At the start of his work on the Diary, Gombrowicz had already twenty years of literary activity behind him (though he had not published anything for a good fifteen), yet he feared this new form of writing as if he were a novice. He often emphasized that, for an artist who had mastered a certain poetic genre such as the lyric or the epic, moving to the language of prose might well prove to be above his ability. His goal in composing the Diary (besides the financial one) was to comment upon his works and his own self, which he often does in the third person. His literary oeuvre is complex and difficult, and he was ever concerned lest critics, whom he did not trust, should distort him and his work. In Gombrowicz’s opinion, the critic can only harm both the reader and the artist. Thus, in the Diary, Gombrowicz attempts to win over the reader to his philosophy and system of values. For Gombrowicz, as noted above, writing is “the battle which an artist wages with people over his personal fame.” Hence, his artistic polemicisms have always a personal edge.
Gombrowicz was not interested in culture for its own sake, but as people relate to it. “Not culture, but our relationship to it is what interests me,” he comments in Rozmowy z Gombrowiczem (1969; A Kind of Testament, 1973): “Each pretends to be wiser, more mature than he actually is.”
Even in Argentina, cut off physically from Europe, Gombrowicz never ceased to have a keen interest in events on his native continent and particularly in Poland. He considered the postwar Communist regime in his homeland to represent a step backward. He scoffs at the tendentiousness of the official propaganda, which sought to cover a gray reality with the flimsiest of lies. He believed the new Polish emigres, on the other hand, to be deluding themselves with a patriotic idealization of a nation which had never existed in the form that they imagined. Neither the Poles at home nor the Poles abroad were living in a real world, and their laughable game of pretend only emphasized their immaturity.
In regard to the literary scene, Gombrowicz comments that interesting books are far outnumbered by boring volumes, and that too many people who do not know how to write are writing and publishing. He explains that the popularity of a given book is based not upon that book’s merit but on the inauthentic and oversimplified process of the book’s reception by the public. Society, according to Gombrowicz, has created a system of “artificial values” in which, again, appearance is more important than reality. The most popular works become popular by word of mouth, not by digestion. James Joyce and Franz Kafka adorn the coffee tables of the middle class, but serve as decoration, not as spiritual nourishment. Critics are much to blame, as they are the elite by whom the canon of popularity is formulated. Not only is the public done a disservice by criticism, but the artist suffers as well. His work, whole and complete by itself, undergoes not explication but distortion at the hands of the critic, and thus becomes “unreadable.”
Gombrowicz was, however, far from seeing contemporary literature as being devoid of any artistic value. He did appreciate the experimentations which were being carried out in contemporary poetry, for example, and singled out the work of Czeslaw Milosz as that of a poet of the first magnitude. Yet he saw the profession as an almost incestuous one, with poets producing poetry for...
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The artistic journey of Witold Gombrowicz was a long and varied one. After establishing a reputation as a controversial novelist during the 1930’s, he nearly starved during the first years of his voluntary exile in Argentina, where he often tagged along at funerals of strangers simply to partake of the luncheon given afterward. Later, thanks to some Spanish translations of his works which he did in concert with a group of young Argentinian writers, and the opportunity to publish his works in the Polish emigre press in Paris, Gombrowicz was, during the 1950’s, at last able to devote his time once again to his artistic vocation. Since that time, his fame has grown so that even the Communist regime in Poland, which accused him of cowardice and treason for not returning to fight for Poland in 1939, in 1987 permitted the first nearly complete edition of his works to be published in Krakow, with very little censorship.
The fruit of Gombrowicz’s return to literary activity in the 1950’s is his Diary. Not only is the Diary an integral part of the literary output of this most famous modern prose writer of Poland, but it also has great significance for those who wish to understand more fully the novels and dramatic works of its author. The Diary of Witold Gombrowicz can be classified as the only “official” piece of literary criticism touching the Gombrowicz canon. In the Diary, Gombrowicz also shows himself to be an outspoken critic of art and culture. The comments which he makes concerning Poland and Polish culture are quite interesting for students of that country, coming as they are from the fresh perspective of a highly intellectual emigrant, able to look upon his own tradition with a certain distance.
Like Milosz’s Zniewolony umysl (1953; The Captive Mind, 1953), Gombrowicz’s Diary is valuable as a historical document which gives a firsthand glimpse of an important period of time (the first twenty years of the People’s Republic of Poland), from the pen of a man deeply concerned with and knowledgeable about the country of his birth.
Above all, the Diary of Witold Gombrowicz is a book about truth. Sincerity— even in jokes—is the main characteristic of these three volumes. For a person seeking fresh perspectives for understanding any of the myriad topics covered in this work, the Diary is an excellent place to start—or finish.
Toward the end of his life, the author apologizes for the DIARY's failings, but no one familiar with Witold Gombrowicz will be disappointed. In fact, this final volume, with its account of his return to Europe, may be the liveliest of the three. As a writer with a growing international reputation, Gombrowicz is welcomed warmly by the European literary establishment. However, he returns their hospitality with the bad-mannered tomfoolery of a jester, puncturing their intellectual pretensions and unmasking everyone's petty motivations, including his own.
Born at the beginning of the century into the landed gentry, Gombrowicz, who died in 1969, revels in elitist attitudes. But far from believing in man's perfectibility, Gombrowicz again and again strips away man's idealized self, exposing inner rot, even barbarity. Culture imposes a thin veneer over man's true nature youth/age, form/chaos, strong/weak.
Blonski, J. “The Elusive Gombrowicz,” in Polish Perspectives. IV (1971), pp. 36-46.
Chicago Tribune. March 13, 1988, XIV, p. 6.
Chicago Tribune. August 8, 1993, XIV, p.6.
Kirkus Reviews. LV, December 15, 1987, p. 1711.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 10, 1988, p. 8.
Milosz, Czeslaw. The History of Polish Literature, 1983.
Milosz, Czeslaw. The Land of Ulro, 1984.
The Nation. Review. CCXLVI (April 30, 1988), p. 611-613.
The New Republic. Review. CXCVIII (June 20, 1988), pp. 35-39.
The New York Times Book Review. Review. XCIII (May 22, 1988), p. 14.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, November 5, 1989, p.34.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 19, 1993, p.56.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, May 26, 1989, p.61.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, December 18, 1987, p. 46.
Thompson, E. M. Witold Gombrowicz, 1979.