Witold Gombrowicz - Mocking and sometimes brutal modernism closer to dada and the Marx Brothers than to the elevated tones of Eliot or Pound

Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke, Trans. by Danuta Borchardt, Yale University Press, 2000.

«In this bitterly funny novel by the renowned Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, a writer finds himself tossed into a chaotic world of schoolboys by a diabolical professor who wishes to reduce him to childishness. Originally published in Poland in 1937, Ferdydurke became an instant literary sensation and catapulted the young author to fame. Deemed scandalous and subversive by Nazis, Stalinists, and the Polish Communist regime in turn, the novel (as well as all of Gombrowicz's other works) was officially banned in Poland for decades. It has nonetheless remained one of the most influential works of twentieth-century European literature.»

«This masterpiece of European modernism was first published in 1937, and so arrived on the literary scene at an inopportune moment. First the Second World War, then Russian domination of Gombrowicz's Poland and the author's decades of exile in Argentina all but expunged public awareness of a novel that remains a singularly strange exploration of identity, cultural and political mores, and eros. Joey Kowalski narrates the story of his transformation from a 30-year-old man into a teenage boy. Joey awakens one morning gripped by fear when he perceives a ghost of himself standing in the corner of his room. He orders the ghost, whose face "was all someone else's - and yet it was I," to leave. When the ghost is gone, Kowalski is driven to write, to create his own "oeuvre," to be "free to expound [his] own views." A visitor arrives, a doctor of philosophy named Pimko. As Pimko talks to him, Kowalski begins to shrink, to become "a little persona"; his oeuvre becomes a "little oeuvre." Pimko, in turn, grows larger and larger. He takes Kowalski to an old-fashioned Polish school, and then the man-boy's adventures adventures continue in a middle-class household and on the country estate of landed aristocrats. Kowalski's exploits are comic and erotic (for this is a modernism closer to dada and the Marx brothers than to the elevated tones of T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound), but also carry a shrewdly subtle groundswell of philosophical seriousness. Gombrowicz is interested in identity and the way time and circumstance, history and place impose form on people's lives. Unsentimental, mocking and sometimes brutal, Kowalski's youthfulness is callow and immature, but it is also free to revel in desire. Susan Sontag ushers this new translation into print with a strong and useful foreword, calling Gombrowicz's tale "extravagant, brilliant, disturbing, brave, funny... wonderful." And it is.» - Publishers Weekly

«While modern readers may not find the book's satire particularly subversive, the author's exuberant humor, suggesting the absurdist drama of Eugene Ionesco, if not the short fiction of Franz Kafka, is readily apparent in this new translation. Thirty-year-old Joe is abducted by schoolteacher Pimko and placed in a school where "daily universal impotence" is drummed into the students. This institutional belittlement exposes Joe to the brutality of the social, cultural, and political pretensions of both teachers and classmates. Trapped between the expectations of others and the perils of solitude, Joe finds refuge in his own childishness, much as the protagonist of the author's Trans-Atlantyk embraces his own immaturity. Pausing for digressions that impress upon the reader that "the child runs deep in everything," Gombrowicz recounts Joe's escape from the school, his bizarre visit to the country estate of relatives, and the ultimate flight with his cousin beneath a giant buttocks that has usurped the sun's place. Highly recommended for collections specializing in modern and Eastern European literature.” - Richard Koss

«Extravagant, brilliant, disturbing, brave, funny—wonderful... Long live its sublime mockery.» — Susan Sontag

“A wonderfully subversive, self-absorbed, hilarious book. Think Kafka translated by Groucho Marx, with commentaries.” —Kirkus Reviews

Ferdydurke is one of the most bracing, direct books ever written about sexual desire—this without a single scene of sexual union.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Some readers will find this novel exhilarating, some will judge it ‘lunatic’ as did the London Times, but everybody will probably agree that it should not be ignored as an example of satire, or, maybe, of a writer who mocks the reader... If one likes existentialist writers, surrealistic novelists, and wicked ironists, one will appreciate this work by Gombrowicz.”—Polish Library News

“Think of Alice in Wonderland crossed with Darkness at Noon and you’ll have some idea of the turbulent texture of this rowdy postmodernist masterpiece: a withering satire on the tactic of regimentation and a surly declaration of the perverse survival instinct of the writer’s imagination.”—Bruce Allen

«Gombrowicz’s great masterwork of Polish literature, Ferdydurke was published in Warsaw in 1937, and over the years has been twice translated into English.
No one seems to know the exact source or meaning of the novel’s title—which has no particular meaning or obvious association in Polish culture; some argue it was appropriated from Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt character, Freddy Durkee. It hardly matters, for Gombrowicz’s tale is centered on three interconnected stories of institutional domination and the infantilization of the individual that follows. In the first section, Joey, an adult in his 30s is suddenly abducted by his former school-teacher, T. Plimko, “a doctor of philosophy and a professor, in reality just a schoolteacher, a cultural philologue from Kraków, short and light, skinny, bald, wearing spectacles, pin-striped trousers, a jacket, yellow buckskin shoes, his fingernails large and yellow.” Joey is taken away and returned to sixth grade, where—in Lewis Carroll-like absurdity—he towers among his fellow students without anyone seeming to notice his age or stature. Through a series of verbal abuses, ritualistic mutterings (which includes the conjugation of Latin adverbs and statements like “…We teachers love you little chickies, chirp, chirp, chirp, you know: ‘suffer the little ones to come unto me.’”) Joey is imprisoned and belittled into submission at his new institution.
Gombrowicz hilariously mocks not only the teaching in this absurd world, but the students who through their language have grotesquely twisted their thinking to the empty logic of the system: “And what perfidious whims and airs have perchance caused the person of my dear Sir to present himself so tardily at this dump of a school?” chirps one of the students. Another laughs idiotically, saying “Could it be that amours for a damsel have delayed our colegus venerabilis? Is this perchance why our presumptuous colegus so languidus est?” Given such meaningless jargon, the linguistic battles between students Syphon and Kneadus become a world of hyper-speech that is a good match to our cypertalk and advertising jargon of today.
Just when it appears that Joey could not be further humiliated, he is sent to live in the home of a bourgeois family, the Youngbloods, where he falls ridiculously in love with the daughter, who as a “modern schoolgirl,” creates a pattern of perpetual seduction and punishment of her would-be suitor. To get back at the girl and family, Joey plots to entrap his professor in the girl’s room, which ends in an absurd free-for-all on the floor of the room where she has been discovered by her parents with a young student and Plimko both. Humiliation and denigration has again won the day, and Joey is left with no alternative but to escape.
His escape with fellow student Kneadus to the country, however, bodes no better for the future. For Kneadus has suddenly transformed his love of young serving girls to a homoerotic search for young farmhands. Joey and Kneadus retreat to the farm of Joey’s uncle and aunt, where indeed Kneadus finds the object of his desire, much to the consternation of the elderly couple, Joey, and the young valet, Valek. Joey’s attempt to take Kneadus from the house in a final escape ends in perhaps the funniest scene in the book, as the master of the house, hearing Joey, Kneadus and Valek on the escape, enters the room—gun in hand. Lights out, they remain frozen in position as the farmer searches for them, soon joined by Joey’s cousins—who, in turn, all freeze in panic as the butler enters with a paraffin lamp. Each individual, terrified of discovery, pretends a kind of nonexistence until the room is filled, Gombrowicz hints, with a world of inexplicable ghosts.
Before one can have a world of absurd bureaucracy, one must have a world of individuals willing to submit.
In Bacacay, made up of sections from Ferdydurke and seven earlier short stories, we see the roots of Gombrowicz’s thinking and perceive the grotesque humor which already characterized his writing before the great novel. “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer” begins very similarly to Arthur Schnitzler’s short novel, Lieutenant Gustl: a man at a concert is insulted by another. But while Schnitzler’s Lieutenant suffers such indignation that he imagines murder and suicide, the narrator of Gombrowicz’s story follows his tormentor, observing his patterns of life and ultimately becoming so infatuated with the figure that he looses his mind; encountering the lawyer in the park he goes into a kind of wild, bacchic dance that reminds one a bit of Martha Graham’s mad dance of Medea. Revenge may be his, but he has lost life in the process, and, accordingly, ends up worse than Schnitzler’s insufferable soldier.
A judge on a business visit to a landed gentry’s manor, finds his client dead, and is convinced that, although there are no outward signs, that it was a murder. “A Premediated Crime” is a Grombrowicz’s version of a murder mystery—with his usual inversion of reality: there is no true evidence of murder. Convinced the man did not die of a normal heart attack but was asphyxiated, the hero stays on with the family, suspecting each of them and uncovering some rather bizarre behavior and lies. Ultimately, it is determined that all the family members expected, perhaps even sought out, his death, but had locked themselves in their rooms at night. Under the pressure of suspicion, however, the son suddenly admits the murder. The judge has no alternative but to admit, however, that there is no evidence, no marks upon the deceased man’s neck. In an absurd reversal to childhood, the judge retreats to the wardrobe of the dead man’s room, as the son or, perhaps, another family member, enters to place the evidence of his finger marks upon the dead man’s neck. In a world of such absurd suspicion, Gombrowicz indicates, one cannot but become a criminal. Like Kafka’s K, in a society of suspicion even the guiltless are necessarily guilty.
“Dinner at Countess Pavhoke’s” reiterates many of the themes of Ferdydurke, as a young commoner is taken into the world of high Society. Here too there is an absurd twisting of language, as the new guest attempts to match the poeticized sentiments of the other guests. Attending one of the countess’s “meatless evenings,” he quips “This soup’s deliciously filling--/And made, what’s more, without corpses or killing.” But the other highly cultured guests gradually begin to reveal their coarseness and malice. As they eat their way through the supposedly delectable vegetarian dishes, the outsider and reader gradually began to comprehend the cook has served them up various courses of human flesh. Indeed, everything is “a matter of taste” if one understands that such acculturated “tastes” depend upon the destruction of the serving class.» - Douglas Messerli

«Surely Gombrowicz is one of the more important and intriguing writers in the non-mimetic, novel-of-ideas tradition that Milan Kundera - who considers Gombrowicz one of the greats - has traced from Rabelais to Diderot, Kafka and others. In this country, Gombrowicz is probably best known for the several volumes of his wonderful diaries, written during his long, half-chosen exile in Argentina. He arrived there on the eve of World War II as a correspondent on a pleasure cruise, and spent the subsequent 24 years in literary isolation and strained financial circumstances. In the early 1960's he moved to France, where his work was published by a Polish emigre press. By the time he died in 1969 his writing was gaining increasing European renown.
In her penetrating foreword to this translation, Susan Sontag points out some parallels between 'Ferdydurke' and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But has anyone noted the structural similarities between Gombrowicz's fiction and 'The Trial,' by Kafka? Like K. in Kafka's novel, the protagonist of ''Ferdydurke,'' a 30-year-old writer named Joey, wakes up one morning to find that his living quarters have been invaded by an uninvited guest, and is abruptly spirited away from his normal life to a surreal proximate reality. But while the other reality of The Trial belongs to a realm of mysterious courts, ancient laws and a judgmental superego, the hapless hero of Ferdydurke is transported to a madcap domain of the classroom, anarchic youthfulness and the unruly id.
What happens in that childish world is, believe me, difficult to describe. Dragged to school by his kidnapper, a pedagogue named Pimko, Joey finds himself trapped in the persona of an awkward schoolboy and embroiled in callow adolescent rites. While proud moms peek at their darlings through the fence, the students pronounce pompous Latin phrases, make hilarious attacks on Polish literary sanctities and try to prove by nave displays of crudeness that they are not nave. When one of the schoolboys admits to having ''innocent'' ideals, he is challenged to a ''face-pulling duel,'' in which the weapons are exalted facial expressions and vulgar grimaces. At the height of the battle, one of the contestants ''shot his eyeballs upward... moved one of his legs forward, slightly tousled his hair... and quite unexpectedly pointed his finger upward! The blow was staggering!'' His opponent ''immediately stuck out the same finger and spat on it, he picked his nose with it, he scratched himself with it.'' And so forth. Transported into the home of a very modern schoolgirl in a later section, Joey engages in lengthy sessions of peeping and wins a dinner-table struggle with her impeccably progressive parents when he utters - in the face of high-minded liberal slogans - the word ''mommy.'' There is, in the last part of the novel, an abduction from an aristocratic country house of a male farmhand after whom one of the schoolboys has countersnobbishly lusted. At various points in the narrative there are interpolations of entire short stories previously published by Gombrowicz in Polish periodicals.
What do these quirky, cheeky elements add up to? One can just imagine Gombrowicz raising a skeptical eyebrow (or more likely, sticking out his tongue; he was known in Warsaw for clowning and making faces in public) at the question. For one of his aims in Ferdydurke is to puncture the idea of essence or ''wholeness'' of any kind, including the wholeness of artistic form. In more ways than one, Ferdydurke is a narrative of parts. And yet it has a strong inner logic that holds the parts together, and that works through a kind of dialectic or series of oppositions. On one side, there is the adult world of clearly defined forms - ideas and ideals, conventions and expectations. The narrator tells us that he has failed to enter this world, to conform to any model of adulthood, or, more saliently, to assume any distinct form. ''If you don't want to be a doctor, at least be a womanizer, or a fancier of horses, be... something definite,'' his proper bourgeois aunts entreat him. But Joey, who has committed the sin of writing about the taboo topic of immaturity, refuses to congeal into anything or anyone at all. Instead, he is irresistibly drawn to the other side of the opposition - to formlessness and ''fermenting'' subjects, to intermediate states and the little boy in himself. In other words, he is forced to revert to a more childish state.
Is the regression a reward or a punishment? ''Ferdydurke'' is sometimes read as a paean to untrammeled youthfulness. But while the novel certainly makes thoroughgoing mockery of the pretensions and affectations of the adult world, regression, in its scheme, is no fun either. The opening scene, in which the narrator experiences his fall into formlessness, is a convincingly terrifying description of psychic disintegration, even if this anxious state is rendered through absurd bodily analogues: ''I felt that my body was not homogeneous... that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head... my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose - and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.''
Gombrowicz's penchant for depicting mental states through physical correlatives, and for twisting concrete nouns into verb forms, makes for an intense condensation of language and some startling syntactical distortions. But these stylistic gestures are also a crucial clue to the meanings of Ferdydurke. For what the novel's broad burlesque paradoxically serves to reveal are those minute, subterranean, nearly ungraspable psychic processes and currents of interaction - the silent push and pull of attraction and repulsion, of invasion and humiliation, of conquest and defeat - that can perhaps only be conveyed through the concrete, unmediated vocabulary of the body.
That vocabulary in Ferdydurke is dominated by two basic terms, rendered, in Borchardt's translation, as ''the pupa'' and ''the mug.'' The first word especially suggests some of the problems faced by Gombrowicz's beleaguered translator. Borchardt notes that it means ''the buttocks, behind, bum, tush, rump.'' It does. But the intimately, humorously denigrating phrase, ''I'll give you in the pupa,'' is part of the linguistic routine in Polish in ways that its nearest English equivalent, ''I'll smack your behind,'' is not. Moreover, Gombrowicz, among his manic proliferation of pupas, sometimes slips into the diminutive and even more infantilizing ''pupcia.'' In her text, Borchardt has left ''pupa'' in the original, and this is probably as good a decision as any. Still, not even ''pupa'' in English can fully capture the ineffable Gombrowiczian pupa.
''The mug'' has, as Borchardt notes, more violent connotations, and is imbricated in notions of position and status, honor and dishonor. ''I'll give you in the mug,'' in Polish, is a socially lowering insult. In ''Ferdydurke'' characters treat each other to the mug, hit the mug, mug at each other or just mug each other, in hierarchically precise ways.
On one level, in devising his primal lexicon of the body, Gombrowicz seemed to be searching for his own language of the unconscious. But if Ferdydurke is a Freudian farce, it is also nuanced cultural comedy. Among other things, the novel offers a class-conscious tour of Polish society. Gombrowicz is endlessly inventive in caricaturing peasant postures and aristocratic posturings, the charades of superiority and deference, stratagems for saving face and for putting on airs.
It is the tension between ''low'' childish impulses and ''high'' adult beliefs, between defiance of definition and the inescapability of defining constraints, that sustains the vital dialectic of the novel. On the one hand, as Sontag notes, Gombrowicz can be seen as a postmodern writer avant la lettre. Reflecting on form, he writes in the best postmodern fashion: ''We think we are the ones who construct it, but that's an illusion, because we are, in equal measure, constructed by the construction.'' And he is as relentless as any contemporary savant in ''deconstructing,'' or more potently still, nose-thumbing every received idea and social convention dear to his time and country, and many that remain dear to ours - including the basic human construction of ''the self.'' At the same time, Gombrowicz knows that we cannot do without forms and structures, that absolute autonomy is unattainable and ''man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man's soul, be it even the soul of an idiot.'' Even the realm of the id in Ferdydurke contains its measure of Kafkaesque judgment and torment.
This is a more complex wisdom than many postmodern thinkers attain. Throughout his life, Gombrowicz continued to develop the philosophy, or philosophical psychology, of what he called in the diaries ''the interhuman church.'' The contrapuntal insights of that system are already evident in Ferdydurke; they give it both its subversive energy and its penetrating seriousness. It is a combination that assures that this first novel by a disturbingly talented writer is more than a work of mere provocation. It remains a genuinely astonishing masterwork that is bound to last.» - Eva Hoffman
Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos, Trans. by Danuta Borchardt, Yale University Press, 2005.

«A dark, quasi-detective novel, Cosmos follows the classic noir motif to explore the arbitrariness of language, the joke of human freedom, and man’s attempt to bring order out of chaos in his psychological life. Published in 1965, Cosmos is the last novel by Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969) and his most somber and multifaceted work. Two young men meet by chance in a Polish resort town in the Carpathian Mountains. Intending to spend their vacation relaxing, they find a secluded family-run pension. But the two become embroiled first in a macabre event on the way to the pension, then in the peculiar activities and psychological travails of the family running it. Gombrowicz offers no solution to their predicament.»

«What's important is that the insight in these remarkable pages is creatively captivating and intellectually challenging. Perhaps Gombrowicz's break-out attempt from the Nietzschean "prison house of language," in which postmodernism so blithely accepts its life sentence, feels a bit quaint today. But it's also true that in the 40 years since Cosmos was published, no one has done any better.» - Neil Gordon

«Like William Blake's poetry, Gombrowicz's darkly puckish novel, first published in Poland in 1965, strives to see the world in a mustard seed-and neither the attempt nor the results are pretty. The narrator, casually identifying himself as Witold, is a student traveling through the Koscieliska region on vacation. Together with Fuks, another student, he finds a sparrow hanging from a tree in the woods outside the rooming house run by the Wojtys family. It's obviously an omen, but the narrator's preoccupation with its meaning is only the opening round in a series of ever more puzzling obsessions. He can't help seeing an unspecified "relation" between the mouth of Katasia, the pension's housekeeper, misshapen by a car accident but somehow erotic, and the more normal but inseparable mouth of Lena Wojtys, the daughter of the household. He's fascinated by the wire mesh over an ashtray in the parlor. When Lena points out a crack in the dining room ceiling that looks like an arrow, he finds a remarkably similar arrow in the ceiling of the room he shares with Fuks. Other characters seem scarcely less obsessive. The master of the house constantly coins nonsense words he repeats more and more compulsively. Fuks's only topic of conversation is his mistreatment by his boss Drozdowski, who never appears. When Lena's cat is strangled and hanged like the sparrow, the narrator is as bewildered as everyone else. The answer-what answer there is-lies in the future, not the past. Long before the stunningly inconclusive fadeout, though, readers will have given up hope that these monstrous minutiae will ever yield the clear-cut meaning the narrator demands. A contemporary of the French New Novelists, Gombrowicz may well be the missing link between Nikolai Gogol and Nicholson Baker.» - Kirkus Reviews

«Readers and critics generally agree that Gombrowicz’s masterpiece is Ferdydurke, while his other works are less interesting experimentations. My favorite of his fictions, however, is his last, Cosmos, a work I find to be far more troubling and yet deeply comic than his satiric portrait of an infantilized society. As Gombrowicz himself commented on this work: “Cosmos for me, is black, first and foremost black, something like a black churning current full of whirls, stoppages, flood waters, a black water carrying lots of refuse, and there is man gazing at it—gazing at it and swept by it—trying to decipher, to understand and to bind it into some kind of a whole…”
The author aptly summarizes his fiction, but in typical Gombrowicz style he has, one recognizes, expressed truths with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. For, although it is most certainly the darkest of the writings under consideration in this essay, it is also the most grandly comic, a comedy that transpires without eliciting much outright laughter.
If the characters of Ferdydurke and Bacacay predicate their actions upon a society devoted to servitude, so too does the “hero” of Cosmos—a young Polish student seeking a place of peace to study for his university exams—serves what he might express as a “higher cause.” This student does not intend to obey “others”—he has just had a terrible fight with his father and family, presumably over the direction of his career—but is determined to serve “the truth.” What he does not recognize, however, is that his university-learned “truths”—truths built upon rational connections of the human mind, associatively-constructed realities predicated on the sensate signifiers of the surrounding world—may reveal nothing and lead one down a labyrinth of inane relationships that result, in the end, in madness. If as a child I laughed at my grandmother when she proclaimed “If you think too much, you may go mad,” Gombrowicz helps us to perceive that indeed it is possible if one too carefully follows the modernist principles of psychologically realist literature and art.
“Only connect,” proclaimed E. M. Foster (in the epigraph to his novel Howards End), one of modernist fictions most adamant proscribers. Witold takes that command at face value as he attempts to comprehend the world around him, leading to a despairing impasse that only a post-modernist-before-the-fact-writer such as Gombrowicz could have forseen.
As the young student begins his search for housing in the small town Zakopane, he suddenly runs into an old acquaintance, Fuks, who suggests they share a place on the outskirts of town, where rooms are cheaper. Off they trudge into the countryside, resting momentarily in a thicket where, as they turn to leave, they discover a terrible “crime,” a dead sparrow hanging from a wire hooked onto a branch high in a tree, “its head to one side, its beak wide open.” The sparrow has clearly been killed and hung there for all to see. Who could have done such a deed? And why?
The troubled students find a house advertising rooms nearby, and knocking at the door are greeted by a housekeeper with a strangely deformed mouth. They take a room, noticing in another empty room a young woman lying upon a mattress, her leg dangling across the metal mesh of the bed. Everything in this Zakophone farmhouse seems slightly awry and out of place to these young would-be intellects, who yet perceive that there is nothing outwardly strange about any of it.
Joining the Wojty family for dinner, the young student and his companion experience what might be perceived as a normal evening meal as a series of strange events. As with Gombrowic’s dectective in his “A Premitated Crime,” for these would-be detectives the more things appear as normal, the stranger they become. There is a troubling connection between the “slithering” lips of the housekeeper Katasia and the “slippery” lips of the Wojty’s daughter, Lena. For the young student, in turn, these have some relationship he cannot explain to the nearby executed sparrow. Exhausted from his travels, he still cannot sleep, and discovers that Fuks has disappeared into the night. Has he snuck into Lena’s room, returned to observe the sparrow in the moonlight?
The following day, the young man observes what appears to be an arrow upon the wall of the room adjoining their dining space; Fuks points out a similar arrow-like stain on the ceiling of their bedroom. Is someone trying to tell them something, point out a path to follow in their search for the “murderer” of the innocent beast?
Late at night, with comically inventive tools, they “scientifically” attempt to follow the path of the arrow into the backyard, where they are led to an old building where, nearby, a stick is hanging? Is the hanging stick related to the hanging bird? A nearby whiffletree seems to be pointing in the same direction; is someone observing them from the windows of the house?
These ridiculously tenuous connections lead the students on a maddening search for meaning which ultimately involves the entire family—the mother (dubbed Roly-Poly by the boys); the distracted and logorrheic husband, Leon; Lena and her husband Ludvik; as well as the mysterious Katasia—in an internal investigation which occasionally reveals each as lonely and somewhat desperate, but just as often leads to blind alleys which the narrator’s mind refuses to accept. He himself becomes engulfed in the strange events as he inexplicably strangles Lena’s pet cat and hangs it, connecting himself with the never-ending trail of “evidence.”
Ultimately, as Leon leads them on a day trip into the nearby mountains, the rational world is replaced by more and more startlingly insane interconnections as the seemingly innocent family members and friends are caught up in their own webs of symbols and associations, ultimately leading to a strange night-time celebration of Leon’s only extra-martial affair—culminating in an incomprehensible private language and public masturbation—and the apparent suicide of Ludvick, discovered hanging from a tree. By this time the narrator has become as mad as any of his imaginary perpetrators, forcing his fingers into the mouth of the dead man —a mouth somehow connected in his psychologically tangled “plot” with Lena and Katshsia—and, later, stuffing them into the mouth of a priest the travelers have picked up on their voyage into these wilds.
By fiction’s end the narrator has experienced a kind of mental overload of information, has attempted so desperately to connect the pieces of the sensate world that he can no longer function—a flood of information paralleling a sudden deluge in the natural world:
'Loose, dense drops, we lift our heads, it suddenly poured buckets, water came down in sheets, a sudden wind rose, panic, everyone running for the nearest tree, but the pines are leaking, dripping, dribbling, water, water, water, wet hair, backs, thighs, and just ahead of us in the dark darkness a vertical fall of falling water interrupted solely by despairing flashlights, then, in the light of the flashlights, one could see it pour, fall, also streams, waterfalls, lakes, it drips, spurts, splashes, lakes, seas, currents of gurgling water and a bit of straw, stick, carried by water, disappearing....'
Our young hero returns to Warsaw, to war with his father, problems, complications, difficulties….: in other words, he is forced to once more to deal with the “real” world of human interchange—a world often without answers, without the strained connections of a pretending art.» - Douglas Messerli

Witold Gombrowicz, Pornografia, Trans. by Danuta Borchardt, Grove Press, 2009.

“One of the indisputable totems of twentieth-century world literature, Witold Gombrowicz wrote Pornografia after leaving his native Poland for Argentina in 1939 and then watching from afar as the German invasion destroyed his country. Translated for the first time into English from the original Polish by award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt, Pornografia is one of Gombrowicz’s highest regarded works—a richly imagined tale of violence and carnality set in wartime Poland. In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the hellish scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they are hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other at the farm. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, including an order from the underground movement for the men to assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge with them. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.”

“Gombrowicz's strange, bracing final novel probes the divide between young and old while providing a grotesque evocation of obsession. While recuperating from wartime Warsaw in the Polish countryside, the unnamed narrator and his friend, Fryderyk, attempt to force amour between two local youths, Karol and Henia, as a kind of a lewd entertainment. They become increasingly frustrated as they discover that the two have no interest in one another, and the games are momentarily stopped by a local murder and a directive to assassinate a rogue member of the Polish resistance. Gombrowicz connects these threads magnificently in a tense climax that imbues his novel with a deep sense of the absurd and multiplies its complexity. Gombrowicz is a relentless psychoanalyzer and a consummate stylist; his prose is precise and forceful, and the narrator's strained attempts to elucidate why he takes such pleasure at soiling youth creepily evoke authentic pride and disgust. Borchardt's translation (the first into English from the original Polish) is a model of consistency, maintaining a manic tone as it navigates between lengthy, comma-spliced sentences and sharp, declarative thrusts.” - Publishers Weekly

“Originally published in 1966 and previously translated into English in 1978, this existential novel is set in occupied Poland during World War II. Narrator Witold and his enigmatic companion, Fryderyk, two intellectuals with ties to the underground resistance, find themselves holed up at a friend's farm. The two men quickly become obsessed with the farmer's teenage daughter and a young farmhand with whom she has been friends since childhood and attempt, for their own voyeuristic amusement, to entice the two into beginning a sexual relationship. Eventually, their games are derailed by, and possibly contribute to, a series of bizarre and disastrous incidents. Each event is overanalyzed by the narrator, allowing Gombrowicz to reveal his underlying concern with the "blind elemental forces" that determine human events: war, love, religion, sin, and desire. VERDICT Philosophical, sensual, and occasionally jarring, Gombrowicz's writing swirls with strange meanings. His singular style may deter casual readers, but those who brave a few chapters will find themselves hypnotized. Borchardt's translation, from the original Polish, returns a clarity and impact to the text that had been lost in the earlier two-step translation from the French. Especially recommended for fans of Sartre, Camus, and similar authors.” —Forest Turner

“A fresh English version of the great Polish writer's 1960 novel about middle-aged dreams and youthful obliviousness, one of his best-known works. Poland, 1943. Neither nature nor religion offers surcease from the Third Reich's grinding occupation. Intellectuals huddling together for warmth run through topics of conversation-"God, art, nation, proletariat"-as if counting down the last grains of sand in an hourglass. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, resolves to leave Warsaw to visit Hipolit, a landowner who's invited him and Fryderyk, another poseur who's attached himself to Witold, to his home in the countryside. No sooner have they arrived than the unlikely pair are smitten by Hipolit's teenaged daughter Henia and her childhood friend Karol. Or rather, they're smitten by the idea that these two young people belong together, even though Henia, who likes Karol perfectly well but has never thought of him as a potential lover, is about to announce her engagement to Vaclav Paszkowski, a rising attorney from nearby Ruda. In cryptic conversations and memorably febrile internal monologues, the two men share their fantasies about the young people and scheme to make them a couple. But nothing comes of this folie a quatre until Vaclav's mother is suddenly stabbed to death, and a resistance fighter who's come to the end of his courage announces his intention of abandoning the cause and going back home. Goaded by a series of unsigned notes that play on their already considerable paranoia, Witold and Fryderyk hatch a monstrous new plan to bring Henia and Karol together. Aiming for greater fidelity to Gombrowicz's original than the 1966 translation done from a French version, Borchardt, who won a prizefor her English rendering of Ferdydurke, spins out a web of words that vibrate with unholy energy. Les liaisons dangereuses updated by Kafka. A remarkably ugly, even repellent little tale-but in a good way.” - Kirkus Reviews

Witold Gombrowicz, Trans-Atlantyk, Trans. by Carolyn French, Yale University Press, 1995.

"For those willing to risk losing their minds, Trans-Atlantyk is a dizzying amalgamation of romp, prank and rant... Still, Trans-Atlantyk is a worthwhile adventure in reading, not only because of its poetically fractured language... but because Gombrowicz has compressed his anarchistic themes - patricide and filicide, rejection of homeland, sexuality - into a tightly woven comedy of the dankly ridiculous." - Bill Marx

"Its vivid expression of the complex ache of not belonging has a gratifying universality, and even baffled readers may find themselves laughing out loud at the sheer bilious energy of its sentences." - Bruce Allen

"(T)he Polish in which it is written, a peculiarly stilted, synthetic, parodistic fusion of "dead" styles (picaresque narrative, comedy of humours, mannerist excess, plus sheer, empty loquaciousness) is hard to translate, forcing risky strategies and choices upon the translator (mostly well judged here, though the Polish is much funnier). Maybe it is too easy to say there is nothing else like it; after all, post-modernists from Pynchon to Ackroyd have played similar language games, and so did Joyce. Yet the special frisson of dread one gets from this Dance of Death never quite goes away." - George Hyde

«Although I compulsively read them, I hate introductions in general, and especially those written for works of fiction. Recent attempts to tone down this distasteful reading habit have led me to jump to the first chapter as soon as I sense a spate of spoilers. In the case of Witold Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk, though, I wish the introduction had focused solely on Stanislaw Baranczak's explanation of the philosophy that drove much of the action in this novel. The missing philosophy that would have given me a compass in much of the ensuing chaos.
Back in 1939, Gombrowicz traveled on a cruise ship from his native Poland to Argentina. It was a business trip. He and his colleague, both journalists, were on the maiden voyage of the Boleslaw Chrobry, a ship that celebrated the rebirth of Poland after the first World War. Gombrowicz was to act as a representative of this new Polish culture, to reassure the large community of Polish emigrants in Buenos Aires that their homeland had not been truly destroyed.
Unfortunately, the arrival of this cruise ship coincided almost precisely with the German invasion of Poland. When the travelers reached Argentina, many turned around immediately to defend their country. Gombrowicz, on the other hand, remained in Buenos Aires for 24 years, attempting to cull a living from his writing and, more successfully, from a job at the Polish Bank.
Trans-Atlantyk was Gombrowicz’s first novel, and it didn’t have a prayer at generating much revenue from the Polish émigré community. He told a story about a man named Gombrowicz, who traveled to Argentina on a cruise ship and decided not to return to Poland at the outbreak of World War II for dubious reasons. While unimaginable terrors beset his home, our hero berates Poland, chanting out to the returning ship as it sails away from him, “Sail to your St. Slug that she might ever more enslime you!”
I should also mention that Gombrowicz chose to write his novel in the Polish equivalent of Old English, thus ensuring that he only alienate those Poles who were willing to battle difficult syntax.
While Trans-Atlantyk was doomed to fail in immediate commercial terms, however, it was also destined to secure Gombrowicz’s place among the great novelists of central Europe. Apart from being a good read, Trans-Atlantyk embodies a philosophy of life that Baranczak clarifies remarkably well in the introduction. The cliffs notes are as follows: the individual is in constant conflict with society (the old Man v. Society, for those of us who took notes in English). As Gombrowicz sees it, man is torn between submitting to the will of society, which robs him of all freedom, and following his own will, which entails breaking with society altogether. Neither extreme is attainable, so we are stuck murkily in between.
My synopsis is inelegant, but this philosophy comes to life as the narrator struggles to break with his homeland and finds himself isolated in a foreign country. Gombrowicz cannot reject his ancestry when his first hope is to find a relocated relative, nor renounce Poland when he finds himself reporting to the foreign consulate. The novel is filled with decisions and reversals like this, many times condensed in a few brief sentences (“I approve of your Resolution or disapprove and well you did to remain here, or perhaps you did Not.”)
While I was reading the novel, I didn’t have any clear idea what could motivate a writer to intentionally obscure his meaning. All I had were the foreboding explanations in the translators note - always read the translator’s note, just on the off chance that it won’t be intensely boring - where Carolyn French and Nina Karsov beg you to “bear with” their choice to render this book in seventeenth century English with purposefully complex sentence structures. Armed thus, I found myself entranced from beginning to end.
Turns out, Gombrowicz truly is a master of controlled chaos. Normally when the reader unravels a tangled word cluster, she is rewarded with meaning. Very rarely can she be denied this reward and still come away satisfied. Gombrowicz’s prose, the translation of which is a spectacular feat of its own, often takes irrevocable turns but never does so ignorantly. Gombrowicz has succeeded where so many beatniks would later fail; he creates his own language so that his meaning can be found in the very syntax of his book. His technique is enjoyable, beautiful in fact, to observe.» - Liz Ptacek

Witold Gombrowicz, Bacacay, Trans. by Bill Johnston, Archipelago Books1, 2006.

"These early stories herald Gombrowicz’s later, lengthier sallies, in a style burlesque and baroque at once." - Michael Pinker

"Gombrowicz's fiction largely defies description, but you can think of it this way: If the prickly and paranoid protagonists of Seinfeld were transposed to a fading interwar Central Europe of moustaches, tailcoats, walking canes and duels, their absurd misadventures might resemble these stories... Slightly uneven, Bacacay is best savored after his novels." - Eric Wargo

«In his Afterword to Bacacay Bill Johnston explains: 'Gombrowicz decided to rename the collection Bacacaj, a Polonized form of Bacacay, the name of a side street in Buenos Aires on which the writer lived. This title, while striking, tells us nothing about the contents of the book; Gombrowicz explained in a letter to his Italian publisher that he named his book thus 'for the same reason that a person names his dogs - to distinguish them from one others'."
This might be said to be typical for Gombrowicz: a seemingly random choice good enough for even something as significant as a book-title. Gombrowicz is always a playful writer, and never quite shows his hand as to when he is serious and when not. The first seven stories in this collection were first published in 1933 under a title which also did not accurately reflect what he was presenting: Recollections of Adolescence, but there was enough truth to that - and a hint of significance in Gombrowicz's choice of an address (yet in Polonized, not actual form) for the version presented out of exile - that the titles can't be simply dismissed as whims (or dog's names). Gombrowicz is a fantasist, but his work is clearly grounded both in reality and autobiography.
Besides the seven stories from his first book, Bacacay collects two free-standing stories from his novel Ferdydurke, and three previously published but uncollected stories. It makes for a good introduction to the author, and some fine - if often unusual - entertainment.
Gombrowicz does not offer familiar fare. Situations and stories that are realistic and precise devolve into the absurd, but with a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the absurdity. His stories are dreamy (or nightmarish) creations more than they are surreal, flights of a very odd fancy.
Gombrowicz's characters are often obsessive, few more than the first, the narrator of "Lawyer Kraykowski's Dancer", a chance encounter leading him to become a stalker-devotee of remarkable persistence. In another, "A Premeditated Crime", the narrator travels to the countryside to meet a man whom he finds dead upon his arrival, and he becomes convinced the man was murdered. There's little evidence to back it up -- even: "The corpse was evidently in league with the band of murderers" -- but so determined and ultimately convincing is the narrator that he retroactively manages to transform the death into a premeditated murder.
Absurdity is often found in realistic guise here: "Dinner at Countess Pavahoke" focusses on the countess' famous "meatless Friday dinners", which turn out not to be quite so meatless. Wordplay is to be taken as seriously (or not) as anything else: stable hand Valentine Cauliflower happens to disappear just before a cauliflower dish is served up for a Friday dinner, for example - and Countess Pavahoke just happens to get her own name wrong, signing herself as the more suggestive Countess Havapoke... (Johnston notes in his afterword that in the first edition of Recollections of Adolescence Gombrowicz offered a "Short Explanation" of some of the stories -- including providing far too much information about this one, spelling out for readers that: "the soup is not actually made from the runaway boy, but that the association is purely linguistic, and that 'the point of the story is that the hunger and suffering of poor Bolek Cauliflower make the cauliflower-vegetable taste better to the aristocrats eating it.'")
"Adventures" was originally titled "Five Minutes Before Falling Asleep", and offers both that dreamy pre-sleep escape and captivity. It begins with the narrator falling from a ship in the Mediterranean, and being picked up by another one whose captain -- "a white black man" - would use him as a toy: tossing him into the seas first in a glass bubble in which he should be swept by the currents endlessly around the Atlantic and later in a steel sphere sent to the bottom of the deepest part of the oceans (neither plan working quite as anticipated). But adventures continue to follow, just as in unpredictable yet vaguely reality-based night-fancies.
In "The Events on the Banbury" the narrator is also on a ship, having boarded the wrong one and finding himself adrift again. As usual, it's an odd mix of the real and the absurd - as when the captain finds the crew are "starting to play the eye game" again. A consequence: stray eyes lying about.
As one of Gombrowicz's characters notes:
It's clear that speaking is a bad idea, since the reach of words is unpredictable, and the borders of dreams become blurred ....
In strikingly clear language, with a faux-naïveté that treats the absurd as no less odd (and certainly no less unexpected) than most of the everyday, Gombrowicz's stories describe remarkable worlds and lives. Much of the pleasure in these stories comes from the audacious invention and presentation, but it's also the language that does the trick: everything (and nothing) inspires wonder in these narrators, the shrug of the shoulders at the next catastrophe or inevitable fate a common reaction: c'est la vie, they all seem to say -- though these are like no lives we know.
Puzzling, with unexpected narrative arcs, these aren't straightforward fictions. But almost each story is worth reading, with something there to delight in. The lack of focus -- and Gombrowicz's refusal to play by the usual rules -- may annoy some, but most should find these to be rewarding entertainments.» - The Complete Review

«Every year our literary tastemakers unearth another fossilized giant of European letters and cause the veteran review-section pundits to wag their bony, liver-spotted fingers at upstarts like me until we cave in and read him. And I am a total sucker. When I heard that someone planned to finally release Witold Gombrowicz’s story collection Bacacay in English I damn near crapped my pants. Then I spent an entire month singing Michael Chabon’s line from Wonder Boys, “What’s that, Gombrowicz?” to the tune of Tom Jones’s “What’s New, Pussycat?” and trying to figure out why this guy—Gombrowicz, not Chabon—isn’t better known.
Though born in Poland, Gombrowicz lived most of his life in self-imposed exile after government officials banned his books, this one included, for their subversiveness. Given the obscurity and perceived difficulty of his oeuvre, he is literature’s white whale, Rosebud, and Bigfoot combined. Bacacay contains the first stories he published. They are elusive and frequently downright cruel; they don’t mean anything, they just are. But exactly what they are can’t be defined with any precision, except to say that Gombrowicz regularly toys with the elasticity of realism, stretching it as far as it will go before snapping it back. He grounded these twelve tales in reality, yes, but it’s the same freedom-is-slavery reality of post-WWI Eastern Europe that led to the rise of fascism.
The macabre humor lurks close to the surface. “A Premeditated Crime” reads like a Kafka allegory told from the other side of the law. “[M]ost of my fellow magistrates would have closed the investigation. But not I! I was too ridiculed, too vengeful, and I had already ventured too far. I raised my finger and frowned. ‘A crime does not come of its own accord, gentlemen; it must be worked upon mentally, thought through, thought up—dumplings don’t cook themselves.’” In “Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s” a peasant boy named Cauliflower goes missing shortly before a snooty, supposedly vegetarian feast, while “The Events on the Banbury” features a group of sailors who to amuse themselves invent “a game that involves one of them catching a second unawares and trying to poke the other man’s eye out with his thumb.” In detailing a retired judge’s efforts to torture and subsequently civilize the local ruffian, “The Rat” manages to evoke both Bartók’s opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” and the nastiest scenes in 1984:
And all the time—the rat. Without a break—the rat. Only—the rat. The rat, and the rat, and the rat.
These are as weird and wonderful and erudite as anything by Borges or Joyce, yet almost no one reads Gombrowicz and to do so is to join an exclusive and ultimately meaningless club, like people who’ve had sex on airplanes or shot a hole in one. It’s safe to think of Bacacay as Gombrowicz’s Dubliners: a collection of complex and sophisticated short stories that contain within them all the seeds of the author’s later artistic blooming. But these aren’t just gateway drugs, the kind that will lead you to bigger and harder stuff like his novel Ferdydurke or three-volume Diary. They will do that, sure, but not before reminding you what great literature is capable of. These stories don’t settle for mere entertainment but instead prod and engage at every turn of phrase and provide vast new vocabularies with which to describe the absurdity of everyday life. « —Andrew Ervin

«I begin with a confession. The following statement furnished by me appears on the jacket of Bacacay, one of the volumes under review: "Gombrowicz is one of the most original and gifted writers of the twentieth century: he belongs at the very summit, at the side of his kindred spirits, Kafka and Céline. This collection of his stories will serve as an admirable introduction to his oeuvre."
...Gombrowicz gives an account of his life before World War II in Polish Memories, which consists of 48 mostly undated talks he wrote for Radio Free Europe in the 1950s, found in typescript among his papers some years after his death. Taken together they make splendid reading and offer an idiosyncratic account, surprising and touching in its fearless intimacy, of Gombrowicz's family and milieu, his development as an artist, literary life in Warsaw, Polish national character and Polish anti-Semitism. Detesting the complacency and unwillingness to come to grips with reality masquerading as romanticism that he found rampant in newly independent Poland, Gombrowicz reveled in attacking what he called form, and exalted youth over maturity. It should be understood that the form he demolished with such glee was the composite of received ideas, social, artistic and literary, that command general respect; he believed that genuine form could be created by an artist only after that work of destruction.
On one level, his exaltation of youth resulted from a natural preference for the physical attractiveness of children and adolescents over the grosser nature of grownups, one that was no doubt accentuated by the ambiguities of his sexual identity. He remembered regarding "the bare feet and coarse shirts" of the peasant boys with whom he played at his parents' estate with "carefully concealed admiration," and recognized that "two kinds of beauty were available to me... One was the simple barefoot kind; the other, that of those boys [his school comrades] from the best families in the country, unquestionable thoroughbreds... It would have been no surprise... had I chosen the Potockis and Radziwills... Yet... I'd noticed certain small but disgusting things... in that aristocracy . . . for example, nose picking... I observed that the aristocracy gladly engaged in this pursuit. I also observed that the nose picking of my village boys was somehow innocent and inoffensive, while the same operation carried out by the hand of a Potocki or a Wielopolski became something terribly unpleasant and repulsive."
An aesthete's revulsion, surely, but also a moralist's Swiftian loathing and scorn for hypocrisy. It is difficult to read "Dinner at the Countess Pavahoke's," in Bacacay, without being reminded of "A Modest Proposal." Gombrowicz acknowledged the effect on him of the discord between his parents, their ostensibly harmonious union concealing an incompatibility of character, his mother's instinctive pretentiousness, and the absurdity of the situation of Polish nobles - arrogant, frivolous and incompetent - as "masters." There is a hint of a more wounding falsehood: Behind the image of his handsome and respectable father may have lain an abyss as shameful as the taste for the lowliest of maids that dishonors the protagonist of "On the Kitchen Steps." That he should have withheld that story from the original collection, out of fear that his father might recognize himself in the character, gives credence to this hypothesis. But, like Polish Memories, the effervescent and amusing stories in Bacacay should be read in the spirit of fun and not in search for an aesthetic system or clues to his psyche. Gombrowicz deprecated interpretation of fiction and warned against looking in his stories for symbols. There weren't any, he insisted. He was as good as his word and withdrew the preface included with the first printing of the stories, in which he explained what they were about. (Curious readers, however, will find it recapitulated in Bill Johnston's excellent "Afterword" to Bacacay.)
Was his departure precipitated by a prescient understanding of the inevitability of war and Poland's lightning defeat, or hazard? Gombrowicz left for Argentina on the maiden voyage of a Polish liner on Aug. 1, 1939, and never returned. He lived in Buenos Aires until the spring of 1963, often in squalid penury. For several years he was unable to begin a major new work. The dam burst in 1947, with the completion of the play "Marriage." A period of renewed creativity and struggle for fame began. Brought back to Europe by a Ford Foundation grant, and living in Vence in the South of France, he was able to report in 1965 in his Diaries that finally, at the age of 61, he had the good things people normally attain at 30: family life, a home, a dog. Four years later he was dead.
Fame comes with costs. One of them is posthumous publication of texts that should have remained in a drawer. Such is the case of A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, ably translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry. The Guide is the outline of a "course" Gombrowicz was persuaded to give in the last two months of his life as an antidote to the depression into which he had fallen. Gombrowicz's interest in philosophy was profound. These truncated notes do not do him justice; at most, they make one wish that he had written out his lectures or at least had been able to review and correct the outline.» - Louis Begley
Witold Gombrowicz, A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, Trans. by Benjamin Ivry. Yale University Press, 2007.

«Gombrowicz’s works were considered scandalous and subversive by the ruling powers in Poland and were banned for nearly forty years. He spent his last years in France teaching philosophy; this book is a series of reflections based on his lectures.
Gombrowicz discusses Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger in six “one-hour” essays and addresses Marxism in a shorter “fifteen-minute” piece. The text—a small literary gem full of sardonic wit, brilliant insights, and provocative criticism—constructs the philosophical lineage of his work.»

"Gombrowicz's interest in philosophy was profound. These truncated notes do not do him justice; at most, they make one wish that he had written out his lectures or at least had been able to review and correct the outline." - Louis Begley

«A brief afterword explains these "began as lectures to his wife and his good friend Dominique de Roux". Presented in Gombrowicz's own note-form - often more outline than full-fledged written lecture - A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes is a fairly limited survey of philosophy, concerned mainly with what was of greatest interest to Gombrowicz. Tracing the evolution of philosophy from Kant through Hegel and Schopenhauer, offering a bit of Kierkegaard and Husserl, and then a good dose of existentialism, Sartre, and Heidegger, Gombrowicz does offer a decent - though often very shorthand - overview of a central strain of modern philosophy (others - notably Wittgenstein - are, however, entirely ignored). in addition, continuing another path from Hegel on, Gombrowicz also tackles Marx and Marxism in several short lectures.
This isn't a book one would turn to for philosophy-basics. Gombrowicz does offer the basics, but the rapid-fire, shorthand presentation makes for gaps and jumps that likely make it too challenging for those with little philosophy background. Indeed, what is most interesting about the book is what it reveals about Gombrowicz and his work.
Gombrowicz valued philosophy and thought it useful:
Philosophy is needed for a global view of culture. It is important for writers.
His 1937 novel, Ferdydurke, is widely considered a work anticipating existentialism, and among Gombrowicz's most interesting observations are those on Sartre and existentialism, including such personal reactions as:
Consciousness is, so to speak, outside of me. When I read that in Being and Nothingness, I shouted with enthusiasm, since it is precisely the notion of man which creates form and which cannot really be authentic.
Fascinating also his certainty about the continuing relevancy of this philosophy:
What is the future of existentialism ? Very great.
And the consequences:
Fundamental impotence. No solution at all. In light of these thoughts, literature which considers that we can organize the world is the most idiotic thing imaginable. A sad writer who thinks himself master of reality is a ridiculous thing. Hah ! Hah ! Hah ! Phew ! Marx and Marxism are addressed in a more focussed section, and Gombrowicz's take is an insightful one. It's also a prescient one: writing in 1969 he opined:
The future of Marxism ? I imagine that in twenty or thirty years, they will discard Marxism. This is a book aimed primarily at those with an interest in Gombrowicz -- and the influence of philosophy on his work. Those looking for basic philosophy lessons should probably look elsewhere - though Gombrowicz's summary and take may also be of interest to those coming at it purely from the philosophical side (though a basic familiarity with his subjects is recommended in either case).
A one-page afterword 'About the author' provides a brief explantion of how these lectures came about, but the book certainly could have used a more elaborate scholarly apparatus. (Perhaps the thinking was that anyone who came to this book would be familiar with the necessary biographical detail.)
Certainly of considerable interest to Gombrowicz-fans, but probably only truly enjoyable for those familiar with his writing.» - The Complete Review

Witold Gombrowicz, Diary [Vol. I-III]. Northwestern University Press, 1988, 1989, 1993.

«In novels and plays such as Comos, Pornografia and The Marriage, Polish avant-garde writer Gombrowicz delineated the colossal pressures that impinge on us from all sides and force us to falsify our existence. His Diary, kept as an expatriate in Argentina, is a soaring work of the spirit that redeems the crushing uneventfulness of daily reality. The writer rails at his fellow Poles to stop imitating the West and explore their own identity. He delivers a scathing indictment of the Communist collective mentality, yet he finds little to applaud in what he considers American provincialism. By turns lofty and clowning, combative and profound, this first of three projected volumes confronts the spiritual paralysis of our time. Gombrowicz calls his journals "chaotic scribbling,'' but he comes across as a latter-day prophet, resolutely true to himself.» - Publishers Weekly


Witold Gombrowicz, Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch. Marion Boyars Publishers, 2000.

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