Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2136
Gombrowicz, Witold 1904–1969
Gombrowicz, a Polish novelist, was a masterful prose stylist. He is best known for Ferdydurke and Pornografia. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
[Is] Ferdydurke real? Is it a picture of the Polish realities in 1938? Contrary to what you might at first believe, it most certainly is. Admittedly everything seems completely dreamlike and fantastic…. Everything depicted as the consequence of associations. The language (actually, the words) are arranged musically like leitmotifs not according to their meaning—as in the case of Thomas Mann—but according to their tonal and emotional power of expression. One is reminded of E. T. A. Hoffmann, of the etchings by Alfred Kubin, of the eery dream scenes in Kafka's novel that take place in courtrooms located somewhere in an attic.
All the literary, musical, and visual associations which the reader of Ferdydurke feels welling within himself convey a dream world. And this is what Gombrowicz would have wanted. As a writer he entered the realm of dreams, created dream pictures. He abandoned himself to the flow, creation, fables, and associations in order to bring about new dream worlds for the reader—not merely to bring about the reproductions of his own visions, but to allow for the free associations of the reader and those to whom the work is addressed….
The word "Ferdydurke" functions immediately as the formula "step into the realm of dreams." We still have a Polish reality of 1938. (When one writes about Gombrowicz, one is drawn almost naturally into the mire of a narrative style that moves along with the aid of leitmotifs and tonal pictures and even orgiastically enjoys the principle of the repetition of words and ideas at times. The compulsion to repeat is a basic element in the thinking of children. Repetition is an element of propaganda and also infantilism.) In the realm of dreams there is no absolute. The dreamer, dreaming, still lives in the real world. His visions and emotions may be spaceless and timeless. They may dispense with all causality. However, they can only produce something that has not been experienced from the reproduced bits and pieces of past experience. The old dreambooks distinguish themselves from the new Freudian ones by their relation to this phenomenon. In the former it is dream as anticipation, as preexperience of the future. In the latter it is dream as a strange and unsuitable reproduction of past experience. The epic dreamworld of Witold Gombrowicz would like to be both: the interpretation of dreams in a double sense—according to the biblical Joseph and Professor Sigmund Freud. Planted between past and future. In the hollow of the present….
The theme of immaturity as the basic motif is modified in Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz's first novel…. Yet, as the decisive force behind it all, there is the immaturity of a country, the Polish state in 1938…. Social immaturity and social maturity rubbing elbows with one another. This is true of the unresolved relationships between the city and the country, the feudal world and the bourgeois world in Poland of that time. This is also true, however, as the novel demonstrates, of the corresponding ideologies and "superstructures."
Viewed superficially the schoolyard duel of making faces which leads to the defeat of the idealist seems merely to be a grotesque dream that is superbly narrated. However, what Gombrowicz intended to represent was the two extreme doctrines that were set against each other at that time in Poland: official messianic and ecstatic idealism ostensibly derived from the Polish romantic writers Mickiewicz and Słowacki versus the exaggerated popular trend of...
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the urban intellectuals and ideologists who, like the nineteenth-century Russian Narodniki, wanted to become brothers with the common people, above all the peasants….
His last novel Pornografia not only brings new elements that are reminiscent of Sartre and that parallel certain Ionesco themes, but it also contains considerable chunks of narrative, and the raw material seems to have been supplied by Jean Genet.
In spite of this fact, the reader who is familiar with Gombrowicz's earlier works will immediately recognize the author's peculiar thematic structure in Pornografia, which is unmistakably a counterpart to Ferdydurke. The real and the imagined Poland….
In Ferdydurke, dreamlike tales of absurd duels, the processes of infantilism, and grotesque spiritual antitheses were related. However, behind it all stood the real Poland of 1938. Visions of immaturity both general and specific as representative of the real environment in Poland. On the other hand the novel Pornografia describes scenes that are, to be sure, gruesome, agonizing, and repulsive (all these adjectives are actually meaningless, for there are no corresponding values), but all these scenes are possible, conceivable, even probable. Apparently a "realistic story," artfully constructed besides. Composed like a play. Unity of place determined essentially by the landowner's house and its environs. Unity of time that is maintained by the passage of only a few days. Unity of action in which five men "in their best years" are confronted with three young people about seventeen, two boys and a girl. A novel in two parts which both end like the final act of a play. The first part ends with the murder of the landowner's wife Amelia. The novel ends with three murders, and only the murder of Simian has a rational basis to it.
Everything depicted with precision, blood, horror, and agony. Presented in conformity with the classical unities, which can be fixed and repeated. Nevertheless, as Gombrowicz correctly explains, an imaginary Poland. The complete opposite of Ferdydurke. This time an apparently realistic story that can say nothing about the real Poland during the period of occupation….
Moreover, to dispel immediately any ideas to the contrary, it has nothing to do with "pornography" in its traditional sense. Anyone who is somewhat familiar with Gombrowicz's clowning would already suspect as much from the first glance at the title Pornografia. Nowhere is there even a realistic sexual situation depicted. If one can speak of intellectual obscenity (which is entirely possible here), then it lies precisely in the fact that there is not one natural sex act described among the young people, nor is there one between the young and the old. No sexual reality. Everything remains in a condition of sexual potential. It is exactly this that Gombrowicz calls pornography….
Someone like Gombrowicz, who is in love with immaturity and at the same time strives to reach maturity and form, finds the ideal medium for expression in the literary genre of the diary. This form does not allow for the completion of anything, for anything to reach maturity. Everything remains in progress, everything is provisional, noted down always with the possibility of being retracted later by another note. In extreme cases the diary form recommends itself as an escape from really giving shape to ideas. What is once committed to a diary will in all likelihood not be resurrected in another artistic form….
Gombrowicz is an unusual figure in contemporary literature, and the ingeniousness of this artist cannot be understood by going back to the man Gombrowicz nor by a detailed dissection of his theses and thoughts. The literary phenomenon of Witold Gombrowicz lies beyond all assertions and biographical facts….
With Gombrowicz, nothing gets finished because he simultaneously desires and fears the connection between the "I" and its present world. He would be a loner who nevertheless achieves harmony with others….
[There] can only be unresolved questions in the relationship between Gombrowicz and others, including his critics. He will never admit that a critical analysis interprets him correctly. On the other hand, literary critics must avoid equating their final judgment of Gombrowicz with Gombrowicz's judgment of Gombrowicz…. The uniqueness of Witold Gombrowicz in literary history lies in the fact that this warped relationship between artist and critic, between the "I" and its surroundings, was made into the peculiar theme of his literary work. Into the peculiar theme of Witold Gombrowicz. Into his only theme.
Hans Mayer, "The Views of Witold Gombrowicz" (originally published in Ansichten zur Literatur der Zeit; © 1962 by Rowohlt Verlag GMBH), in his Steppenwolf and Everyman, translated and with an introduction by Jack D. Zipes (copyright © 1971 by Hans Mayer; reprinted with permission of Thomas Y. Crowell Co., Inc.), Crowell, 1971, pp. 240-55.
Pornografia is a skilful composition of gossamer threads, and altogether different from the pronounced (if poeticised) physicality of Lolita. Noticing the superficial kinship with Nabokov, a British reviewer has remarked that Gombrowicz festers less. True, gossamer doesn't fester. But this seems a doubtful point of superiority in the present case, for if a story of this sort doesn't fester, it is hard to see what it can do. The oldsters are not sex maniacs, they are simply incomprehensible, simply weirdies. It would seem a perverse complaint to make at a time like the present, but one is tempted to reproach the book with failing to live up to its title.
Gombrowicz's earlier novel, Ferdydurke (first published in English in 1961, though first published in Warsaw as far back as 1937), prompts the reflection that what is amiss with Pornografia is that it isn't fantastic enough and so is merely odd. Ferdydurke is very nearly fantastic enough. The apparent preoccupations and theories of the later novel are already present here, indeed are more overt from the start….
Without knowing of the book's strange and sad publishing history and its suppression in Poland, I doubt whether one would have spotted its supposed (and premonitory) political relevance, though one perceives and appreciates its timeless and unlocalised mockery….
The book's superiority to Pornografia consists in its density of anecdote and even (however 'unrealistic') of character—among other items there is a very funny bedroom scene involving an unusually large cast—and its greater willingness to be comic, grotesque, wild, fantastic. Frothier on the surface, it none the less impresses as a more substantial piece of work. Perhaps it doesn't make much more sense than Pornografia, but it certainly provides more amusement….
And yet there are passages in Ferdydurke so shrill and insistent (and passages so repetitious and tedious) that they will scarcely be denied 'interpretation': what else could they be crying out like that for? Even so, you can dance with the book quite merrily for much of the time, whereas with Pornografia you won't stagger more than a few steps before tripping over your partner.
D. J. Enright, "Dancing the Polka" (1966), in Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays (© 1972 by D. J. Enright; reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Co. and Chatto & Windus), Open Court, 1972, pp. 92-5.
Gombrowicz understood his national identity because he was partly in love with La Gloire of his own ego. Perhaps the Pole is an enfant terrible among the Slavs, asking awkward questions, always on the run from the parental myth. A squire or a peasant, he has enough aristocratic defiance to accept disillusionment.
Writers do not, on the whole, acknowledge those literary debts which have affected their style: these are probably too intimate to reveal, even if one keeps a diary for public confessions, as Gombrowicz did. His manner of writing stemmed from his Polish predecessors, both 19th century and more recent. Parody and mimicry need models to work on: a style cannot pull faces at nothing. The past was more useful to Gombrowicz than the present. And there were iconoclasts of genius before him. Irzykowski was one of them. His Paluba, a very early psycho-analytical novel (1903), owed nothing to Freud, but it probed deeply into patterns of self-deception, into bashful moments hiding behind big words and poses, it exposed both social and patriotic cant. [Irzykowski] saw his experiment as the triumphant comedy of character. Ferdydurke's comedy is in essence triumphant….
Operetta comes towards the end of Gombrowicz's development, a stylistic résumé, full of conscious echoes and obvious borrowings…. As an artistic instrument the operetta is a sort of pianola, with Gombrowicz banging it until the whole pretence breaks to pieces….
Undoubtedly, much of the 1930s is reflected in Gombrowicz's mimicry: the grand gestures of the silent films, the teasing eroticism of popular entertainment, the impoverished families that could still afford servants. And the intellectual mania for paradox….
He cared about language…. The idiosyncratic style of Gombrowicz has structural patterns which can be reproduced in another language, and on the whole he translates better than most Slavonic novelists. He is essentially the writers' writer. Will he ever become popular?
The next thirty years should determine Gombrowicz's place in European literature. How his books will read in the future is difficult to predict. They are light, not ponderous, and the charm is in their lightness. The public unfortunately confounds weight with seriousness, length with permanence. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the immortality of that soul is another question.
Jerzy Peterkiewicz, "The Fork & the Fear," in Encounter, March, 1971, pp. 57-60.