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...
(The entire section is 2188 words.)