Critical Context

Cosmos, the last novel that Gombrowicz wrote, is the culmination of his longer fiction, which he began in 1937 with Ferdydurke (1937; English translation, 1961) and continued with Trans-Atlantyk (1953) and Pornografia (1960; English translation, 1966). These works share many of the same themes and fictional structures. All three books concentrate on a narrator and his male companion. The narrator has doubts about his friend but does not have the mental resources to resist a stronger intelligence than his own and thus is drawn into situations that are of his friend’s devising. In each case, the two males project a meaning onto circumstances and are fairly successful in getting others to accept and to act upon that meaning.

This, then, is a recurrent theme. Gombrowicz explores again and again the ways in which human beings are manipulated by form, whether that form be the shape of a person’s face or the structure of an institution such as a school. In each instance, the individual becomes what Gombrowicz calls in his preface to Pornografia, “Ferdydurkean man[,]...a constant producer of form: he secretes form tirelessly, just as the bee secretes honey.” Thus Witold in Cosmos gives the world its peculiar form of hanging objects and provocative mouths. Yet Gombrowicz notes that man “is also at odds with his own form,” as Witold is when he confesses that he has trouble holding together his own narrative. Near the end of Cosmos, Witold notes that “I shall find it difficult to tell the rest of this story. Incidentally, I am not sure that it is one. Such a continual accumulation and disintegration of things can hardly be called a story.”

What makes Gombrowicz such an intriguing and complex author is his talent for making stories out of the elements of “antistory.” The events of Cosmos, it is true, do not lead anywhere. Nevertheless, because reality itself is shown to be composed of fictive elements, of the forms people impose on themselves and on others, it is fascinating to watch Gombrowicz’s characters make and remake one another. This creative process must be something like the author’s, and perhaps that is why he chose in his last two novels to give his narrator his own name.