Witold Gombrowicz

Infobox Writer
name = Witold Gombrowicz
caption = Witold Gombrowicz

imagesize = 250px
caption =
birthdate = August 4 1904
birthplace = Małoszyce, Congress Poland
nationality = Polish
deathdate = July 24, 1969
deathplace = Vence, France
occupation = Writer

Witold Marian Gombrowicz (August 4, 1904 in Małoszyce, near Kielce, Congress Poland, Russian EmpireJuly 24, 1969 in Vence, near Nice, France) was a Polish novelist and dramatist. His works are characterized by deep psychological analysis, a certain sense of paradox and an absurd, anti-nationalist flavor. In 1937 he published his first novel, "Ferdydurke", which presented many of his usual themes: the problems of immaturity and youth, the creation of identity in interactions with others, and an ironic, critical examination of class roles in Polish society and culture. He gained fame only during the last years of his life but is now considered one of the foremost figures of Polish literature.


Gombrowicz was born in Małoszyce, in Congress Poland, Russian Empire to a wealthy gentry family. He was the youngest of four children of Jan and Antonina (née Kotkowska.) In 1911 his family moved to Warsaw. After completing his education at Saint Stanislaus Kostka's Gymnasium in 1922, he studied law at Warsaw University (in 1927 he obtained a master’s degree in law.) Gombrowicz spent a year in Paris where he studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales; although he was less than diligent in his studies his time in France brought him in constant contact with other young intellectuals. He also visited the Mediterranean.

When he returned to Poland he began applying for legal positions with little success. In the 1920s he started writing, but soon rejected the legendary novel, whose form and subject matter were supposed to manifest his 'worse' and darker side of nature. Similarly, his attempt to write a popular novel in collaboration with Tadeusz Kępiński turned out to be a failure. At the turn of the 20's and 30's he started to write short stories, which were later printed under the title "Memoirs Of A Time Of Immaturity". From the moment of this literary debut, his reviews and columns started appearing in the press, mainly in the "Kurier Poranny" ("Morning Courier"). He met with other young writers and intellectuals forming an artistic café society in Zodiak and Ziemiańska, both in Warsaw. The publication of "Ferdydurke", his first novel, brought him acclaim in literary circles.

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Gombrowicz took part in the maiden voyage of the Polish cruise liner, "Chrobry", to South America. When he found out about the outbreak of war in Europe, he decided to wait in Buenos Aires till the war was over, but was actually to stay there until 1963 — often, especially during the war, in great poverty.

At the end of the 1940s Gombrowicz was trying to gain a position among Argentine literary circles by publishing articles, giving lectures in Fray Mocho café, and finally, by publishing in 1947 a Spanish translation of "Ferdydurke" written with the help of Gombrowicz’s friends, among them Virgilio Piñera. Today, this version of the novel is considered to be a significant literary event in the history of Argentine literature; however, when published it did not bring any great renown to the author, nor did the publication of Gombrowicz’s drama "Ślub" in Spanish ("The Wedding", "El Casamiento") in 1948. From December 1947 to May 1955 Gombrowicz worked as a bank clerk in Banco Polaco, the Argentine branch of [http://www.pekao.com.pl/bank3.xml?/sid=13/lang=US/307691-834959-92443 PeKaO SA Bank] . In 1950 he started exchanging letters with Jerzy Giedroyc and from 1951 he started having works published in the Parisian journal "Culture", where, in 1953, fragments of "Dziennik" ("Diaries") appeared. In the same year he published a volume of work which included the drama "Ślub" ("The Wedding") and the novel "Trans-Atlantyk", where the subject of national identity on emigration was controversially raised. After October 1956 four books written by Gombrowicz appeared in Poland and they brought him great renown despite the fact that the authorities did not allow the publication of "Dziennik" ("Diaries"), and later organized a slanderous campaign against Gombrowicz in 1963 who was then staying in West Berlin. In his serialised "Diary" (1953-68) Gombrowicz alluded to his homosexual experiences with 'lower class' young men; a theme which he picked up again in when interviewed by Dominique de Roux in "A Kind of Testament" (1973). In the 1960s Gombrowicz became recognized globally and many of his works were translated, including "Pornografia" ("Pornography") and "Kosmos" ("Cosmos"). His dramas were staged in many theatres all around the world, especially in France, Germany and Sweden. In 1963 he returned to Europe, where he received a scholarship from the Ford Foundation during his stay in Berlin, and in 1964 he spent three months in Royaumont abbey near Paris, where he employed Rita Labrosse, a Canadian from Montreal who studied contemporary literature, as his secretary. In 1964 he moved to Vence near Nice in the south of France, where he spent the rest of his life. There he enjoyed the fame which culminated in May 1967 with the International Publishers Prize (Prix Formentor) and six months before his death, married Rita Labrosse.

Gombrowicz wrote in Polish, however, in view of his decision not to allow his works to be published in his native country until the ban on the unabridged version of "Dziennik", in which he described the Polish authorities' slanderous attacks on him, was lifted he remained a largely unknown figure to the general reading public until the first half of the 1970s. Despite this, his works were printed in Polish by the Paris Literary Institute of Jerzy Giedroyc and translated into more than 30 languages. Morover, his dramas were repeatedly staged in the most important theatres in the whole world by the prominent directors such as Jorge Lavelli, Alf Sjöberg, Ingmar Bergman along with Jerzy Jarocki and Jerzy Grzegorzewski in Poland.


The specific characteristics of Gombrowicz’s writing are the ability to see a human being in their psychological entanglement with other people and the heritage of culture, a particular sense of the absurd and images touching on traditional values held by society. Above all, Gombrowicz, criticises Polish Romanticism, as he claimed he wrote in defiance of Adam Mickiewicz (especially in “Trans-Atlantic”). The writing of Gombrowicz contains links with existentialism (the concept of “me”) — a philosophy which stresses the importance of human experience and says that each of us is responsible for the results of their own actions, and also with structuralism (a human being is determined by the language which they use and also by observing the world through the system of symmetry and opposition.) Numerous allusions and play with literary traditions, for instance a stylised 19th century diary in “Trans-Atlantic”, are conspicuous in Gombrowicz’s writing. A parody of the noble tale is also presented. However, the most interesting points are Gombrowicz’s connections with European thought in the second half of the 20th century which links him with the intellectual heritage of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan and it has justifiably received critical acclaim in recent years. Gombrowicz uses first-person narrative in his novels, with the exception of "Opętani". The language of the writer includes frequent neologisms. Moreover, he created 'keywords' which shed their symbolic light on the sense covered under the ironic form (e.g "gęba", "pupa" in "Ferdydurke".)

In the story "Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania" the author above all engages in paradoxes which control the entrance of the individual into the social world and also the repressed passions which rule human behaviour. In "Ferdydurke" (his first novel, published in autumn 1937, the date on the cover 1938) discusses form as a universal category which was understood both in the philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic sense. Furthermore, this form is a means of enslavement of the individual by other people and society as a whole. Famous phrases of Gombrowicz are found in the novel and became common usage in Polish, for instance the words such as "upupienie" — imposing on the individual the role of somebody inferior and immature, and "gęba" — a personality or an authentic role imposed on somebody). "Ferdydurke" can be read as a satire on various Polish communities: progressive bourgeoisie, rustic, conservatist. Therefore, the satire of Gombrowicz presents the human being either as a member of a society or an individual who struggles with himself and the world. Stage adaptations of "Ferdydurke" and other works of Gombrowicz were presented by many theatres, especially prior to 1986, before the first 9 volumes of his works were published. It was the only official way of gaining access to the works of the writer.

The first dramatic text written by Gombrowicz was "Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda" (1938), tragicomedy — a play that describes what the enslavement of form, custom, and ceremony brings. In 1939 he published in installments in two daily newspapers the popular novel "Opętani", where he interlaced the form of the 'gothic novel' with that of sensational modern romance. In the text entitled "Ślub", which was written just after the war, Gombrowicz used the form of Shakespeare’s and Calderon’s theatre. He also critically undertook the theme of the romantic theatre (Z. Krasiński, J. Słowacki) and portrayed a new concept of power and a human being created by other people. In the novel "Trans-Atlantyk" Gombrowicz juxtaposes the traditional vision of a human that serves the values of the new vision, according to which an individual frees oneself of this service and basically fulfills oneself. The representative of such a model of humanity is the eccentric millionaire-homosexual Gonzalo.

The novel "Pornografia" shows Poland in times of war when the eternal order and the whole system of traditional culture, based on the faith in God, collapsed. In its place a new drastic reality appears, where the elderly and the young cooperate with each other in order to realize their cruel fascinations streaked with eroticism. "Kosmos" is the most complex and ambiguous work of Gombrowicz. In this text the author portrayed how human beings create a vision of the world sense, what forces, symbolic order and passion take part in this process and how the novel form organizes itself in the process of creating sense. "Operetka" is the last play of Gombrowicz and it uses an operetta form in order to present the changes of the world in the 20th century in a grotesque way, that is the transition to totalitarianism. At the same time, the author expresses a tentative faith in rebirth through youth. According to many scholars the most outstanding work of Gombrowicz is "Dziennik" ("Diaries"), which was published in serial form in "Kultura" in 1953-1969. "Dziennik" is not only the author’s record of life but also a philosophical essay, polemics, collection of auto-reflection on folk poetry, views on politics, national culture, religion, world of tradition, present time, and many other important issues. At the same time, the author is able to write about the most important topics in the form of an ostensibly casual anecdote and to use the whole range of literary devices.

Two novels by Gombrowicz were filmed: "Pornografia" directed by Jan Jakub Kolski (the film was completed in 2003) and "Ferdydurke" directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

The year 2004, the centenary of his birth, was declared the Year of Gombrowicz.


Gombrowicz's works are characterized by deep psychological analysis, a certain sense of paradox and an absurd, anti-nationalist flavor. In 1937 he published his first novel, "Ferdydurke", which presents many themes explored in his further writings: the problems of immaturity and youth, the masks taken on by men in front of others, and an ironic, critical examination of class roles in Polish society and culture, specifically among the nobility, representatives of the Catholic Church and provincial Poles. Ferdydurke provoked sharp critical reactions and immediately divided Gombrowicz's audience into rival camps of worshipers and sworn enemies.

In his work, Gombrowicz struggled with Polish traditions and the country's difficult history. This battle was the starting point for his stories, which were deeply rooted in this tradition and history. Gombrowicz is remembered by scholars and admirers as a writer and a man unwilling to sacrifice his imagination or his originality for any price, person, god, society, or doctrine.

Major works

* "Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity," later retitled "Bakakaj", collection of short stories, 1933
* "Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda" [Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy] , drama, 1935
* "Ferdydurke", novel, 1937
* "Trans-Atlantyk", novel, 1953
* "Ślub" [The Wedding] , drama, 1953
* "Pornografia", novel, 1960
* "Historia", drama, 1962
* "Kosmos", novel, 1965
* "Dzienniki" [Diaries, 1953–1969]


Gombrowicz's novels and plays have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and several other languages. The recent English translation of "Ferdydurke" (by Danuta Borchardt) is generally considered very good, as is the interesting translation of "Trans-Atlantyk" (Carolyn French chose to translate it into faux 17th-century English).

* "Bacacay", Bill Johnston translator, Archipelago Books, 2004, ISBN 0-9728692-9-8.
* "Cosmos", Danuta Borchardt translator, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10848-6.
* "Cosmos and Pornografia: Two Novels", Eric Mosbacher and Alastair Hamilton translators, Grove Press (reissue edition), 1994, ISBN 0-8021-5159-0.
* "Diary Volume 1", Lillian Vallee translator, Northwestern University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8101-0715-5.
* "Ferdydurke", Danuta Borchardt translator, Yale University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-300-08240-1.
* "A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes", Benjamin Ivry translator, Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-300-10409-X.
* "Polish Memories", Bill Johnston translator, Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-300-10410-3.
* "Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch: A Gothic Novel", Marion Boyars Publishers, Ltd. (reissue edition), 1988, ISBN 0-7145-2738-6.
* "Trans-Atlantyk", Carolyn French and Nina Karsov translators, Yale University Press (reprint edition), 1995, ISBN 0-300-06503-5.
* "A Kind of Testament", Alastair Hamilton translator, Dalkey Archive Press (reprint edition), 2007, ISBN 1-56478-476-2.

Film adaptations

* "Ferdydurke" (1991) in Polish, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Also known as "30 Door Key".
* "Pornografia" (2003) in Polish, directed by Jan Jakub Kolski. Also known as "Pornography".

Nicolas Philibert, the documentary film-maker best-known in the English-speaking world for his "Être et avoir", made a documentary set in the radical French psychiatric clinic La Borde entitled "Every Little Thing" (French "La Moindre des choses"); released in 1997, the film follows the patients and staff as they stage their production of Gombrowicz's "Operette". [imdb title|id=0119689|title=Every Little Thing]


External links

* [http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/gombrowicz/ THE WORLD OF WITOLD GOMBROWICZ, an exhibition, Beinecke Library, Yale]
* [http://www.cmakosa.com/index.html Five stories from "Bacacay" translated by Christopher Makosa]
* [http://www.culture.pl/en/culture/artykuly/os_gombrowicz_witold Polish Culture Profiles: Witold Gombrowicz]
* [http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article.php?lab=ToHell Witold Gombrowicz, and to Hell with Culture, Benjamin Paloff essay]
* [http://www.albany.edu/offcourse/nov98/gombro.html Witold Gombrowicz, or the Sadness of Form, Ricardo Nirenberg essay]

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