Witold Gombrowicz: Like Laurence Sterne, a Free Spirit


A Farce, a Farce, My Kingdom for a Farce!

 Try to set yourself against form, try to shake free of it.[From Witold Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament, edited by Dominique de Roux; translated by Alastair Hamilton (Champaign, Illinois:  Dalkey Archive Press, 2007) p. 65]

Dear Retired Men’s Book Club!

The time is nigh to equip your carriage and “kulig” your way (or disport in a cavalcade) as if on a splendid sleigh to Bill Hagens’ wee hoose.   Bill, among some others of you, has called to thank me for selecting the iconoclastic novelette Trans-Atlantyk.  It is good to know there are some eager readers.  However, one or two have mentioned it is tough going, boring at times, and has some really objectionable characters. That’s OK.  Oh, Gombrowicz would be angry with us if we couldn’t join his kulig.  For he asserts:

“I, too, am difficult.  I, too, write for the future.  I, too, have theories, concepts.  I, too, experiment.  I am a humourist, a joker, an acrobat, a provocateur. My works turn somersaults to please.  I am a circus, lyricism, poetry, horror, riots, games—what more do you want?  I’m difficult, I admit.”[i]

Because it is very unusual, without what you’d call easy “accessibility,” we should have a fine Mad-Hatter’s tea-party talk about it when we meet.  No assignment because nobody follows assignments at our age, although it would be nice if . . . no, say no more.

A poem by Gombrowicz from his successful play The Marriage (1947):


I reject every order, every concept
I distrust every abstraction, every doctrine
I don’t believe in God or in Reason!
Enough of these gods! Give me man!
May he be like me, troubled and immature
Confused and incomplete, dark and obscure
So I can dance with him! Play with him! Fight with him! [sic]
Pretend to him! Ingratiate myself with him!
And rape him, love him and forge myself
Anew from him, so I can grow through him, and in that way
Celebrate my marriage in the sacred human church![ii]

You may make of the poem what you can and perhaps we will discuss it at our meeting.

Form and Chaos

(In that matter of Form and Chaos, discussed in the previous essay, Gombrowicz was philosophically a “structuralist” before “structuralism” became a formal stylistic motif in late 20th-century literatures.  (Not knowing what you want to read, I wonder whether you want to read this, but here it is . . . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structuralism)).

I–why not start a sentence with “I”?–I, Gilmourski, would like to discuss the idea about life lived between the poles of Form and Chaos, prominently explicated in the French-Karsov translation, in the introduction by Stanislaw Baranczak.[iii]  An explanation may be helpful to those who do not have that copy.  Easiest is for me to offer a few remarks about the Form-Chaos dichotomy from Miłosz’s essay “Who is Gombrowicz” (see footnote ii).  Also, this explanation is tied in with the “sacred human church” (as above, in the poem) or, to use an alternate term, the “interhuman church,” the wriggling heap of humanity we are inextricably intertwined with.  Miłosz explains as if Gombrowicz were speaking:

“I, born, though I did not ask to be, thrown into the world, have no reason to proclaim that anything exists beyond my ‘I.’ Accessible to me are only the data of my mind (Gombrowicz always stubbornly repeated: Descartes, Kant, Husserl).  I also have no basis to proclaim the existence of any object, cosmic principles, any ‘laws,’ even the law of causality.  But that, which appears to be really mine, is not mine, because I am entangled with people, I am incessantly being formed by them, and the only reality is the interhuman reality.  People constantly create one another; only a man can be god to another man.  I, Gombrowicz, gentryman and Polish man of letters, try to be myself in opposition to the masks which my nobility and Polish historical traditions foist on me, and already thereby, in overcoming the given Form, I am not entirely ‘myself’ because each act of rebellion gives birth to a new Form.”


. . . “The awareness that whatever I do is nonsense, although I cannot do anything else, because I am coerced into it by the interhuman reality in which I have found myself (what is worse, it invades my head)—that is the very essence of the twentieth-century split, common to everyday life in a technological civilization, to participation in mass movements, and to establishment of terror.  . . . So, for example, once having directed attention to Jews or Trotskyites, it’s easy to find circumstantial evidence indicating that they are source of all evil. This ‘circumstantial evidence’ tendency in a mind transforms the law of cause and effect into a mockery and imposes a dream from which one cannot awaken.”[iv]

The examples (although anti-Semiticism, nowadays including anti-Muslimism, seems eternal) are somewhat dated for present-day terror propaganda and there is a somewhat dogmatic insistence on the philosophical principle that reality is “all in our minds.”  Pretty pessimistic thought, this, from the man of concepts. Good job he never lived to see how gross the form, our tribal social in-formation, has become through modern cyber-technologies. (Ping! Gotta go!)   So, the problem of the human being, artist or whatever titular description by line of work, was how to break out of following the forms, the habits, inculcated in people, in society, in culture, by families, accepted traditions and established organizations, and then to discover and create the new, the strange, the other, the “Form-less.”  Actually, it would be the natural self, just different from personality that is foisted upon human beings as we develop.  Gombowicz in Ferdydurke says:

“Great discoveries will have to be made, great blows will have to be struck with our poor bare hands against the tough armor-plate of Form.  Unparalleled cunning, great honesty of thought, and intelligence sharpened to a degree, will be required to enable man to escape from his stiff exterior. . . .”[v]

So he admits it is hard to give up wallowing in conventional Form and begin to swim in murky, slimy waters of the “self-shaped” Formlessness, and then to emerge on a distinctly fresh shore.  It has something to do with finding an, or one’s, authentic self. How much chameleon existence can a human being stand? Most émigrés have to go through assimilative chameleon adjustment to “seem to fit in.”

Trans-Atlantyk Follies

The madness of Gombrowicz’s vision, striving for that authentic immaturity, different-ness, that showed in his artistry, made him, as I see him, a perpetual outsider.  Living in the margins, in mean digs in Buenos Aires, working as a bank clerk for subsistence wages, he produced Trans-Atlantyk during work hours over a few years from 1947 on.  He created something quite opposite from what, as a successful capitalist author, he should have written.  In his artistic moods, he sought not seriousness, tragedy, or a style to win the day, but, as above mentioned, “laughter, idiocies, somersaults, fun!”  He says:

Trans-Atlantyk was such a folly, from every point of view! To think that I wrote something like that just when I was isolated on the American continent, without a penny, deserted by God and men! In my position it was necessary to write something quickly which could be translated and published in foreign languages. Or, if I wanted to write something for the Poles, something which didn’t injure their national pride.  And I dared—the very height of irresponsibility [absurdity?]—to fabricate a novel which was inaccessible to foreigners because of its linguistic difficulties and which was a deliberate provocation of the Polish émigrés, the only [immediate] readership I could rely on!

That is what happens in the hour of defeat.  One writes in spite of everything, for one’s own pleasure.  What a luxury I permitted myself!”[vi]

When it did find publication, in the Polish publishing house in Paris, Kultura, readers, at least the Poles, did not go for it too heartily; it was archaic, bizarre, perhaps too linguistically strange.  Anyway, [Here I go gavenda-ing again] the genre is such a style in Polish literature, the gawęda, an oral genre, from the 17th century and later.[vii]  (Sorry to mention this again.)  Naturally, Gombrowicz exploited what he knew of from the famous gawędziarz creations in Polish letters.  For thematic inspiration, however, Gombrowicz exploited other works, one being the 19th-century epic poem Pan Tadeusz by Adam Misciewicz:

“. . . Trans-Atlantyk was born in me like Pan Tadeusz in reverse. This epic poem, written by Mickiewicz in exile over a hundred years ago, the masterpiece of Polish poetry, is an assertion of the Polish spirit inspired by nostalgia.  In Trans-Atlantyk I wanted to do the opposite to Miskiewicz. As you see, I always make sure that I am in the best possible company.”[viii]

 Nostalgia, or not?

Contrarian, yes.  However, I’m not so sure he was totally anti-nostalgia.  It is emphatic that Gombrowicz chose to reject nostalgia in the theme: “Son, Son, Son! To the son I would hasten, escape.”(p. 106) “Oh Son, Son, Son! May the Father die! The Son’s the thing, oh indeed!”(p.121)[ix]. In Trans-Atlantyk, there is no nostalgia for the Polish Fatherland:  Patria is lost.  However, the language Gombrowicz uses brings to mind the Fatherland of old, the peasant life, traditions of the hearth.  Thus, in so exploiting the gawęda and its language, Gombrowicz is turning the reader’s attention towards a remembrance of forgotten elements of Polish literature and culture.[x]  Perhaps Gombrowicz—one might call him cerebrally nostalgic, but not sentimentally so—sought to revive the distant past and represent it as a renewable style for Polish authors, instead of their imitating the tried-and-true realistic styles of the Russian, German, and British modernists.  Fill those empty, empty, empty bottles with new flavors of wine from the old vines.  Other writers—Cervantes, Walter Scott, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O’Brien,[xi] etc.—had, and have, done likewise.

From our library of readings, in some respects, such remembrance of the old is what I have suggested Aravind Adiga intended through Balram in The White Tiger, with his repetitious references to wisdom of the Muslim Persian poets.  And lest we forget that other difficult work of past years, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot.  Like Gombrowicz, here was another troubled émigré climbing up his arduous purgatorial mountain, offering his wisdom to a select audience.  Eliot was not inviting the casual reader of colloquial modern poetry to enter his neo-classical Waste Land.  Witold was an old Wit after all!

Naturally, Gombrowicz did not expect readers to have an easy time with his new-old novel. Not unlike James Joyce’s oral poetic masterpiece Finnegans Wake. As a teacher, so I imagine, Gombrowicz would have been an impossible mentor, perhaps a sadistic master. Therefore, I ask you: What could he expect of his readers?  Perhaps he expected a second or third reading by those Poles who were intrigued first by style, language, sound and rhythm.  Then readers would turn back—another day—to read for sense—meaning and content—to fathom the “nonsense.”  The novel, though bizarre in diction and syntax, runs swiftly, with its picaresque narrator huffing and puffing through his adventure.  It is repetitious—I admit it, somewhat tedious at times for my taste—skimmable, speed-readable in rhetorical pacing.  And in the end—what End?—it has a finale that offers no firm dénouement.  We can do worse than laugh and dance when things get impossible.  Methinks, a chance for the gawędziarz to dance, to gesture, and sing again, to tell another of the émigré adventures as sequel.  From the always-becoming, from the immature, nothing is  . . . [Oh, you finish it].

David Gilmour

February 20th 2018         

[i] A Kind of Testament, p. 155.  (full citation in the opening epigram)

[ii] In “Who is Gombrowicz?” by Czesław Miłosz, introduction to Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (New York: Penguin Books, 1986) p. xxii.

[iii] In Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk translated by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov (New haven: Yale University Press, 1994) p ix-xxi.

[iv] “Who is Gombrowicz? p. xiv-xv.”

[v] A Kind of Testament, p.65.

[vi] A Kind of Testament, p. 115-116.

[vii] In brief, the Polish works of gawęda genre are Mikolaj Rej’s The Good Man’s Life and Jan Chryzostom Pasek’s  Memoirs, 16th-17th-century non-fiction works.  The best known fictional gawęda is from the 19th century, Henryk Rzewusky’s Memoirs of Seweryn Soplica, Esq. (1839). Gombrowicz may have parodied these works in the nature of the raconteur and the hifalutin old-fashioned language. On the baroque language and parodies, see Ewa M. Thompson, Witold Gombrowicz, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979) p 80-89.   Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz is appropriated for its theme.

[viii] A Kind of Testament, p. 117.

[ix] See French-Karsov version.

[x] Ewa Thompson (Witold Gombrowicz, p.89) considers the author’s reasons for choosing the archaic genre and language: “At this writing, [1979] it cannot yet be determined whether Trans-Atlantyk has influenced Polish prose to the extent the author sought.  It can be said this gawęda is a unique work which sets out to turn the current of Polish literature in a new and unexpected direction.  Few works have been written with this goal in mind.” (Italics in text)

[xi] Flann O’Brien wrote in Irish Gaelic as Myles na Gopaleen, and presented for modern translators a daunting task in An Béal Bocht (1941), known as The Poor Mouth (1973) as translated by Patrick C. Power. (publisher Hart-Davis MacGibbon, Ltd.).

This entry was posted in 2018 Selections, Trans-Atlantyk. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Witold Gombrowicz: Like Laurence Sterne, a Free Spirit

  1. Doug Raymond says:

    Well, let me just start out by saying, I wish I were in your area because this group looks right up my alley. Based on the selections I see you have picked, I have a suggestion for your book club. Palpable Passions by Tom Corbett. Initially the title threw me off a bit– but I am so glad I followed through with this one. Fast paced, political suspense, well developed story line, all based on current issues our world faces today. Really can’t say enough about it. I found it here, http://www.thomascorbettauthor.com.

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