Books: Cultural Amnesia — Witold Gombrowicz |
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In Poland between the wars, Witold Gombrowicz (1904–1969) became a successful writer of a recognizable type, principally because of his surrealist novel Ferdyduke (1938). After he went into exile in Argentina, however, he gradually transmuted into a type of writer that we are only now starting to recognize: the writer who doesn’t write in established forms, but just writes, and who, not belonging anywhere, makes everywhere belong to him. When Poland ceased to suffer under the Nazis, Gombrowicz declined the opportunity to go home and see it suffer under the Communists. In the many volumes of his Journal, Varia, correspondence and memoirs (all available in French, but only some, alas, in English) he worked out a position by which he himself was Poland, and the detailed description of his flight from artistic form was the only art-form to which he felt responsible. On this latter point he differed from his fellow Polish-speaking exile Czesław Miłosz, who practised all the literary art-forms as if they were one. In his long final phase, Gombrowicz practised none of them, and wrote about how he didn’t. But the way he wrote, in a prose teeming with observed detail and subversive perceptions, was a continual fascination, and went on being so after his death: volumes of his casual-seeming writings continued to appear, and his widow, Rita, became the curator of his reputation as it rose inexorably to fame. At his death he was called “the most unknown of all celebrated writers.” Two decades later, in the year that the Berlin Wall came down, the first uncensored edition of his complete writings finally appeared in Poland. His country had come home to its most obdurate world citizen.

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I find that any self-respecting artist must be, and in more than one sense of the term, an émigré.

EVERYONE,” SAID DR. JOHNSON, “has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place.” If he had been blessed with clairvoyance, he might have added: “Everyone except Witold Gombrowicz.” Having spent most of his writing life in exile, Gombrowicz was under some compulsion to judge the experience vital to his cast of mind: but he seems not to have been faking. He might possibly have gone back to Communist Poland if its literary authorities had not been so stupid as to attack him before he got there instead of afterwards. In his Journal Paris-Berlin we find him merely nervous about going back. He is not yet refusing to. But things worked out as they always did, with one of Poland’s most talented writers confirmed in his course of having as little as possible to do with Poland and its immediate concerns. It seems fair to say that he liked it better that way. He wasn’t just making the best of a bad job. Over the course of a writing life spent far from home, he took the opportunity to examine just how closely a national writer must be connected to his nation. In Journal I he asked: is the life of an exile really more fragmentary? In Journal II he said that the more you are yourself, the more you will express your nationality—with the implication that it was easier to express it if you were free of nationalist pressures. In Nazi Germany, he had noticed, the citizens had become less typically German, less authentic. (It should be said that in the writings of Gombrowicz the frequently employed word “authentic” has an authenticity that it never has in the context of Sartre’s existentialism, where it essentially means having the chutzpah to do what it takes so that you may suit yourself—not quite the same thing as being true to yourself.) In Journal II Gombrowicz said: “I want to be only Gombrowicz”: i.e., a country all by himself. He could see the attendant danger: “mon moi gonfle”—my self inflates. “Because the trivial concerns oneself, one fails to see it might be boring.” But in the end, he said in Testament, to lose one’s country is a release. In Empson’s famous poem, the companion piece to the line “It seemed the best thing to be up and go” is “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.” If Gombrowicz had not been able to fly, he would probably have ended up dead. But it is not impossible, just difficult, to imagine him choosing a quiet life from the start, and writing his diary in secret. It is impossible, however, to imagine him not leaving home if given the choice. The idea he spent his life refining—that art was its own kingdom—was an idea that he was born with.

Nobody got closer than Gombrowicz to making the idea of the “world citizen” seem exalted, the ideal condition that we should all seek, the only way that a mind can come home. But it is important to remember that he had only lost his country: he never forgot it. Poland is one of his constant themes—more so than Argentina, his land of exile—and he continually defines himself in relation to it. “I want to be only Gombrowicz” is transmuted into various versions of “I am Poland”: pretty much the way de Gaulle felt about France, Stravinsky about Russia or Thomas Mann about Germany. The surest guarantee of Gombrowicz’s deep feelings about his country is that he went on writing in its language. Under their various titles, the journals, which amount to his masterpiece, were written in Polish, not Spanish. We owe it to the French publishing house Christian Bourgois Editeur that the Polish was translated into French. Year after year in the late eighties and early nineties—the years when the East was coming back from the dead—I would stop in at the Polish bookshop on Boulevard St. Germain to see if there was a new volume of Gombrowicz. There almost always was. It was a pity that the same did not happen in London or New York. The complete Gombrowicz journals are still not available in English. Thus we pay the penalty for the too-long lingering policy of publishing in an expensive hardback edition first. The French, publishing directly in paperback, found an out-of-the-way writer like Gombrowicz a less suicidal commercial proposition. After all, they had at least one customer they could be sure of. Gombrowicz would have liked the idea of an Australian resident in London looking forward to a trip to Paris so that he could buy the latest book of a Pole resident in Buenos Aires, take it to a café, gather together his rudimentary French, and start construing the text line by line, with much note-taking in the endpapers after copious use of the dictionary. The spectacle would probably not have inspired Gombrowicz to large approving statements along the lines of Vargas Llosa’s cosmopolitanismo vital. But Gombrowicz might have been pleased by the evidence that the individual personality is at the centre of the art, and gets through.

It is isn’t easy to make someone who hasn’t experienced it understand what it feels like, this martyrdom of being judged, devalued, disqualified, and misrepresented by journalists writing in haste who are bored by reading and who, for that matter, hardly ever read anything anyway.


He was making the classic complaint of those who would rather be famous than not, but find fame an instrument too blunt to leave their refined views uninjured. As a man without a country, Gombrowicz was good copy for international style-section journalists, and he admitted the advantages of the accruing prestige even as he deplored the psychological effects of being hailed by the uncomprehending. He brought the theme to a nodal point in Journal II, with a disquisition on “le sex-appeal des messieurs d’un certain âge.” Perhaps indulging in wishful thinking—although in his own case the wishful thought seems to have often come true—he said that a man no longer young, but with a certain lustre for his achievements, will soon find the second factor outweighing the first in the matter of attracting youthful admirers. One might as well lie back and enjoy it. The thing to do, he added, is to enjoy it without believing it. Gombrowicz thought that Thomas Mann did believe it, and that the result was “a complacent dignity ... parading in its cardinal purple.” Calling Mann an old cocotte, Gombrowicz couldn’t let his victim go, and those pages of the second Journal in which he toys with Mann’s reputation can be recommended as a paradigm example of one great literary exile getting on another’s case.

Gombrowicz probably had the right of the argument: even if glory is justified by talent, nobody can remain fully genuine “dans cette dimension supérieure.” (Gombrowicz cheekily suggested that Mann would have made an extra contribution to literature if he had recorded how his growing grandeur had made him more bogus.) But it was Mann who went on adding to his roster of novels. Though Gombrowicz never quite gave up on himself as a novelist, he did give up on putting his main imaginative effort into fiction. Instead he persuaded himself—with what success it is up to us to judge—that his factual work was imaginative. The question remains (and is bound to remain, because he wanted it to remain) of whether the journals, taken all together, are a true literary work. I think they are, but they are a true literary work of the second order—the second order of ancillary writings which, as he said when singing a bitter hymn to his lost country in Souvenirs de Pologne, is a measure of a nation’s culture. On that last point he was surely right. A nation can boast masterpieces while having no culture. The Soviet Union, had it wished, could have claimed that it had produced Shostakovitch, but it could never have produced the equivalent of Singin’ in the Rain, even if it had wished to. Gombrowicz had spotted a new, ideologically determined and therefore wholly modern kind of aridity, in which first-class art was up for display but had no general effect in everyday life.

Gombrowicz would never have become himself if he had not escaped from the requirements of a literary career: if he had not dismantled his own reputation as fast as it threatened to form. (His chief rule for getting this done was never to make an expected move.) The escape is part of his fame. What he did not do is part of what made him Gombrowicz—a name that means an attitude. Without the attitude, there would never have been the name. He woke up to this specific form of celebrity quite slowly, and was probably far embarked on his journals before he ever realized that they were destined to be his capital work. After her chandelier-shaking first night in Paris before World War I, Karsavina, the very first Firebird, sat up until all hours darning her stockings as usual, until a friend told her that she would have to stop doing it. “And he brought me the papers, and for the first time I learned that I was Karsavina” (John Drummond, Speaking of Diaghilev). From all those boring journalists who tracked him down and trailed him around, the diarist in exile learned that he was Gombrowicz. He had staked his life on the idea, but kept repeating it as if he didn’t yet believe it. After the dullards agreed, he was able to believe it. Goethe said that Ovid remained classical even in exile: he found his unhappiness not in himself, but in his distance from the capital of the world. Gombrowicz avoided even the unhappiness, by deciding that der Haupstadt der Welt went with him wherever he went. Or anyway he appeared to avoid it: some of his art might lie in the pretence.

Bizarrely, I am convinced that a writer incapable of talking about himself is not a complete writer.

But not even Gombrowicz talked about his complete self. As Ernesto Sabato complained when Gombrowicz was safely dead, the endlessly self-revealing exile never talked about his homosexuality. Sabato was an unquestioned feature of Argentina’s literary landscape and Gombrowicz was always and only the questionable visitor, but the two men admired each other. From Gombrowicz’s Testament we learn that he was struck by Sabato’s Sobre heroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs), It was, however, by no means a perfect match. In his reputation-making pre-war surrealist novel Ferdyduke, the young Gombrowicz had proclaimed that the artist’s aim was never to grow up. “Notre élément, c’est l’éternelle immaturité.” Our element is eternal immaturity. Gombrowicz stuck to that idea all his life: he came closest to outing himself when he proclaimed, in terms that would have seemed familiar to Thomas Mann, that age could be refreshed only by involvement with youth. No idea could have been further from Sabato’s mind. Sabato, unlike Gombrowicz, had not given up on the surrealist novel. Sabato thought the dreamwork could be a work of maturity, not just an effusion of youth. Sabato did not play it young, nor did he ever hide. Gombrowicz, though his stance was to talk about himself without self-censorship, probably thought that it couldn’t be done unless something was held back. Favouring the Latin tag lavartis prodeo—I advance in a mask—he drew attention to Goethe’s proper location, which was behind Faust. (In his Testament Gombrowicz said, “Je m’avance masqué”—a straight translation from the Latin.) We are left with the daunting prospect that there is another, real Gombrowicz who is not in the voluminous journals—or we would be left with it, if we thought that the secret man was the real one. The chances are low, however, that we are dealing with the Constantine Cavafy of Buenos Aires. Gombrowicz seems to have simply done what he said: drawn refreshment by surrounding himself with youth. In the sumptuously illustrated memorial volumes edited by his widow, Rita (Gombrowicz en Argentine 1939–1963 and Gombrowicz en Europe 1963–1969), the photographs are selected to show Gombrowicz well supported by a cast of stunning young women. At ease on an estancia in Argentina during some comfortable weekend, he can be seen bathing in the worship of three beautiful blonde Grace Kelly lookalikes all hanging on his every thickly accented word. It was the main story. It just wasn’t the whole story.

Any pipsqueak can roar like a lion on paper, because grand words cost little, whereas delicacy—the delicacy of Chopin for example, persevering to the extreme, tense, elaborate—requires effort and character.


When Rubinstein was in America making his great Chopin recordings after World War II, Gombrowicz was in Argentina writing the first of his Journals. It was Poland’s fate that its artists had no home, especially if they were still in Poland. Their best way of keeping their country alive was leave it. In that sense, Gombrowicz was just another Polish artist of his time. He shared the dubious benefits of a thorough education in powerlessness. First the Pitsudski right-wing regime, then the Nazis, then the Communists: it was a long course of instruction in what happens to civilization when it is deprived of a political dimension. It becomes a dream based on its surviving personalities, who are forced to live in a world of their own. The constant temptation for the powerless is to daydream of super-strength. Gombrowicz’s originality was to realize so clearly that his powerlessness would be his subject. Elsewhere in the same book, he retroactively defines his aim as “to transform weakness into force, the defeats into values. If I was not sufficiently authentic, not linked enough to reality, it was precisely that which could become my rich and authentic drama.” The same explicit statement of his mission was made again in Varia II: “in the end, the weakness becomes the strength.” The sign of deadly seriousness in the quoted passage is the mention of Gombrowicz’s revered Chopin. In the previous century, Chopin had been a pioneer of what was to become every talented Polish exile’s historical position: he was under continuous pressure to represent his country. Chopin had represented it by living for his art in Paris, where he could play in private. In Poland he could play only in public. Gombrowicz served the eternal Poland by being Polish in Buenos Aires, and didn’t even serve his art in the accepted sense; he abandoned even that, and made a point of refusing to create. Writing his decision down, however, he seems to have realized, by the way he felt compelled to return to the subject and draw out its nuances, that his refusal to create was a new kind of creation. And so it proved. The twentieth century was rich in journal writing, but not even Gide or Julien Green brought the formless form quite to the pitch of informal intensity achieved by Gombrowicz, who would have his name on his discovery if his name had been less ... well, less Polish.