Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501

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Gombrowicz has been a difficult writer to assimilate into Western literature. When his novel first appeared in Polish in 1937, it created a sensation. Critics quickly recognized that he was writing something quite new. He was attacking Polish Romanticism of the nineteenth century, in which the figure of the great hero, the great poet, was predominant. He was most skeptical of these noble qualities and believed that much of Polish Romanticism fostered illusions about human nature. How far had the human race really progressed? Written on the eve of World War II, this novel seems particularly prophetic. He knew that the so-called great philosophy and literature had made virtually no difference in the way people lived their lives or in the way the world was organized. By and large, people are unprepared to face this truth about themselves and their world, and Gombrowicz has been accused of asserting a cynical, nihilistic point of view.

Gombrowicz once said that he was not a political writer. It is true that his work does not deal explicitly with politics, and the novelist did not then take an active role in political matters. He was traveling outside Poland in 1939, when World War II began, and he never returned to his native land. Except for a brief period of liberalization from 1956 to 1957, when most of his work was published in Poland, he has been a proscribed writer there. The Communist government has rightly viewed Gombrowicz’s writing as subversive and may have been alarmed when editions of his work sold out quickly during the political thaw. Ferdydurke is, above all, an attack on indoctrination, and there is very little place in Poland for writers who are so original and uncompromising in their thinking.

In later novels, Gombrowicz uses his own name for the narrator. He must have realized after writing Ferdydurke how autobiographical his fiction had become. Like Johnnie, Gombrowicz came from a family that claimed to be aristocratic. While he was disdainful of its pretenses, he could not idealize the peasantry or think of the lower class as closer to reality. Unlike Fyodor Dostoevski, for example, Gombrowicz finds no particular spiritual value in the common man. In his published journal, Gombrowicz comments on his reading, and it is clear that he has been deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. While hardly a follower of the German philosopher, Gombrowicz shares Nietzsche’s merciless probing of the emptiness of modern man. In Pornografia (1960; English translation, 1966), he acknowledges that Ferdydurke, with its emphasis on immaturity, is the key to his subsequent work. Gombrowicz himself had been criticized for his early immature work. The criticism obviously rankled, and he set out in Ferdydurke not only to have his revenge on critics but also to insist that humankind was basically unable to grow psychologically. Yet reading Gombrowicz is not merely a negative experience, for his revelation of human inadequacy is often amusing and instructive. He proves to be a wise counsel against complacency and a shrewd guide through the absurdity of life.

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Critical Evaluation