Playing It by Ear: a Plea for Dramatizing the Art of Witold Gombrowicz

 The Orality of Trans-Atlantyk and Other Literatures

“You are allowed to write about yourself.” Witold Gombrowicz[i]

For many, many months, some years ago now, my wife and I sat together through spring-to-summer’s evenings reading the same literary work together.  We dramatized, i.e. read aloud to one another, Tristram Shandy in a quite large print edition that was very easy on the eyeballs.  At some point after a page of dialogue, say, a fast-paced exchange between Mr. Shandy and his often-befuddled brother Uncle Toby, my wife would stop me and say, “No! It doesn’t go like that!” Says I back, “Yes, that is how it goes, that’s just what it says.” “Let me see!” she demands, and I show her it does say just that and in that way. The language of Laurence Sterne in passages of rich, responsive dialogues was hilarious to read as drama and to hear as comic sounds and quick-running rhythm. Then, taking turns, she might read the same passage in her fashion, and we would laugh together once again.  Why not have that joy with Trans-Atlantyk?

Well, about that same time of the past decade, somewhere in the aughts of this century, I would pluck Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk[ii] from the shelf and puzzle through a few knotty pages quietly wording aloud to get the drift, finding it every bit as hilarious as Tristram Shandy.  Therefore, wishing to return to that Shandy kind of jocular dramatization, I would recite as best I could, that is in a Monty Python Eric Idle-ish vocalization, some passage I thought I could pull off in the right comic vein and seduce my wife to join me in another period of dramatizing reciprocally.  A passage such as this I might choose, with strings of descriptive terms with diminutive suffixes:

Suddenly the far door opened and His Excellency the Envoy looked out and, since I was already known to him, Beckoned on me: upon this beckoning the Counsellor, gushing with bows and wagging his Rump and flirting with his High Hat, led me into the office.”                                                                   *****

            Minister Kosiubidzki Feliks was one of the strangest people I’ve come upon in my life.  Lean Plumpy, somewhat fatty, he had a nose likewise rather Lean-Plumpy, an eye vague, fingers Slim-Plumpy and belike a leg Slim and plumpy or fatty, and that Bald-pate of his as of brass over which he combed his black-red hairs; he was wont to flash his eye and every now and then he flashes it.  By this bearing he displayed extraordinary respect for his high dignity and by his very movement upon himself bestowed honour, and likewise continuously, mightily honoured by his Selfness the one he was talking to, so that one spoke to him almost on one’s Knees. Instantly then, having burst into tears, I threw myself down at his feet and kissed his hand; and my services, blood, fortune offering, begged him to make use of me and place me at his disposal in this holy moment, according to his holy will, his reckoning.  Most kindly honouring me and himself by his holy listening, he blessed and flashed at me, then says: ‘I cannot give you more than 50 pesos (he took out his purse).  I shan’t give you more since more I have not.  But if you fain would go to Rio de Janeiro and hold to the Legation there, then I’ll pay your fare and even add some to be quit of your hold as I would have no Writers here: they just Milk you and Bark at you.  So get ye to Rio de Janeiro, I counsel you well.’” (p. 11-12)

 My attempt got some smiles and chuckles all right, but she was not taken by the peculiar story idea.  An evening later, a bottle of wine lifting my mirth, I came upon another demonstrably hilarious scene, the “Silly Walk.” Here I thought a dramatization of such would make it impossible for my wine-bibbing wife to refuse reciting and dramatizing with me.  Therefore, adopting a Groucho Marx persona and his odd duck-walk, I set the scene and read as follows [O, but you’re just looking, you have to imagine in your mind’s echo chamber my Eric Idle skit]:

 “So stand I in front of all those people [at the salon] and there my Own from behind give me cuffs, tug at me, drag me away and perchance Red, Red they are . . . Yet here before me those other ones [the snob crowd] lavish respect on their freak [The Snob], though at the same time, as if neglecting their respect, they are inspecting socks, shirts, pins.  Now heedless of everything, leaving everything, from my disgrace, shame escaping, towards the door through the whole salon I go walking, and I Walk Off! I walk off, as the Devil with it all, and the Devil, the Devil, all gone to the Devil!  Fleeing, walking out I am! But having walked almost to the door in my open escape, the devil, the devil I think, why the Devil am I fleeing!  Why escape?  I turned back and return.  Through the whole salon I go and all give way to me! The Devil! The Devil! The devil with it . . . Satan!” (p. 34)

 I continue Eric-Idleing, and the Walking skit does buckle my wife almost to her Knees, and as I read—that is speak–on, and Walk on, she cannot believe the length of that repetitious Walking scene, [“Yes! says I, hating to be interrupted, “It does continue in this way and even longer.”], but alas! funny as she found the passages I performed to entice her, she did not have time for the joint recitation of Gombrowicz.  O well, One cannot always win or charm one’s wife

Therefore, I was never so happy than at the thought of sharing Trans-Atlantyk with The Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club, given our pact to allow any choice of literature and each member sworn to “give it a go.”   One or two members might recall my cajoling thought that we read passages aloud for something to do at the meeting.  And so, now I do my Groucho walk solo and I Walk and Read Aloud, I do, I Read Aloud and Walk.

Necessity of Orality in the Appreciation of Art

Ewa Majewska Thompson in her remarkable set of studies on Gombrowicz’s philosophy and literature,[iii] states boldly that in his gawęda story,

“The narrator in Trans-Atlantyk tells the story in a manner similar to that used by raconteurs, as opposed to writers.  His sentences are spoken sentences, full of exclamatory words, unfinished phrases, and the spelling which follows pronunciation rather than orthography.  The speaker practices what Northrup Frye [Now there’s a literary name seldom seen or heard today] calls associative thinking—the slightly incoherent way of stringing sentences together in a casual conversation. This kind of narration brings forth the elements of intonation and natural turns of phrase, which often disappear from written texts. The speaker of Trans-Atlantyk is an actor as well as a narrator:  his rhythms of speech and abundant colloquialisms require reading aloud.  Trans-Atlantyk is one of those prose narratives which should be performed rather than read.” (p. 80)

We, therefore, really missed out on the experience of Trans-Atlantyk’s artistry by not having read it aloud together with one another.  A Sin of omission.  My fault altogether for not irritating the club and for NOT assigning the appropriate method of delivery.  The medium sometimes is a great part of the message. We artlessly together by-passed a deeper impression of Gombrowicz’s intended art.

It is not a well-known fact outside of studies of linguistics and, particularly, of orality, that human beings have been for most of the epoch since the origin of writing (ca. 3,000 BCE) hearers of or listeners to recited literature rather than solo silent sight readers, interiorizing the sense and sometimes the imagined voice.  Though writing, a scribal craft, was prevalent through the eras of Greek (since the 8th century BCE) and Roman civilization (since 3rd century BCE), a mere 5-10% of that ancient population possessed functional literacy.[iv] Writing was prevalent, but not until the 3-4th centuries CE was there any clear evidence of a reader able to peruse a page without also voicing the language.[v]  Instant interiorizing of sense was not easy without hearing an utterance.  Recitation by memory held strong for most of antiquity.  Even in the 18th and 19th century of our era most of literature, the written or printed word, was heard by an audience rather than understood by being silently, personally perused.  So, as I mentioned before, Gombrowicz was quite wittingly reminding Poles of their oral-literate heritage by putting his Trans-Atlantyk into the gawęda style of narration.

Down Oral Memory Lane

 In English schools, we pupils did a great deal of memorizing and recitation.  There was not quite so much in the American high schools I attended, but as students we were sometimes made to read aloud from text books and stories.  From the beginning of learning the classical languages, including anything ancient such as Sanskrit or Semitic languages, I was aware that we students first recited (actually were made to recite) the sentences or passage as best we could  in an approximation of the ancient tongue, then we would construe into English wording, or something resembling spoken formal English.  The voice was, naturally, important in all foreign language classes.  From this exercise of utterance, always a nervous undertaking, I felt it helped me to own up to my ineptitude at both construing correctly and reciting adequately, at least the first time through.  Nobody’s perfect.  Good recitation often requires practice and a good bit of pretense at getting it right.  Many a talking-book I have stopped listening to because the reader did not bring the story to my listening satisfaction.  Reading aloud and doing it well is acting and it does take skill and extra effort. Force you I cannot; therefore, I can understand the reluctance of our club to read Gombowiczian sentences aloud.  Sh.t! Chitsh.t!  They can be very rude, too.  (Sh.t is, naturally, “shit”;  I believe the Polish word for chitsh.t is “arsehole” or American “asshole.”)

Dramatic Orality and Cervantes’ Don Quixote

Though seldom expected in 20th-century prose literature, oral presentation will naturally harken backward to previous literatures, and since Don Quixote was of importance to and an obvious influence on Gombrowicz, it is not unlikely (from mentioning in his works) the orality of Cervantes’s style could have influenced in some way the crazy picaresque style of Trans-Atlantyk.  Here’s an excerpt on the role of orality in Cervantes’s day of the dawning modern era:

“Many people today approach Cervantes’ masterpiece as a text to be read [silently] rather than one to be shared through public recitation or group story-telling. By reexamining the importance of the oral tradition and entering into a new sharing of the text, contemporary readers can enrich their own understanding of Cervantes’s novel and gain anew appreciation of the humor and human experience that is deeply embedded in the text.[vi]

We are all about concealing art, especially the experience of it, when we refuse to read aloud texts meant for oral dramatization. Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk was putting his audience to the test to see how long before they might start to laugh, doing double-takes, at his neo-baroque fantasy.  The work itself, why, it must have been a surprise to look upon when opening the pages. The “old Noodles.” “mayhap a Turnip Raw” and cooked in “oils of Sin,” “black Kasha,” etc.

Of course, much of Trans-Atlantyk was, for its shocked readers on first peek, too strange—not to mention cynically satirical—slighting the “Forms,” customs, and some sophisticated behavioral practices which modern Polish readers would have perhaps accepted or approved of.  Just so, beforehand, Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz’s first novel, had been maligned as a highly preposterous–viz. fantastic–story with the strangest of behaviors. The reader looks in vain for someone, expecting some character to show, named Ferdydurke, but there just ain’t one. It’s just the title. Some autobiographical information is initially included, about Gombrowicz’s early short story collection, and the work had a self-reflexive quality in the style of what later was termed “post-modernist.” In that work “fraternizing” was the euphemism for homosexual relationships, but no actual sexual act is performed. Two phrases were added to the Polish literary vocabulary from the language of Ferdydurke: “to fit one with a fanny” and “to fit one with a mug.” These were equipment for a starter identity.

In Trans-Atlantyk, for Gombrowicz to have incorporated a prominent queer character like Gonzalo as the narrator’s equally alien companion was unthinkable.  By that I mean, bound to shock or irritate.  To make fun of a stern, old-school military father bent on old-fashioned dueling for the sake of honor and to disown the Polish Fatherland was unthinkable. These motifs were hardly going to please the proper Polish snoots.  For Gombrowicz, it was, as I see it, an essential evocation of his sickly feelings about Polish values and Poland’s constraining, oppressive culture and society.  Even so, who among our men’s group would deign to read the part of Gonzalo?  It would have been comical.  Gesturing with flirtatious limbs and loose-wristed hands, flipping one’s hair effeminately?  Most of us would perhaps aver some sort of anti-queer bias and wish to avoid much discussion about sexual subject matters.  And yet, just as we might not want to discuss the virtues of “queer” or refrain from reading aloud and dramatizing Trans-Atlantyk by oral reading, we don’t mind pretending we have dealt with its text by discussing its difficult, queer features.  We are a formal or conventional book club in that way, gender-restricted by membership. Probably only a few of us warmed up to the amazing difference of the style and content.

Orality, Further Backwards

When I was in college in the 1960s, the classics conferences were still hammering out the orality-of-literacy issue, coming to terms with an oral Homeric bard capable of reciting, or extemporizing upon, many thousands of memorized dactylic hexameter verses.  It was an awakening when professors would present works of prose and assert the oral elements alive in the text.  Menippean Satire, a genre of mingled prose and poetical composition that appears in a novelistic narrative, was evidently meant to be voiced in Roman works of the Imperial age. In those days, we rarely used the term novel in discussing ancient literature.  Here is the way William Arrowsmith cautiously introduces the subject in his translation of Petronius’s Satyricon:

“Besides, in one crucial respect, the Satyricon is utterly unlike such later picaresque novels, as say Gil Blas or Roderick Random.  That respect is rhetoric, the fact of oral presentation.  For unless I am badly mistaken, the Satyricon was clearly written not to be read silently, but to be recited aloud by a trained artist with a voice and virtuosity capable of registering the enormous variety of the work, its typically Roman relish for high sound, its sudden shifts of pace, every nuance of parody and inversion, every variation of subject and style.  Indeed, the episodic structure of the Satyricon is itself determined and clarified by this fact of oral presentation (a fact which doubles the translator’s difficulty).[vii]

Ditto for the translators of Trans-Atlantyk.  Then he adds:

“No translation can do a spoken narrative justice, for it requires a third dimension. And it is just this third dimension that distinguishes the ancient novel—all of it, Apuleius [The Golden Ass] and Petronius and Greek romance as well—from the modern novel as a whole. Rhetoric, the sound of the human voice, is its distinction and also its curse.” (Arrowsmith, p. xi)

Therefore, if we wanted the experience of the translated farce and burlesque of Gombrowicz’s style, we missed it by our reluctance to voice it out, choosing to look at it and read it silently as print literature.  Damn, I should have insisted we read aloud!  Mea culpa!  (Thank you to Burk Ketcham who did nod that he would read the “Walking” passage if I asked him. Thank you, also, to Van Perdue and Richard Smaby for actually reading aloud some snippets of the text during our meeting.)

Of course, we really deprived ourselves of the fraternal laughter that Baranczak relates, at the close of his introduction, among the students who read Gombrowicz aloud the night before their examination on Marxism.[viii] As in the conclusion of Trans-Atlantyk, laughter serves (as do accompanying music and dance) to dissolve or mitigate all the anxieties and dilemmas that beset groups of entwined people.  There is something of comic opera in the noisy, festive ensemble at the conclusion of Trans-Atlantyk.  The story, anyway, viz. the plot of life, begins to be taken up and told again tomorrow.

Gombrowicz’s Rhetoric and Style

For many readers, especially these days, the story or plot is the main feature; style or “form,” the art of the rhetoric, being of secondary consideration.  In masterful literature, however, the style is extremely important, for that is how the art moves and affects the reader. What would Melville’s Moby Dick have been without the great variety of styles intermingled in his epic work?  Gombrowicz admittedly did not want the readers to indulge in literary archeology, digging up subtexts and subtle meanings of significant objects or actions, as though the enjoyment is buried for intellectual discovery.  The art is in the experience, in the sensory effects within the audience or readers as they perceive and emote.  As he said, when he wrote in his Diary:

“Cast off in fury and pride all the artificial advantages that your situation assures you.  Because literary criticism is not the judging of one man by another (who gave you the right?) but the meeting of two personalities on absolutely equal terms.

             Therefore, do not judge.  Simply describe your reactions.  Never write about the author of the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author.  You are allowed to write about yourself.”[ix]


A very precise person, that Gombrowicz!  I, Gilmourski, have gone against many of his demands, because, alas, I spoke about the author, although they were my views after confrontation with his works.  I interpreted some matters, a habit I cannot shake completely.  Some of the things I have written, I admit, were not “spot on.” Hey! I’m immature at this freewheeling blogging.  If I had the time, I’m sure I would change my tune and write my essays over again.  Nevertheless, my “mug” is out there.

The fact is I have been overly excited, swinging high and low, in rereading Gombrowicz’s works, particularly in considering how to make Trans-Atlantyk presentable to you who have perhaps not had any touch with such unusual artistry.  Through these ramblings my consciousness has been raised by rethinking and enjoying afresh the ideas and the style presented by Gombrowitcz’s own essays and interviews, and also by consideration of the illuminating introductions and explications by several commentators and scholars.

David Gilmour, April 15, 2018

[i] Op cit. From the Diary, in Polish Writers on Writing, p. 10. (See RMBC Introductory Essay, Part 1)

[ii] The 1994 Carolyn French and Nina Karsov translation, set in an unusual Bauer Bodoni typeface, about a 10 pt. bold font. This very print font gives an unusual, oddly exotic design to the pages of that edition.

[iii] Witold Gombowicz, (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979) in  Twayne’s World Authors Series (TWAS 150: POLAND)

[iv] For many the name of the scholar Walter J. Ong may come to mind as the scholar who represented the series of entertaining and highly enlightening works such as Orality and Literacy: Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982. Prolific has been the scholarship of Jack Goody, since his Literacy in Traditional Societies (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968).  In classics studies, Eric A. Havelock was the revolutionary voice: Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1963).  However, a definitive study on classical literacy came along in 1989 to set the record straight: William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, Mass:  Harvard Press, 1989).

[v] The locus classicus is Augustine’s Confessions (Bk. VI.Ch.3. sec.3) in which Ambrose’s silent reading needed elaborate explanation.

[vi] Rosa Almoguera and Kathleen Regan. “Erasing Boundaries: The Confluence of Oral and Written Traditions in Don Quixote,” Don Quixote: Interdisciplinary Connections, edited by Matthew D. Warshawsky and James A. Parr (Newark, Delaware: Juan de la Questa, Linguatext, 2013) p.186.

[vii] Petronius, The Satyricon, translated with an introduction by William Arrowsmith (New York: Mentor Books, 1959), p .x.

[viii] Introduction to the French-Karsov translation, p.xxi.

[ix] Op. cit. Polish Writers on Writing, p.101.

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