A review of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (Yale, 2012), translated by Lillian Vallee.
The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz arrived in Buenos Aires in August of 1939 on the maiden voyage of the trans-Atlantic liner Chrobry. He had been able to use his minor notoriety as an avant-garde writer in Poland to receive a free ticket on the ship, ostensibly as a representative of Polish culture. Within 10 days of his arrival, World War II began and he was stuck in a country where he did not know the language and had no standing as an author. He lived in Argentina for the next 23 years, never returning to Poland, though he lived the last six years of his life in Europe.
Gombrowicz was 30 years old when he arrived in Argentina, and he struggled to restart his life. He was still decades away from being celebrated as a great Modernist author. He found it difficult to write as an émigré. What little literary reputation he had came from the work he completed before leaving Poland: the collection of stories Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity; the surreal novel Ferdydurke; and the un-staged play Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. By 1953, poor and desperate to reignite his career as a writer after more than a decade of interruption, Gombrowicz began to publish serialized installments of an unconventional diary. It was not a recounting of everyday activities, a dutiful chronicle of the self, or an anguished confession. It was an extended exercise carried out from 1953 until 1969, through which the author experimented with different personae and made himself into an entire cast of characters. As he explained in his pitch to the director of Kultura, the Polish émigré journal that published the serial installments of the Diary: “I must become my own commentator, even better, my own theatrical director. I have to create Gombrowicz the thinker, Gombrowicz the genius, Gombrowicz the cultural demonologist, and many other necessary Gombrowiczes.” The Diary first appeared in English translation in three volumes in the late ’80s and early ’90s and is now available as a single volume that includes previously unpublished material, including a final entry from 1969.
At the margins of Polish culture—far from Poland, or even a sizable community of Polish émigrés—Gombrowicz forced readers to take notice of him. From the Diary’s famous opening words, added when the serial entries were first collected in book form, Gombrowicz toys with his readers, both fulfilling and subverting expectations of a diary:
Writing with a sclerotic style and a lust for transgression, he takes on Catholicism, Communism, and other elements central to Polish life, while railing against his critics, offering advice to Polish artists (“don’t try to become Polish Matisses”), criticizing Argentina (“batter that has not yet become cake”), insulting more famous literary rivals (“a first-rate second-rate writer”), and stage managing his reception (“I forbid you to speak about me in a boring, everyday, ordinary way. . . I demand a holiday word for myself”).
Gombrowicz undertook a very public act of both self-creation and disappearance, often revealing himself through his opinions of others. The variety of these opinions, and their sometimes contradictory nature, make it difficult to pin down a “real” Gombrowicz. Ultimately, the Diary reads like an extraordinary attempt, using a nonfictional form, to enact a line from Diderot’s fictional dialogue Rameau’s Nephew: “Nothing is less like him than himself.” Gombrowicz achieves this strange effect by presenting himself as if he were an unstable character being written by an unreliable narrator. This technique opens up a clearing, not so that the real Gombrowicz can be seen, but so that he can be seen hiding. The great achievement of the Diary is the creation of fleeting moments where the reader can sense this type of authorial absence—a present absence—that allows us to experience Gombrowicz being less like him than himself.
The Diary was an extended performance of the fact that Gombrowicz “felt elusive in being” and wanted to find a way of writing that could evade constraints and weaken “form.” For Gombrowicz, form was existential, not merely literary. It was Form. It was the master concept he employed in the pursuit of avoiding concepts. He fought against it because he thought of it as external and dangerously recursive, emerging through the interactions of people whom it then constrained. His literary works, including the Diary, were exercises in finding new literary forms to avoid Form. Often, as in Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity and Ferdydurke, this manifested as an avant-garde immaturity bristling against social and literary conventions. Ferdydurke, which is itself a nonsense word, sees a 30-year old man turn into a teenager. In pursuit of this mature immaturity, Gombrowicz makes up new words, plays on old words, changes nouns into verbs, and occasionally shifts tense within a sentence. One translator admitted having the confidence necessary to tackle the novel because of her experience as a psychiatrist treating schizophrenic patients prone to the invention of private languages.
The Diary has much the same spirit as Ferdydurke, though Gombrowicz employs more direct and matter-of-fact language to paradoxically heighten the impact of his search for the seam between sense and nonsense. Gombrowicz called himself a “serious clown” and his writing is at its best when the clown sets himself up as the voice of reason while simultaneously employing metaphysical slapstick to deflate lofty abstractions. Throughout the Diary, Gombrowicz repeatedly toys with the ideas and the persona of Sartre in passages that mix derision, exacerbation, praise, and mockery. Writers like Sartre “seem to forget man is a being created to live in an atmosphere of average pressures and median temperatures,” Gombrowicz observes as if he were a man of median temperature. Acknowledging existentialism as a great and necessary philosophy, Gombrowicz thought that it nonetheless ignored “some elementary, unbearable ridiculousness.” He could not continence what he saw as its scholastic abstraction, overbearing seriousness, and demand for an “extreme, forced awareness” that distorted everyday experience.
After applying “maximum consciousness” to his own life, he found it impossible “to meet the demands of Dasein and simultaneously have coffee and croissants for an evening snack. To fear nothingness, but to fear the dentist more. To be consciousness, which walks around in pants and talks on the telephone. To be responsibility, which runs little shopping errands downtown. To bear the weight of significant being, to instill the world with meaning and then return the change from ten pesos.” Pointing out these parts of existence that existentialism seems ill-suited to capture, or even recognize, he breaks into a laughter that is “not only planted with both feet in ‘common sense,’ no, it is worse because it is more spasmodic, it is independent of us.” For Gombrowicz, the gap between abstract ideas and the plain palpability of the everyday world was too strong and resilient. In the Diary, he shows how it repeatedly, spasmodically pressed up against him.