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.