Diary by Witold Gombrowicz

Monday, February 11, 2013


by Witold Gombrowicz
Translated by Lillian Vallee
Yale University Press

Modernist writer Witold Gombrowicz is such a key figure in the literary canon of his native Poland that in 2007, when the Ministry of Education attempted to remove Gombrowicz’s first novel, Ferdydurke, from the required high-school reading list, it was met with fierce opposition and accusations of cultural conservatism. In spite of the novel’s relatively small following when it was published in 1937, and even though Gombrowicz’s body of work includes fiction, plays, and nonfiction, he is most famous as the author of Ferdydurke. The novel showcases Gombrowicz’s absurdist humor, his mockery of stifling traditions, and his legendary pointed use of vulgarities, particularly the word pupa (“ass” or “butt”), breaking with literary decorum and tradition. Ferdydurke had strong resonance under communism: while socialist realists championed factory workers and farmers, Gombrowicz’s tale of an intellectual schoolboy fraternizing with lowly farmhands was a scathing satire with strong sexual undertones. Disdaining utopias, Gombrowicz showed all social classes as morally corruptible: human beings were hopelessly flawed, prisoners of conflicting impulses and sexual urges. A person could not give rise to the perfect New Man, no matter what ideology you pinned on him or her. The proletariat held no special promise after all: servants were as foolish as masters.

When Ferdydurke was published, it was censored, and it was reintroduced only briefly during a period of political thaw in the mid-1950s. Gombrowicz meanwhile had left Poland in 1939, sailing for Argentina. He never returned home, though he did settle in Paris in 1968. That year, not long before his death, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize. It is this trajectory, from obscure literary upstart to esteemed author, that Gombrowicz traces so delightfully, though not without venom, in his Diary. Long out of print in English but now republished by Yale, Diary unites in one volume Gombrowicz’s entries from 1953 to 1969 in Lillian Vallee’s faithful translation. It was first published in English in three volumes, by Northwestern University Press in 1988. The new Yale edition contains ten previously unpublished pages, which were omitted from the Polish original because their content was critical of Poland’s communist regime. These restored pages are also translated by Vallee.

Gombrowicz was forty-nine, and had been living in Buenos Aires for fourteen years, when he began writing Diary and pitched it to an émigré review in Paris, Kultura. He had behind him brief work as a cultural ambassador and then a bank clerk, and years of penury. Translations of his work into Spanish had garnered little attention. He feared that his isolation from Poland, and his day jobs, would sink him into triviality. In a conscious attempt to capture his passage “from inferiority to superiority,” by which he meant sharpening his self-critical faculties, he wooed his readers in Paris, confiding in them his vulnerabilities. At the same time, there is no doubt that he meant to provoke them: he challenged the notion, dear to the émigrés, that a uniquely Polish identity existed and that it could be preserved. There was no such thing as Polishness, he claimed, and the idea of a quintessentially Polish or national author was laughable. Poland had just emerged from the chaos of war and was still feeding on legends of patriotic martyrdom. Gombrowicz attacked these legends and the epic spirit they inspired, even when such notions were embodied by great writers such as the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz and Gombrowicz’s contemporary, poet Czeslaw Miłosz, who also won the Nobel, in 1980.

Some critics see Gombrowicz’s exile as self-enforced and heroic. Gombrowicz himself fashions this myth in Diary, but in reality he had little to return to: Poland suffered under occupation first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets. Gombrowicz’s family was deprived of its estate; his brother, Janusz, survived the Mauthausen concentration camp only to be jailed later as an enemy of the people by the communists who seized his land. Whenever he could, Gombrowicz sent a portion of his meager South American earnings to his family, particularly his sister after the death of their mother. Though Gombrowicz was often frustrated by his lack of social and academic impact while writing abroad, he would have had even less agency back in Poland. His family’s bitter fate intensified Gombrowicz’s mistrust of socialist reforms, and of revolutions in general. While he admired Marx’s originality, he bluntly stated in Diary: “All systems, socialist or capitalist, are founded on enslavement.”

By calling his very public entries Diary, Gombrowicz problematized confessional writing, and writing in general, as a very peculiar, nearly improbable act of exhibitionism in which an author pretends to write for himself: “[The diary’s] dishonest honesty wearies me,” he wrote. The problem of authenticity haunted him. A former philosophy student, he saw himself writing out of an existentialist crisis in which he asserted his identity, even though “knowing oneself” is impossible. Writing about his characters as much as about himself, he noted in Diary: “My man is created from the outside, that is, he is inauthentic in essence—he is always not himself. . . .  If I can never be entirely myself, the only thing that allows me to save my personality from annihilation is my will to authenticity, the stubborn-in-spite-of-everything ‘I want to be myself,’ which is nothing more than a tragic and hopeless revolt against deformation.”

The passage echoes Camus, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. Gombrowicz took these writers as his springboard, but like absurdists Bruno Schulz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, he mistrusted abstract thought. “To fear nothingness, but to fear the dentist more,” he wrote, parodying Sartre’s quivering existentialism. Gombrowicz argues that we may espouse dogmas but we can never live them. Life is inconsequential and passion upends philosophy. “If literature generally dares to speak,” Gombrowicz wrote in Diary, “it is not at all because it is certain of its truth, but only because it is certain of its delight.”

The main question that Gombrowicz grappled with was how to write the human condition: how to capture in words the pleasure and the pain, which are constantly shifting. To meet this challenge, he adopted in fiction a writing style that he considered to be free of pretension, chiding more meticulous stylists for their technical coquetry, or “nonexistent mathematics of language.“ In modernist fashion, he mixed high and low registers and conceived neologisms. In his fiction, he employed a close first-person unreliable narrator. His fluid stream-of-consciousness mode at times struck his critics as repetitive, but Gombrowicz defends it in Diary, arguing that his “endless play” should be valued over perfect craft.

Diary’s topics range from literature and the visual arts to philosophy and politics, but also include more personal preoccupations with aging, suffering, and death. Gombrowicz can comment on even a fly with piercing intensity. “I am afraid of the suffering of a fly,” he writes. “And this fear, in turn, terrifies me, as if some awful weakness toward life were contained in it.” However, not all of Gombrowicz’s takes on reality are as astute. His observations on Argentina show him at times struggling to fit the country into his preconceived notion of a virgin, unspoiled South America. His views on women are likewise skewed; at times he implies that they are concerned only with fashion and triviality, in line with some twentieth-century male thinkers whose attitudes toward women were marked by fear on one hand and a sense of intellectual superiority on the other. Finally, Gombrowicz’s descriptions of his homosexual encounters in Argentina, while bold, are conventionally framed as demonic decadence—a thinker’s fall into eroticism. They set the stage for his affinity with Thomas Mann, whom Gombrowicz admired for transforming illness into strength, and what might be viewed as degradation into a positive cultural value.

Mann’s brilliance intrigued Gombrowicz, who wanted to elevate play, lightness, and immaturity to the level of philosophy, and to portray existence in a fundamentally satirical way. “Lightness,” he proclaimed, “is perhaps the most profound thing the artist has to say to the philosopher.” Like Freud, Gombrowicz armed himself with endless wordplay against philosophers; unlike Freud, he proclaimed life to be unknowable. Lightness, as he saw it, was a constant attempt to demystify a critical stance and the only way to attain a modicum of authenticity. He saw philosophy as most valuable where it joined literature in performing this task, of which he wrote in a 1956 Diary entry, “We see that we are once again confronted with one of the great mystifications, similar to those unmasked by Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, who revealed that behind the façade of our Christian, bourgeois, and sublimated morality vied other, anonymous, and brutal forces.” He attacked modern claims to rationality, particularly the communists’. He distinguished between great writers and the systems that their works had spawned or might inspire. Gombrowicz saw no place for creative genius in politics, favoring negation over affirmation, divisiveness over allegiance.

Gombrowicz’s writing remains relevant today because of his acute satirical vision. He did not spare anyone, but was kinder toward the crude, sincere revolt of the young than toward those who professed worldly cynicism or defended the status quo. To combat the moral ossification that, at least according to Gombrowicz, threatens anyone who takes himself too seriously, the author of Diary offers a laughing cure: he presents life in all its absurdity to reveal how underneath our erudition and sublimation we are vulnerable to others. Even more so to our own inherent fears and follies.