This past March, on the closing day of an international literary conference held in Krakow, Poland, an elderly woman stood up before hundreds of scholars and admirers gathered to mark the 100th birthday of Witold Gombrowicz and made a plucky confession that produced nervous titters around the regal lecture hall. She had read all of Gombrowicz’s works, she said, and hadn’t understood a word. She had read a great deal of the voluminous criticism about Gombrowicz, most of which is still produced in his native country, and hadn’t gotten anything out of that, either. And then, hoping for some clarification, she had listened patiently to more than seventy presentations at this weeklong conference, but to no avail. So, she asked, can anyone explain what the deal is with Witold Gombrowicz?
It’s a reasonable question, and even more so in North America, where this writer is better known by reputation than by his work. Gombrowicz, who died in France in 1969, was the author of stylistically innovative and philosophically challenging prose, and he has gradually slipped into the ranks of the cultural powerhouses of modern Europe. That is, Gombrowicz has become one of those names–like Robert Walser or Hermann Broch–usually incanted by those who are in the know to assert their intellectual superiority over those who are not.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Three new translations–the story collection Bacacay, the memoir Polish Memories and his self-descriptive Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes–not only fill in major gaps in Gombrowicz’s body of work in English; they provide hope that for the first time it may be possible for those lacking fluency in Polish to enjoy this singular talent for all that he is. Because great as Gombrowicz’s reputation has been among the anointed few, as loudly as his praises have been sung by the likes of Susan Sontag and John Updike, as much as the denizens of smoky art cafes have called him a forerunner of every current in twentieth-century thought, from existentialism to body theory, something has been missing from his Anglophone existence. Gombrowicz is all these things, but he is also something immeasurably greater: He is brilliantly, savagely funny–a philosophical, stylistic and comic genius in one.
Appropriately, Gombrowicz’s biography reads like one man’s meditation on history retold as a cruel joke. In the 1930s he made a name for himself in Poland by using his irreverent fiction to skewer his compatriots’ aristocratic pretensions, first in a collection of stories titled Recollections of Adolescence, and then in his 1937 masterpiece, Ferdydurke, whose idiosyncratic, rhythmic prose jumps nimbly between disparate registers of diction and emotion, producing an effect that is by turns hypnotic and unsettling. In 1939, already a rising literary star, Gombrowicz accepted an offer to sail to Argentina on the maiden voyage of a transatlantic ocean liner. Less than two weeks after his arrival in Buenos Aires, Germany invaded Poland, and Gombrowicz was stuck in South America, penniless, with barely a word of Spanish. To eke out a meager living, he had to rely on a community of Polish expatriates who tended to be even more conservative than the conservatives he’d gladly left behind in his native land. In 1953 Gombrowicz published Trans-Atlantyk, a blistering account of his first years in exile retold as a kind of Chaucerian farce. But this description is unlikely to resonate with readers whose sole contact with Gombrowicz is the novel’s uneven 1994 English translation, which inadvertently drained his prose of much of its wit and vigor.
Translation has been the greatest stumbling block in introducing Gombrowicz to an American audience. Gombrowicz is that rare writer in whom the weight of a powerful intellect is leavened by both linguistic daring and an infectious sense of whimsy. These latter two features have proven the most difficult to render in English. With the exception of Lillian Vallée’s translation of his fascinating (and largely fictitious) three-volume Diary, most English translations have been at least partially tone-deaf: They either fail to grasp the energy of his Polish (some have been done from French or German translations rather than the original Polish) or they fail to reproduce that artistry in our language. With the first complete translation of Bacacay–an expanded version of Recollections of Adolescence, published in 1957–this major European talent is finally ours to enjoy.
Taken as a whole, the twelve stories in Bacacay read like a catalogue of tyranny in its gloriously variegated forms. In the first story, “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer,” a well-to-do attorney tries to impose his sense of good manners on everyone around him, including the narrator. In “The Rat” a retired judge seeks out the perfect means of torture for a bandit who has brought too much “expansive exuberance” to the neighborhood. The protagonist of “Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s,” who tells us at the outset that “I often spend long hours discussing beautiful and exalted topics,” is devastated when, instead of the refined company he expects, he finds himself at the Dinner Party from Hell. And in “Virginity” we encounter Alice, who requires constant vigilance to preserve her delicate, maidenly nature:
The life of an adolescent girl can be compared neither with the life of an engineer or lawyer, nor with the life of a housewife and mother. Take, for instance, the longing and murmuring of the blood, perpetual as the ticking of a watch. Somewhere the idea was already once expressed that there is nothing stranger than being alluring. It’s not easy to look after a being whose reason for existing is to entice; yet Alice was well-protected by her canary Fifi, by her mother, the major’s wife, and by her Doberman pinscher Bibi, whom she led on a leash during their afternoon walk. These domestic animals had a curious understanding when it came to Alice’s protection. “Bibi,” sang the canary, “Bibi, you sweet dog, guard our young lady well. Bow and scrape to her! Bow and scrape! And drive away bad thoughts. Keep an eye on the parasol–it’s so lazy; make sure it shields our beloved young lady from the sun!”
Tyranny permeates these stories, a thread that would run through all of Gombrowicz’s work. Lambasted by conservative critics for the supposed “immaturity” of these stories, he went on to write Ferdydurke, which depicts the identity crisis of an author who, lambasted for the “immaturity” of his first book, is abducted by his old schoolmaster and whisked away to the classroom, where he must relive all the shamefulness of adolescence. For Gombrowicz, tyranny plagues every human interaction: What we call “culture” itself amounts to a tyranny of the majority (an Enlightenment fear now taken oddly as a mark of political good fortune). Even when we are alone, tyranny is with us, in our bodies, our desires, in our inability to escape from ourselves.
More than a half-century before the humiliation-driven humor of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Gombrowicz explored the ways in which being asked to behave creates an irrepressible need to misbehave. In “The Banquet” the ministers of state are dumbfounded not only by the king’s corruption (Who is ever really dumbfounded by the king’s corruption?) but by his wanton assault on propriety:
No less than a bribe was being demanded by the bribe-taker in the crown in return for his participation in the banquet. And all at once the king began to complain that these were hard times, that it wasn’t clear how one could make ends meet…after which he giggled…he giggled and winked confidentially at the chancellor and minister of state…he winked and then giggled again…he giggled and poked him in the side with his finger.
The fun of Bacacay–and it is not merely a pleasure, but fun–is in watching how these tyrannies fold back into and against themselves. The maidenly Alice is overcome by a need to crouch down next to a stray dog and gnaw at a bone. The hero of “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer” turns the tables on the snooty attorney, inserting himself into his life, interfering whenever possible in his walks and his love affair, even paying for his daily pastries in advance as an assault on his independence, explaining to us by way of analogy: “Imagine the lawyer coming out of a public lavatory, reaching for fifteen groszy, and being told that it had already been paid. What does he feel at such a moment?”
In this regard, those who have described Gombrowicz’s writing as “absurdist” have shot wide of the mark. His ideas are strikingly consistent, and their consequences deadly serious, even if his chosen mode of expression is anything but solemn. As Gombrowicz puts it in Polish Memories, “It’s possible to be perfectly aware of all the worthlessness of our inflammable credulity, and also of the utter severity of life, and at the same time to hold firmly to what one considers to be important values.”
Given his fondness for adopting masks and playing the spoiler even in his “nonfiction” works, Polish Memories features some of the author’s most direct, unadulterated comments on life and literature before the war forced him into exile. “Adulteration” is one of the hallmarks of Gombrowicz’s work, and admirers of his boisterous style will be disappointed by the sober, judicious prose of these autobiographical sketches, composed in the late 1950s for Radio Free Europe. At the same time, readers unfamiliar with Polish cultural history may find themselves lost in a sea of names of poets and politicians and the cafes they frequented. Still, Polish Memories merits a place among those easily overlooked books that glow ever brighter the more the reader brings to the table. It will be most enjoyable for those who have read Gombrowicz’s fiction, and who will appreciate his euphoria when Ferdydurke was praised by his friend the lyrical short-story writer and artist Bruno Schulz, who earlier had been lukewarm to the project: “A miracle occurred,” Gombrowicz writes. “In the course of a single day I received several telegrams from him–because as he read, he kept running to the post office to send me new compliments.” But the book also has a great deal to offer anyone who shares his loathing of cultural self-importance and aristocratic vanity. “When your neighbors religiously show you the signet ring of their great-grandfather,” he remarks, “you can assume that in the present day the family has gone to the dogs, since they’re so impressed by the past.”
Bill Johnston, a veteran translator of Polish literature, has faithfully rendered both Bacacay and Polish Memories into English. This is an accomplishment in itself, especially in the case of Bacacay, in which Gombrowicz jumps quickly from the pinched tones of lords and ladies to the frenetic pace of narrators on the verge of mental and physical collapse. One occasionally wishes that Johnston had been bolder in reproducing the linguistic playfulness of Gombrowicz’s stories, since the prose here sometimes sounds too much like that of the deliberately straightforward Polish Memories. Such quibbles aside, this version of Bacacay nevertheless raises the bar for all Gombrowicz translations and makes an excellent introduction for readers new to his tragicomic world.
A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes is an entirely different kind of text–call it Advanced Gombrowicz–and we should pity the poor soul who stumbles upon this slim volume while looking for a Cliffs Notes summary to Western thought. Never intended for publication, the book consists of notes Gombrowicz wrote in French during the last year of his life at the request of his wife and of his close friend, the journalist Dominique de Roux, who hoped to distract him from his progressing illness and thoughts of suicide. In this able translation by Benjamin Ivry, we see Gombrowicz musing on some of Europe’s major philosophers, among them Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger and Marx. Originally composed for two intelligent nonspecialists, these reflections reveal, not surprisingly, more about their author than about his subjects. His interpretations are, to say the least, idiosyncratic. He writes, for instance, that Schopenhauer is not a pessimist but that he simply has “a grandiose and tragic vision, which, unfortunately, coincides perfectly with reality,” and that “our will to live forces us to consume others or to be consumed by them.” (What would a real pessimist be, one wonders.) Nietzsche, he declares, has “the nerves of Shelley, the stomach of Carlyle, and the soul of a young lady.” Then again, he also warns us, “To tell the truth, in philosophy, one cannot say anything.”
Even this admission, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. Not because Gombrowicz necessarily believes that one can say things in philosophy but because most of his work suggests that “to tell the truth” is an impossibility in itself. For this master of fiction and semi-fiction, history, culture and personal interactions elude our convenient definitions, and thank heavens, since life is difficult enough without somebody else telling us who we are and what we mean.
The publication of these three books helps mark 2004 as “The Year of Gombrowicz,” as it was officially designated by the Polish government. The international conference held last March in Krakow was the largest of several such gatherings in Poland, France and the United States. But the idea of an international conference honoring Gombrowicz is ironic, even oxymoronic, since the author openly ridiculed the worship of cultural greatness. Hour after hour, translators and editors heaped praises on him, and scholars (myself included) stimulated each other’s minds with various attempts to dissect his work. But the most fitting tribute to Gombrowicz was paid by the brave woman who stood up when all was said and done and confessed to her own incurable incomprehension. She was reminding us that, with the Polish master, nothing is definite or explicable, let alone sacred. Try as we might to arbitrate worldly meaning, whether through exclusionary jargon, demonstrations of good taste or appeals to “moral values,” the joke is always on us.