On Gombrowicz’ Trans-Atlantyk

Dear Gombrowicz Lovers or Discontents:

It was good to hear some remarks from you early-bird readers who have begun to tackle, to get hooked into (snagged onto?) Trans-Atlantyk and the other Gombrowiczian story (“On the Back Stairs”) and Diary passages I gave you.  Perhaps you are twisting the mouth about puzzling them out.  I do grasp that the old Wit, viz. Witold, has worked his way under your skin, some of you anyway.  It may be a difficult itch to scratch.  Nice to hear some of you are up to the challenge.

Burk’s been Irked

A letter, by snail-mail, arrived yesterday, a joy to receive. Burk Ketcham has dug it, I mean, dug the papers out of his recyclable Trash Bin, and actually found a nugget in the Diary.  He liked the “last Saturday” entry of the Diary excerpts, because the sentences were less wordy and offered practical advice about writing.  He felt Gombrowicz was finally getting around to saying something.  Therefore, one reader has found his approach to Trans-Atlantyk, viz.:

“Never write about the author of the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author.”

Yes, Burk has picked up on a good point.  Gombrowicz hated anyone dissecting his works (stripping its skeleton for structure or searching for the meaty symbols).  He was often the narrator of his works, named Gombrowicz, as in Trans-Atlantyk, but the character was not that Gombrowicz, it was merely a convenient persona, often an immature one, so he could get comfortable, or ill-at-ease, or feel at home, in the midst of his very own story.  Yes, like other writers, Gombrowicz yearned to know how his writing affected the reader, to know what went on inside the reader’s psyche while reading.  Of course, he wanted readers to like his writing, but he didn’t want to receive platitudinous crap:  “Thought it was fascinating!” or “It interested me no end!”  Such Capital B Bullsh.t!  He would curse out such commentators (in Polish “Sh.t” = “Goovno!”).  Let me quote you his concerns in his own words:

[Don’t ask me questions about characters or meanings.]  “Come, come, be more sensuous, less cerebral, start dancing with the book instead of asking for meanings.  Why take so much interest in the skeleton if it’s got a body? See rather whether it is capable of pleasing and is not devoid of grace and passion . . .” [This is the extract from the Diary I alluded to.]

[Here is what he says in the Spanish introduction to his first novel Ferdydurke, but it goes for Tran-Atlantyk, too.] “. . . [A]t worst the book will go unnoticed, but friends and acquaintances when they meet me will certainly feel under an obligation [conformist sh.ts!] to say the sort of thing that is always said when an author publishes a book.  I should ask them to do nothing of the sort.  No, let them say nothing, because, as a result of all sorts of falsifications, the social situation of the ‘artist’ in our times has become so pretentious that whatever can be said in such situations sounds false, and the more sincerity and simplicity you put into your. . . ‘I liked it very much indeed,’ the more shameful it is for him and for you.  I therefore beg you to be silent.  Keep silent in hope of a better future.  For the time being—if you wish to let me know that the book pleased you—when you see me touch your right ear.  If you touch your left ear, I shall know you didn’t like it, and if you touch your nose, it will mean that you are not sure . . . thus we shall avoid uncomfortable and even ridiculous situations and understand each other silently.  My greeting to all.”  [Found in Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz; translated by Eric Mosbacher; introduction by Czesław Miłosz (New York: Penguin Books, 1986) p. 9]

So, Burk’s right, if you should want to comment about Trans-Atlantyk, show first how you laughed, danced, and hummed a “Heigh-ho Nonny-no” tune while reading.  (Hell’s bells! The Lillabulero if you can remember how to whistle it.)  Otherwise, we will have to sit in silence, and practice for the Happy Buddha book selection coming up.  Sitting in silence together, a willing commentator among us can still touch or, if touch is too intimate, point to some part of one’s anatomy to make the statement clear.  A warning: No razor blades or spurs will be allowed at our gathering for Trans-Atlantyk.

Lick your finger

Since you might here think me here prolix (to show such: lick your finger and point in the wind), you can always take a breather.

I do have some suggestions for entering the gawęda (pr. “gavenda”) world of Gombrowizc’s language and, ahem, meaning.  Never forget, although you will probably persist in silently eyeballing the page and never uttering or muttering the words (consuetudo altera natura), the outlandish Trans-Atlantyk was composed in a peasant Polish language, more common in previous centuries, meant to be spoken aloud by an animated oral storyteller, a “gawędrziarz,” like, but not exactly, a chanting guslar, more like a raconteur.  In this dialectic tongue, Gombrowicz probably wanted to distance himself from the usual stale Polish novelist styles that prevailed in the middle of the 20th century.  Or he felt he was ready to do his Gargantua after Rabelais, his Don Quixote after Cervantes, or his Finnegans Wake after Joyce.  Who knows?  The fact is, Gombrowicz did come from Sarmatian Slavic stock, and had a love of the peasant dialects and obviously the gawęda genre, which preserved much of the older Polish words and forms. (See: gawęda in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gawęda.)

My Assistant Małgrzata, nicknamed Małgosia (“Mavgosha”)

Luckily I have a crutch.  As a mentor, my Polish friend, Małgosia in California is going to read to me the Polish text and, by engaging with me by phone, help explain some words and “barnyard flavors” of the sentences.  Yesterday, she first confronted the text, and immediately went mute on the other end of the phone. . .

Małgosia came back on, holding her hand to her mouth: “Oh my god! David! –It doesn’t look like Polish to me.  I don’t think I can help you with this stuff.”

Me: “Hang on, Małgosia, it is Polish, just 17th-century provincial Polish,” I said. “Everyone reacts this way in whatever language when first encountering Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk. Take a look at the first sentence that says something about the narrator wishing to inform his family and friends about adventures soon after he arrived in Argentina. The story goes back ten years.”

Małgosia: yes, I see that’s the drift of the first sentence, but with some strange Capital letters where Polish would not put them. And the syntax is . . . it looks crazy.”

Me: “Right! Now overlook the Capital letters.  Take it to be crazy.   Just tell me, translate literally, if you can, the clauses, phrase by phrase . . .”

Małgosia: “But David I don’t understand what this business is about stale Pasta, a raw Radish, and Sins washed—no, sautéd—in oil, or something like that.  He goes on about being embarrassed and ashamed, because his porridge is bitter and crunchy, and served in some kind of metal bowl.  I don’t know the metal that word means, describing the bowl.”

Me: “OK.  Does the word Thin—can you see the word Thin, it’s Capitalized, perhaps—or not?  Does that describe the Noodles, the food, or the metal Bowl?”

Małgosia: “I think it means the Bowl is Thin metal, not very solid. But, David, what does this mean? I am not Understanding my Native language.”

Me: “Oh, don’t be afraid! That’s just Gombrowicz’s way of confronting you, shocking you, making it difficult for you, so you will realize the challenge you have taken on by attempting to read his masterpiece. He didn’t want this to be easy to eat or digest.  This is gruel, gritty porridge, a stew of words. Just wipe your mouth of the drooling saliva and take another look, please, at the phrases.  You know what it says, but not what it means. Say what it says, that’s all.”

She then proceeded to translate in words and phrases similar to the English text of French and Karsov or that of Borchard.  And I translated by merely explaining the narrator was having a Sisyphean time in his life, like an arduous mountain trek, and he was being humble (Yes, the narrator Gombrowicz was acting with humility and submission). . .

Małgosia: “This cannot be. Always I’ve heard, Gombrowicz was never humble, he couldn’t be humble. He had a monstrous ego and put everyone down—his friends, writers, everybody!”

“Right!” I say, “That’s what you’ve heard, but give this other Gombrowicz, the storyteller, a bit of breathing space.  He has just arrived in a foreign land, has no money, doesn’t know the language, or anyone who can help him.  He’s scared and he’s humble when he says, “Please forgive the nasty fare, this wretched meal, I’m serving up in the form, misshapen as it is, of a story of my first experiences as a Polish idiot fresh off a steamer in Buenos Aires.”

Małgosia: “Oh, a comparison then?”

Me: “Do you get the metaphor–poor foods, a tasteless story—a tale that may break your teeth and make you curse? Perhaps, at first indigestible as a story.  Does that make sense?”

She did understand a little better and thought that she could go on, but only a page or two each day.  Her view of the Great Gombrowicz was changed in the examination of that first paragraph of Trans-Atlantyk.  Now she knew why his works were only taught in graduate seminars in Poland.

A Second Look at the opening paragraph again:

Compare and contrast the ways of translating;

I feel a need to relate here for Family, kin and friends of mine the beginning of these my adventures, now ten years old, in the Argentinian capital.  Not that I ask anyone to have these old Noodles of mine, this Turnip (haply even raw), for in the Pewter bowl Thin, Wretched they are and, what is more, likewise Shaming, in the oil of my Sins, my Shames, these Groats of mine, heavy, Dark with this black kasha of mine—oh, better not to heave it to the Mouth save for eternal Curse, for my Humiliation, on the perennial track of my Life and up that hard, wearisome Mountain of mine. (French and Karsov)

I feel the need to convey to my Family, to my kin and friends, this the beginning of my adventures, now ten years long, in the Argentinean capital.  I’m not inviting anyone to eat these old noodles of mine, the turnips that may even be raw, because they’re in a common pewter bowl, Lean, Paltry, even embarrassing withal, cooked in the oil of my Sins, of my Embarrassments, these my heavy grits, Dark, together with this black gruel of mine, oh, you better not put them in your mouth, unless ‘tis for my eternal damnation and degradation, on my Life’s unending road and up this arduous and wearisome Mountain of mine. (Borchard)

Now I will be silent until I feel at ease after the dyspeptic experience of explicating (which Gombrowizc said I shouldn’t do) these three troublesome sentences for my Polish friend and assistant Małgosia.  I hope she won’t be mad at me for persuading her to read Witold’s peculiar masterpiece.  After all, I have read it many times and construed it the best way I could.  Ooops! Say no more.  My lips are zippered.

Picking apart the corpse

Too bad Gombrowicz is dead, Burk.  Otherwise, we could confront him in person, and like Apes beat our chests in anger at the pigeon kasha he has sprinkle before us.  So I ask you:  what gesture would you use to inform us of your reaction to Trans-Atlantyk?  If we don’t split the bones, savor the meat (if there is any), “chew over the fat,” what have you, of what the story does to us, or says to us, what will be do when we convene at the Book Club meeting? Bound about like March hares, babble like Mad Hatters, dance a quick-step Polka?  Trans-Atlantyk’s a Farce, a ride on a Shire hobbyhorse, a Shandean gambit, a, a, a . . . you fill it in.

David Gilmour, February 14th, 2018.

P.S. Burk asked who was Milosz. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Captive_Mind.) Czesław Miłosz, (“Cheswav Miwash”) author of The Captive Mind, was an émigré, both “friend” and critic of Gombrowicz, who made the mistake of explicating his works to foreigners.  Miłosz taught Slavic literature at Berkeley in the 1960s, explained Gombrowicz to Hippies, in translation naturally.


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