(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1437 words.)