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Gombrowicz, Witold

Entry updated 6 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1904-1969) Polish playwright, essayist and author whose work was not directly connected with Genre SF, though he occasionally utilized fantastic elements; his impact on Polish literature (see Poland) was unprecedented both at the level of his highly original narrative technique, for which he derived idiosyncratic diminutive forms and neologisms, and a consistent philosophy, at some points evoking associations with existentialism, structuralism and post-structuralism. Born to a family of landed gentry, as a child Gombrowicz was exposed by this upstairs/downstairs culture to what he perceived as an inherent structural dichotomy in the nature of the world, from which he claimed to derive a set of key binary oppositions which became the foundation of his work: superiority/inferiority, immaturity/maturity, clothed/naked, wholeness/fragmentariness, ignorant allure of youth/wise ugliness of old age.

His early short fiction, assembled as Pamiêtnik z okresu dojrzewania ["Recollections of Adolescence"] (coll 1933; rev and exp vt Bakakaj 1957; further rev 2002; trans Bill Johnston as Bacacay 2004), juxtaposes motifs of modernist fiction (see Modernism in SF), as found in writers like Joseph Conrad and Marcel Proust (1871-1922), along with elements of Fantastika to scrutinize the moulding nature of Form, by which Gombrowicz understood the sum total of human manifestations ranging from behaviour and discourse to clothing and gestures. Form is to a large extent a dialectical process in which we both create ourselves and at the same time are created and shaped by others, whose judgements and opinions about us compel us to take a clear but distorted presentation of self, and to react in a way which is always formative yet relative.

Ferdydurke (dated 1937 but 1938; trans Eric Mosbacher [from French trans] 1961; new trans Danuta Borchardt from the Polish 2000), his novelistic debut, was a literary sensation in the Second Polish Republic. Combining grotesque and absurdist mockery with modernist techniques and digressive structure (the novel contains two essays and two short stories only partly related to the main plot), it is a highly original work of literature whose opening may be interpreted as an ingenious reference to Franz Kafka's Der Prozeß (1925; trans Edwin Muir and Willa Muir as The Trial 1937). Its main character Joey (ie Joseph) turns thirty and suffers from a deep and frightening sense of social nonadjustment and inner Formlessness; he is the author of a collection of short stories perceived by his family as immature and indefinite, while most of his friends matured into defined roles as lawyers or officials. Joey decides to demonstrate his claim to formal maturity by creating a work of literature that will express him as he really is. But as soon as he begins to write it, he is visited by a professor Pimko, who forces him to go back to secondary school and become a pupil again, a procedure which turns out to be an element of a larger scheme aimed at casting individuals, and in time the entire society, back into childishness and puerility. Numerous misinterpretations of Ferdydurke in reviews, and the literary scandal created around it on publication, resulted in a defence reading given by Bruno Schulz (Gombrowicz's friend, who also created the cover and two illustrations for the novel) at the Polish Writers' Union in Warsaw in 1938, where the novel was presented as a masterpiece of new literature. But World War Two intervened. Afterwards, given its unmistakable Satire of the authoritarian state, Ferdydurke went unsurprisingly unpublished during Communist rule. After the short period of political and cultural thaw of October 1956 some of his works were published there, yet soon blacklisted again until the liberation of Poland in 1989-1990.

In 1939 Gombrowicz, under the pseudonym Z Niewieski, serialized a thriller, Opętani (incomplete 1973; trans J A Underwood from the French trans as Possessed, or The Secret of Myslotch 1980; first complete text 1990; trans Antonia Lloyd-Jones as The Possessed 2023), which amalgamated Gothic (see Gothic SF), crime and romance modes. In August of the same year he traveled to Buenos Aires, where the war caught him by surprise but where he decided to stay, ultimately spending the next twenty four years of his life there, many of them in obscurity and penury. His first émigré novel, Trans-Atlantyk (1953 France; trans Carolyn French and Nina Krasnov 1994), was a nonfantastic satire, an attempt to "liberate" Poles from their romantic Polishness by exposing and mocking national complexes and vices; it scandalized émigré circles. His next novel Pornografia (1960 France; trans Alastair Hamilton [from French trans] 1966; new trans Danuta Borchardt from the Polish 2009), set during World War Two in Poland on a landed estate of the narrator's friend, deals with the unconsciously natural mutual gravitation of youth and old age towards each other. Gombrowicz lived in France from 1963 until his death. His final novel, Kosmos (1965 France; trans Eric Mosbacher from French as Cosmos 1966; new trans Danuta Borchardt from the Polish 2005), perhaps his darkest work of fiction and the most pregnant with meaning, illustrates the inherent human ability to impose order on the chaos of the world around, constructing the eponymous cosmos out of random objects and situations, though it is a desperate struggle to enclose inner amorphousness within a safety net of meaning and sense.

As a whole, Gombrowicz's work represents perhaps the most intense twentieth-century recognition of the dynamics of relentless change and relativity, and their simultaneously determinative and destructive impact on the individual; in his work, human existence has become theatre, an unending performance that dances around the fixatives of authoritarian "reality" (see Fantastika): forever becoming, never stalled in mere being. [KW/JC]

Witold Marian Gombrowicz

born Małoszyce, Congress Kingdom of Poland, Russian Empire [now Świętokrzyskie Province, Poland]: 4 August 1904

died Vence, France: 25 July 1969

works (selected)

  • Ferdydurke (Warsaw, Poland: RÓJ, 1937) [pb/Bruno Schulz]
    • Ferdydurke (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1961) [trans by Eric Mosbacher from French trans of the above: hb/Jozef Gross]
    • Ferdydurke (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2000) [trans by Danuta Borchardt of the above: pb/Bruno Schulz]
  • Opętani (Kraków, Poland: Wydawn, 1990) [first appeared ?-September 1939 Kurier Czerwony and elsewhere as by Zdzislaw Niewieski: binding unknown/]
  • Trans-Atlantyk (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1953) [pb/]
    • Trans-Atlantyk (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994) [trans by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov of the above: pb/]
  • Pornografia (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1953) [pb/]
    • Pornografia (London: Calder and Boyars, 1967) [trans by Alastair Hamilton from French trans of the above: hb/Gerald Cinamon]
    • Pornografia: A Novel (New York: Grove Press, 2009) [trans by Danuta Borchardt of the above: hb/]
  • Kosmos (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1953) [pb/]
    • Cosmos (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1967) [trans Eric Mosbacher from French and German trans of the above: hb/John Farman]
    • Cosmos (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005) [trans by Danuta Borchardt of the above: hb/]


  • Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania ["Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity"] (Warsaw, Poland: RÓJ, 1933) [coll: pb/]
  • Bakakaj (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1957) [coll: hb/]
    • Bacacay (New York: Archipelago Books, 2004) [trans by Bill Johnston of the above: pb/from Jean Dubuffet, "Business Lunch"]


  • Dziennik (1953-1956) (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1957) [pb/]
    • Diary (1953-1956) (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988) [trans by Lillian Vallee of the above: hb/]
  • Dziennik (1957-1961) (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1962) [pb/]
    • Diary (1957-1961) (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1989) [trans by Lillian Vallee of the above: hb/]
  • Dziennik (1961-1966) (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1966) [pb/]
    • Diary (1961-1966) (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1989) [trans by Lillian Vallee of the above: hb/]
  • Dziennik (1953-1966) (Kraków, Poland: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2011) [hb/Przemysław Dębowski]
    • Diary (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012) [trans by Lillian Vallee of the above: hb/]


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