By Witold Gombrowicz

Yale University Press
June 2012

Reviewed by Josh Billings


With its black-and-tan binding and obligatory David Levine cover illustration, Yale University Press's single-volume reprint of Witold Gombrowicz's Diary is a disconcertingly respectable object. We know how this works: a book is rejected on publication and then neglected for years, decades, centuries, only to be hailed at last for the very qualities that originally made it a "failure." In the case of the Diary—a work whose very form (entries published monthly in the Polish émigré journal Kultura) combines self-promotion with a canny desire to debunk its own fame—the irony of this canonization seems not just doubled, but looped. There are masterpieces whose importance you can see coming a mile away, whose portentous bulk seems to have been erected, not just by literature but for it, like a stained glass window for a church. Books like this solemnize writing in a way that makes the enterprise as a whole feel safer, more powerful, more complete…but then what is that snickering figure on the ledge above them? The obscene gargoyle, with its face contorted into a grimace of inappropriate hilarity? That, dear friends, is Witold Gombrowicz.

Like all monsters, he seemed to come out of nowhere; but the suddenness of his appearance belied a substantial pedigree. Born to a family of aristocratic landowners in the provincial Polish town Maloszyce, he published his first book, Memoir from Adolescence, in 1933, at the pushing-un-prodigal age of 29. It disappeared quickly, dismissed by a literary scene that had been partitioned for years between the left-leaning avant-garde on the one hand, and the reactionary peasant litterateurs on the other. The hostility of both these sides to his debut wounded Gombrowicz; so he decided to take revenge the only way he could: by writing a book. The impulse wasn't unique (see Sentimental Education, Like a Rolling Stone); but Gombrowicz took it a step further by inserting himself into the satire. He made his hero a writer—and not just any writer, but one who had started his first book, Memoir from Adolescence, with the respectable intention of putting away childish things. He wanted to "lift myself out of murky chaos…run a comb through my hair, tidy up my affairs, enter the social life of adults and deliberate with them." But then a demon snuck in, animating the book with a mischievousness that its surprised creator could not help but recognize was his own. As Ferdydurke's narrator relates:

Instead of spinning holy themes from the heart, from the soul, I spun my themes from more lowly quarters and filled my narrative with legs, frogs, with material that was immature and fermenting, and, having set it all apart on the page by style, by voice, by a tone that was cold and self-possessed, I indicated that I wished to part ways with those ferments... Yet it didn't seem appropriate to dismiss, easily and glibly, the sniveling brat within me, I thought that the truly Adult was sufficiently sharp and clear-sighted to see through this, and that anyone incessantly pursued by the brat within had no business appearing in public without the brat. But perhaps I took the serious-minded too seriously and overestimated the maturity of the mature.

Gombrowicz's disappointment in his critics gave him an excuse to see the Polish literary scene as provincial and his rejection by it as a success. According to this logic, the frown of recognition on certain well-known faces was one of uncomfortable recognition—a sign that his satire had hit home. "I was a mature human being, and yet I wasn't… I was nothing," Ferdydurke's narrator admits during the book's opening confession. It was not what a writer, let alone a Polish one, was supposed to feel; and yet, as the entrepreneurial young author recognized, it was true. The New Pole was humiliated, embarrassed, depressed. Enraptured by the shining cities and great men of Europe, he refused to see the swamp he lived in and the child he was; and because he refused to see, his art withered, producing exactly those dusty knick-knacks that he found most embarrassing. 

Ferdydurke's radically homeopathic prescription for this embarrassment was not less childishness, but more—so much more in fact that the book mutated under its influence. It became a parody: a bildungsroman whose hero grew down instead of up. The "sniveling brat" at the center of this process shuttled from edifying situation to edifying situation like a modern-day Wilhelm Meister—except that where Goethe's hero learned from his trials, Gombrowicz's Joey remained unimpressed. Armed with the uncompromising eye of adolescence, he anatomized the norms of middle-class Polish life, discovering a riot of hypocritical contingency hidden just beneath the surface of "eternal truth". Under the influence of his masterful arguments (and really, who argues better than a teenager?), the familiar march of the novel of education became a hypnotic lurch, like a river running uphill.

Ferdydurke's liberating snarl spread from mouth to mouth and ear to ear, jumping boundaries with epidemic speed. Its success posed a riddle to the critics who had chided Memoirs from Adolescence for its alienating experiments, but to the author himself its popularity made perfect sense, since it had less to do with any mastery on his part, and the invulnerability such a mastery would imply, and more to do with the happy rediscovery of how vulnerable he was. Writing about this vulnerability years later in the Diary, Gombrowicz reflected on how the criticism his first book had received had allowed him to write Ferdydurke's portrait of the artist as a (immature, insecure) young man:

I asked myself… if it was right that authors should pretend that criticism does not matter to them at all, just as if those verdicts were being decreed on another planet whereas in reality, we all write for people, their judgment is crucial, and our fear of it dominates us.

Convoluted to begin with, Gombrowicz's relationship to "other people" became even more difficult in the years following Ferdydurke's publication. In August of 1939, two years after the novel appeared, he boarded a Polish luxury liner bound for Buenos Aires, hoping to put some distance between himself and a literary world that had now definitely taken notice of him. "After Ferdydurke I decided to rest. The birth of that book was a strong jolt."  But like Crusoe before and Gilligan after him, Gombrowicz chose a fateful time to sail. On September first, a Soviet-led army invaded Poland, cutting the writer off from Europe and stranding him in a country whose language he barely spoke. It was a disaster unlike anything he had encountered; at the same time it was also a change, a breaking of forms that the author of Ferdydurke could not help but appreciate:

When it happened, I said something to myself like: Ah, so it has finally happened and I understood the time had come to take advantage of the capacity that I had cultivated in myself to separate and leave… I don't know if I will be speaking lucidly enough when I say that from the first, I fell in love with the catastrophe I hated, that, after all, also ruined me.

Gombrowicz applied the same narrative creativity to his exile that he had to the Polish literary scene, revising the so-called "catastrophe" until it became nothing more than a logical next chapter. "Nothing had changed," he wrote. "The life in which I had been imprisoned did not become different because the defined order of my existence had come to an end." Still, there were difficulties. The Polish writer in Argentina was penniless; more importantly he was separated by two hemispheres of empty ocean from the audience whose delighted, outraged, or just confused face had been his inspiration. He wanted to write, but how could he write without any readers? What would he write, for that matter?

The answers to these questions were a few years in coming. Gombrowicz's first decade in Argentina (he would end up living there for twenty-four years) was relatively quiet, overshadowed by a poverty so intense that he was eventually forced to take a secretarial job in Buenos Aires's Polish Bank. In his spare time he wrote stories in Spanish and a play in Polish (The Marriage). He worked with the pack of young Argentinian writers that he'd adopted (or that had adopted him) on a Spanish translation of Ferdydurke. Its publication caused a fresh outbreak of enthusiasm; but Gombrowicz himself was strangely disappointed by his onetime favorite:

I had not read Ferdydurke in seven years. I had crossed it out of my life. Now I read it again, line after line, and its words meant nothing to me. The nothingness of words. The nothingness of ideas, problems, styles, attitudes, the nothingness of art. Words, words, words. All of this solved nothing in me.

The translation of Ferdydurke troubled Gombrowicz's Argentinian fallow in two ways: first, by reminding him how intoxicating it was to have an audience, and second, by suggesting that even Ferdydurke, his greatest work thus far, had not exhausted the ways in which that audience could be attracted. The book's innovations were specific: solutions to a situation that exile and war had rendered obsolete, to its author at least. "Novels, those volatile fairy tales, become significant only when the world unveiled by them becomes something real to us." Revolutionary as it might have been to a new generation of Argentinians, Ferdydurke no longer meant enough to Gombrowicz himself. So, rather than repeat past glories, he abandoned its procedures and went looking for a form "real" enough to house both his readers' and his own new existence. 

Given the enormity of his ambitions, it may seem surprising that Gombrowicz's next project took a form that had been considered, up to that point, deeply unserious. Marginal by nature, the process of journaling had survived the aesthetic shipwrecks of literary history by refusing to make great claims. Freed from the pressures of publication, it offered itself to its readers as a secret: a formless and therefore completely artless book, made up of pieces that were included based solely on the author's individual (and therefore freer, more authentic) choice. Gombrowicz's Diary, on the other hand, rejected this neo-Victorian utopia, announcing instead a project that would be both utterly self-conscious and completely public:

In this little diary I would like to set out to openly construct a talent for myself… Why openly? Because I desire to reveal myself, to stop being to easy a riddle for you to solve. By taking you to the backstage of my being, I force myself to retreat to an even more remote depth.

Begun in 1952 as a regular series in the Polish émigré journal Kultura, the Diary embraced its publicity with the same genre-bending wit that Ferdydurke had used to burlesque the bildungsroman. Instead of a room, it offered a stage; instead of a steadily-mined identity, a quicksilver substance that shifted every time it was touched. The wall separating self from world  (the impassability of which had been taken for granted by previous diarists) thinned to a curtain—not just because Gombrowicz responded to his readers in print, but because the continual publication of the entries made listening to and adjusting to his readers as they listened and adjusted to him a central part of his writing process. So the Diary built on his earlier discovery of "other people," turning an idyll into a carnival and the writer into a sort of vivid, hypnotic master of ceremonies.  

That the trick worked testifies to how closely Gombrowicz's obsessions mirrored his audience's. By the 1950s, Kultura's scattered readers shared one thing above all else: a fascination with Poland. The tenor of this fascination swung from pride to humiliation with little room for compromise; but to Gombrowicz these extremes just repeated the familiar pre-war poses. Rage or elegy, the result was the same: an enslavement to someone else's thought. By embracing the unique combination of pride and embarrassment, on the other hand, a Pole could go beyond mimicry into that exploration of reality that was his unique historical birthright:

One simply had to turn the complacent, preening Pole, so enamored of himself, into a creature equally aware of its inadequacy and ephemerality—and turn this keenness of vision, this ruthlessness in not concealing weaknesses into a strength. Not only would our approach to history and national art have to undergo annihilation, but our entire attitude toward the world would have to change and our assignment then would no longer be working out some sort of specific Polish form, but the acquisition of a new approach to form as something that is endlessly created by people and never satisfies them.

By rewriting his relationship to Poland, Gombrowicz demonstrated once again how liberating this "new approach to form" could be. He traded his exile and its silence for the bemused bustle of the émigré. As poses go it was productive: a hay-making that allowed him to cast a keen eye on potential homelands—for example contemporary literature A small but entertaining anthology could be made up of the Diary's polemics on this topic, for like his fellow émigré Nabokov, Gombrowicz spared no one. His targets included Kafka's The Trial ("Someday it may be obvious what sort of warped marriage of artist and recipient spawned these works so deprived of artistic sex appeal"), Proust ("He has always irritated me"), Thomas Mann ("a ponderous rhetoric, enamored of stateliness, wheedling with its mastery, majestic, and purple as a cardinal", Joyce, Grass—even Saul Bellow! Idol after idol was exposed; but as usual, Gombrowicz saved his best barbs for family. About the Polish generation that was even then achieving a slow international fame, he sniffed haughtily: "I was not able to extract a single text, a single author about which I could say, here begins definite work of the spirit."

Part of this ragging was proprietary: an unstuffing of shirts designed to free young writers from servitude to past masters (all except one, of course). But as the years went by, Gombrowicz's gamesmanship took on a bitter taste. By 1962, he had garnered enough fame and work for his writing to quit his bank job. A reluctant professional, he accepted invitations to those social and pseudo-cultural gatherings by which writers supported themselves, and whined when those invitations were not forthcoming. When an international PEN summit summoned John Dos Passos and Alain Robbe-Grillet, but not Gombrowicz, to Buenos Aires, he pouted. "It is true if they had invited me, I would not have gone anyway." But he did go, reporting his visit in the Diary with a series of entries that he described a few days later as having "Too much levity, too little rebellion. I can't say I am satisfied." He continued. "Is it possible that, infected with their impotence, I could not dig into my subject?"

Like every other question in the Diary, this was rhetorical: an opening, or opportunity for further clarification But after decades of having the last word, Gombrowicz in the '60s increasingly began to look for ways out of, rather than further into his own arguments. In these late entries, questions of literary and philosophical truth were eclipsed, by something that we might call (clumsily) "not-literature", or (more sentimentally) "life." With Crusoian pedantry, Gombrowicz described walking the dog, or going to the bathroom or missing a meeting: "events" whose sheer mundanity seemed out of place for many of his readers. He struggled to defend himself:

Perhaps it is not worth writing this banter—except that life, authentic life, is nothing extraordinarily brilliant and it is important to me to re-create it here not in its culminations but exactly in its average, everyday character. And let us not forget that a lion, tiger, or serpent can sometimes be concealed in trifles.

Gombrowicz's fascination with "authentic life" was one of the great inheritances of the diary form, as it had been practiced by everyone from Jonathan Edwards to Anne Frank. It contained a paradox—for in order to write about such trifles, the diarist had to not be experiencing them. He had to be writing, in other words: not immersed in his days but suspended above them, like a pilot or a snorkeler. "Authentic life" was caught, pinned in a book, where it became not boring at all, but "boring": transmuted into narrative. Life so described lost some of its power, not just to but over the writer. Gombrowicz the powerless, lonely, unrecognized outsider became "Gombrowicz," who was all these things but also, critically, the hero of his own story.

It was one of the many contradictions inherent in the act of writing down one's own life—of confronting reality in (with) art, as Gombrowicz had been trying to do since Memoirs of Adolescence. Like Ferdydurke before it, the Diary knew that solving these problems would have reduced its playfulness to polemic and drained the struggle of its fascination—for reader and author both. At the same time, it understood that a depiction of a great man that leaves out his despair, vacillation, and weaknesses is a romanticizing fable. It remained sensitive about this kind of elision in other writers, for example the French writer Le Clezio, about whom Gombrowicz remarked "His greatest difficulty is that his problems become lovely in him, attractive."

After fifteen years and six hundred pages devoted to exactly this kind of attraction, the late Diary's turn towards unsociability is disconcerting, to say the least. It was a retreat: a tone-deaf failing of powers that left Gombrowicz's usually breathtaken audience gawking like bystanders at a car crash. They wanted the master to rise from the biological into a reaffirmation that could stand next to the other stalwart existentialists. Instead they got ramblings. At 65 years old, Gombrowicz had gained the world, but for whatever reason he had lost his desire to share it. Bereft of its usual congeniality, his writing grew solitary in a way that it never been before. Back in Europe at last—in Paris, on the receiving end of bewildering amounts of international prize money—he indulged in that typical comfort of the elderly, paranoia:

I am probably surrounded by enemies. The fellows from the nouveau roman francais and nouvelle criticisme can't stomach me since I tell them at every opportunity how awfully boring they are. Nevertheless I am joined to these people, for in spite of everything we are moving in the same direction. Form.

It was a strange place to end; but it seems that here, at last, the fifty year scandal known as "Witold Gombrowicz" found its real homeland. Not in Poland, his better half, or Argentina, his adopted homeland, or even Paris, that hotbed of avant-gardism where he was finally appreciated. No—for if home is where the heart is, then Gombrowicz can be said to have really lived in one place only: form. The shape created by the interaction of the human mind with reality, which substance Gombrowicz quotes Goethe (though without acknowledging him) in calling "that which offers resistance." Everything resisted Witold Gombrowicz. He made sure of that. Quixotic to a fault, he allowed himself no allies in the fight against life—except one: the enormous and enormously loyal book that he addresses once, in an uncharacteristically tender moment, as the "faithful dog of my soul."