August 2012

Daniel Shvartsman

nonfiction

Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Lillian Vallee

In 1966 Witold Gombrowicz, having emerged from a lifetime of obscurity to become a world-renowned writer, published a book in Germany about the year he spent in Berlin as a grant recipient. The book, taken from Gombrowicz's long-running monthly diary for a Polish émigré publication, features Gombrowicz's uneasy feelings as a person and a Pole living in harmonious post-World War II West Berlin, haunted by skeletons and the hands of his hosts, wondering where all their Goethes and Hegels have gone. The ambivalent account outraged many Germans, who found it inappropriate coming from a guest and too cutting besides. In response, Gombrowicz agreed to conduct and write a self-interview for a Hamburg newspaper. He prompts himself with the angry reviews, and then says: "I wrote those things to hurt Germans... a writer ought to be painful. Just as in love: one has to get through the clothes to the living flesh."

Witold Gombrowicz's long, twisted, ultimately triumphant career as a writer was about nothing more than getting through the clothes to the living flesh, sometimes in hurting, painful fashion. His Diary, here published in a newly translated edition that compiles all three original volumes, plus unpublished entries from his final years and two related essays, was Gombrowicz's main vehicle to sow chaos and regain a place in the most important conversations held in both the Polish émigré sphere and world literature and thought, a vehicle that ran over 700 pages and seventeen years.

Gombrowicz is best known for Ferdydurke, a novel that ripped apart interwar Poland's collective spirit and complacent belief in ideology, any ideology, at the expense of individual freedom. After releasing the novel and gaining some attention, Gombrowicz went to Argentina as a journalist on a cruise. World War II broke out during his visit and, at the last minute, Gombrowicz decided to stay in the country. This decision led to years of poverty, bohemianism, and work as a bank clerk, before Gombrowicz declared, "I must become my own commentator, even better, my own theatrical director. I have to create Gombrowicz the thinker, Gombrowicz the genius, Gombrowicz the cultural demonologist, and many other necessary Gombrowiczes." Hence, Diary.

After famously beginning the diary with "Monday -- Me. Tuesday -- Me. Wednesday -- Me. Thursday -- Me," Gombrowicz sets about defending the importance of the "I." The book's shape comes in monthly entries Gombrowicz wrote for the Polish émigré monthly Kultura, with daily headings becoming increasingly arbitrary as Gombrowicz grows into the form. Each month stands as a cohesive essay, travelogue, or polemic, striking out at new targets and turning to familiar themes in equal measure.

His initial battle is with closed-minded Polish literary figures, fellow exiles mainly, who obsess over Poland's identity, history, and collective "we." The names might be unfamiliar to most American readers, but the general message is a universal one, one of the person's and the writer's right to freedom, as well as the exile's opportunity to experience that freedom: "The loss of a homeland will not disturb the internal order of only those whose homeland is the world."

Beyond Gombrowicz's local focus on the "Polish" problem, the common themes linking his topics are hypocrisy and artificiality. Gombrowicz seeks to abolish the former by acknowledging the latter, picking fights on these grounds not only with Polish writers but with painters, science, Argentinean nationalists, Bach, overpopulation, numbers, Marxism, poetry, and academics.

The momentum of the Diary picks up as it goes along. Gombrowicz's rising fame allows him to quit his job at the bank and dedicate himself to the writerly task of stirring up trouble. Gombrowicz's emboldened approach takes on some of the self-awareness of the second volume of Don Quixote. He runs rampant in provincial Argentine towns, dismaying the local intellectual leftists and winning over groups of teenage writers. He elucidates Ferdydurke and his other works, sharing correspondence with critics who fail to get the message. He warns the Argentineans of the "we" trap that has long befallen the Poles.

But with the comfort of his fortified position, Gombrowicz also turns inward. He talks of saving beetles from dying on their backs on the beach and the limits of compassion; he develops a third person voice to comment on his struggles with writing about himself and his fame; he recalls frequenting seedy neighborhoods during his first days and years in Buenos Aires, attracted by the promise of degraded youth. The second volume closes with a claustrophobic tale: Gombrowicz's friend's daughter has suffered a terrible accident, and in accompanying and consoling the friend, the writer feels trapped, oppressed by the pain. So he leads his friend on a race out of Buenos Aires, in an effort to escape the latter. The story ends on a suburban train with Gombrowicz's head trapped in a fat man's abundant flesh, feeling a faint tickling on his neck: "I wait for the Tickling to get chummy with IT, with the Animal, before it sinks, like a knife, into the unknown, inconceivable, still unuttered scream."

The final volume finds Gombrowicz at last achieving full international recognition, but still fighting to maintain his independence amidst his accolades. This struggle is both compelling and clichéd at times, but in Gombrowicz's hands always honest and entertaining. He spends a year's worth of entries writing about his revulsion and attraction for Paris, and then the year in Berlin, before at last retiring to a town in Provence with his companion and eventual wife, living out his final years on the page, with characteristic agony, aggression, and a faint sense of satisfaction.

For all of Gombrowicz's prescient pugnacity, the author had his flaws. He romanticized Argentina for its wild youth and native American purity. He talked of Kafka's boring brilliance -- "to read page after page is entirely beyond me" -- without grasping how difficult Ferdydurke would read in translation seventy-five years on. Most especially, Gombrowicz harbored a naïve, anachronistic, and acidic brand of misogyny, blaming women for cultivating artificial beauty and for using their youth to propagate the species and vanquish man's youth, as if reproduction is a one-sided affair. This last may come out of Gombrowicz's emotional ignorance. He admits, "I do not know how to deal with (women) in the realm of feelings," and later expresses surprise that his companion of four years so wanted to marry him, but strikes a discordant note in his intellectual symphony all the same.

The book nevertheless slashes through both its targets and the reader's psyche. Gombrowicz is always sharp, playful, and willing to take the reader along with his thinking, blow for blow. This edition has a thorough index to help keep track of all the references, and Lillian Vallee's translation keeps Gombrowicz's prose straightforward without ever sounding dull.

In the introduction to the American edition of Ferdydurke, Susan Sontag laments the fact that Diary has overtaken the novel as Gombrowicz's most recognized work. It's true that without Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, and the rest of Gombrowicz's artistic oeuvre, this book would ring hollow, the empty ranting of a pretend pundit. At the same time, without Diary and Gombrowicz's return to prominence, we might not read Ferdydurke today. The writing here not only helps enlighten Gombrowicz's artistic works but also stands on its own as an entertaining, accessible, thought-provoking, and important work.

The Diary is, like all Gombrowicz's writing, about man's most difficult battle: to be oneself. It serves as a call to arms for artists, writers, and people, asserting the importance of individual freedom, and stinging those too complacent or lost to grasp that importance. Gombrowicz comes back to his secret time and again: "I am alone. That is why I exist more."

Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Lillian Vallee
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300118063
800 pages