Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
Many a Polish writer has ended up in exile, but the ironies of Witold Gombrowicz’s situation are nearly as fantastic as some of his plots. In the summer of 1939, he set out on what was to be a leisurely transatlantic cruise to South America and back. By the time the ship docked in Argentina, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had invaded Poland and World War II had begun. Gombrowicz spent the next ten years contending with poverty and isolation, clerking by day and writing by night, until translations into Spanish and publications abroad again brought him some renown. Belligerently apolitical, Gombrowicz maintained ties with both the émigré press and the press in Poland, and he refused to take part in any ideological exercises. In his homeland, however, his earlier works were not reprinted, nor were his newer ones published until “the Polish October” of 1956-1958, a period of relative liberalization. The 1957 edition of Ferdydurke sold out in a matter of days, Gombrowicz’s plays were staged, his correspondence was published, and he stood at the very center of debate on Polish literary and cultural life. His absolute rebellion against all fixed expectations of behavior, however, whether social, cultural, ideological, or national, made him too volatile an element in an atmosphere of forced stability and stale dogma. In 1958, his name and works virtually disappeared from print again, but he continued to exert a tremendous influence on Polish writing and thought.
Gombrowicz was a provocateur in life and in letters; it was his method of confronting reality, his style of existence. Paradox lies at the foundation of his work, in which he aimed to provoke, amuse, confound, and finally leave the reader nose to nose with some highly unpleasant psychological and philosophical truths. Ferdydurke, with its three acts and two intermezzos, resembles theater more than it does the traditional novel, and its characters are more puppet than human. Its language is playful and inventive, and its very title is a fantastic, meaningless word. In fact, Gombrowicz claimed to be bored by readers’ constant questions about “meaning,” and he wrote in his diary: “Come, come, be more sensuous, less cerebral, start dancing with the book instead of asking for meanings. Why take so much interest in the skeleton if it’s got a body? See rather whether it is capable of pleasing and is not devoid of grace and passion.”
Grace and passion might not be the reader’s first impression of Ferdydurke, but the body can hardly be missed. Beginning with Kowalski’s dream and ending with his futile flight from “the arch-bum,” Gombrowicz’s imagery grows out of the human form. The narrator-hero’s “childish, idiotic little behind” is what glues him to his chair as Pimko talks, and he sees that everyone around him is ruled by “the tyranny of the backside.” Kowalski cannot run from the classroom because he has stuck his finger into his shoe. Zutka’s calves stand for an entire generation. The conflict between masters and servants comes down to the collision of faces and fists. “Philifor Honeycombed with Childishness,” one of the two nonsensical fables with which Gombrowicz punctuates Kowalski’s story, begins with a philosophical dispute and ends with a hail of gunfire and flying body parts, and each stage of Kowalski’s own adventures ends with a welter of bodies writhing on the floor.
For Gombrowicz, observes fellow Polish writer Czesaw Miosz, these heaps may be an image of the only authentic form of human contact. All other contact, all other behavior is shaped by convention—by groups, not individuals. Ultimately there may be no such thing as an individual self, and when Kowalski sits down to write his new book, his new self, he takes on an impossible task. He wants to escape his own “greenness,” his own inferiority, but the alternatives are even worse. Pimko, himself a collection of clichés, imposes his notion of boyhood on Kowalski; the schoolboys are also ruled by the expectation that “boys will be boys”; the Youthfuls’ supposed frankness and liberality is merely another fixed form, as are Mientus’s romantic notion of the rustic stable boy, the family relationships so dear to Kowalski’s aunt, and the feudal ones so dear to his uncle. Underlying all of this is a fixed notion of what it is to be Polish. Every attempt at escaping one pattern simply leads to another, and the only thing that seems to break the form, at least temporarily, is a ridiculous or violent gesture—a green twig in a beggar’s mouth or a bite just below the knee.