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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.

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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

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

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