(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...

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Diary (Volumes 1-3) Diary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

At the very end of August, 1939, Witold Gombrowicz landed in Buenos Aires and immediately found himself stranded because of the German invasion of Poland, his homeland. His literary career disrupted by history, Gombrowicz started life anew in a foreign country without benefit of either a secure income or knowledge of the language. Yet without ever returning to Poland or even setting foot in his beloved Europe until 1963, he established a place in the top ranks of Polish writers after World War II.

This remarkable achievement becomes more so when one considers Gombrowicz’s talent for making things difficult for himself—and everyone else. Reported to be sickly, secretive, and self-centered, he was never easy to get along with. Proud and insecure, he defied labels and critical explication of his work, resenting all attempts to tie him to any group or movement.

Wanting to express himself fully, but never finally, he took naturally to the diary form. Not surprisingly, however, the Diary reveals no single, essential Gombrowicz, but a syndrome, a constellation of symptoms surrounding an ungraspable center. Part fact, part fiction, the Gombrowicz of the Diary is an outrageous creation, self-involved and self- indulgent, vicious and resentful, misogynistic and misanthropic, as withering as Louis-Ferdinand Celine in his disdain. Possessed by an unfailing sense of the absurd, however, Gombrowicz is never dreary. To the contrary, iconoclast and gadfly, provocateur and malcontent, Gombrowicz entertains like a jester of the old school, sparing no one’s pretensions, his own least of all.

A scion of the doomed landed gentry, Gombrowicz felt at home neither with aristocrats nor with writers: “I was in between worlds. Being in-between is not a bad way to elevate yourself.” This ironic (often melancholy) superiority pervades the Diary, with Gombrowicz wielding his rough edges ruthlessly to cut both ways. Ultimately, he commands the reader’s sympathy and respect because, on the page at least, his bilious bluster reflects the torment of a human soul revealing, and reveling in, its painfully tenuous identity.

In Argentina, with friends and admirers ready to help him, he refused the burden of obligation or expectations. Too competitive, even combative, to ingratiate himself with the Polish colony, he isolated himself, eking out a livelihood on loans and irregular journalism, even checkers. In keeping with a lifelong fascination with self-degradation, he frequented the notorious sections of Buenos Aires where he picked up lower-class boys and sailors (simultaneously pursuing affairs with women).

Despite such distractions, his literary career was resumed with the publication of his fiction in Spanish translation. After the war, he secured a job that gave him the freedom to finish a novel, later serialized in Kultura, a Paris-based Polish emigre’ magazine. His irreverent debunking of received opinions about the war and Polish politics and literature attracted ever-increasing attention in Europe—and made him enemies.

The resulting controversies run throughout the Diary, published in Kultura from 1953 to 1969. In this last volume, however, they have degenerated to mere squabbles, perhaps because his cynicism has come into vogue and few any longer take seriously the attacks instigated by Poland’s Communist government. Still, to a surprising extent the axis of his career remains tilted toward the same Warsaw circle that he had left in 1939. Not one to pull punches in the literary free-for-all, Gombrowicz never takes sides permanently, preferring to discomfort everyone.

“My truth and my strength rely on my endless spoiling of the game… for myself and others,” he says, proceeding to overturn many an apple cart in the pursuit of a new game. “Artificially candid and candidly artificial,” his works are innovative but rooted firmly in the Polish literary tradition that he parodies and prods toward its future. Repetitive, digressive, vulgar, his neo-baroque style interweaves slang and dialect, adjectives and colorful expressions in an elaborate, even musical fabric. Though this is hard to capture in translation, the range of styles in this volume is impressive.

One moment uncompromising and categorical, Gombrowicz oozes despair the next, often making a face behind his prose, twisting his seriousness into a joke on himself. What others deny he runs wild with, like a dog chasing his tail, his rhetoric so convoluted that he often ends by collapsing, but usually with a canine satisfaction in the mundane—as if after everything is said and done, all that really matters is what one ate for lunch. Then he is up and running again, breathlessly exuberant, almost out of control in pursuit of that eternally elusive goal: “to be myself, myself, not an artist or an idea or any of my works—just myself.”

Yet all writing is fiction that can never possibly re-create experience or identity. Unable to pretend otherwise, Gombrowicz foregrounds and lampoons literary devices in the vain hope that somehow this will weaken their stranglehold on his reality. He carries on imaginary conversations, relates his actions in third person, paints obviously fictitious accounts of events, and skewers his pretensions with...

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Diary (Volumes 1-3) Diary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In the two decades following World War II, Witold Gombrowicz won international acclaim as Poland’s leading novelist and dramatist, paralleling his friend Czesaw Miosz’s career as a distinguished poet and essayist. Gombrowicz was born on his parents’ extensive landed estate in southeastern Poland and reared in the careful customs of an old and wealthy landowning family, attending exclusive private schools. In 1923 he began studying law at the University of Warsaw, sometimes sending the butler to attend lectures in his stead. After completing his legal studies, he studied philosophy and economics in Paris for eighteen months and then started his career as an attorney in 1928, but soon he spent most of his time writing short...

(The entire section is 2057 words.)

Diary (Volumes 1-3) Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In August of 1939, Witold Gombrowicz, a young Polish novelist, was awarded a stipend from Polish Ocean Lines for a cruise to Argentina. Like other writers on the ship, Gombrowicz was present in order to publicize the first transatlantic voyage of the liner Boleslaw Chrobry. Upon docking in Buenos Aires, the group of Poles learned that their homeland had been invaded by the Nazis; World War II had begun.

Gombrowicz, unlike others of his cotravelers, opted to remain in Argentina. He was to remain there for the next twenty-four years of his life. Although the revolutionary significance of his works Ferdydurke (1937; English translation, 1961) and Pamietnik z okresu dojrzewania (1933; journal from...

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Diary (Volumes 1-3) Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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....

(The entire section is 100 words.)