Witold Gombrowicz Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The preponderance of Witold Gombrowicz’s literary production consists of fictional and nonfictional prose. Besides his plays, he wrote four novels, more than a dozen stories, a three-volume literary diary, a book of “conversations” about his life and art, approximately eighty book reviews, essays, travel accounts, polemical articles, minor short prose pieces, and an unfinished novel. Although he was known first and best for his prose fiction, especially his novels, he eventually won equal recognition as a playwright, and the influence of his plays rivals that of his novels and diary.

Gombrowicz made his debut with a volume of seven short stories, entitled Pamitnik z okresu dojrzewania (1933; memoir from adolescence), and all but one of the remainder of his short stories were written before World War II. Eccentric in form and content, they are masterpieces of the genre, and their style, themes, and obsessions hold the key to his later work. His novels develop inspirations from his stories with great analytical verve and comic inventiveness. His first novel, Ferdydurke (1937; English translation, 1961), is unusually structured, with three individual parts separated by polemical essays and mock-philosophical parables. The three parts of the main plot are unified by the device of temporal and psychosocial regression and descent into a subculture or underworld, leading backward from the hero’s adulthood through adolescence—the stage of life on which the plot...

(The entire section is 614 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Witold Gombrowicz’s writing is indebted to and reflects his personal achievements. The greatest of these was his stubborn persistence in overcoming the formidable obstacles that relegated his provocative and unconventional books and personality to the periphery of various literary and cultural establishments. His three decades of literary activity produced a quantitatively moderate but qualitatively outstanding body of work, whose quite readable surface conceals a poetic density and compactness that a short critical survey can only begin to suggest.

Before World War II, Gombrowicz’s eccentric writings and literary café persona succeeded in attracting young and independent writers, and his first novel, Ferdydurke, was in contention for a major literary prize, but his moderate success was short-lived because Poland was soon under German occupation and he found himself in exile in Argentina. Remaining there after the war, he continued to attract successive generations of young writers and intellectuals. With their enthusiastic collaboration, Ferdydurke and his second play, The Marriage, were translated into Spanish and published in Buenos Aires. Slighted by the Argentine and Polish émigré literary establishments, Gombrowicz won a following among the Polish émigré cultural elite as a regular contributor to the Paris-based Polish journal, Kultura, whose publishing house, the Institut Littéraire, issued his books.

In the mid-1950’s,...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to his four principal novels, Witold Gombrowicz (gawm-BRAW-veech) wrote three equally important plays and the monumental three-volume Dziennik (1957-1967; diary), which represents a unique blend of intimate diary, fiction, and literary or philosophical essay. His literary debut was a 1933 collection of short stories (reedited in an enlarged version in 1957); the genre of the short story, however, appears as marginal in his output. The same is true of literary criticism, which he cultivated most intensely in the 1930’s, returning to it only occasionally in the later decades. Throughout his life, he was characteristically preoccupied with commenting upon and explaining his own work; in addition to Dziennik, such a self-explanatory purpose is served, more or less directly, by a book-length interview conducted by Dominique de Roux, Rozmowy z Gombrowiczem (conversations with Gombrowicz; actually, the writer’s own confession published in guise of an interview, 1969; translated as A Kind of Testament, 1973) and by an autobiographical book, Wspomnienia polskie: Wędrówki po Argentynie (1977; Polish Memories, 2004).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The story of Witold Gombrowicz’s literary career presents a striking contrast between his nearly lifelong isolation as a writer and the international fame enjoyed by his works after the 1960’s. He is universally considered one of the major European novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, a towering figure in modern Polish literature; his works have been translated into many foreign languages and have occasioned numerous critical analyses. All of this, however, including the coveted Formentor Prize in 1967, came only toward the end of his life, after the sixty-year-old Gombrowicz moved back to Europe from his Argentinian retreat, where he had spent twenty-four years, known only to a handful of his Argentinian admirers and to his enthusiasts in Poland.

The Polish reception of Gombrowicz appears as another paradox. Although his work, as that of an émigré writer, was steadfastly banned by the Communist regime (with the exception of a brief interval in 1957-1958), it was always known in Poland’s intellectual circles thanks to the wide circulation of émigré editions. Oddly enough, after the writer’s death, it became possible in Poland to stage his plays and publish critical monographs on his work, although his books were still banned until the fall of the Communist regime. This bizarre situation came about because Polish authorities apparently had political objections to certain passages of Gombrowicz’s diary; the writer specified in his last will that his work not be reprinted in Poland unless in its entirety. In spite of the difficulties that Polish readers faced in obtaining copies of his books, Gombrowicz’s reputation in his homeland grew as steadily as it did abroad; his work has exerted a particularly strong influence on the development of recent Polish fiction, drama, and criticism.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Berressem, Hanjo. Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz’s Fiction with Lacan. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999. A theoretically advanced psychoanalytical reading of Gombrowicz.

Longinovic, Tomislav. Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth Century Slavic Novels. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993. Discusses Gombrowicz’s fiction.

Thompson, Ewa M. Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Includes biography, analysis of major works, and a good bibliography.

Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska, ed. Gombrowicz’s Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A collection of essays.