Gombrowicz in America (review)

(My review of Bacacay and Polish Memories, from The Washington Times, 10/24/04)

In his native Poland he is something of a saint — both a literary icon and a hero of bored schoolkids. In his burlesque 1937 novel, Ferdydurke, he exposed the stupidity of education, saying no to the phonies (he called them “Pimkos” after the novel’s unforgettably sclerotic literature professor) and sounding a clarion call for authenticity the way J.D. Salinger would for a later generation of American youth.

Yet despite great prominence throughout Europe and worldwide critical acclaim, Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1968) remains unfortunately little known to North American readers.

Now, on the centenary of his birth, a brace of new translations — the last major works by Gombrowicz to finally appear in English — will hopefully raise the stock of this great Central European writer in the English-speaking world.

The first, Bacacay, translated by Bill Johnston (head of the Polish Studies Department at Indiana University), is a collection of twelve short stories spanning the first three decades of the writer’s career — from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s. It includes Gombrowicz’s earliest and most wildly imaginative writings.

How to describe these stories? If the TV series Seinfeld were transposed to a fading interwar Central Europe of moustaches, tailcoats, walking canes and affairs of honor, its prickly and amoral protagonists might find themselves in (or actively create) situations like these: A bored epileptic stalks a lawyer in revenge for a public slight (“Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer”); a dinner party guest suspects his aristocratic host of serving human flesh (“Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s”); a cynical investigator extracts a confession of parricide from a boy he knows to be innocent (“A Premeditated Crime”); a genteel tennis match degenerates into a murderous free-for-all (“Philibert’s Child Within”); a childish king expects tips — of the restaurant sort — from his courtiers (“The Banquet”).

Seven of the pieces collected in Bacacay were first published in 1933 as Recollections of Adolescence, Gombrowicz’s literary debut. Unable to understand the author’s audacious new style or his crazy plots, Polish critics used the title against the young writer, dismissing the book as sophomoric. They failed to grasp that, for Gombrowicz, adolescence was more than just an unfortunate phase of development; it was a philosophical category, a symbol for our perpetual out-of-joint-ness, the awkwardness and lack of confidence that haunt us inwardly throughout life.

“Someone once said that life is boldness,” he observes in the story “On the Kitchen Steps. “No: Boldness is slow death, whereas life is apprehensive bashfulness.” [234] For Gombrowicz, apprehensive bashfulness — the adolescent truth behind our adult masks — was the highest poetry, close to a religion.

In the post-Freudian world it is commonplace to think of ourselves as fragmented, apprehensive, disunified — as containing multiple conflicting desires and having inner children. Yet few writers have ever expressed this disjointedness with such good-natured ease as Gombrowicz did in his fiction. With body parts at war with other body parts, inner children running amok, separate ages humiliating and mocking each other within a single person, Gombrowicz’s prose was unlike anything yet written; it remains both largely unimitated and unclassifiable. And it is immensely funny.

Truth to tell, a few of the pieces in Bacacay are immature in the usual sense of the word. In the wild sci-fi stories “Adventures” and “The Events on the Banbury,” for example, the young writer allows his enthusiasm and imagination to run away with him at the expense of a compelling narrative. But some of the stories — including early surrealistic gems like “Virginity” (about an innocent bride-to-be who shocks her fiance with her perverse urge to gnaw a dog’s bone) and “On the Kitchen Steps” (about a successful diplomat perversely obsessed with ugly housemaids) — display all the mastery of Gombrowicz’s longer fiction and are among the most memorable of his writings.

Gombrowicz’s life was as strange and ironic as his fiction. He went from cushy origins in the Polish gentry to decades of exile, poverty and isolation in Argentina, where he found himself at the outbreak of WWII due to a fatefully timed cruise. He only returned to Europe — and to the literary recognition of which war and the postwar Communist regime in Poland had deprived him — late in life. Many consider his masterpiece, in fact, to be his three-volume Diary (published in 1993 by Northwestern University Press), which he wrote mostly during his years in Argentina.

Simultaneously antagonistic and vulnerable, the Diary is a bold and invigorating document of one man’s struggle to rescue himself from obscurity and, at the same time, create a new way of talking about our individuality. It also contains unforgettable polemics against the silly nationalism and stultified manners of his fellow Polish emigres as well as hilarious parodies of then-fashionable philosophical movements like existentialism.

Yet as inspiring and liberating as this work is, the author tended to beat around the bush when it came to his early years in Poland. Enter another newly published volume, Polish Memories — also wonderfully rendered into English by Bill Johnston. Penned as a series of radio talks for Radio Free Europe during the 1950s, this book recalls Gombrowicz’s youth and early career leading up to his Argentinean exile, filling in the Diary’s numerous autobiographical blanks.

Polish Memories is not as playful or provocative as the Diary. But what it lacks in linguistic invention it gains in a frankness that is almost disarming coming from this writer. The tone is straightforward, unaffected, and friendly, almost like a teacher. One senses Gombrowicz laying his cards on the table, revealing not just his vulnerability but, indeed, his ordinariness, his apprehensiveness, his bashfulness. For the first time, he details the stinging awkwardness of his adolescence, his early unsuccessful attempts at romance, his self-proclaimed cowardice in avoiding military service, and the worthlessness of his education. (“For myself, if I learned anything at all in school, it was more likely to be in the breaks, from my schoolmates as they beat me up.” [30]) He also charts the gradual formation of the philosophical outlook, his religion of the human, that is so seductive and liberating when encountered, fully formed, in his Diary.

Surprisingly, given the wild turnings of his fate and the outrageous subjects of his fiction, Gombrowicz rejected extremes and intensity; his autobiographical writings celebrate the middles, the plateaus where real life is lived. The strenuous ideals we try and live up to — be they philosophical, political, moral, aesthetic — only diminish us, he felt; they are desperate attempts to cover up our crazy, concrete need for other people.

There is perhaps no better statement of Gombrowicz’s creed than that found in his earliest published story, “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer,” which opens Bacacay: “[T]here’s nothing so difficult and delicate, so sacred even, as human individuality,” he writes; “nothing can equal the rapacity of secret connections that arise, faint and purposeless, between strangers, only to bind imperceptibly with a terrible chain.” [10] All of Gombrowicz’s subsequent writing — his fiction, his plays, his autobiographical works — addresses the “terrible chains” that bind people of different ages, classes, sexes, and how we are formed (but also liberated) by these connections.

Bacacay and Polish Memories are poles apart, so to speak — between them, we see the author at his most inventive, on the one hand, and at his most forthright, on the other. And for different reasons, both works are best read in the middle of one’s romance with Gombrowicz rather than the beginning. Slightly uneven, Bacacay is best savored after his novels (Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Pornografia, Cosmos); and since it lacks annotations to explain numerous obscure names and references (an unfortunate oversight on the part of the editors), Polish Memories will be more meaningful after reading the Diary.

But those already initiated into the world of Gombrowicz will happily devour and redevour these delicious new translations. Because of them, 2004, the “Year of Gombrowicz” in Poland, is also a very good year for Gombrowicz in America.