Posts Tagged ‘Witold Gombrowicz’

On refugees and writers

January 30, 2017

Lots of talk about refugees and migrants everywhere at the moment has had me thinking about writers who have had to leave their countries. People flee their countries because their lives are endangered, or they move voluntarily because they hope for a better quality of life elsewhere. These reasons are very different and it would be helpful if people and politicians differentiated.

I cast my eyes over my bookshelves. I know my library is a personal collection, and therefore not representative, but the first thing that struck me was that all the writers I recognised as exiles were twentieth century ones. That says something about our times, I feel.

James Joyce didn’t need to leave Ireland, but he found his native land so restrictive and suffocating mentally and creatively that he left, for good. The closing pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man show us Stephen Dedalus coming to this decision. Similarly Witold Gombrowicz’ life in inter-war Poland was not in danger, yet he also found it restricting and oppressive, and took himself off to Argentina – luckily for him, just before the start of the Second World War. Both Hitler and Stalin set out to eliminate Polish culture and intellectual life, and made considerable progress.

The Soviet Union had rather longer to attempt to regiment cultural and literary life than the Third Reich, and most of the writers I noted in my examination of my bookshelves came from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is probably the most important one to mention, at least in the sense that he became a cause celebre in the 1970s. A political thaw allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in the Soviet Union and it was a sell-out. But that was it; important novels such as The First Circle and Cancer Ward circulated internally as samizdat publications, and when smuggled out to the West and published openly, caused serious problems for the writer; after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, a detailed history and chronicle of Stalin’s labour camps, he was branded an anti-Soviet writer and eventually forced into exile. He ended up in the US and gradually faded into obscurity, cut off from his homeland. And he was an anti-Soviet writer, which is why the US welcomed him. The Russians wouldn’t have killed him, but his life would have been endangered by a prison sentence.

The Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia saw Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky eventually leave, the former for Paris, the latter for Canada. So strict was the repression under Gustav Husak that many artists ended up in menial jobs, and some in jail; again, no death sentences because the West was watching, but death sentences as writers. The same was true of the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, who served the communist regime for a number of years before fleeing to the West. Writers in Eastern Europe increasingly wrote ‘for the desk drawer’ – as in, wrote and put away what they wrote, knowing it would never be printed – or took the risk of reprisals by smuggling their work out to be published in the West.

What I draw from this is that the question of migrants/ refugees/ asylum seekers is a very complex one: very often it’s a quest for freedom. Clearly, some people are in danger of death if they don’t leave; many are not. A lot are seeking a better life in Europe. One thing does seem blindingly obvious to me though: if we in the West weren’t so quick to attack/ bomb/ invade/ colonise other countries, then their inhabitants might well be rather happier staying at home. Which is what quite a lot of the hoo-hah is about, isn’t it?

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My small world of Polish literature…

September 19, 2015

So I’m fifty per cent Polish, but neither read nor speak the language; I’m proud of my ancestry and even have a coat of arms to go with it… I’ve read widely in Polish history, and sought out some Polish literature which is available in translation – not that there’s very much, to be honest) and have to say I’ve been mildly disappointed thus far.

The national epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz, I have yet to read. It’s a lengthy poem, and the translation I possess looks rather daunting. On the other hand, the little of Czeslaw Milosz‘ poetry I’ve read I have enjoyed.

One major Polish novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Boleslaw PrusThe Doll, a nineteenth century naturalist text which reminds me of the works of writers such as Zola or Balzac… and then there’s the epic Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, superficially a tale of the very early days of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, but also an allegory about Poles suffering under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian yoke; though the translation available is very dated, the story is engaging and by no means saccharinely religious, which one might have expected froma Polish Catholic writer.

My acquaintance with twentieth century fiction has been limited to Witold GombrowiczFerdydurke and Transatlantyk, both of which I found interesting rather than gripping. Memoirs, history, criticism, reflection and essays are what Poles have done well, in my experience thus far, and with the nation’s fraught history over the past century, perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

Milosz writes sensitively and hauntingly about his vanished past – his home city of Wilno, formerly in Poland, was allotted to Lithuania by Stalin as the city of Vilnius – in a similar way to how Günter Grass writes about Danzig/Gdansk (in fact Grass develops a lengthy fictional parallel between the two cities in his novel The Call of the Toad), and also about the vice-like grip of Stalinism on the intellectual life of post-war Poland, which led to his leaving and settling in the United States. The Captive Mind is a classic analysis of those times. The memoirs of Aleksander Wat and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski also deal with the 1930s/40s/50s and the mentally and physically tortured lives many Poles had to lead during those years, either under the Nazis or Russians or both. One might argue that the times were so fantastical in themselves that no fiction could do them justice…

The history of all the different Polands is admirably treated by Norman Davies in several masterly works: his two-volume History of Poland, Rising ’44, Microcosm, Vanished Kingdoms… and the incredible complexity of relations between nations in the region and between races and nationalities, that were at the heart of so much conflict and destruction have been expertly traced and unravelled by Timothy Snyder in Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations. Again, the truth is so bizarre, you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Sadly, I feel my knowledge and understanding of Polish literature is very limited, due to the lack of texts available in either English or French; if anyone knows of anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be pleased to hear of it…

* Polish readers must excuse the lack of Polish diacritics in my text; I can’t find an easy way to include them, from a UK English keyboard.

Witold Gombrowicz: Trans-Atlantyk

May 20, 2015

9780300175301I should have stuck to the resolution I made after reading Ferdydurke. But I couldn’t resist a cheap French paperback edition of Trans-Atlantyk, which (apparently) some have described as Gombrowicz’ best novel. Hm.

It’s very strange. It’s supposedly a satire, and also a parody of an old Polish literary form, a kind of tale about the doings of the aristocracy. It was the author’s response to the fact that he left his homeland just before the Second World War broke out, and he didn’t go back. The same themes and ideas emerge: the throwing off of the shackles of the past, choosing freedom to be different over the slavery of past memories, symbolised by the hero’s inability to choose between father and son…

There is some interesting use of language, which comes through even in translation, but my overall impression was of Tristram Shandy without the plot or the humour, if you can begin to imagine that. Why write it? Why read it? I’m afraid I can’t answer that. It’s surreal, very much of its time, and therefore very dated; I cannot imagine many people reading it in the future, I’m afraid. I am with the critic, whose name I cannot recall, who said that Gombrowicz’ most important writings are his diaries and journalism.

I shall resist any further urges to read his novels.

Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

April 3, 2015

41L3hsuxUbL._AA160_ (1)So, I’ve finally read another of the oldest unread books in my library, which has been languishing there for about 35 years. I think I’ll stop reading Gombrowicz now. This novel articulates in fictional form many of the ideas that he wrote about at length in his diaries; it seems on so many levels to be allegorical, about the difficulties of the new Poland in coming to terms with its new self and its past.

Superficially it’s a story of transformation: an adult of thirty regresses into a schoolboy of half that age, who then undergoes a number of increasingly bizarre, often hallucinatory adventures. I found myself wondering about transformations in the literature of th 1920s and 1930s: there’s Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, the transformations I mentioned in The Street of Crocodiles, and now here.

Our schoolboy adult in class is forced, by idiotic teachers in the most asinine ways possible, to admit to liking the traditional classics; the idea is that the past perpetuates itself and its values in spite of subsequent generations who want to escape it. I could see how Gombrowicz’ contemporaries were challenged and shocked by his onslaught on the old ways, beliefs and traditions. His allegory presents a new Polish Republic that is not a nation rejuvenated, so much as a nation infantilised by a semi-moronic insistence on past glories. He is also desperately searching for the key to how one can escape the bonds of one’s past, either as an individual or as a nation.

There is an almost coherent narrative strand to Ferdydurke, with the newly-infantilised schoolboy standing for the new Polish nation, though interrupted by Shandean authorial interventions where the author seeks to direct our thinking himself… There are farcical scenes about duelling, about a daughter who invites two different men, a teacher and a fellow-pupil, to her room for an assignation… on the same night, and a bizarre episode in an aristocratic household where the author’s friend wants to ‘fraternise’ with a servant: the consequences are farcical. Gombrowicz is setting up the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, and using anarchy as his secret weapon. And what, exactly, were the relations between social classes in interwar Poland supposed to be? The aristocracy was legally abolished in 1919.

Ultimately it’s a book of its time, I think, and will be increasingly hard to approach for subsequent generations. As I worked my way towards the denouement, I found myself thinking of James Joyce‘s realisation, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must leave his native land and go into exile, and seeing the parallel working itself out in Gombrowicz’ mind: there was no place for him in the new Poland, and he left forever, a couple of weeks before Hitler and Stalin snuffed out its brief existence.

Witold Gombrowicz: Diary

March 25, 2015

51d6XzdUABL._AA160_I recently read his Memories of Poland, which dealt with his early life and the pre-war years in Poland; this massive tome (800 pages) deals with his later life and is apparently regarded as his most important work; he sailed to Argentina a couple of weeks before the outbreak of the second World War and didn’t return to Europe for twenty-four years; he never went back to Poland.

So he’s in a world I’m familiar with from the writings of several other Polish authors, Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz the first two that spring to mind, an involuntary exile. The Poland that they left behind disappeared; the Poland that re-appeared under Stalin’s thumb in 1945 was not their home; in many cases their home soil was no longer in Poland…

Gombrowicz is still focused on the relationship between Poland and the West, its inferiority complex and its immaturity, its need to boast, to prove itself a peer of other, really European nations; in places it almost seems an obsession, and, whilst it’s pretty clear what he is criticising, what he would replace it with is much less so. There is a yearning for Poland and Poles to be authentically themselves and original rather than be imitative of, or worhipful of Europe. Despite the lack of clarity I experienced, there is true challenge and originality, questioning and analysis in Gombrowicz’ work. He is very interesting on Milosz’ important work The Captive Mind, a study of intellectuals under communism.

The Diary feels like a blog from the 1950s, before the invention of the concept; it’s certainly not a diary in the ways many of us would understand it; occasionally there are bizarre, even hallucinatory passages; sometimes he writes about himself in the third person. Some aspects of his own story and his past are clarified. There are some real nuggets buried in places, such as his enthralment with Beethoven’s late string quartets, which he writes much about.

He develops a detailed and very interesting – I can’t judge how accurate – analysis of why the inter-war Polish Republic was ultimately a failure, and why Polish art and literature failed: his focus is on the real difficulty of a new nation emerging after 120 years of non-existence, and yet still clinging to the baggage of the distant past. And yet I found myself thinking of the emigre and his relationship to his country, from a distance of 8000 miles and two decades or more; as time passed, he seemed to become more tormented or perplexed by his relationship with Poland, with other emigres and Polish emigre journalism; he seems out of sympathy with many of his peers. When he finally returns to Europe for the last five years of his life, he seems rather lost and out of place. The diary confirms for me the awfulness, and the loneliness of exile and separation from home, even in such a perverse character as Gombrowicz.

Usual moan: for a book from Yale University Press, I’d have expected a much higher standard of proof-reading.

Witold Gombrowicz: Polish Memories

January 26, 2015

41Yk6jXlnFL._AA160_Not an easy book, although not in terms of its content or readability: much more in terms of its challenges to my previous ideas about and understanding of Poland in the inter-war years. Gombrowicz was part of a new wave of Polish writers as the country was re-established after more than a century of non-existence; he set out to shock in his writing and in his behaviour and attitudes; he seems to have been very ‘up himself’ (as one might say today) and was probably not a very pleasant person to be with. I’ve had his novel Ferdydurke on my shelves for nigh on forty years, waiting to be read, and perhaps its time has come…

I’ve read a lot of memoirs and criticism by other writers from the same time and place, most notably perhaps Czeslaw Milosz; their experience is of a period of relative freedom and creativity brutally ended by Nazi and Soviet invasion and occupation, followed either by exile or the stifling experience of Stalinism. Gombrowicz was travelling by sea to Argentina when Hitler invaded Poland, so he escaped it all, meaning that his perspective on events is radically different from others of his peers. Another new wave writer of the time, Witkiewicz, shot himself in despair the day the Soviets invaded…

What interested me, and challenged me, was Gombrowicz’ perspective on the new republic and its citizens. There were the aristocrats, nobility, bourgeoisie and landowners, all stuck in a romantic past in their behaviour and attitudes. There was an incredible gulf between them and the working classes and peasants. They, and many of the intellectuals, whom Gombrowicz openly despises, seem to him to be living on myths of the past greatness of the nation and its heroes; there is no real sense of a new country with a meaningful identity; it’s very much an Eastern rather than a European place, rudderless, surrounded by a gradually renascent Germany and the unpredictable Soviet Union nursing the grudge of the lost war of 1920. Poland is completely out of its depth, and Gombrowicz seems to yearn for it to move into the twentieth century and re-create itself, create a new and European identity. He is struck by the huge gulf between his homeland and other European nations as he travels…

I’ve always had the image of Poles as incurable romantics, and Gombrowicz almost convinces me that this is a defect rather than something to admire. Over time I have collected a long list of questions I would have liked to ask my father about, and that list is now rather longer…

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