Novelist, playwright and essayist. One of Poland's most prolific writers-in-exile of the post-war period. Born on the 4th of August 1904 and died in Vence, France, on the 25th of July 1969.
Gombrowicz is one of the most exceptional writers in the history of literature, at least in terms of his philosophy, his method of constructing texts and the power of his language. He fought endlessly against Polish tradition and history, but this was only the starting point. His work was deeply-rooted in the very tradition with which he struggled, but it managed at the same time to be universal.
He studied law at the University of Warsaw and philosophy and economics in Paris. In 1933 Gombrowicz published Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania / Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity, a collection of humourous stories playing with the form of "low literature", which was completely misunderstood by contemporary critics.
Four years later he published his first novel, Ferdydurke, a work that deals with themes he would further explore in his later writing. These include the problems of immaturity and youth, "faces" (masks worn in front of others), and the confines of society and culture - particularly Polish culture, which Gombrowicz saw as noble, Catholic and provincial. Critics reacted harshly to Ferdydurke, and the controversy surrounding the book divided readers into two camps: those who worshipped the author, and those who hated him. But the book was admired by Bruno Schulz and Zofia Nałkowska.
We have long forgotten in our literature such shocking events and such eruptions as we see in Witold Gombrowicz's novel Ferdydurke, wrote Bruno Schulz in his review of the book. What we have here is an unusual manifestation of writing talent, a new and revolutionary form of novel, and finally a fundamental discovery, an annexation of a new field of spiritual phenomena, an ungoverned no man's land, where only an irresponsible joke, a pun and nonsense come out to play.
In 1938 Gombrowicz published his first play, Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy / Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda, a grotesque in which formality, custom and ceremony grow to eventually trap the individual, who cannot free himself and does not even know how to do so. However, the text inspired little reaction from the public.
One month before the outbreak of the Second World War, Gombrowicz decided to emigrate and boarded a ship to Argentina. He spent the war in South America, where the close-knit Argentinian community of Polish emigrants inspired him and made him laugh. His pre-war books were forgotten in Poland, and it was a long time before they gained him any kind of international recognition. As Jan Kott recalled in Rzeczpospolita Daily,
For many years, almost until the end of his time in Argentina, Gombrowicz lived on the verge of misery. He had his own table in an obscure café in Buenos Aires where he played chess with his young friends, none of whom was yet a writer. He worked at translating Ferdydurke into Spanish, page by page and sentence by sentence. Since his departure for Argentina, none of his books had been published in Poland. Yvonne... had never been staged. It would be many years before his name would become well-known internationally.
Only in the mid 1950s was Gombrowicz's first novel re-edited in Poland, and The Marriage / Ślub, the drama he wrote in 1946 in Argentina, was published in Polish and French.
Comparing The Marriage to Yvonne...., Lucien Goldmann wrote,
This play is a grotesque but strictly homologous transposition of events that took place in various forms in many countries throughout Central Europe and Russia, events that are projected, of course, through Gombrowicz's aristocratic and Christian lense. (...) Both plays (Yvonne... and The Marriage) have the grotesque in common, but in The Marriage it becomes truly dream-like. (...) In 1935 Gombrowicz puts on the stage a society in which he is still living and is part of; in 1946 he reconstructs a historical process from afar, which, in his vision, leads to the abrogation of history.
Gombrowicz became internationally famous in the 1960s, when several of his works - Pornography / Pornografia, Cosmos / Kosmos, Diary, and Operetta / Operetka - were published in Paris. Many literary critics consider Diary to be his best novel, while Operetta / Operetka was a grotesque play about the history and revolutions of the 20th century.
Why an operetta? Why does Gombrowicz associate it with modern art, when almost no self-respecting thespian would enter the halls where it exhibits its funny and absurd rites? wonders Jan Błoński. I think the reason is that the operetta (...) is the most conventionalised theatrical genre. The gestures are the most self-conscious and the stereotypes strut the proudest.
Gombrowicz's dramas began to be staged abroad and, with some difficulty, in Poland. Gombrowicz moved to Europe, first to West Berlin for a one-year scholarship, and then to the south of France, where he eventually settled. This is where he died and was buried. As Jan Błonski wrote in his the chapter "About Gombrowicz" in his book Gombrowicz and the Critics,
Gombrowicz was always a writer and a man who didn't want to surrender himself, his imagination or his originality for any price or to anyone, be they gods, societies or doctrines. But neither was he willing to give up his own culture, or accept the marginalization of his homeland.
Fellow writer-in-exile Czesław Miłosz wrote of Gombrowicz that his,
Gombrowicz's art cannot be judged with the passing of several decades. It is a monument of Polish prose, a fragment of a body of work that also includes Pasek and Sienkiewicz. Thirty years after the author's death, one can only ask how contemporary Poland compares to the Poland with which he fought in his desire to introduce the notion of 'sonland' rather than 'fatherland'. Is it the same, is it similar or is it completely different? There is no answer to this question, especially since the true Poland has not appeared in any literary work in recent years.
Critic Jerzy Jarocki remarked on Gombrowicz's status for contemporary Polish theatre from Jurek Grotowski to Grzegorz Jarzyna and the way he has managed to shatter the illusions of Poles and bring Poland closer to Europe.
In the summer of 2012 Yale University Press released a complete edition of Gombrowicz's diaries, published under the title Diary. As Ruth Franklin writes in her review of the Diary in The New Yorker,
Gombrowicz sought in the diary to revive Polish culture from the near-fatal blows dealt to it over the twentieth century. But he was equally concerned with saving himself. In the diary, Gombrowicz describes himself as "Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland". Gombrowicz rebellion was primarily targeted at what he came to call "form", Gombrowicz’s quest to save Polish culture from its own admirers becomes a favorite theme of the diary. His exhibitionism begins in mild form, with an almost sheepish account of his daily routine. But soon the diarist moves into the darker corners of his personality. As soon as Gombrowicz had resigned himself to a life of obscurity, his reputation caught up with him. Ferdydurke became a best-seller in Poland. His final novel, Cosmos, appeared to great acclaim. In the final diary entry, he was still railing against the provincialism of literary Poland. "My entire life I have fought not to be a ‘Polish writer’ but myself, Gombrowicz", he wrote. He nearly succeeded.
The book of his intimate records arrives as Gombrowicz’s swansong, years after the writer’s death in 1969. As with swans, it’s attractive to consider from a distance, but be advised that swans don’t let you pass unnoticed - just ask Leda.
The new book lays out Gombrowicz’s meticulous monthly tabulation of concerns - his erotic ventures as lists of partners’ first names, and his health and lack thereof, are the carnal, corporeal priorities, then travel, meetings, invitations, exchanges of gifts and letters. In finding a form for his unrelenting self analysis, the new book gives the writer something of a last word on his life. Read more...
Prepared in June 2002.