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Salvation Through Laughter

Polish Memories

by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Yale University Press, 191 pp., $22.00

Bacacay

by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polishby Bill Johnston
Archipelago Books, 275 pp., $26.00

Ferdydurke

by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polishby Danuta Borchardt, with a foreword by Susan Sontag
Yale University Press, 282 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Cosmos

by Witold Gombrowicz, translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt
Yale University Press, 189 pp., $25.00

The World of Witold Gombrowicz,1904–1969

by Vincent Girond
Catalog of a centenary exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Beinecke Library/University Press of New England, 74 pp., $17.95 (paper)

1.

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 made fun of literature too. The mental exertion of a waiter, who has to remember orders from five tables and not make a mistake, at the same time hurrying about with plates, bottles, sauces, and salads, seemed to him infinitely greater than the exertions of an author trying to arrange the different subtle threads of his plots. Gombrowicz said that whenever he encountered some mystification, be it of virtue or family, faith or fatherland, he was tempted to commit an indecent act. He called Polish culture a flower pinned to a peasant’s sheepskin coat:

The history of culture indicates that stupidity is the twin sister of reason, it grows most luxuriously not on the soil of virgin ignorance, but on soil cultivated by the sweat of doctors and professors. Great absurdities are not thought up by those whose reason hovers over daily affairs. It is not strange, therefore, that the most intense thinkers were the producers of the greatest idiocies.1

Gombrowicz claimed to loathe poetry. “Of all artists, poets are people who fall to their knees most persistently,” he said. When visiting museums, he spent little time looking at paintings. He found the faces of people admiring the pictures far more interesting. “In the picture is beauty; in front of the picture is snobbery, stupidity, a dull-witted effort to grasp something of the beauty about which one is told that it exists.” Life is always laughing at art, he said, always undermining its pretenses. He mocked all systems of thought that attempt to separate the spiritual from the physical, the fantastic from the real. His greatest pride as an artist was not his inhabiting the Kingdom of the Spirit, but his not having broken the relationship with the flesh. Years later, writing about existentialism, he had this to say:

It seems impossible to meet the demands of Dasein and simultaneously have coffee and croissants for an evening snack. To fear nothingness, but to fear the dentist more. To be consciousness, which walks around in pants and talks on the telephone. To be responsibility, which runs little shopping errands downtown. To bear the weight of significant being, to install the world with meaning and then return the change from ten pesos.

His first book, a collection of seven stories, Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity, came out in 1933. The reviews were bad. The critics found the stories farcically implausible and ridiculed their author who seemed to take pride in acting immaturely. Actually, some of the stories are a lot of fun. A young fellow becomes obsessed with the dignified manners of an attorney and does everything he can to undermine that dignity by paying in advance for the pastries the attorney buys every day and tipping the attendant of a public restroom he uses. An investigative magistrate who finds no sign of foul play in a death of a man makes the argument, which prosecutors in Stalin’s trials would have understood, that one must never be taken in by appearances and thus allow common sense to show the innocence of the criminal.

In the most outrageous story of all, the guests at an aristocratic vegetarian dinner party enjoy a cauliflower dish made, it turns out, with broth from a cooked peasant boy who perished from hunger. The stories read mostly like literary parodies. Their translator, Bill Johnston, compares them to Luis Buñuel’s films and to Monty Python sketches. I agree, and would add Gogol and Alfred Jarry to his list. In Polish Memories, Gombrowicz wrote:

One thing I do remember—that from the beginning the nonsensical and the absurd were very much to my liking, and I was never more satisfied than when my pen gave birth to some scene that was truly crazy, removed from the (healthy) expectations of mediocre logic, and yet firmly rooted in its own separate logic.

Gombrowicz’s heroes are not only torn between social expectations which demand of them that they behave according to a given set of rules and their “immaturity” (their wish to do as they please), but they also seem to be struggling to free themselves of the literary conventions of the plots they find themselves in. As Gombrowicz says in his memoir of this period, his purpose was to introduce a new kind of disquiet in the reader. What he wanted most of all was a distinct style as a writer. His purpose in life, he said, was to make a character like Hamlet or Don Quixote out of a man called Gombrowicz. We exist as writers, he believed, in order to win readers to our side, to seduce, charm, and possess them, not in the name of some higher purpose, but to assert our very existence.

His first novel, Ferdydurke, was published in 1937. The enigmatic title was appropriated from Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt in which a character mentions running into a certain Freddy Durkee in a restaurant. Gombrowicz’s book owes something to both Rabelais and Voltaire, the comic novel tradition and the philosophical tale. It pursues with vengeance the same theme of immaturity and youth. A thirty-year-old man is visited by his old schoolmaster and dragged back to school where he is reduced to being a child again and where he finds it nearly impossible to break free. The narrative is twice interrupted to include short stories that have little to do with the plot, each one with a very funny preface that attempts to clarify, substantiate, rationalize, and explain the many digressions and convince the reader that the author has not gone crazy. Not many reviewers got the joke. Both the extreme left and the extreme right attacked the novel. There were a few enthusiastic responses, among them that of Bruno Schulz, who designed the cover. Vincent Girond writes that for Schulz, Ferdydurke

convincingly demonstrates that beneath our “official” selves, adult, rational, socialized, respectable, cultivated, there remain elements of immaturity, irrationality, anarchy, roguishness, which try to come to the surface and, when they do, expose the inauthenticity of established customs, manners, beliefs, ideologies, and culture.

That is not a new idea, of course. Gombrowicz’s most obvious literary ancestor is the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground who sets out to expose his own vileness and pettiness and assault the comforting fairy tale about rational human beings that his contemporaries never get tired of hearing.

One month before the outbreak of World War II, Gombrowicz was invited to be a guest on the maiden voyage of a new Polish ocean liner bound for Argentina. It arrived in Buenos Aires on August 22, 1939, days before the Soviet Union signed a pact of non-aggression with Germany and a little more than a week before Germany invaded Poland. With the threat of war imminent, the ship was ordered to sail back to Poland immediately. At the last minute, Gombrowicz decided to disembark, an act that would have huge consequences for his life as a writer:

I was suddenly in Argentina, completely alone, cut off, lost, ruined, anonymous. I was a little excited, a little frightened. Yet at the same time, something in me told me to greet with passionate emotion the blow that was destroying me and upsetting the order I had known up to now. War? The destruction of Poland? The fate of those close to me, my family? My own destiny? Could I take this to heart in a way, how shall I say this, in a normal way, I, who knew all this from the beginning, who had already known this? Yes, I am not lying when I say that I had been living with catastrophe. When it happened, I said something to myself like: Ah, so it has finally happened and I understood the time had come to take advantage of the capacity that I had cultivated in myself to separate and leave.

  1. 1

    Diary, Volume One, translated by Lillian Vallee (Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 184.

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