Book World: Michael Dirda reviews 'Pornografia' by Witold Gombrowicz
By Witold Gombrowicz
Translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt
Grove. 225 pp. $23
Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) is part of a celebrated generation of mid-20th-century Polish writers, one that includes the doomed magic-realist short story writer Bruno Schulz, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, author of the great and sexily titled novel "Insatiability." All these writers knew, admired and supported one another.
Schulz, for instance, once gave a lecture on Gombrowicz in which he underscored that his friend's fiction "did not follow the smooth path of intellectual speculation but the path of pathology, of his own pathology." In recalling that talk, Gombrowicz added: "This was true."
Certainly, "Pornografia," first published in Polish in 1960, seems as sick, as pathologically creepy a novel as one is ever likely to read. In some ways, it resembles a rather more polymorphously perverse version of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" or one of those disturbing fictions by European intellectuals that blend the philosophical with the erotic: Think of Georges Bataille's "The Story of the Eye" or Pierre Klossowski's "Roberte Ce Soir." Gombrowicz himself once dryly described "Pornografia" as "a noble, a classical novel. . . . The novel of two middle-aged men and a couple of adolescents; a sensually metaphysical novel."
Set in Poland during World War II, the book focuses on a visit by two Warsaw intellectuals to a country estate, where a pair of young people catch their eye. Henia is engaged to an upright young lawyer; Karol is a handsome 16-year-old farmhand. The narrator, who is named Witold, and his extremist friend Fryderyk soon decide that these two "children" belong together, even though they reveal absolutely no particular interest in each other. But what does that matter?
Fryderyk soon begins to act like a theater director, manipulating the people around him, designing ambiguous encounters and sexually charged scenes. When, early on, he points out that Karol's dirty workpants are dragging in the mud, the boy starts to bend over to adjust the cuffs. "No, wait," says Fryderyk. "Let her roll them up." After a brief silence, the obedient Henia, who is the daughter of the household, stoops down and does as she has been told.
Fryderyk, it is clear, possesses a sometimes painfully acute awareness of social dynamics, always sensing the dark impulses and desires lurking within the most upright-seeming people. Commenting on his almost parodistically Nietzschean character, Gombrowicz asserted that Fryderyk ultimately aims "to reach different 'realities,' unforeseen charms and beauties, by selecting people, by forming new combinations between the young and the old -- a sort of Christopher Columbus who isn't searching for America, but for a new reality, a new poetry."
In the novel, however, Witold repeatedly questions Fryderyk's sanity, even though he, too, is soon caught up in an unsettling drama. The four of them, he concludes, make up "some strange erotic combination, an eerie yet sensual quartet."
Throughout his work, and especially in his most famous book, "Ferdydurke" (1937), Gombrowicz espouses a cult of youth. Man, he insists, wants to be young, and in "Ferdydurke" he shows what happens to an adult who is changed into a schoolboy. That novel is, to some degree, often bizarrely comic. Not so, the distressing "Pornografia," though he insists that this much later book is simply "a particularly irritating case of the Ferdydurkean world: the Younger creating the Older."