yet he was obsessed with them, obsessed with escaping from them and becoming a sort of intellectuality of one. He is the anti-intellectuals’ intellectual.

Sartre, in writing La Nausée, was setting out his ideas, finding an embodiment for his concept of the existential. Gombrowicz, as he tells us in an afterword to the novel, began Ferdydurke as a satire against the whole august European tradition of thought systems.

How could I, a Pole, believe in theories? That would be grotesque. Against the Polish sky, against the sky of a paling, waning Europe, one can see why so much paper coming from the West falls to the ground, into the mud, onto the sand, so that little boys grazing their cows can make the usual use of it. But these theories, which drift across the sky, become ridiculous, blind, ignoble, bloody, vain. Gentle ideas are pregnant with mountains of corpses. What can one do? Everyone sees the world from where he stands. It is not for nothing that I come from the plains which separate Europe from the rest of the world.

Or that separate Argentina from Europe. Perhaps Gombrowicz found his own Poland in South America? Observing (a point on which Conrad was silently very sensitive) that “it is not right that a Pole should have to sacrifice all his humanity to Poland,” Gombrowicz goes on to say that large countries do not lay such burdens on the writer. But in minor countries, like Poland, Argentina, Norway, and so forth, “it is really a matter of life and death to break away, to keep one’s distance.” It is a familiar argument, but Argentina may have offered Gombrowicz the chance to embrace his Polish plains by other means. For this child of squires there were more ways than one of remaining with the landed gentry. And in Ferdydurke (a meaningless nonsense word, by the way, unsuited to any known language) the whole question of who makes you, and how you make yourself, becomes a wild, prolonged, and lonely joke.

Conrad’s Martin Decoud, in his few hours on the barren island, would certainly have recognized the truth of this note from Gombrowicz’s diary, a truth promulgated in its entries over a quarter of a century or so, the truth about how the diarist spent a Sunday in Buenos Aires.


I walked in the rain, hat perched over my forehead, collar raised, hands in my pockets.

After which I returned home.

Then I went out again to get something to eat.

Then I ate it.

The most “authentic” thing about Gombrowicz, in existentialist jargon, is that he seems to be a natural, a “naive” writer, who discovered existentialism by mistake. His fellow countryman and intense admirer, Bruno Schulz, said in a lecture on Gombrowicz that “he did not follow the smooth path of intellectual speculation, but the path of pathology, of his own pathology.” Schulz, himself a brilliant imaginative writer, one of a constellation in Polish literature before the war, understood the wholly unabstract nature of Gombrowicz’s talent. The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz’s own enchanting fantasy on petit-bourgeois Jewish life in provincial Poland, is quite a different matter, intensely stylish in the way that Kafka is stylish, and in some degree inspired by Kafka’s own fantasies. Schulz, who was gunned down in his native city by the German SS during the occupation, has the kind of style that comes over in translation, and—again like Kafka’s—adapts admirably to style in a different tongue. Alas, one has the impression that the reverse is true with Gombrowicz. His translators have done their best, but in English he sounds awkward, colorless. The reader has a baffling sense that he must sound wonderful, sure, and strongly flavored in his native Polish, but that does not come over. Much else, fortunately, does.

This is only the first volume of Gombrowicz diaries, but it reads more like a selection than extracts from a more comprehensive diary, which he kept over the years in Argentina. Gombrowicz spends some time reconsidering his past writings in the light of later trends and contemporary fashions.

In 1956 Gombrowicz noted with his usual openness in his diary that existentialism and Marxism were two “bankruptcies” in which he had found himself unwittingly involved:

I wrote Ferdydurke in the years 1936–37, when no one knew anything about this philosophy. In spite of this, Ferdydurke is existential to the marrow…. In this book, practically all the basic themes of existentialism play fortissimo: becoming, creating oneself, freedom, fear, absurdity, nothingness…with the single difference that in addition to the typical existential “spheres” of human life, like Heidegger’s banal and authentic life, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic, ethical, and religious life, or Jaspers’s “spheres,” there is yet another sphere, namely, the “sphere of immaturity.” This sphere or “category” is the contribution of my private existence to existentialism…. For Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, the more profound the awareness, the more authentic the existence. They measure honesty and the essence of experience by the degree of awareness. But is our humanity really built on awareness? Doesn’t awareness—that forced, extreme awareness—arise among us, not from us, as something created by effort, the mutual perfecting of ourselves in it, the confirming of something that one philosopher forces onto another? Isn’t man, therefore, in his private reality, something childish and always beneath his own awareness? And doesn’t he feel awareness to be, at the same time, something alien, imposed and unimportant? If this is how it is, this furtive childhood, this concealed degradation are ready to explode your systems sooner or later.

Well, as can be seen from such entries, Gombrowicz is determined to show that he is in the forefront of the conceptual battle, slugging it out with the most revered names in the philosophical fashion business. This is how we keep abreast of things in the wilds of South America. There is something engaging in his tone, too, in these diaries, a lightness, a lack of solemnity that suits the inherent shrewdness of the point Gombrowicz is making. Furtive childhood is, as it were, always lying in wait for the pompous Heideggerian. That is what animates and determines the method of Ferdydurke itself. “It is as though we were simultaneously at the table and under the table.”

For his first novel Gombrowicz borrowed, no doubt without knowing it, a theme around in literature long before the Victorians, although it made a specially nightmare appeal to the Victorian imagination. It was the theme used in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and in F. Anstey’s once immensely popular Victorian classic, Vice Versa, about the heavy Victorian father who finds he has changed places with his schoolboy son. Toad, the real hero of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, also has his persona of comfortable, over-bearing, conceited squire magicked or disguised into a reverse and humiliating role. In Ferdydurke the middle-aged hero finds himself led off back to school by a ludicrous professor.

Such transformations could be, as Kafka saw, the terror lurking in the modern fairy story; and both Bruno Schulz and Gombrowicz may have had Kafka’s example directly in mind. In The Street of Crocodiles the tyrannical Jewish father becomes an exceedingly lifelike cockroach, or rather a type of domestic lobster, who even temporarily survives being cooked and eaten for the family dinner. This coruscatingly pathetic and funny sequence was much admired by the Polish literary intelligentsia in the prewar years. But Gombrowicz, as he often tells us, will have nothing to do with Freudian images or significances. He takes the idea literally and simply: his hero finds himself back at school and that is all there is to it. Where nightmares or degradations are concerned there is no need to go further.

Ferdydurke divides more or less into three parts. The school sequence is followed by grotesque French farce, the encounter with a family consisting of Mr. and Mrs. “Youthful” and their daughter Zutka; and this transforms itself into the hero—still dogged by a schoolboy “friend”—meeting up with his landowning relations at their country place. The two latter episodes are highly satirical, in the Gombrowiczian manner: the “Youthfuls” representing enlightened modernity, the new bourgeois ethos (there is a charming moment when Mrs. Youthful retires into the WC and emerges looking even more progressive and civic-minded than when she went in), and the squires in the country standing for the wholly conditioned and most classbound race imaginable.

But Gombrowicz is not a satirist; his pictures of how people live and have their being are all the more vivid for their utter lack of the “grown-up” reforming instinct. Ferdydurke also takes an authentically child’s-eye view of sex, a grotesque but compulsive activity that causes people to act in odd ways, and is somehow associated with backsides or bottoms, which figure largely in the general atmosphere of startled and outraged immaturity. Gombrowicz’s greatest strength is the absolute consistency with which he sticks to “the path of pathology,” never letting on that he, as author, is anything other than he appears to be in the terms of the fable. This is a rare thing, and it brings him closer to Swift or Defoe than to any “absurdist” modern writer, in all of whom one can detect the authorial manipulation from a concealed vantage point different from the one the book is offering. “Immaturity,” for example, is hard to create or dissemble. Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, can now be seen to be a made-up figure, like Peter Pan, embodying the author’s wistfulness for what he was, or thought he might have been. In his diary and novels alike Gombrowicz is all of a piece, operating, as he puts it, at the “level of our own inadequacy”; but though we feel familiar with him we never know quite where we are. He is indeed more like a piece of daily existence than like a writer whose method and tactic can be worked out.

Gombrowicz obligingly offers in his diary a suggestion for how to read him.

To persons who are interested in my writing technique I offer the following recipe:

Enter the realm of dreams.

After which begin writing the first story that comes to mind and write about twenty pages. Then read it.

On these twenty pages, there may be one scene, a few sentences, a metaphor, which will seem exciting to you. Then write everything all over again, attempting this time to make the exciting elements the scaffolding and write, not taking reality into consideration, and striving only to satisfy the needs of your imagination.

Sounds easy? The recipe is certainly typical of Gombrowicz’s literalness and lack of pretension. “After which you read in the press,” he goes on, “in Ferdydurke Gombrowicz wants to say…’ ” But “who has decreed that one should write only when one has something to write?… Art consists in writing not what one has to say, but something altogether unexpected.” He was happy to meet an Argentine writer who taught philosophy part-time, and who said his method was hay que golpear—“one must strike.” “One must tear them away from the reality to which they have become accustomed,” so Gombrowicz suggests in his diary. “Knowledge, whatever it is worth, from the most precise mathematics to the darkest suggestions of art, is not to calm the soul but to create a state of vibration and tension in it.”

True, and because he does not write “what he wants to say” Gombrowicz has always evaded predictability. And yet his point about the shock effect of the unexpected is only half-true, as he knows very well. Milosz has speculated about his relation to Dostoevsky and the Underground Man—the hero from under the floorboards—and Dostoevsky has indeed the same capacity to immerse the reader in the atmosphere his hero inhabits. But just by “living there” we come to take aesthetic comfort and calm in that situation; for the reader too is adaptable, and will find reassurance and familiarity in the most unlikely places. Gombrowicz is by no means as familiar as Dostoevsky, but he could become so if he were not in other ways so elusive, simultaneously close to us and far away.

Yet in some ways his life proceeded like that of any other modern intellectual. In the Argentine he continued to write novels—Cosmos, Pornografia, Transatlantic. All follow the general pattern of Ferdydurke; and Pornografia, especially, uses Gombrowicz’s preoccupation with immaturity—in this case the fascination it can have for the elderly, who are not so much mature as set in their ways. The scene is Poland during the war, and the novel takes place in a country house, where two elderly gentlemen hatch a plot to persuade two fresh young teen-agers to go to bed with each other. The love scene never comes off, but murder does—just because the teen-agers are so innocent. The atmosphere is murky, and the story does not appear very persuasive, but Jan Kott has pointed out how well Gombrowicz understood the wartime atmosphere, which also haunts his play The Marriage.

Like Sartre’s Huis clos, The Marriage starts from the notion of a small group who cannot escape each other’s company. The actual and humdrum situation of being shut up together for twelve hours or more arose from the imposition of the curfew in occupied Warsaw and Paris. Anyone who gave a “party” had his guests on his hands till next morning; there was no way they could leave or he could get rid of them. Hell is other people, but the “I” is also somebody else. As Gombrowicz puts it in his preface, “Being united, people impose upon one another this or that manner of being,…each person deforms other persons, while being at the same time deformed by them.”

Kott recalls that in the winter of 1943, at one of these all-night Warsaw parties, he saw two young men engaging in a grimacing match, in the manner made popular by the duel of faces in Ferdydurke, which the narrator watches among schoolboys after he has been metamorphosed into one of them. The two dueling young men of the wartime night in Warsaw later became famous writers—Czeslaw Milosz and Jerzy Andrzejewski, author of Ashes and Diamonds.

Jan Kott writes in a preface to The Marriage that in Ferdydurke “we have the whole Gombrowicz,” and that out of the duel of grimaces in Ferdydurke “developed the Gombrowiczian theory of social behavior and particularly of aggression and mutual debasement.” Maybe so. But it may be, too, that Gombrowicz stayed in South America to escape the kind of typecasting that intellectuals impose upon one another. Ferdydurke is certainly a spontaneous work, but the Diary is even more so, and to the extent that it is, even more rewarding. One pays it a high compliment by saying that one would hardly guess it was written by a well-known intellectual; and this in spite of the fact that every page contains speculation and query about the human condition, brilliant perceptions and criticisms of Rimbaud or Sienkiewicz, Nietzsche or Camus. Nonetheless the spirit of openness, of innocence, of a certain dishevelment, is always present, as is a singularly personal awareness of and response to the Argentine scene, the emptiness of the pampas and islanded estuaries, the farms and estancias with their dark rooms and long avenues of eucalyptus. Gombrowicz may have been lonely in his new country, sometimes bored, often poor, working as a clerk or in some other humble occupation. His solitude indeed seems that of a truant schoolboy, but his individuality is always present, as in this late entry when he tells us about his day:

I get up around eleven, but I put off shaving until later because it is very tiresome. Then comes breakfast, consisting of tea, baked goods, butter, and two soft eggs on the even days of the week and two hard ones on the odd. After breakfast, I get down to work, and I write until the desire to stop working overcomes my reluctance to shave. When this breakthrough occurs, I shave with pleasure.

He puffs on his Dunhill pipe, smoking Hermes tobacco, writes for the local paper in the afternoon to earn some money, goes to supper at the Café Sorrento, spends most of the night reading books, “which, unfortunately, are not always the kind I really desire to read.” He records with satisfaction the purchase of six summer shirts “on sale for a very good price.” He certainly avoided being forced into the mold of a philosophical writer, although in his later books he found it harder and harder to avoid the proleptic attentions of critics like grimacing schoolboys saying “what Gombrowicz intends to say is this.” Eventually he gave in and returned to Europe, to France, spiritual home of all intellectuals, where he died in 1969. The existential establishment, with their all-too-predictable fashions and slogans, embraced him in the end, and he saw that it must be so. Yet he still felt like Rabelais, who had no idea or intention of producing “pure art,” or “articulating his epoch,” but who “wrote the way a child pees under a bush, in order to relieve himself.”

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