(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Along with Stanislaw Witkiewicz and Czeslaw Milosz, Witold Gombrowicz is generally considered one of Poland’s three greatest modern writers. Born on his parents’ vast landed estate in southeastern Poland and reared in the careful customs of an old and wealthy landowning family, he attended exclusive private schools, took a law degree at the University of Warsaw, and started his legal career in 1928. Soon, however, he was devoting most of his time to writing short stories.

Gombrowicz increasingly preferred associating with literary and intellectual friends in Warsaw’s cafes to practicing law or otherwise conforming to the stolid values of Poland’s squirearchy. In 1933, he published a well-reviewed group of stories, Pamietnik z okresu dojrzewania (memoirs from adolescence). In 1938 he had a comedy produced, Iwona, ksiezniczka Burgunda (Ivona, Princess of Rurgundia, 1969). Its plot centers on a candid princess who discomfits members of her family and court by refusing to play established social games, thereby exposing the inauthentic existence of the other characters.

Gombrowicz established a strong reputation among avant-garde critics with his first novel, Ferdydurke (1937; English translation, 1961), which became his best-known work after World War II, although not receiving American publication until 1961. The plot centers on a thirty-year-old man, Johnnie, whom a malicious schoolmaster-magician, Professor Pimko, metamorphoses into a schoolboy of fifteen. This situation enabled Gombrowicz to dramatize conflicts on which he would dwell in all of his subsequent works: the polarities between immaturity and maturity, socially imposed masks and authentic feelings, culture and nature. Gombrowicz’s existentialism anticipated many of Jean-Paul Sartre’s notions in L’Etre et le neant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956), particularly his conviction that Ir. society the others define and constrain the conduct of each individual, with human beings condemned to the enactment of stereotyped roles. Patterned, mutually infectious behavior thus tends to mark the human community, which wars against the interior reality of people’s psyches.

In the first two volumes of his Diary, Gombrowicz returns over and over to Ferdydurke, his most self- revealing text. In volume 1 he calls it an “outrageously bold and provocative” achievement, “in which I, a young whippersnapper, settled accounts with all of culture!” In volume 2 he muses about the unique view of man which the work sought to establish: that a person is continually being created and re-created through chance encounters with other individuals. Hence human individuation is consistently inconsistent: fortuitous, unpredictable, absurd, uncontrollable—“man creates himself with another man in the sense of the wildest debauchery.” Occasionally Gombrowicz calls this process the “interhuman church.”

In August, 1939, he sailed to Argentina as a celebrity invited to participate in the maiden voyage of a Polish ocean liner. News of the outbreak of World War II coincided with the ship’s docking in Buenos Aires. Gombrowicz faced a self-defining decision: He could return to Europe on board the boat (which eventually sailed to England, to elude the German forces which had rapidly overrun Poland), or he could stay in Argentina. He chose the second option, even though he had only two hundred dollars on his person. Gombrowicz remained in Argentina for twenty-four years, many of which proved penurious for him. True to his rebellious, quirky temperament, Gombrowicz refused to play his expected role as the impoverished, humble artist-in-exile. The only income he earned steadily was as a bank clerk; his books sold few...

(The entire section is 1541 words.)