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The Late, Great Bard of Warsaw

Reviewed by Louis Begley
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page BW05

BACACAY. By Witold Gombrowicz

Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

Archipelago. 275 pp. $26

POLISH MEMORIES. By Witold Gombrowicz

Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

Yale Univ. 191 pp. $22


FIFTEEN MINUTES. By Witold Gombrowicz

Translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry

Yale Univ. 109 pp. $22

I begin with a confession. The following statement furnished by me appears on the jacket of Bacacay, one of the volumes under review: "Gombrowicz is one of the most original and gifted writers of the twentieth century: he belongs at the very summit, at the side of his kindred spirits, Kafka and Céline. This collection of his stories will serve as an admirable introduction to his oeuvre."

There are two reasons for this breach of my self-imposed rule against "blurbing" books. First, Witold Gombrowicz is not a living author (born in 1904, he died in 1969). Second, I am convinced that bringing the work of this eccentric genius to the attention of American readers is an important duty.

Gombrowicz is considerably less well known in the United States than in France, Germany, Spanish-speaking and Scandinavian countries and, of course, his native Poland, although his work was suppressed while the communist regime was in power. Perhaps his position in the United States will improve with publication of these three volumes, and the celebration, organized by the Polish Cultural Institute, of Gombrowicz's centenary, which included a two-day conference at Yale University. There is no language barrier as such: All of Gombrowicz's novels -- Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Cosmos, Pornografia and even Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch, a potboiler he published pseudonymously on the eve of World War II -- are now available in English translation, as are his plays, "Princess Ivona," "The Marriage" and "Operetta," and selections from his remarkable Diaries spanning the years 1953-66, installments of which he initially contributed to the Polish émigré literary magazine Kultura. The publication of Bacacay and Polish Memories, in Bill Johnston's elegant and fluent translations, fills the one significant gap that had remained. Inaccessibility of Gombrowicz's beautiful and highly flavored Polish prose to readers obliged to read him in translation is, of course, a misfortune, one that afflicts with special harshness authors rooted in a rich national literature who write in a language that is not in international use.

He was born into a family of landed Polish nobles of mediocre means and no historical distinction. However, connections by marriage to richer and more aristocratic aunts, uncles and cousins gave Witold, whose moods swung from contempt for his caste to arrogant pride, a lifelong sense of unassailable social standing. His father supplemented the income from his property with earnings derived from industrial activities and directorships. Until he died in 1935, there was enough money for Witold not to need to work for a living, although, to please the father, he studied law and held for a few years the post of an assistant to a prosecuting judge. He used that experience in "A Premeditated Crime," included in Bacacay, as well as Cosmos and Pornografia.

His talent ripened early. Seven of the stories included in Bacacay, all highly accomplished, were published (at the author's expense) when he was only 28, and revealed him to some as a great writer and to others as one to be watched. Two years later, in 1935, came the publication of his play "Princess Ivona," which has been much performed in Europe. Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz's greatest novel in the opinion of many, as dazzling as Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit, appeared in 1937.

Gombrowicz gives an account of his life before World War II in Polish Memories, which consists of 48 mostly undated talks he wrote for Radio Free Europe in the 1950s, found in typescript among his papers some years after his death. Taken together they make splendid reading and offer an idiosyncratic account, surprising and touching in its fearless intimacy, of Gombrowicz's family and milieu, his development as an artist, literary life in Warsaw, Polish national character and Polish anti-Semitism. Detesting the complacency and unwillingness to come to grips with reality masquerading as romanticism that he found rampant in newly independent Poland, Gombrowicz reveled in attacking what he called form, and exalted youth over maturity. It should be understood that the form he demolished with such glee was the composite of received ideas, social, artistic and literary, that command general respect; he believed that genuine form could be created by an artist only after that work of destruction.

On one level, his exaltation of youth resulted from a natural preference for the physical attractiveness of children and adolescents over the grosser nature of grownups, one that was no doubt accentuated by the ambiguities of his sexual identity. He remembered regarding "the bare feet and coarse shirts" of the peasant boys with whom he played at his parents' estate with "carefully concealed admiration," and recognized that "two kinds of beauty were available to me. . . . One was the simple barefoot kind; the other, that of those boys [his school comrades] from the best families in the country, unquestionable thoroughbreds. . . . It would have been no surprise . . . had I chosen the Potockis and Radziwills. . . . Yet . . . I'd noticed certain small but disgusting things . . . in that aristocracy . . . for example, nose picking. . . . I observed that the aristocracy gladly engaged in this pursuit. I also observed that the nose picking of my village boys was somehow innocent and inoffensive, while the same operation carried out by the hand of a Potocki or a Wielopolski became something terribly unpleasant and repulsive."

An aesthete's revulsion, surely, but also a moralist's Swiftian loathing and scorn for hypocrisy. It is difficult to read "Dinner at the Countess Pavahoke's," in Bacacay, without being reminded of "A Modest Proposal." Gombrowicz acknowledged the effect on him of the discord between his parents, their ostensibly harmonious union concealing an incompatibility of character, his mother's instinctive pretentiousness, and the absurdity of the situation of Polish nobles -- arrogant, frivolous and incompetent -- as "masters." There is a hint of a more wounding falsehood: Behind the image of his handsome and respectable father may have lain an abyss as shameful as the taste for the lowliest of maids that dishonors the protagonist of "On the Kitchen Steps." That he should have withheld that story from the original collection, out of fear that his father might recognize himself in the character, gives credence to this hypothesis. But, like Polish Memories, the effervescent and amusing stories in Bacacay should be read in the spirit of fun and not in search for an aesthetic system or clues to his psyche. Gombrowicz deprecated interpretation of fiction and warned against looking in his stories for symbols. There weren't any, he insisted. He was as good as his word and withdrew the preface included with the first printing of the stories, in which he explained what they were about. (Curious readers, however, will find it recapitulated in Bill Johnston's excellent "Afterword" to Bacacay.)

Was his departure precipitated by a prescient understanding of the inevitability of war and Poland's lightning defeat, or hazard? Gombrowicz left for Argentina on the maiden voyage of a Polish liner on Aug. 1, 1939, and never returned. He lived in Buenos Aires until the spring of 1963, often in squalid penury. For several years he was unable to begin a major new work. The dam burst in 1947, with the completion of the play "Marriage." A period of renewed creativity and struggle for fame began. Brought back to Europe by a Ford Foundation grant, and living in Vence in the South of France, he was able to report in 1965 in his Diaries that finally, at the age of 61, he had the good things people normally attain at 30: family life, a home, a dog. Four years later he was dead.

Fame comes with costs. One of them is posthumous publication of texts that should have remained in a drawer. Such is the case of A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, ably translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry. The Guide is the outline of a "course" Gombrowicz was persuaded to give in the last two months of his life as an antidote to the depression into which he had fallen. Gombrowicz's interest in philosophy was profound. These truncated notes do not do him justice; at most, they make one wish that he had written out his lectures or at least had been able to review and correct the outline. •

Louis Begley is the author of "About Schmidt." His most recent novel is "Shipwreck."

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