The World of Witold Gombrowicz,1904–1969
Beinecke Library/University Press of New England, 74 pp., $17.95 (paper)
For the celebration of the centenary of his birth in Poland, the Ministry of Culture officially proclaimed 2004 “The Year of Gombrowicz,” and Yale University organized an international conference that featured an exhibition of Gombrowicz materials in the Beinecke Library archives, as well as academic panels, films, and theater performances of his works. Despite these shows of deference, the translation of his books into more than thirty languages, and wide readership abroad, in the United States Gombrowicz is mainly known among writers. Susan Sontag and John Updike see him as an influential figure in modern literature, comparable to Proust and Joyce. I’m not sure if that would have pleased Gombrowicz, who had an entirely different idea of the kind of fame he wanted for himself. He in no way wanted to be compared, he said, to the Tolstoy of Yasnaya Polyana, the Goethe of Olympus, or the Thomas Mann who linked genius to decadence, and he had no use for Alfred Jarry’s metaphysical dandyism or Anatole France’s affected mastery. He claimed that he didn’t even wish to be known as a Polish writer, but simply as Gombrowicz.
Born in 1904 on his parents’ provincial estate in the town of Maloszyce in central Poland, Gombrowicz was an introverted, sickly child who said he preferred the company of maids and stable boys. He was raised a Catholic. The experience of World War I in Maloszyce, which was close to the Austrian border, made him a lifelong pacifist and an atheist. To make his lawyer father happy, he studied law at the University of Warsaw from 1923 to 1926 and then philosophy and economics in Paris. However, since he didn’t bother to attend classes, his father cut off his allowance after two years and made him return to Poland where he worked for a time as a clerk in a municipal court while on the sly he began to write short stories. Although he had no interest in becoming a lawyer, he later said that he learned about the wretchedness of life in general and Polish life in particular while working for the court. He also took a close look at the upper spheres called upon to pass judgment on the lower ones—judges, prosecutors, and lawyers. When not in court, he frequented literary cafés where he began to acquire a reputation as a character, taking potshots at his contemporaries. His humor and impudence stood out.
By his own admission, associating with him was always rather difficult, because as a rule he aimed at debate and conflict, leading the discussion in such a way as to make it risky, unpleasant, embarrassing, and indiscreet. He was not a typical intellectual of the period in that he was not a nationalist, a Catholic, or a Communist. “I was a man of the cafés; I loved to spout nonsense for hours on end over black coffee and to indulge in various kinds of psychological games,” he writes in Polish Memories. He …