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Bruce P. Barten
- Published on Amazon.com
This 2004 translation from the Polish by Bill Johnston (Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University) of the early stories of Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) begins with seven stories written between 1926 and 1932, which were originally published in 1933. The other stories appeared in a collection published in Krakow in 1957. After a scholarly edition appeared in 2002, as the first volume in a definitive edition of Gombrowicz's collected works, this fresh English translation based on that version is the most logical book to have for English readers interested in the literary beginnings of the great Polish novelist. The Afterword by Bill Johnston provides enough background, revealed by Gombrowicz in POLISH MEMORIES, to picture Gombrowicz already trying to write novels, but only pleased with some brief pieces that "gave birth to some scene that was truly crazy, removed from the (healthy) expectations of mediocre logic, and yet firmly rooted in its own separate logic." (p. 271).
Comedy is a poor excuse for claiming intellectual bondage to a thinker who died during an early stage in my lifetime, when I was totally preoccupied with other thinkers. He studied law at Warsaw University and philosophy in France long before I was born, but the sequence seems to be appropriate to the subject matter of these stories and to the nature of my outlook as well. Philosophy is a step in a peculiar direction for anyone who comes to the conclusion that justice is unlikely to be obtained in any matter in which the government has an interest, and this book starts with stories that make such an outlook something like an obsession. The psychological compulsion which determines the activities of Gombrowicz's characters tops any other meaning that readers might attempt to find in these stories.
The first, "Lawyer Kraykowski's Dancer," certainly captures the motivations which made me decide that I wanted to attend Harvard Law School in 1968 before receiving my draft notice, so that two years later I would have no trouble returning to the first year classes with "a letter of recommendation from your commanding officer in the military, or the warden of your prison" as the Dean of students put it in his address to entering students who were not entitled to draft deferments as first-year graduate students in 1968. As a prospective information looter and shooter, it seemed noble to me to allow the government to have the first few years in which I would be forming my opinions about government policies to put me wherever there was the greatest need for someone who had the intellectual capacity to observe what was going on and make a few guesses about what it was all about. Having learned the military manner of shouting, I am particularly struck by the humiliation suffered by the narrating character in his first encounter with the Lawyer Kraykowski:
"Was it you who did me the honor?" I asked in a tone that might have been ironic, perhaps even sinister, but since I suddenly came over weak, I said it too quietly. (pp. 3-4).
The plot has some cosmic moments, "as if all the forces in the world had gathered within me in a great frenzy" (p. 16), that people who are slaves to normal sensations might not recall.
The second story even has a military element:
Suddenly an artillery shell flew over, burst its sides, and exploded, blowing off both of Uhlan Kacperski's legs and tearing open his stomach; and Kacperski was at first confused, not grasping what had happened; then a moment later he also exploded, but in laughter; he was also bursting his sides, but with laughter!--holding his stomach, which was gushing blood like a fountain, he squealed and squealed in his comical, loud, hysterical, farcical high-pitched voice--for minutes on end! How infectious that laugh was! You have no idea what such an unexpected sound can be like on the field of battle. I barely managed to survive till the end of the war.--And when I returned home I realized, my ears were still ringing with this laughter, that everything by which I had lived until then had crumbled into dust; . . . (p. 31).
The third story, "A Premeditated Crime," has an unexpected:
"My husband," she said dryly, turning to me, "died last night."--What?! So he was dead? So that was it! (p. 39).
The first few hundred copies of Gombrowicz's stories included an explanation that in this story "the family loves the father, and he has not been murdered; and that in `Dinner at Countess Pavahoke's' the soup is not actually made from the runaway boy, but that the association is purely linguistic, and that `the point of the story is that the hunger and suffering of poor Bolek Cauliflower make the cauliflower-vegetable taste better to the aristocrats eating it.' " (pp. 274-275).
Readers of the novel FERDYDURKE might remember the stories "Philidor's Child Within" and "Philibert's Child Within," which are freshly translated into English in this book "in an atmosphere of nail-biting tension and with endless spontaneous rounds of thunderous applause." (p. 212).
The story "On the Kitchen Steps" is described as "written earlier but omitted from RECOLLECTIONS OF ADOLESCENCE out of consideration for the author's father, who Gombrowicz was afraid might read an allusion to himself in the story." (pp. 273-274).
With so much "Mucky tricks!" (p. 224) and "Hee hee hee, hey diddle diddle, hey diddle diddle!" (p. 225) near the beginning, imagining his father shouting such things in his sleep and having his mother tell his father "And then you shouted--it was awful--about some sort of hey diddle diddle" (p. 228), only to find out:
"Perhaps it was some recollections from my youth. You know, I'm already growing old, and as one ages one recalls one's youth, like soup one had once, thirty years ago." (p. 229).
So Gombrowicz wrote that in Polish once and finally had it published. This is great news.