Too Polish for the Poles


by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Carolyn French, translated by Nina Karsov
Yale University Press, 122 pp., $20.00

One sometimes wonders nowadays if literature in English is not beginning to split up into component parts: English English novels, American English ones, Indian English, Caribbean, Californian, and so forth. Then along comes a novel like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which seems to appeal almost equally to the readers of the various “Englishes,” and for the same sort of reasons. None the less, the fissiparous tendencies in modern English writing continue unchecked (do contemporary English and American novelists really have any idea of what the others are writing about?) and these tendencies are further complicated by other and more eccentric kinds of linguistic separatism. The new and in many ways admirable translation, into quite a new sort of English, of Witold Gombrowicz’s fantasy novel Trans-Atlantyk shows us something of the fine detail of such recent fragmentation.

Although the name of Gombrowicz is known to an English-speaking readership, principally through translations of his now classic novel Ferdydurke, which appeared in Poland in 1937, this shorter and later fantasy has never made it into English before, although many good judges among Gombrowicz’s fellow countrymen consider it his master work. The novel was begun in Argentina in 1948 and was published in Paris by a Polish émigré press in 1953. The Polish political thaw of 1957 made publication in its native country possible, along with reprints of Gombrowicz’s earlier work, and it became a modern Polish classic, even though, for reasons we shall see in a moment, its circulation remained limited to intellectuals, students, and fellow-writers.

What was Gombrowicz doing inArgentina in the first place? Good question. As if all Polish writers had to undergo the testing and classic Polish experience, he was re-enacting the sudden fate of Lord Jim, the archetypal creation of Gombrowicz’s great fellow-countryman, Joseph Conrad. Jim of course abandoned a sinking vessel, an experience that altered his whole life and being. Conrad wrote, at first with great difficulty, in an English which is now wonderfully accessible to us all. Gombrowicz was not having any of that. A Pole from the same gentry class, whose relatives were old-fashioned landowners like Conrad’s, he wrote Trans-Atlantyk in a seventeenth-century idiom which most of his contemporary Poles could barely understand. At the time he was working in Argentina as a bank clerk in a bank run by another Polish émigré.

He had arrived in Buenos Aires in some style on the new Polish ocean liner Boleslaw Chrobry. After the runaway success of Ferdydurke, in 1939 he was a celebrity, and the owners of the Chrobry had given him and another Polish writer free passage to show the flag among the sizable Polish community in Argentina. It was a holiday for them. But they had scarcely arrived before Hitler invaded Poland and the war began. What to do? The Chrobry was ordered to return to Europe, to a port in England or Scotland. Gombrowicz’s friend and fellow-writer went on board; so did Gombrowicz. The ropes were already cast off when he came…

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