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Salvation Through Laughter

Gombrowicz had no money and no knowledge of Spanish. A complete unknown, he was of little interest to Argentine writers who were either drawn to Marxism and demanded a political literature or followed the trends of the Parisian literati. He met Borges once at a dinner party, but nothing came of it. His relationship to the large Polish community was also complicated. He depended on handouts from them during the difficult years, even going so far as to attend funerals in order to help himself to the food afterward.

At the same time, he did not fail to scandalize their conservative tastes. As he reports in his diary, he entered for a period a milieu of extreme, wild homosexuality. “They were putos at the boiling point, not knowing a moment’s rest, in constant pursuit, ‘torn to pieces by boys as by dogs.’” He frequented a seedy part of town where the harbor and the main train station were located and where he picked up sailors and soldiers. When not engaged in his amorous pursuits, he tried to find someone to translate his books into Spanish. His economic situation improved considerably when he found a job in the Banco Polaco in Buenos Aires where he worked between 1947 and 1955. Altogether, he spent twenty-three years in Argentina and grew to love the country and its people very much. He had his own intimate circle of admiring younger writers.

2.

The books he had written in Poland were no longer in print there and they were unknown abroad. His most important works, the novels Trans-Atlantyk (1952), Pornografia (1960), the play The Marriage (1947), and the three-volume Diary (1953–1967), were written in Argentina and were first published by the Polish émigré review Kultura in Paris. The Communist regime in Poland briefly lifted the ban on his books in 1956 and 1957, which restored his literary prestige, but a new blacklist in 1958 removed his work from Polish bookstores. Eventually, the first translations of his work began to appear in French, followed by those in other languages. Ludicrously, the translations of his novels into English were not at first made from Polish, but from French, making him sound frequently like a painfully awkward writer.

Not that Gombrowicz is easy to translate. His semi-autobiographical and satiric novel Trans-Atlantyk, which recounts his early years in Argentina, is composed in the strangely imagistic language the Polish nobility used in the eighteenth century. For Stanislaw Baranczak and other eminent Polish critics, this is one of the funniest and most original works in their literature, but an English reader can barely glimpse that from the translation we now have:

But when night with its mantilla the earth embraced, and large glowing Worms under the Trees, when from the Darkness of the park sounds of divers animals, and thus this Mewing Bark, or Grunting Snort, that quietness, that listlessness of mine with Unquietness began to fill. And methinks, how is’t that you do not fear when you ought to Fear?2

Gombrowicz’s other novel from that period, Pornografia, poses different kinds of problems. The action takes place in 1943 in occupied Poland, which Gombrowicz could only imagine from the information that reached him in Argentina. A theater director and a writer from Warsaw visiting a country estate become entranced by the adolescent sensuality of both their host’s teenage daughter and a local lad she knows. It was really unbelievable, the writer says, that nothing was going on between them—nothing, that is, but the pornography in his own mind. Unknown to the young people, the two older men connive to make them fall in love with each other. Eventually, the adults find themselves obliged to kill an important member of the local resistance who has lost his nerve and might, if captured, betray the cause. Incapable of committing the crime themselves, they entrust the murder to the boy, Frederick. This is how Gombrowicz explains his intentions in the introduction to the book:

The hero of the novel, Frederick, is a Christopher Columbus who departs in search of unknown continents. What is he searching for? This new beauty, this new poetry, hidden between the adult and the young man. He is the poet of an awareness carried to the extreme or, at least, that’s how I wanted him to be. But it is difficult to understand one another nowadays! Certain critics saw him as Satan, no more, no less, while others, mainly Anglo-Saxons, were content with a more trivial definition—a voyeur. My Frederick is neither Satan nor a voyeur: he is more like a theatrical producer, or even a chemist, trying to obtain a new and magical alcohol by various combinations between individuals.3

This doesn’t sound persuasive to me. For once, Gombrowicz doesn’t seem to fully grasp the implication of his own story. Pornografia is not a comic opera—even though at times it tries to be one. The murderous reality of wartime Poland gives even its lighter moments a somber quality. There’s madness and violence in the air. “I am Christ crucified on a sixteen-year-old cross,” Frederick says. Gombrowicz strives in all his novels to implicate the reader, have him admit that he, too, is a voyeur with homoerotic feelings.

Pornografia is finally an implausible novel with many pages of fine writing. The description of a village church service at the very beginning has great power, and so do a few other scenes in the book. At the church, Frederick, a nonbeliever for whom the church was the “worst place in the world,” nevertheless falls to his knees and prays, for him “a negative act, the very act of negation”:

What exactly had happened? Strictly speaking: nothing, strictly speaking it was as though a hand had withdrawn the substance and content from the Mass—and the priest continued—and the priest continued to move, to kneel, to go from one end of the altar to the other, and the acolytes rang the bells and the smoke from the censers rose in spirals, but the whole content was evaporating like gas out of a balloon, and the Mass collapsed in its appalling impotence—limp and sagging—unable to procreate!

Gombrowicz’s three-volume Diary is one of the indispensable literary works of the last century. Polemical, witty, immensely entertaining, genuinely moving, and often profound, the diaries are, in the view of such readers as Czeslaw Milosz, Gombrowicz’s greatest accomplishment. Unlike his novels, which in their fixation on youth tend to be repetitive, the diaries range widely in subject matter. He writes about his life in Argentina, speculates about literature and philosophy, settles accounts with writers, quarrels with Polish nationalism, and in the process describes many amusing incidents. If given a choice, Gombrowicz said, he’d rather stare than think—and, indeed, that’s what he usually does in the diaries, first stares and then thinks. Coming upon marching soldiers interrupting the Sunday stroll of local citizens in a small provincial town in Argentina, he comments:

An invasion of pinioned legs, and bodies, inserted into uniforms, slave bodies, welded together by the command to move. Ha, ha, ha, ha, gentlemen humanists, democrats, socialists! Why, the entire social order, all systems, authority, law, state and government, institutions, everything is based on these slaves, barely grown children, taken by the ear, forced to pledge blind obedience (O priceless hypocrisy of this mandatory-voluntary pledge) and trained to kill and to allow themselves to be killed…. All systems, socialist or capitalist, are founded on enslavement, and, to top it off, on the enslavement of the young, my dear gentlemen rationalists, humanists, ha, ha, ha, my dear gentlemen democrats!

A Ford Foundation grant in 1963 permitted Gombrowicz to leave Argentina and spend a year in Berlin. Suffering from asthma, he moved to Vence in the south of France, where he lived for the five remaining years of his life. He never visited Poland or returned to Argentina, which he greatly missed. In 1967 he received the prestigious International Prize for Literature for his fourth novel, Cosmos. Toward the end, he was reduced to near speechlessness by asthma, which had also affected his heart. Though he survived a heart attack, and even married shortly after, a second attack took his life on July 24, 1969. Three years earlier he had written in his diary:

No matter what we are told, there exists, in the entire expanse of the Universe, throughout the whole space of Being, one and only one awful, impossible, unacceptable element, one and only one thing that is truly and absolutely against us and absolutely devastating: pain. It is on pain and on nothing else that the entire dynamic of existence depends. Remove pain and the world become[s] a matter of complete indifference….

3.

During the last five years, five new translations of Gombrowicz have appeared in the United States. There is Bacacay, an expanded collection of his first book of stories. Polish Memories, a series of autobiographical sketches that he wrote for Radio Free Europe in late 1950s, tells of his childhood, his beginnings as a writer, and gives a lively description of literary life in Poland between the wars. Both are translated by Bill Johnston and very much worth reading. There is also A Guide to Philosophy, a work he dictated in the last year of his life, and which is based on the short course in philosophy that he used to give to a group of Polish women in Buenos Aires. Despite its catchy title and a few memorable quips, the book is too fragmentary to give a coherent view. The fullest discussions of Gombrowicz’s philosophical views are still to be found in the pages of the three volumes of his Diary.

In addition to these books, there are new translations of Gombrowicz’s first novel, Ferdydurke, and of his last one, Cosmos, by Danuta Borchardt. They are by far the best of his fiction, although I find it impossible to like Ferdydurke entirely. The problem with novels of ideas is that a single theme—here the irrational, anarchic reality buried beneath the conventional surface of life—can become insistent. Even Gombrowicz’s best comic scenes, and there are some great ones in the book, go on too long. Cosmos, published in 1965, is a far better novel in my view. It may remind the reader of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957) with their claustrophobic settings, nearly plotless narratives, obsessive attention to minute details, and their air of menace, with one important exception. Gombrowicz, even at his most cerebral, is a comic writer whose jokes and wordplay are more akin to Flann O’Brien’s novels than to a nouveau roman.

Cosmos is a story of two young men who spend their vacation in a pension run by an eccentric family in the Carpathian Mountains. They find a hanged bird in a bush and, spooked by the finding, begin to note further oddities in their surroundings, minor inexplicable events and portents. “Oh, the wild power of feeble thought!” the narrator in the novel exclaims. Nothing would have happened if the two young men weren’t so bored on their holiday. One of them, upset by their inability to solve the mystery, perversely hangs the household cat. Some human deeds, Gombrowicz was convinced, seem wholly senseless, but still we have to perform them because they define us. He gives as an example a man who is prepared, for no apparent reason, to commit the wildest follies so as not to feel a coward. Cosmos, which Gombrowicz called a novel about a reality that is creating itself, ends with one more mysterious hanging, this time of a minor character who commits suicide during an excursion in the mountains. The plot, such as it is, is being mocked for seeming to be a plot, but all the characters in the novel are so well drawn that the most unlikely actions become credible.

When you’re bored God only knows what you might imagine,” Gombrowicz says. The young men in the novel are preoccupied with finding a meaning where there seems to be none. Meaning for Gombrowicz is what we, children of chaos, sons of darkness and blind coincidence, are forever trying to impose on the world around us:

The most important, most extreme, and most incurable dispute is that waged in us by two of our most basic strivings: the one that desires form, shape, definition and the other, which protests against shape, and does not want form. Humanity is constructed in such a way that it must define itself and then escape its own definitions. Reality is not something that allows itself to be completely contained in form. Form is not in harmony with the essence of life, but all thought which tries to describe this imperfection also becomes form and thereby confirms only our striving for it.

That entire philosophical and ethical dialectic of ours takes place against the background of an immensity, which is called shapelessness, which is neither darkness nor light, but exactly a mixture of everything: ferment, disorder, impurity, and accident.

Gombrowicz’s philosophy centers on the ever-present conflict between the individual and the world in which he finds himself. Culture for him has little to do with values, truths, examples, and models, and should be seen as a set of conventions, a collection of stereotypes and roles, both social and psychological; we need them all in order to communicate with each other while our inner being remains chaotic, unexpressed, and incomprehensible. He saw literature as moral, intellectual, and ideological provocation. He wanted to perturb the reader and charm him at the same time. “Real art,” he wrote, “is to manage to get someone to read what you write.”

It’s interesting to compare these views with those of Czeslaw Milosz, whose essays and letters from occupied Poland have just been translated. His Legends of Modernity is a wise book.4 Reading it, I kept recalling the circumstances in which he wrote these thoughtful essays on Defoe, Balzac, Stendhal, Gide, Tolstoy, William James, his Wilno professor Marian Zdziechowski, and the Polish playwright, novelist, and philosopher Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. For Milosz, the horrors in which European civilization found itself were prepared by the long labor of charlatans of thought, appeasers of conscience, who draped the cloak of beauty or progress around the most nihilistic and destructive intellectual currents that did away with traditional understanding of good and evil. “The delicate hands of intellectuals are stained with blood from the moment a death-bearing word emerges from them,” he writes in his essay on Gide. Milosz is suspicious of ideas that seek to realize the happiness of mankind and that in the process release the repressed “free will,” the unconscious and other demons and phantoms lurking within the human mind. For him the sickness of contemporary culture derives from the repudiation of truth for the sake of action. Nietzsche and his many descendants were the main culprits. Even William James’s pragmatism, which Milosz sees as a victory of relative values over absolute values, is to be condemned. Milosz sensed the demonic element in human nature. So did Gombrowicz, but for him boredom was just as much the cause of the evil we do as a head full of wrong ideas.

For Milosz, the past was neither dead nor irrelevant, but a part of ourselves that we need to remember, understand, and respect. He admitted being hostile to the “dark” tradition in twentieth-century literature. Its mockery, sarcasm, and profanation seemed cheap to him when compared to the power of Evil that we have experienced in our lifetime; he could be scathing, telling a friend in a letter, for instance, that people can get along quite well without freedom of thought. He said of Gombrowicz,

Whenever he plays destroyer and ironist, he joins the company of writers who for decades have been letting their ears freeze just to spite their mommies, even as mommy—read the cosmos—ignored their tantrums.5

Milosz admired Gombrowicz’s prose and his originality, but in the end his atheism and his savage blasphemies were too much for him.

Gombrowicz, not surprisingly, saw it differently. It never bothered him that we may be living in a meaningless universe. To pretend otherwise was to run away from the truth. He had no need of religion or God to make him sleep better. Being true to one’s deepest convictions was a matter of keeping up one’s dignity. Art for him was the most private property man had ever achieved for himself. Without it we would have no way of knowing what a person really thinks or feels. In contrast to the philosopher, the moralist, the priest, the artist is engaged in endless play, a form of play, he adds, that has the right to exist only insofar as it opens our eyes to reality—some new, sometimes shocking reality, which art makes palpable. If that meant poking fun at some earnest behavior or deeply held belief—so be it. At the same time, he warned his readers, don’t make a demon out of me. The only thing that could save him, Gombrowicz wrote toward the end of his life, was laughter.

  1. 2

    Trans-Atlantyk, translated by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 113.

  2. 3

    Pornografia, translated by Alistair Hamilton (Marion Boyars, 1994), p. ix.

  3. 4

    Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942– 1943, translated by Madeline G. Levine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

  4. 5

    Czeslaw Milosz, The Land of Ulro, translated by Louis Iribarne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), p. 42.

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