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Too Polish for the Poles


by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Carolyn French, translated by Nina Karsov
Yale University Press, 122 pp., $20.00

One sometimes wonders nowadays if literature in English is not beginning to split up into component parts: English English novels, American English ones, Indian English, Caribbean, Californian, and so forth. Then along comes a novel like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which seems to appeal almost equally to the readers of the various “Englishes,” and for the same sort of reasons. None the less, the fissiparous tendencies in modern English writing continue unchecked (do contemporary English and American novelists really have any idea of what the others are writing about?) and these tendencies are further complicated by other and more eccentric kinds of linguistic separatism. The new and in many ways admirable translation, into quite a new sort of English, of Witold Gombrowicz’s fantasy novel Trans-Atlantyk shows us something of the fine detail of such recent fragmentation.

Although the name of Gombrowicz is known to an English-speaking readership, principally through translations of his now classic novel Ferdydurke, which appeared in Poland in 1937, this shorter and later fantasy has never made it into English before, although many good judges among Gombrowicz’s fellow countrymen consider it his master work. The novel was begun in Argentina in 1948 and was published in Paris by a Polish émigré press in 1953. The Polish political thaw of 1957 made publication in its native country possible, along with reprints of Gombrowicz’s earlier work, and it became a modern Polish classic, even though, for reasons we shall see in a moment, its circulation remained limited to intellectuals, students, and fellow-writers.

What was Gombrowicz doing inArgentina in the first place? Good question. As if all Polish writers had to undergo the testing and classic Polish experience, he was re-enacting the sudden fate of Lord Jim, the archetypal creation of Gombrowicz’s great fellow-countryman, Joseph Conrad. Jim of course abandoned a sinking vessel, an experience that altered his whole life and being. Conrad wrote, at first with great difficulty, in an English which is now wonderfully accessible to us all. Gombrowicz was not having any of that. A Pole from the same gentry class, whose relatives were old-fashioned landowners like Conrad’s, he wrote Trans-Atlantyk in a seventeenth-century idiom which most of his contemporary Poles could barely understand. At the time he was working in Argentina as a bank clerk in a bank run by another Polish émigré.

He had arrived in Buenos Aires in some style on the new Polish ocean liner Boleslaw Chrobry. After the runaway success of Ferdydurke, in 1939 he was a celebrity, and the owners of the Chrobry had given him and another Polish writer free passage to show the flag among the sizable Polish community in Argentina. It was a holiday for them. But they had scarcely arrived before Hitler invaded Poland and the war began. What to do? The Chrobry was ordered to return to Europe, to a port in England or Scotland. Gombrowicz’s friend and fellow-writer went on board; so did Gombrowicz. The ropes were already cast off when he came running down the gangplank with a suitcase in each hand. Like Lord Jim, he jumped.

It was the kind of move whose motives are too complex to explain, the moment to which Conrad in his books returned again and again. Solitude or Poland? Gombrowicz the philosopher and intellectual chose solitude, since he could not have Poland. Indeed perhaps like everything else in the history of the Polish psyche, it was not a choice. It was the famous “existential moment.” But more rationally, he probably could not face the dilution of living for the rest of the war, or it could have been indefinitely, in an Anglo-Saxon and European society. Very likely he feared precisely the fate which had befallen Conrad, and which Conrad had embraced with such success. Gombrowicz, as he was to write in A Kind of Testament, preferred, in what might be called an even more traditional Polish fashion, a fate that might have appeared totally and perversely irresponsible.

He attempted, in fact, to do something splendidly Polish, against any rational grain. He would try to create an international success, a world reputation, by doing exactly the opposite of what was done, for example, by the Jewish Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler, or in our own time by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. They became, in their own fashion, world-famous by traveling with the current, by adopting the lingua franca of English and using it in their own way and for their own purposes. They joined, as it were, a linguistic mother hive. That is what I meant by suggesting that English as a common literary language is now becoming increasingly fragmented, so that books like Trans-Atlantyk, which might once have remained in the obscurity of an idiom and a language made deliberately by its author as untranslatable as possible, are now nonetheless, and in the teeth of the nature of their original achievement, becoming known in translation.

But in translation the book makes things almost as difficult for itself as did the original. Highly scholarly as well as determinedly honest, the translators admit that they failed in one sense before they began. They could not produce “a conventional translation.”

The aim of literary translation is to make a foreign language work into one of our own…Trans-Atlantyk is simply too Polish to be Englished, at least for the general reader. Moreover, to impose any literary form on this piece would have been contrary to the central tenet of Gombrowicz’s aesthetic.

That tenet is quite simple: a literary work is its own language, hence unique. No real compromise is possible. Gombrowicz seems to have deeply disliked James Joyce’s writings, but he shared the paradoxical tenet of Joycean modernism: that a writer must achieve universal recognition by writing in a language so uncompromisingly his own that no one else can understand it. Joyce required from his readers “the study of a lifetime.” Gombrowicz would have scorned such ludicrous pretension, however tongue in cheek Joyce’s claim may have been. His perversity goes much deeper, deeper even than the despair his translators must have felt when they acknowledged the book as too Polish to be Englished, “at least for the general reader.”

For Trans-Atlantyk was, and was intended to be, too Polish for the Poles as well. In jumping ship, like Lord Jim, Gombrowicz abandoned not only his country but its present-day language as well, so that he had now to make up his own. The novel for which he was already well known, Ferdydurke, a word that, as the author pointed out, means nothing whatever in any language, had nonetheless been linguistically a conventional display of Polish high spirits, recognized as such by his fellow-countrymen, compared to the total oddity he was producing in Trans-Atlantyk.

This was what he recognized in A Kind of Testament.

Trans-Atlantyk was such folly, from every point of view! To think that I wrote something like that, just when I was isolated on the American continent, without a penny, deserted by God and men! In my position it was important to write something quickly which could be translated and published in foreign languages. Or, if I wanted to write something for Poles, something which didn’t injure their national pride. And I dared—the very height of irresponsibility!—to fabricate a novel which was inaccessible to foreigners because of its linguistic difficulties and which was a deliberate provocation of the Polish émigrés, the only readership on which I could rely!

No wonder the translators declare the book “contained something to offend everyone.” “Many a Polish admirer of Gombrowicz today confesses not to have read it.” (This is not quite the same as saying that many an admirer of James Joyce has not read Finnegans Wake: virtually all the Irishman’s admirers have read in it and around it, and, most sedulously, about it.)

So what sort of thing is this impossible book? The answer has to be that the “general reader,” or even the specialized reader, has still no way of finding out. Even the various disintegrated “Englishes” of our time, or the historic idioms of Urquhart and Aubrey, of Sterne or the more obscure Elizabethan dramatists, are quite unequal to conveying what must be its genius and its original flavor. The translators struggle bravely, but, as far as this reader is concerned, almost wholly in vain. Sounding sometimes vaguely like the contemporary novels of Barth or Burgess, sometimes like a translation of Günter Grass, or Tristram Shandy rendered (if such a thing were possible) in an inferior and imitative idiom, the English of Trans-Atlantyk is simply not tolerable, as English or as anything else. South American Spanish speakers, who might recognize some kind of travesty of their own tongue in this English, and no doubt in the original Polish too, were no doubt as affronted by Gombrowicz’s linguistic caper as were the Polish émigrés of Buenos Aires. Suicidally if magnificently the translators seek and fail to find some mid-Atlantic version of the author’s true native cussedness, mainly toward his fellow Poles. There are superb translations of the diaries Gombrowicz wrote in Argentina,* of Ferdydurke itself, and more particularly of other Polish writers and contemporaries like Bruno Schulz. It is not Polish that is the problem, but the language in which Gombrowicz chose to write Trans-Atlantyk.

And yet so odd can be the contemporary appetite for disintegrative English that aficionados of this odd work, in its English version, may well soon be coming out of the woodwork and beginning a cult. If so, the brave attempt at translation we have here will not have been entirely a failure. For it cannot be denied that the translators have achieved an idiom of some sort, in which picaresque event and non-event—duels, quarrels, comic confrontations, and outpourings, some of them involving lustful Argentinians and the self-important members of the Polish community in Argentina—can flow along, jerkily but unstoppably.

In what follows, one of the more consecutive accounts in the book, the narrator is accosted in the street by one Puto:

Yet, since we were going along the street together, he began to tell me His:

Whereupon in a whisper he tells me his all, and I Listen. Viz. that man, perchance Mestizo, Portuguese, of a Persian-Turkish mother in Libya born, was called Gonzalo; and very Rich; about eleven or twelve in the morning from his bed gets up, drinks coffee, and then walks out into a street and there along it goes and after Youths or Lads. When he has singled out one, anon comes up to him, asks the way; and having thus begun with him starts to chat about this and that just to gather if that Boy can be persuaded into sin for five, ten, or even fifteen Pesos. But most often in Fear, in Terror he dared not speak of it, and they shunned him, whereupon he would away as if Stepped on. So then after another Boy, Youth, or even Lad who caught his eye…and there, if you please, again about the way asking, talking, and again about some Games or Dances chatting and all to tempt one for fifteen or twenty pesos; yet that Boy might say a sharp word to him or spit. Then he flees, but in Heat. Now after another Brunet or a Blond, accosting, inquiring. Then when he tires, he comes back to his home to rest and there on the Sopha having rested a bit, again onto a street to look for, walk, approach, ask now a Craftsman, now a Labourer or an Apprentice, or a Scullery Lad or a Soldier, or a Sailor. Most often though in Horror, Fear, whenever forth he steps, Back he steps straight; or else, if you please, he goes after one and that one has gone into a Shop or from sight has sunk away and naught on’t. Again then to his home, tired, fatigued, but Afire, comes back and having supped and rested on the Sopha, again into a street dashes, a Boy, if only well-shaped, to single out, talk into’t. If then he came by such a one and has settled on terms for ten, fifteen, or twenty Pesos, straightway to his lodging leads him; and there, having locked the door with a key, he his jacket, tie, trousers doffs, drops on the Floor, undresses down to his Shirt and the light dims, Perfume sprays. And here the Lad him in the jaw and to the Wardrobe to seize his linen or snatch his Cashes! Numb from terrible fear Puto dares not cry out, allows him to take all and suffers his painful blows. From those Blows, Cuffs, his Heat even stronger!So after the Lad has left, he again into the street, blazing, Flaming, enraptured and likewise Terrified, Anguished, and on after Apprentices, young Craftsmen, Soldiers or Sailors; but whenever forth he steps, Back he steps for, although the lust great, the Fear greater than the lust. But now the night is late and streets are more and more empty; then to his home comes Puto back, down to his Shirt undresses, his tired bones in bed, lonely, comforts, so that tomorrow would Get up, drink coffee, and after Young boys chase—again. And the next day again he gets up, trousers, jacket dons, and after Young boys chases again. An the next day, having got up from his Bed, again into a street so as after Boys to chase.

Whereupon Isay:”Is’t possible, you miserable man, that a Craftsman or an Apprentice or a Soldier can yield to your temptation if only Digust, Abomination you can rouse in him by your charms?” No sooner had I said this does he cry and seemingly sore wounded: “You are mistaken ‘cause Eyes large and Fiery I have, and a white hand, and a Delicate foot!”

At least Trans-Atlantyk is short: if it were as long as Finnegans Wake no one could have translated it, and no one would probably have read it in the original either. Shakespeare embarrassed Tolstoy because of what the great Russian felt to be his unsuccessful jokes; and what is one to make of humor which consists in English of torturing the syntax (“I knew that despite the late hour I could realize my intent since Tomasz with his Son two small chambers in a Pension occupied”) as if some ponderous Edwardian wit like Jerome K. Jerome was seeking to replicate the nature of German grammar? It would be pointless, and indeed rather painful, to quote any more of the novella at length; but, as one should repeat, readers who like this sort of thing could well become hooked on the brave and rather endearing equivalent that the translators have worked out; and they may find that the scatterbrained tale has both charm and wisdom lurking inside its oddity.

If they do so they will certainly be enjoying something unique, a vivid and what might be termed a wholly authentic anachronism. For Trans-Atlantyk is based on the generic principles of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century country squire’s or nobleman’s oral tale, known to Polish literary tradition as the gaweda. Its point is its gaiety and its absurdity, not in the conscientious thoroughgoing sense of the Germans’ Baron Munchausen and his tales, but rather the heroic frivolity of Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Pan Tadeusz, which has been called “the Bible of Polishness.” Pan Tadeusz is really an inspired and rhymed gaweda about the patriarchal life of a Lithuanian forest manor on the eve of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, an adventure which made Polish hearts soar with the hope of freedom and independence.

Gombrowicz’s own independence was, naturally enough, of a very different sort, the independence of a man who “jumped,” and left Polishness behind him. But, like Joyce, Gombrowicz had always in a sense possessed the temperament of the exile, which paradoxically feeds and depends on its own idea of its homeland, as Joyce devoted his creating genius to a Dublin he had quitted. Both writers mercilessly mocked the images of “Irishness” and “Polishness” beloved by their fellow-countrymen, and Gombrowicz remarked in one of his prefaces to Ferdydurke that no one on earth was or had ever been more stupid than the type of the traditional Polish gentry. Nor was that type essentially altered when it became the bright, modern, forward-looking Mr. and Mrs. Youthful of Ferdydurke, the up-to-date young couple rejoicing in their new twentieth-century Polish identity, and representing to the intellectual Gombrowicz all that was most absurd about modern bourgeois living.

Yet there is nothing in the slightest degree satirical about either Ferdydurke or Trans-Atlantyk, and none of that conceited intellectual’s pedantry never absent from Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom the Polish writer was always to be in a relation of comradely hostility. Sartre was simply not human enough for the Pole, and for his sense not so much of the absurd as of what in the phenomenon of human life could never be anything else than funny. As a philosopher Gombrowicz has of course his own system, in some respects akin to the Sartrean one, which in spite of the irreverence of his novels is taken very seriously in his own country—a selection of his essays published there is called Gombrowicz the Philosopher. But in a curious way even the leading feature of his system, that of the distinction between what he called “Form” and “Chaos,” turns out to have something hilarious about it rather than portentous. This is natural enough, for the distinction underlies the confused and hilarious world in which his fiction has its being.

As Stanislaw Baranczak puts the matter in an admirable introduction to Trans-Atlantyk, “by virtue of being human each of us is doomed to be part of the ‘interhuman church,”’ the ritualized and institutionalized relationships that bind the individual to “others.” The individual me is Chaos. We are Chaos and yet we can only live by form; and for the writer, as Baranczak says, “the same Form that enables the individual psyche to express itself is also the psyche’s chief obstacle to expressing itself.” By “jumping” like Lord Jim, or like Gombrowicz when he ran back down the gangway of the Chrobry in Buenos Aires, we return to Chaos. (The first week of his Diary after the jump simply runs Monday Me. Tuesday Me. Wednesday Me. And so forth.)

Rather, as in Dostoevsky’s novels, the many variations between Form and Chaos which Trans-Atlantyk plays upon amount to a polyphony or rather a cacophony of voices and farces. But Gombrowicz is as distant from Dostoevsky as any Polish intellectual is from his Russian equivalent. The Voice—manifested as many voices—is paramount in both; but Dostoevsky’s dark and spiteful humor finds no echo in the laughter of the Polish narrator, although neither writer’s narrator is himself using his “own” voice and laugh, but is instead a multiple quotient of personae variously described in the text as “I,” or “Gombrowicz.” The Anglo-French-Polish Conrad uses the same sort of method, in a more elementary fashion, with his own narrator-self, the English sea officer Marlowe. And simple though the device is with Conrad, it seems to me possible that both writers are using what in Poland used to be called the “Sarmatian model”—the parochial oral “gentry tale,” as opposed to the sophisticated and Westernized literature current in court circles. Such tales were recited, hardly ever printed, and constitute a form of literature which has virtually died out in the West, and is perhaps vanishing from the world in general.

Paradoxically the “gentry tale” was not really a “folk-tale,” but rather tales inspired and fashioned by the gentry and then recited in patriarchal fashion to all classes. Both Conrad and Gombrowicz were gentlemen to the core (Conrad always claimed he had shown English sailors that “a gentleman from the Ukraine” could know their business as well as they did), and in Gombrowicz’s case the pervasiveness of a traditional gentry attitude in Ferdydurke and in Trans-Atlantyk is probably more significant than Western readers realize. It gives his books their peculiar and now rare quality of a total and easy intimacy and familiarity, as if “we”—at least we honorary fellow-gentry—were all naturally conversant with what was going on. As Baranczak puts it,

the fact that the listeners were, as a rule, well-disposed friends, neighbors and family members representing the same social class, educational background, and cultural taste resulted in the characteristically shorthandlike quality of the narrative, which could easily do without laborious introductions, aside explanations, and detailed references, since the audience knew all there was to know anyway.

Transposed into modern terms, Baranczak’s explanation of the original genre means something like a cult book, which the members instinctively understand and see the point of. This is what Ferdydurke, and more especially Trans-Atlantyk, really are. The joke at the beginning of another cult book, The Catcher in the Rye, is that this sixteen-year-old New Yorker should be telling us that he is not going to write it up like David Copperfield and all that crap. The joke at the beginning of Trans-Atlantyk is that a modern Polish writer who has just hopped off a transatlantic liner in Argentina should be telling us about it in the gaweda style of the baroque period Polish gentry.

A living and lively cult book can have a powerfully destructive effect on the dead matter of a vast system—in this case Polish Marxism. Indeed that may be its true and principal literary purpose, even if it is one that is necessarily temporary and transitory. And the destructive virtues of a cult can be salutary in a national setting as well as an ideological one: many works like Gombrowicz’s can have, paradoxically, the effect of what he called “wresting the Pole from Poland, so that he may become just a human being”—a being for whom nationhood is, and should be, as much of a joke as Marxist dogma. Baranczak recalls an exam on Marxism he and his comrades had to take at the university of Poznan, and how they spent the night before it laughing uproariously over a tattered copy of Trans-Atlantyk, which Baranczak had produced after quoting to them his favorite line: “I am not so mad as to have any views These Days, or not to have them.” Quite so. The novelist Robert Musil, from across the border in Austria, would have agreed with that one. There is nothing that sharpens the mind like intelligent irreverence; and none of the students had any trouble passing the exam in the morning without having done any work for it other than reading Gombrowicz.

  1. *

    Diary, three volumes, translated by Lillian Valee, edited by Jan Kott (Northwestern University Press, 1988, 1989, 1993). The paperback edition was recently reissued as a boxed set.

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