Reading Witold Gombrowicz

Context N°20

by Michael Pinker

Reading Witold Gombrowicz means confronting an artistic vision of extraordinary intensity, withering in its austerity, imperious in its dismissal of convention and cant, solicitous only of the truth, no matter how unpleasant or embarrassing.

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act. Action will delineate and define you. You will find out from your actions. But you must act as an “I,” as an individual, because you can be certain only of your own needs, inclinations, passions, necessities. Only this kind of action is direct and is a genuine extricating of yourself from chaos, self-creation. As for the rest: isn’t it mere recitation, execution of a preordained plan, rubbish, kitsch?

Here in his Diary, Gombrowicz proves as demanding of himself as he is of the world he recreates in his novels, stories, and plays. A relentless opponent of hypocrisy, pretension, and the romantic attitude toward life, he castigated the dehumanization rampant in the world around him. Gombrowicz’s imaginative writing likewise reveals an arresting technique, as he shifts perspectives from hallucinatory clarity to antic obfuscation. Characters suddenly discover in the coordinates of their lives cracks in the façade, perverse predilections in associates, portals opening into arenas that turn abruptly, unaccountably, topsyturvy.

Gombrowicz was a complex character, as his reflections in Polish Memories, the Diary, and A Kind of Testament show, as ruthless with himself as with everyone else. An elitist of inimitable hauteur, he championed the prerogatives of art against science and politics, deploring society’s increasing reliance on mechanization and other formal imperatives that compromise individual integrity. For Gombrowicz, the powers of invention should probe the limits of form, transmitting a glimpse of that will o’ the wisp, reality.

Gombrowicz’s art envisages the tyranny of what he calls form. In his view, obeying the dictates of form is central to the human condition, ordering our relations with the world and ourselves. What others make of us—what we make of them—the form with which we invest them—determines our character in the world around us. As a result, the world is ambivalent, dualistic, experienced as an unnerving tension between the antinomies Gombrowicz regards as underlying all human activity: immaturity and maturity, superiority and inferiority, beauty and ugliness, and so on. Instead of age and maturity holding sway over youth and immaturity, the latter are really what the former desire—witness our fascination with, and efforts to prolong, youth. Compelled by this desire to recall youthful energy, innocence, and childish naivety, maturity defers to immaturity and, despite appearances, is defeated by it. Speaking of his novel Ferdydurke in this context, Gombrowicz outlined his sense of this dynamic:

It is the grotesque story of a gentleman who becomes a child because other people treat him like one. Ferdydurke is intended to reveal the Great Immaturity of humanity. Man, as he is described in this book, is an opaque and neutral being who has to express himself by certain means of behavior and therefore becomes, from Outside—for others—far more definite and precise than he is for himself. Hence a tragic disproportion between his secret immaturity and the mask he assumes when he deals with other people. All he can do is adapt himself internally to his mask, as though he were really what he appears to be.It can therefore be said that the man of Ferdydurke is created by others, that men create each other by imposing forms on each other . . . and yet Ferdydurke ventures on other, lesser known ground, the word “form” is associated with the word “immaturity.” How can this Ferdydurkean man be described? Created by form he is created from outside, in other words unauthentic and deformed. To be a man means never to be oneself . . . But he is always at odds with his own form. Ferdydurke is the description of the struggle of man with his own expression, of the torture of humanity on the Procrustean bed of form.

Immaturity is not always innate or imposed by others. There is also an immaturity which culture batters us against when it submerges us and we do not manage to hoist ourselves up to its level. We are “infantilized” by all “higher” forms. Man, tortured by his mask, fabricates secretly, for his own usage, a sort of “subculture”: a world made out of the refuse of a higher world of culture, a domain of trash, immature myths, inadmissible passions . . . a secondary domain of compensation. That is where a certain shameful poetry is born, a certain compromising beauty . . .

This insight, informing Gombrowicz’s entire corpus, exercises the fascination of a hidden truth.

In Ferdydurke Gombrowicz deployed farce, exaggeration, and other burlesque devices to point to the contradictions within each of us that, no matter how we may try to fool ourselves into believing we are who we say we are, undermine our credibility and self-image. The novel begins with Joey Kowalski’s degradation. In just seconds a thirty-year-old man alone in his room reflecting on his fears is reduced to an adolescent by a visitor, Professor Pimko, who, regarding Joey as youthful and immature, promptly takes him under his wing, in effect abducting him. Joey literally shrinks into his former adolescent self under Pimko’s gaze, as the professor decides that Joey must attend school and promptly enrolls him in one run by a crony. Unable to withstand Pimko’s imposition of form upon him, Joey submits with hardly a struggle. As much as he knows better and tries to assert himself, he wilts in the face of the collapse of his illusions about himself, caught in form’s vice-grip, hapless against an unavailing world. In subsequent developments, punctuated by chapter-long digressions in which the childish contentions of the schoolyard are mimicked by mock-philosophical battles between learned combatants, Gombrowicz conveys his scorn of contemporary Polish attitudes while his farcical masqueraders awkwardly pirouette around their sense of their own belittlement, puppets of the forms they inflict on one another.

Witold Gombrowicz was born in 1904 into the landed gentry and died in 1969, not having seen Poland for thirty years. He began writing as a young man while halfheartedly reading law at his father’s behest. After university and a year in Paris, Gombrowicz settled upon his vocation, becoming the center of his own small circle in Warsaw literary cafés. The stories in his first book, Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity (collected with other stories in Bacacay), already display characteristic themes—the problem of form and the perverse dualities governing human nature. Gombrowicz’s next book, Ferdydurke, for which he is best known, earned widespread critical attention in Poland, although he had to wait years before translations brought the recognition this masterpiece deserved. The author himself supervised the first translation into another language by a group of young Spanish- speaking writers in Argentina in 1948. Not until 1958 was Ferdydurke translated into French, only in 1960 into German. The novel finally appeared in English in 1961, translated from a French translation—not Gombrowicz’s only novel so treated; its first English translation directly from Polish appeared in 2000.

On the strength of Ferdydurke’s reception, Gombrowicz accepted an offer to sail on the maiden voyage of a Polish liner to Buenos Aires in 1939. When World War II broke out shortly after the liner docked, the captain opted to sail to England, since returning to Poland was out of the question. Gombrowicz chose to stay in Argentina, however, alone, without money or knowledge of Spanish, an initially harrowing ordeal that his novel Trans-Atlantyk sends up in outrageous fashion. He remained in Argentina for 24 years. In his Diary, Gombrowicz recounted that, while initially poor, friendless, often ill, living from hand to mouth, he found Argentina invigorating, restoring his youth, granting the freedom to think and write as he might not have done had he returned to Europe.

Yet throughout this protracted exile Gombrowicz remained combative and assertive. He scoffed at the achievements of Polish writers, denouncing their pretensions and parochialism, hoping to bring about a more honest appraisal of Polish literature in the context of Polish history. After the Communist takeover Gombrowicz condemned those writing at the pleasure of the state, yet found little to cheer him among fellow exiles, anachronistically clinging to a romantic Polish past, hopelessly conservative in their outlook on art and life. Eventually his living situation improved, although his reputation as a writer continued to languish for lack of exposure. But when in 1953 the Parisian émigré journal Kultura offered to print entries from his Diary, Gombrowicz gradually began to attract an audience. A brief thaw during the his works to be printed there for the first time since the war. While this turned out to be only a brief respite, as the next year his writing again was proscribed, the unexpected fervor with which Gombrowicz’s largely apolitical books were devoured in Poland confirmed the enthusiasm that had begun to stir about his writing in the rest of Europe. As adherents gained in number and significance, the Ford Foundation awarded him a year in Berlin, and in 1963 Gombrowicz left Argentina, with mixed feelings, for good. After dispiriting sojourns in Paris and Berlin, he settled in the south of France with a young wife, where he was mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize and won the International Publishers Prize in the remaining few years of his life. Gombrowicz’s complete works eventually were published in Poland in 1986.

As an artist, Gombrowicz brilliantly renders the absurd constellations of forces compelling our performance of ourselves, fixing our identities at any one time and place. His characters are taken in—and take themselves in—by form, submitting to their recognition of their own immaturity and inferiority in spite of themselves. In his last novel, Cosmos, two young men on a study break from university find a sparrow hanging by a noose in the woods near the house where they are rooming. Nagging discomfiture leads them to posit a connection between this cruel emblem and the lips of two women in the household, one attractive, the other disfigured by injury. This absurd conjunction appears to suggest a nefarious, undeclared purpose lurking in their midst of which their hosts appear blithely unaware. Yet further investigation, while turning up a succession of tantalizing clues, fails to confirm or deny the reality of this purpose. Ultimately, the narrator’s fervent ruminations on this mystery of correspondences reveal his inability to give it form, while his imprisonment in the form he has created for himself mocks the significance of his encounter with his own perfervid imagination.

In like manner, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s third novel, Pornografia, regards his coworker and companion Frederick with apprehension and mistrust when the two accept an invitation to take refuge at a country estate during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The flighty narrator, first skeptical of, then distressed by his associate’s withdrawn nature and uncanny powers, finds himself submitting to Frederick’s imposition of form, drawn by an apparently similar passion they share for two young people in the household, their host’s daughter and a young man of a neighboring family, who in their budding sexuality seem to possess numerous possibilities for exploitation. Following Frederick’s lead, the narrator assists in inveigling the young people into murdering a disillusioned partisan also temporarily sheltering in the same house. While little more than instruments in Frederick’s sinister plot, to the narrator’s sense the young couple’s feckless innocence exemplifies the victory of immaturity over maturity, beauty over ugliness. In his perverse worship of their ravishing form, the narrator’s raptures in the face of his beau ideal seem limitless.

Gombrowicz is not an easy read, for his style is often elusive, whimsical, replete with wordplay that is nearly impossible to convey in English. The strategies adopted in translating Trans-Atlantyk, for example, in the attempt to convey its acrobatic romp of archaic and modern idiom, show the difficulty inherent in doing justice to his artistry, for here as elsewhere Gombrowicz literally created his own language. A consummate artist, he continually challenges our preconceptions; the more his work is read—and reread—the more it reveals. Despite the disadvantages of writing in a “minor” Slavic tongue, spending most of his adulthood in obscurity, and winning worldwide recognition late in life, Gombrowicz remained true to his artistic vision. Photographs typically portray him wearing a trilby, slender and sharp-featured, abstracted, even distant. Gombrowicz’s Diary of many years displays in bravura performances, of which he was quite conscious, how much he wrestled with himself, finding inspiration in the challenge of being himself, never compromising. Sanguine, skeptical, temperamentally aristocratic, despite his achievements Gombrowicz was never fooled by the illusion of his own wisdom. His writing illuminates the difficulties we face in ridding ourselves of the same illusion.

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