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Diary: Volume One.

Of the great Central European modem novelists-Kafka, Musil, Broch, Kundera--the crank Witold Gombrowicz remains the most hidden. As a young man, the author of one book of poorly received stories and one strange (and deeply estranging) novel, Ferdydurke, he skirted both the avant-garde and traditional literary Warsaws of the 1930s. After accepting an offer of a berth on the 1939 maiden voyage of the brand-new Polish ocean finer Chobry (two writers were offered free passage, a public-relations gimmick), he found himself landed in Argentina simultaneous with news of war in Poland. Given the unappetizing choice of where to be landless-in England or Argentina-Gombrowicz decided to stay put, living that whole first year on less than two hundred dollars. Subsequent years of poverty were relieved only when a Buenos Aires bank offered him a sinecure in 1947, which freed him to write the first sustained work of his new life: a journal--Diary-which the Polish-emigre paper in Paris, Kultura, agreed to publish in installments. From then, matters improved: Ferdydurke and three other works were republished in Polish, and he returned to Europe in 1963 thanks to a Ford Foundation grant. Nevertheless, at his death in 1969 L'Express would call him "the greatest unknown writer of our time."

Was he? His fellow Pole Bruno Schulz holds greater claim to the melancholy title. Yet Gombrowicz's fiction and plays are vessels for a remarkable, concentrated intelligence. The novels-Ferdydurke, Pornografia, Cosmos (Trans-Atlantic hasn't been translated into English)--anticipate (and by comparison dwarf recent metafictions. Always containing an authorial delegate named Witold (or even Witold Gombrowicz) and featuring an overbearing yet eelish "friend" from whom Witold receives an education about the contingencies of evil, the books are built up out of histrionic digressions that interrupt claustrophobic scenes, setups shaped to spill out certain invariable notions. Above all, form-the great Gombrowiczian tree under which everything else shelters, form understood as the membrane separating the doing from the done-to. Gombrowicz (who, toward the end of his life, called himself "the first structuralist") tugs and snaps at the membrane-and the resulting works are mean comedies about the collapse of will and dignity whenever context is altered or removed.

Form's main playgrounds in Gombrowicz are our accepted ideas of inferiority and superiority, especially concerning age and youth. (His first book of fledgling stories was titled, interestingly, Stories of Immaturity-which lazy Warsaw critics of the day jumped all over, calling them "immature stories." Conceivably youth was then forced on Gombrowicz as his main topic--idees fixes having a way of rocking on the rails of a defensive grudge.) Ferdydurke features an adult clapped back into the childishness of grade school-a schematic of how the superior finds itself in inevitable thrall to the inferior. But unlike Thomas Mann in Tonio Kroger and Death in Venice (works Gombrowicz acknowledged as guides), the emblematic pathos of the youth/age, fresh/tired, strong/weak, desire/disgust division is never pursued. Gombrowicz instead loved dialectic for its own sensuous sake. Shame and humiliation were valuable as methods of distinction. That may be why, to an English-speaking reader, the novels don't quite satisfy--technique is given such prominence that about a quarter of the way through it's all we're paying attention to. Gombrowicz tramps in gum boots across our backs, and the fixed rythms turn wearying: ruthlessly theatrical direction leading without fail to the nonconsolations of anti-philosophy.

Yet in the Eastern European literary project of symbol destruction--the collected writings of the previously mentioned geniuses all, in different ways, deflate metaphor utterly--Gombrowicz's work is an important element. And to Polish literature, even more than important: an inflammatory splinter the size of a spar (a book like Tadeusz Konwicki's recent Moonrise, Moonset seems a direct homage to Diary). Aside from a wispy avant-garde, Polish writing from Adam Mickiewicz on, whether in baroque or "plain" style, has its roots in the concepts of the sublime, the brave, the very myth of the Pole. Gombrowicz would have nothing to do with it. To him this reflexive myth crippled talent, pinched thought and encouraged the dubious Polish self at the price of a compromised but more valuable to modern life I. He noted, for instance, in the writer Przybyszewski "the incapacity to reconcile the everyday and ordinary with greatness and loftiness. . . . If he had maintained the hearing, taste, and sight of an ordinary man, an attack of convulsive laughter would have saved him from demonic pirouettes. But, being a Pole, he had to kneel. And so he knelt before himself."

This devastation is from Diary, his plumbing of Polish culture and politics from half a world away. The work is a shaggy, cunning, stagy, personal peek-a-boo now wondrously undertaken by Northwestern University Press in what's to be three volumes, translated by Lillian Vallee. Gombrowicz's allure-the cussedness, iconoclasm, acuity and perversity--is at full voltage. Diary begins with four insistence: "Monday-Me. Tuesday-Me. Wednesday-Me. Thursday-Me." A later entry defends the I as so basic and inborn, so full of the most palpable and thereby the most honest reality, as infallible as a guide and severe as a touchstone, that instead of sneering at it, it would be better to fall to your knees before it. I think rather that I am not yet fanatical enough in my concern with myself and that I did not know how, out of fear of other people, to surrender myself to this vocation with enough of a categorical ruthlessness to push the matter far enough. I am the most important and probably the only problem I have: the only one of my protagonists to whom I attached real importance.

The word "protagonists" trips a reasonable alarm. Gombrowicz in Diary is perhaps producing a fiction. Selected episodes-the nighttime haunting of the Buenos Aires waterfront for boys (while at the same time maintaining amorous relations with young women); the exhilaration of scribbling graffiti on a toilet star wall; describing a midnight epiphany (a thunderstorm that apparently responds to human hand signals)-mold a flexible, paradoxical, underground character perfect for a novel. Yet precisely because this kind of sovereignly fascinating character doesn't appear in other Gombrowicz novels (or at least not so successfully), it feels safer to guess that if Gombrowicz is doing any conscious fictionalizing in Diary, it's strictly in the form of personal reinvention: "My books are not supposed to say to you: Be who you are. They say rather: You pretend that you are who you are. . . .If you hate acting so much, it is because it is a part of you. For me, acting becomes a key to life and reality."

Gombrowicz's presentation of himself as a perpetual manque, someone trying and failing to be a writer, wasn't only a pose. The not-quite was crucially important to him; it served to adjust scale. Magnification (which he hated) and reduction (which he aimed for) camouflage and intermix inlife. In the late 1940s, after the Holocaust and the war, existentialism and Marxism both seemed to be reductions. But existentialism's inherent dimensions struck him as not human. "It seems impossible to meet the demands of Dasein and simultaneously have coffee and croissants for an evening snack. To fear nothingness, but to fear the dentist more." After reading Camus's The Rebel, Gombrowicz notices that Camus forbids himself even the pleasure that understanding the world gives. . . . Nowhere in Camus' entire book will one find this simple truth: that a sin is inversely proportionate to the number of people who give themselves to it and this devaluation of sin and conscience are not reflected in a work whose aim is to magnify them.

Even the proportions of Simone Weil's saintliness disturb him:

Does she want to unite with God or, through God, join other human existences? Is she in love with God, or, through God, with man? Is her resilience to death, pain, and despair born of her bond to God or people? . . . . What a jump into the heavens simply to jump two yards from one's own I to someone else's.

Marxism was worse with its calcifying demands and brutal guarantees, once the exuberance of revolution passes: "The Sartres and Mascolos [the Paris publisher/writer/gauchiste] seem to forget that man is a being created to live in an atmosphere of average pressures and median temperatures. Today we know the mortal cold and the living fire, but we have forgotten the secrets of a light breeze, which refreshes and allows one to breathe."

Nor did Art necessarily seem the way out. Diary warns against sculpting a new breed of aesthetic monster from the postwar ashes of Poland's horror:

If Proust got more out of his counts, it was because he could move and feel easily among them and the cookie did not overwhelm him. Four million murdered Jews, however, are the Himalayas! I would ban that typical Polish naivete that believes that there is something to discover only on peaks. There is nothing on peaks except snow, ice, and rock. . . . When you near the mountains of a minion torments with your pen, you are overcome by fear, respect, horror, your pen trembles and your lips produce nothing but a moan. But one does not create literature with moans.

The writer is better off as what Gombrowicz would be himself--a "blunted thought, a being of median temperatures, a spirit in a certain state of relaxation: I am he who relieves tension. I am like aspirin, which, if one is to believe the advertisement, rids one of excessive cramps." Overstatement, but the point sticks. Gombrowicz's principle, "that man is higher than his products," assumes too that the "artist who realizes himself inside art will never be creative." It recommends instead a backsliding into meaning and significance, an aesthetic direction first suggested by Baudelaire. This is the strategy underlying the amazing entry in Diary, Gombrowicz's giddy note about scribbling on a urinal wall: "I hesitated to disclose this. I hesitated not for reasons of prestige but because the written word should not serve to spread certain...manias. But I won't hide the fact that never would I have dreamed that such a thing could be this...electrifying." Elated by the secretiveness, the vulgarity, he's thrilled far more "because this is not at all on the level of my work." For the brilliant on occasion to be dull is nothing less than a spiritual exercise.

Barely tolerable now, Diary's antibrilliance was outrightly rude at the time of its composition /publication. European intellectuals such as Malraux were turning with piety toward the remains of high culture, reclaiming it as a substitute for demoralizing history. But Gombrowicz could spare nothing-and especially culture-the hard errand of candor. "In our relations with other people," he wrote in a late essay,

we want to be cultivated, superior, mature, so we use the language of maturity and we talk about, for instance, Beauty, Goodness, Truth. . . . But, within our own confidential, intimate reality, we feel nothing but inadequacy, immaturity; and then our private ideals collapse, and we create a private mythology for ourselves, which is also basically a culture but a shabby, inferior culture, degraded to a level of our own inadequacy. This world, said Bruno [Schulz] is composed of the remains of the official banquet: it is as though we were simultaneously at table and under the table.

Czeslaw Milosz has pegged Gombrowicz as "an expert at cornering the reader into an admission of unpalatable truths." Undermining ego, raising shortfall into virtue, consecrating almostness and demi-philistinism, Gombrowicz's astonishing cornering maneuver in Diary began with himself.
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Author:Feld, Ross
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 30, 1988
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