Compared to Pornografia in subject matter and action, Lolita (to which Gombrowicz’s novel bears an obvious though superficial resemblance) is a veritable Odyssey. Pornografia treats of two elderly gentlemen, visiting a country estate in Poland in 1934, who imagine and then encourage an erotic relationship between two teenagers, (a boy) and (a girl). The narrator, Gombrowicz himself, promises to explain this use of brackets, but fails to do so; never mind, the reader is more likely to resent his arch dealings with quotation marks. The tow gentlemen erect a painstaking and tremulous construction of speculation and exegesis around gestures and actions for which there are innocent and obvious explanations, thus achieving an exceptionally refined form of voyeurism in that what is being watched quite possibly does not exist.
“Why this disgraceful passion for spying on people?” the narrator asks himself, and later tells himself, “I ought to find some other occupation, something more suitable, more serious!”—a sentiment which after a while the most patient and well-disposed reader is likely to echo. But still this minute epic of uncertainty goes on: is there, isn’t there, something between the two youngsters? On one page they are feared to be completely indifferent to each other, which spells “the ruin of all our dreams”; on another we are told of a “warm idyll in spring,” so refreshing after “stifling, gray years of horror and exhaustion…during which I had almost forgotten what beauty was. During which I had smelt nothing but the rank stench of death.” This might seem to offer a clue. In a time of war, of absurdity, what can there be “more serious” or “more suitable” to do? When the narrator drives into the nearest town, he remarks casually that it had not changed, “it was just as it had been… And yet something was missing—there were no Jews.” The air of disdainful remoteness from the large and vulgar events of contemporary history brings Nabokov to mind. When a Resistance leader shows up at the house, the narrator is unable to “control a vague feeling of disgust for all this décor—action, Resistance, the leader, conspiracy—like a bad novel, a late incarnation of more or less insane childhood dreams…The nation and its romanticism constituted for me an undrinkable potion concocted to spite and anger me.” Like Nabokov, who can give the impression that the Russian Revolution was concocted expressly to spite him, Gombrowicz is an émigré writer.
But this game of incitement and panderism—for the elderly gentlemen are not content to wait passively for something to happen—hardly comprises a telling alternative to the gray game of war and patriotism and politics. The apologia, or diagnosis, when it comes, is not especially cogent or engaging:
I only took part in life like a whipped and mangy cur…But when at that age we are offered the opportunity of toying with blossom, of entering youth even at the expense of depravity, and if it appears that ugliness can still be used and absorbed by beauty,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.