Gombrowicz's very last secret revealed: the writer's widow on the doubts that had kept her from publishing Kronos earlier, and how the book should be read
Rita Gombrowicz, photo: Krzysztof Pacuła / Forum
44 years after the death of Witold Gombrowicz, Polish readership is presented with his unknown and most intimate journal, Kronos. Rita Gombrowicz, the widow of the late writer, declares it to be very last secret preserved in the archives of her husband. In an interview with Agnieszka Szwedowicz for the Polish Press Agency (PAP) Mrs. Gombrowicz speaks about her husband’s addiction to nicotine, the doubts that had kept her from publishing Kronos earlier, and of how the book should be read
PAP: What surprised you as you read Kronos? Is it a text that changes something in the image of your husband for you?
Rita Gombrowicz: Kronos didn’t alter my image of Witold in any radical way. When we met, he told me his whole life and didn’t hide anything, including his relations with men. I was not at all shocked by this. What did surprise me in Kronos was the way in which he described certain people, and also the period of his life when we were together. It didn’t match my own memories, which were diametrically different.
I was also surprised that Kronos, an intimate journal, is written in a way that is quite distanced to the described events. But one must bear in mind that Witold wasn’t writing Kronos on a daily basis, but once a month, in the same rhtythm as the fragments of his Diary that he was submitting to the Parisian Kultura journal. Kronos was thus not made in the heat of the moment. I have the impression that this text is a sort of skeleton, a backbone that served Gombrowicz as a base for the creation of his Diary, which in itself is a proper work of literature.
PAP: Kronos was hidden under your bed for nearly 40 years. Why does it see the light of day right now? What has changed? The world, or your stance?
R.G.: Everything has changed. By the way, it was a photocopy of the Kronos that I had under my bed for 44 years, and the original was kept in a safe at the bank. There was only one copy of the manuscript, today it is in a much better condition than the original, the paper that Witold wrote on is aging at a terrifying speed. The delay of the publication was due to the fact that the attempts to decipher Witold’s laconic scribbles and to recognize the people that Witold wrote about took me many years. I also felt that I cannot publish such an intimate text until Gombrowicz’s oeuvre, and especially the Diary, don’t become really well known around the world.
Kronos has no sense without the Diary. I was also tempted, for a long time, to delete the fragments of Kronos that are about myself. But I resisted, I am now mature enough to look at these parts with a distance and a smile. Kronos has been published in its entirety. I was also afraid for a long time that it will be read solely in the context of standards of behaviour, as a text with the air of a scandal and one which describes very intimate affairs that are not understood or accepted by everyone. But people’s mentality has changed a lot throughout these years.
PAP: But not so much as to enable one to entirely avoid the reading of Kronos from the perspective of rights and wrongs, Gombrowicz comes out in this aspect in a very strong manner - in the book one can find the list of his partners, both women and men. What was the meaning of eroticism for Gombrowicz?
R.G.: It was something very important, one of the aspects of life that most fully defines the nature of humans. It think this is why he wanted to be so honest in Kronos.
PAP: Your encounter is a kind of a miracle. A young and beautiful woman enters into a relationship with a much older and sick man, moreover a man who is enamoured with men for over 20 years. What united you?
R.G.: Gombrowicz was 59 when we met, and I was 29. He was a fascinating man and he was always really liked by young people. Gombrowicz was capable of being really amusing, he had a child in him as well as a poet. And I was fascinated with literature, although when we met I didn’t know his work at all. Witold was different from other intellectuals, he acted like an incognito prince. This fascinated me. On the other hand, Witold needed somebody younger in that period of his life, someone he could spend time with and someone who would take care of him. We suddenly realised that this feeling is serious, and that we understand each other increasingly well.
PAP: The picture of your life together in Kronos is rather dramatic - images of various illness are intertwined with descriptions of fights. How do you remember this?
R.G.: I think that Witold was not fair in these fragments. We fought very little, literally a few times, about totally silly things, but he took these quarrels really hard, I think that he found the fact that I could disagree with him difficult to accept. It’s a manifestation of his slight misogyny, a trait that was a part of his personality. In Kronos, Witold writes about “Rita’s hysteria”, but there were really no hysteric scenes, I was simply cross with him a few times and I didn’t speak to him.
In reality, life with him was not difficult, which is surprising when one considers the fact that he never really lived with anyone before, he didn’t share his daily life with anyone. It was quite an effort for him, and he fought for his autonomy within marriage. But at the same time, he was very much a family man. When he worked, he always kept the door to his room opened - I could go in there at any time. Our main problem was the state of his health.
Gombrowicz by his desk in Vence in the south of France, an ashtray in front of him. Gombrowicz was a passionate smoker; photo. Bogdan Paczkowski.
PAP: Gombrowicz counted his maladies and came up with 17 different conditions. Which one was the most alarming?
R.G.: I think that the worst thing for him was the addiction to smoking of cigarettes. He had problems with his lungs from childhood, he had asthma - but throughout his stay in Argentina he would smoke three to four packs a day. He was a passionate smoker. Friends used to say that he would put a pack of cigarettes for the day into his pocket, but he only had one match. It was enough for a day, because he would light one cigarette from another. I believe that this lead to a tragic condition of his lungs. He limited smoking only after an asthma attack that nearly killed him at the age of 54. But later he would smoke the pipe, and he also discovered eucalyptus cigarettes, which, he declared, even helped with his asthma.
PAP: Not many expected that 44 year after his death Gombrowicz will surprise readers with an unknown book. What else are you hiding in the archive?
R.G.: Nothing, really, I am not hiding anything more. The readers can thus calmly begin to digest Kronos, because there will be nothing more.
Witold Gombrowicz’s Kronos is published in Polish by Wydawnictwo Literackie and it is available from Polish bookstores on the 23rd of May, 2013. The presale takes place as part of the annual Warsaw Book Fair between the 16th and 19th of May.
Agata Szwedowicz’s interview with Rita Gombrowicz, translated by Paulina Schlosser, source: PAP, 12.05.2013