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Kronos - Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz, photo: SIPA PRESS / East News
Witold Gombrowicz, photo: SIPA PRESS / East News

The book of his intimate records arrives as Gombrowicz’s swansong, years after his 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 writer’s final extensive work - the companion piece to his famous Diary, as curt as the Diary is lush and harsh - is published in Polish on the 23rd of May by Wydawnictwo Literackie (WL) in Kraków. The fact that it’s his last book was attested to at the publisher’s press conference in Warsaw on the 8th of May by Rita Gombrowicz, the author’s widow. She had kept the manuscript after Yale University purchased his archive in 1989 for their Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. "This is the integral text", Madame Gombrowicz stated, when asked if other completed material exists, "and I tell you there is absolutely nothing more to come".

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. Finances, travel, meetings, invitations, exchanges of gifts and letters are listed. Code words are pointed out in editors' footnotes: "commisariat" when his influential cousin or embassy contacts got him out of Argentine jails, likely for soliciting sex; "Durand" for the Buenos Aires hospital where he received injections to treat syphilis. In finding a form for his unrelenting self analysis, the new book gives the writer something of a last word on his life.

A key work that's been absent for decades – as a full biography of Gombrowicz remains conspicuously absent – publication of Kronos is a fixating coup de théâtre. The book opens with a facsimile of a page on which he listed the dates 1903 - the year before he was born - to 1939. Those dates are largely blank, a warning that anyone can envision such a memory project, but few dare undertake it. The original sheets shape-shift over the decades, from graphic notation - with vertical columns classifying sex partners or historical events - to consistent synopses in his concise scrawl. The evolution reflects his efforts to organize the Kronos material. One concession in this premiere edition is the need to adapt and transcribe the original hundred handwritten sheets into conventional paragraphs. Another, which the reader must consent to, is the absence of Gombrowicz’s vital, infectious tone.

Running editorial commentary adorns the bottom of pages, as a system to let the array of facts he compiled for decades breathe and fill, rather than as an academic apparatus. Three main sections cover his life in Poland, in Argentina - where he elected to stay when the Second World War laid waste to Poland - then his European life on returning to the continent in 1963, with a Ford Foundation grant for a year’s stay in Berlin.

Footnotes for the early and late years are by Jerzy Jarzębski, the literary scholar whose books including Gra w Gombrowicza / Games with Gombrowicz (1982) are crucial studies. The quarter century in Argentina, where the writer transformed from exiled avant-gardist to a figure of international stature, is elucidated by Klementyna Suchanow, whose book Argentyńskie przygody Gombrowicza covers those years. Rita Gombrowicz provides commentary for the final section, and wrote the Introduction for Kronos. Photos illustrate each phase, and a selection from the manuscript’s pages supplement the transcription with its painstaking notes. Those manuscript reproductions display his method and occasional drawings, and the publisher plans a full facsimile edition.

There are no announcements to date for translations of Kronos, though expectations are high. The Diary is already available in some two dozen languages. The newest and most ambitious of these is the two-volume Norwegian edition of that inventive, argumentative opus, which will include a painstaking index and extensive annotations about people and topics he wrote about over the course of that work. The single-volume Yale University Press publication from 2012 elicited a five-page piece in New Yorker magazine. (Yale publishes a new translation of Trans-Atlantic in 2013, the pithy, stylized, provocative novel Gombrowicz completed in 1951.) WL’s new single-volume Polish edition of the Diary accompanies the publisher's edtion of Kronos, and the relation of the two works is illuminating and elusive.

Life transposed to language

He began both projects around 1953, when he was nearly 50. Kronos became his keeping of accounts, something of a workshop and laboratory as the writer embarked on essays that now comprise the Diary, which he was publshing serially in the emigrée journal Kultura (its legendary editor, Jerzy Giedroyc, called this mode "the dream form for you"). Early Kronos pages were jotted on the back of stationery and worksheets of his employer, the Banco Polaco - the bank's letterhead is visible in reverse through these sheets, as it is on the cover of Yale’s Diary edition. He kept track of his interests and obsessions economically. Some sheets hold a year’s entries, and other years fill three sheets. Without its ample supplementary material, Kronos would function as a core sample of his life - elements and evidence inert on the page - where the Diary unfolds like an immense scroll painting, precisely edited to reveal his writer’s view.

Witold Gombrowicz, Vence, photo:  Bohdan Paczowski
Witold Gombrowicz, Vence, photo: Bohdan Paczowski

Having begun these tandem projects, Gombrowicz moved back through his life in Kronos, working on certain pages in reverse chronology as he sought a form to accommodate his tenacious tabulation. "It’s a book about fate, how you can view fate", Dr. Jarzębski said at the press conference. "He’s recalling people, places, some of them unknown, and I don’t see a means of re-creating all of these significances." Jarzębski contrasted the Diary as "a kind of auto-creation. Now we can see details, for example in its passage about Simon and his dying daughter, which we had suspected to be a fiction". That incident with a distraught friend, powerful but strangely protracted, concludes the Diary’s second volume and is noted in Kronos as a "cuento", the Spanish word for short story, a fact that Jarzębski also notes in the Afterward he contributes to the Kronos edition.

Rita Gombrowicz told the press of the "laconic tone when he’s writing about very dramatic moments in his life". She cited the interview on his arrival in Berlin in 1963 by Barbara Swinarska (spouse of the renowned theatre director Konrad Swinarski) and published in Poland, where Gombrowicz’s work had been banned again by the Communist regime. "I know that he was very depressed by that piece" she said, "because I met him just after that". Swinarska’s article, noted in Kronos, is described at length in the Diary as a "malicious" attack, and the view it gave of his stay in Berlin was politically motivated. It coincided with anonymous phone calls in the night that undermined his health. Gombrowicz never returned to Poland. 

A letter from the philosopher Martin Buber appears in Kronos in July 1951 - Buber had responded warmly and avidly on reading Gombrowicz’s play The Marriage in typescript, and tried to spark interest in France for the play, as did Albert Camus. (The Paris premiere was over a decade later.) In Kronos, though, the letter gets a two-word entry, so the footnote becomes a crucial aid. In Salsipuedes in western Argentina in February 1947, the words "trzęsienie ziemi" - earthquake, in Polish. The editorial note registers its intensity, 5.5 on the Richter scale, and that Gombrowicz was at a patron's country home writing The Marriage's momentous scene with the Drunkard's finger - "the more they look at it", that character declares in Act 2, "the more extraordinary it becomes" - a revelatory device in the work he later told Czesław Miłosz was his favorite.

In her introduction to the new book, Rita Gombrowicz writes of complex, often personal factors concerning the manuscript in the decades that passed before this publication. She also writes of signs in the Diary of its existence. In the complex passage about crossing the Atlantic to Europe after his Argentine years, its "yellowed sheets with a month-by-month chronology" are announced – they’re in a valise in his cabin - and then are criticised, with Gombrowicz skeptical of "this litany of particulars". Yet it was that file, and his contracts, that he instructed his spouse to grab before she ran if the home they established in southern France happened to catch fire, as she relates.

Skimming the face of time

After monthly accounts for 1940, Gombrowicz started year-end summaries that continue in Kronos until 1969, when he died. “A year of sailing on deep water”, he writes of 1959: four important contracts, 2,500 dollars earned, nerves, throat, the eczema he struggled with for decades, Dr. Zellner’s order for a cardiogram. “Suddenly I took Pornografia out of the drawer to send to Kot”, he writes in June, referring to Konstanty Jeleński, his ardent advocate in the editorial world, and to the new novel that would be out in Italian, French and German translations four years later when he returned to Europe. Purchases a gramophone. Considers a new wristwatch then buys one.

That watch somehow illuminates a Diary comment, as he recrosses the Atlantic, on the tension five minutes before midnight on any New Year’s Eve. He terms that return voyage “a trip into death”. And he reflects on a stop he made before the ocean liner embarked from Buenos Aires, at 1258 Avenida Corrientes. There, at the door that was his around 1940 - “probably the hardest period” - he finds (in himself)…nothing. “Void.”

After “Ero”, one abbreviation in Kronos for sexual activity, he writes that 1959 was “usually calm, at the end only Andrea”. On the manuscript’s margin, alongside December’s notes, eight neat circles are incised – his code symbols for sex, presumably with Andrea, who remains but the name in his note. His appetite was rapacious – those meandering columns, mostly male first names, or a “country boy (3)”. While Andre Gide’s diaries clearly animated Gombrowicz's panoramic Diary, the lust in Kronos seems as compulsive as it was for Camus. Borrowing keys to friends’ homes is a persistent concern – his life had brought him from the country manors in which he was raised in provincial central Poland to a room without kitchen or private toilet that he rented for about seventeen years: 615 Venezuela Street, in the heart of the Argentine capital.

As a sustained exercise, Kronos indicates the rigour that underpins Gombrowicz’s lively, caustic art - that framework and structure on which he displays humanity’s dual needs for form and the enlivening risk of chaos. Viewing his practical activities minutely and acutely, the accounting works like a cloak or mask, draped by the mundane over the threat of something profound - “the ghastliness of my double consciousness”, as Pornografia’s narrator, Witold, puts it.

The issue now is the book’s readability – and it must rely on the appeal of its author’s renown, idiosyncratic personality and atypical biography, not on the text’s charm. It is “the work of a harsh consciousness, cold, utterly penetrating, relentless”, to quote Pornografia again.

In her introduction, Rita Gombrowicz wonders “Where is the look of the poet?”, while at the press conference, Jarzębski stated decisively that Kronos is not a work of art. He used the word “dry”, which Klementyna Suchanow used in comments before the conference. Suchanow also said that Kronos moves “like a river of things, things, things” - a difficult text that made for a difficult edition. She likened the work to a message in a bottle, dropped nearly half a century ago in a sea until the time when we might deal constructively with its amoral exposures.

The Tableaux section at the end of Kronos displays eighteen of the handwritten manuscript pages. Abrupt, sometimes telegraphic notes and sketches to jog his memory call to mind the striking autobiographical works Stendhal left unfinished and unpublished. Kronos is as fragmentary, fascinating and purposeful as Memoirs of an Egoist and The Life of Henry Brulard, works that weren't published as books until decades after that author’s death. And it’s as unlikely an introduction for a writer whose tone or attitude shreds the confines of literature – not with novels readily at hand that course with the merciless vitality of Gombrowicz’s Cosmos and Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and The Red and the Black.

The poet Paul Valery’s comment that one never finishes with Stendhal rings as true of Gombrowicz. Another point they share is sex in their major fictions, which neither bothered to narrate, as Miłosz notes of Gombrowicz. Simone de Beauvoir, meanwhile, admires Stendhal’s ardent women at length in her epochal study The Second Sex, and in Susan Sontag’s introduction to the Yale edition of Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke, she says it “seethes with lust” (Sontag also calls it the only Nietzschean comedy she knew).

At the reception

Kronos will remain a testament to Rita Gombrowicz and her guidance of the writer’s expanding legacy, even as it seeks its reception among readers. She had worked in the early 1970s on a version of the text in French with Maria Paczowska, who with her husband, the architect Bohdan Paczowski, had been the Gombrowiczs’ close friends in Vence, their French home. At the press conference, she laughed that Paczowska asked on first seeing Kronos, “What if all that was not true, was just his fabrication?”

The network of details that Kronos revealed served her as a key while interviewing Gombrowicz’s friends and associates in Argentina. During her initial visits, she recovered two memoir manuscripts he’d left there. One, Polish Memories, was published by Yale in 2004, the centenary of his birth. Fragments from Kronos were reproduced in her books of interviews about his life. She’s arranged for the donation of manuscript’s brittle pages to the National Library in Warsaw for conservation and archival preservation, in autumn 2013.

Some who were close to Gombrowicz insist that Kronos was never intended for publication, and arguments will be raised that it was best left for scholars and researchers. Will it be the least read of his works, or a sensation (a distinction that is ultimately qualitative)? Stendhal says books are entries in the lottery of public taste, and Gombrowicz’s case will continue to fascinate. A striking full-length photo in Kronos begins its Europe section. In profile, wolfish smile, pipe stem in his fine fingers, the transatlantic chess champion is on his second such voyage. Most every eye in the crowded shipboard ballroom is on him.

Perhaps the book can be seen in relation to documentary theatre in our day, which derives dramatic content from mundane and immediate material. Most of Gombrowicz’s work is now mined for the stage - and theatre remains the broadest, most persistent form of exposure. Since international productions of his plays began in the mid 1960s, around a million Germans have attended a performance of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, the most-performed of his theatre works, as estimated by the Gombrowicz expert Allen Kuharski at Swarthmore College in the States. On a recent visit to the intriguing Gombrowicz Musuem, opened in 2009 in a manor his brother owned near Radom, south of Warsaw, a banner on the city’s outskirts announced the local theatre’s new production adapted from Polish Memories, the manuscript he left in Argentina.

Gombrowicz's work has taken up the strange dual role of literature - to startle new generations while skirting both the bins of obscurity and the “nonerotic” pantheon of masterworks. Kronos can now begin to entice and irritate, with its clues about the energizing discomfort of being alive.

Author: Alan Lockwood


For more on the early reception of Kronos, see Mikołaj Gliński's piece on

Tags: witold gombrowiczkronos

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