The novel’s protagonist, thirty-year-old Joey (‘Józio’ in the Polish version), by some whim of fate becomes a student again. In and out of school he cultivates his obsession – the search for proper form as the key to liberating himself from the norms and conventions that constrain him. Unfortunately, he fails and retains his ‘mug’, although he tried hard to escape from it.
Reading the 1938 novel Ferdydurke guarantees an artistic and emotional experience of great calibre. It confirms the author’s predisposition to skilfully play with form, which began with his 1934 collection of short stories Bacacay. Ferdydurke also testifies to Gombrowicz’s proficiency in constructing an atmosphere that borders on seriousness and absurdity.
In the opening scenes, we can already see the brilliance which stems from revelatory viciousness. Young characters with pent-up hormones clash with the ossified modes of behaviour of the teaching staff, strongly entangled in the rigid school curriculum. Among the exciting scenes of Witold Gombrowicz’s book we have duels between students above all, a stiff lecture delivered by the Polish language teacher Bladaczka, daringly interrupted by unconvinced listeners, the quid pro quo at the Młodziak house with the oppressed Professor Pimka, or the mockery of the aristocratic manners of the declining landowners by their servants. However, underneath the smirk, the author’s deep thoughts on the perfidious reality of the modern world are hidden, which means that this novel could have the famous sage wearing a clown hat – Stańczyk – as its patron.
Ferdydurke’s plot bursts with emotion and, three times, after culminating in a disorderly brawl following a scene, it ends with a spontaneous change of location by the hastily-evacuating protagonist. Joey moves from school to a boarding house for students and from there to the countryside, which for him is an escape from one realm of immaturity to another. He moves from one imperfect system to the next one which looks more promising – but only in the beginning.
The protagonist of the novel is also its narrator. His sharp eye spots every single inauthentic act. Individual representatives of the human species will reveal themselves before him in conventionalised, empty rituals. Most of the rules of their conduct will quickly demonstrate their uselessness and shallowness: both the conservative methods of the teachers, as well as the thoughtless admiration of the contemporary middle-class family for all of their manifestations of modernity. This is also the case with the lofty and not-always-exemplary high-toned habits of the gentry inhabiting their manors – the mainstay of family tradition.
The language of Gombrowicz’s novel daringly mocks reality, but, at the same time, in an exuberant combination of conventions and styles, it remains vivid and understandable to all readers. Ferdydurke is a pastiche of Voltaire’s philosophical tale. However, while Candide felt the flogging delivered by fate itself on his own skin, the thirty-year-old Joey, on the contrary, himself provokes situations in which the more or less-deserved blows are received by others.
Ferdydurke is a breakthrough not only in Polish prose. It is worth mentioning that its Spanish translation – co-created by Witold Gombrowicz himself – significantly influenced the development and spectacular expansion of Latin-American literature and the style of magical realism, which made its much-deserved arrival in Poland in the 1970s.
As Witold Gombrowicz wrote in his Letter to the Ferdydurkists, published in Nowiny Literackie [27th April 1947]:
Ferdydurkism is the will to create, and a Ferdydurkist is the one who demands art to CREATE. So don’t lose hope.
Since some writers have borrowed elements from the Polish author, it is time to also explain who inspired him. The title Ferdydurke was borrowed from the 1922 novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, the first American Nobel Prize winner in literature (1930). In his book, a certain Ferdy Durkee appears as a side character – an extremely shy and awkward clerk who is also underpaid and who radically changed his status after taking a ‘shortcut method’ course in fluent expression and mastering the ability to tell anecdotes.
Babbitt inspired Gombrowicz with an episode of a struggle of students against the matter of an incompetently delivered class:
The one thing I want you to especially remember, boys, is the words, ’With God all things are possible.’ Just think of that always – Clarence, PLEASE pay attention – just say ’With God all things are possible’ whenever you feel discouraged, and, Alec, will you read the next verse; if you’d pay attention you wouldn’t lose your place!
Drone – drone – drone – gigantic bees that boomed in a cavern of drowsiness –
Gombrowicz, on the other hand:
A great poet! Remember that, it’s important! And why do we love him? Because he was a great poet. A great poet he was indeed! You laggards, you ignoramuses, I’m trying to be calm and collected as I tell you this, get it into your thick heads – so, I repeat once more, gentlemen: a great poet, Juliusz Slowacki, a great poet, we love Juliusz Slowacki and admire his poetry because he was a great poet. Please make note of the following homework assignment: ’What is the immortal beauty which abides in the poetry of Juliusz Slowacki and evokes our admiration?
Sinclair Lewis encouraged the Polish writer to use certain terminology in prose. In Babbitt, he writes:
I think this baby’s a bum, yes, sir, I think this little baby’s a bum, he’s a bum, yes, sir, he’s a bum, that’s what he is, he’s a bum, this baby’s a bum, he’s nothing but an old bum, that’s what he is – a bum!
Similarly in Ferdydurke:
Oh, the pupa, pupa, pupa! Thank you for remembering us here, dear Professor! And God bless you, dear colleague, for the new pupil! If everyone were as good at belittling as you are, our school would be twice as big! The pupa, pupa, pupa. Would you believe that when we artificially belittle and infantilize adults we get better results than we do with children in their natural state? Oh, the pupa, the pupa, there would be no school without pupils, and no life without school! I commend myself to you, my institution doubtless continues to deserve support, our methods of turning out the pupa have no equal, and the teaching body is meticulously selected with that in mind.
On several occasions, the American writer referred to Gombrowicz’s beloved snobbery:
But my folks ain’t kikes. My papa’s papa was a nobleman in Poland, and there was a gentleman in here one day, he was kind of a count or something – […] And he said he knew my papa’s papa’s folks in Poland and they had a dandy big house. Right on a lake!
Another well-recognised theme was expressed by Lewis in the following sentences:
Thus it came to him merely to run away was folly, because he could never run away from himself. […] In his journey there was no appearance of flight, but he was fleeing…
In turn, Gombrowicz wrote:
And now come, oh mugs! No, I’m not saying goodbye to you, strange and unknown mugs of strange and unknown people who will read me, I say hello to you, hello, graceful bundles of body parts, now let it all begin – come, step up to me, begin your kneading, make me a new mug so I will again have to run from you and into other people, and speed, speed, speed through all mankind. Because there is no escape from the mug, other than into another mug, and from a human being one can only take shelter in the arms of another human being. From the pupa, however, there is absolutely no escape. Chase me if you want. I’m running away, mug in my hands.
Apart from the pupa, mug, and escape, Witold Gombrowicz also gave a separate meaning to other expressions in his work, which gone on to become important discoveries in prose. Let us list some of them: making one aware of something – against the will of the interested party! – was called ‘rape through the ears’ in Ferdydurke. An even greater career was made by the phrase ‘to have the child run deep’ which is a synonym of eternal immaturity.
The farmhand proved to be particularly important as the ideal image of unchangeability and simplicity. This was due to the fact that, like every bourgeois child, the to-be writer had limited freedom in making his own decisions, which is why he envied his rural peers for their unrestrained freedom, manifested even by walking… barefoot. However, it is common knowledge that for the author of Ferdydurke there is no word more important than ‘form’ – which sentences the innocence of man to the torments of cliché, grimace, making faces and the mug.
Like any real work, Witold Gombrowicz’s novel leaves a lot of room for interpretation and asks many questions. The author, however, does not give a clear answer to them – this wonderful privilege belongs to the reader.
Originally written in Polish by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, September 2018, translated to English by Patryk Grabowski, February 2019