Insatiability Hardcover – Jun 17 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
It seems like the punch line to a joke: a 500-page futurist novel written in 1927 by a Polish borderline schizophrenic. And for long stretches, Insatiability reads like some kind of joke. ("Fat was a seedy gent wearing a jockey's cap and a crimson scarf barely covering a bland and sinewy Adam's apple with huge welts along the throat glands.") Sometime in the late 20th century, while neo-Bolshevist Western Europe and "fascist-Fordian" America decay, a "yellow wall" of Communist Chinese threatens to overrun Europe. Only Poland?lone bastion of syndicalism and aristocracy?stands in their way. Baron Genezip Kapen de Vahaz, or "Zip," comes of age in this tremulous, dangerous time. Those around him?a deformed musical genius; a coldhearted logician; a devout recluse; a politicized writer; the enigmatic commander-in-chief of Poland and his jejune mistress; and the sexually rapacious Princess di Ticonderoga?try to impress their own philosophies on him. He joins the Army, and his military indoctrination along with the not-so-subtle ministrations of the women in his life help shatter Zip's self-identity. By the time the Chinese begin preparations to invade Poland, he displays various different personalities, each more terrifying than the previous. Witkiewicz was a photographer, artist and playwright, as well as a novelist; in each field, his work was greeted by unflagging disinterest. In the case of his writing, this was by no means because he lacked talent?Insatiability is filled with clever (often multilingual) wordplay, febrile humor and rollicking sex scenes. (The translation is brilliant, smoothly finding perfect phrases and puns.) But Witkiewicz has a deadly tendency to refine his metaphors within an inch of their lives. Insatiability is an extreme novel, coupling a thorough knowledge of philosophy with a monumental lack of perspective (the principal character stands in for no less than all of Western Civilization). For any but the staunchest of readers, it will prove tough slogging, indeed. (May) FYI: An ardent nationalist, Witkiewicz killed himself in 1939 upon hearing that the Soviet Army had invaded Poland. In a twist sure to have appealed to his bizarre sense of humor, in 1994 it was discovered that a woman's body occupied his coffin.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
A complete revision of Iribarne's lively 1977 translation of one of the key works of European literary modernism. Witkiewicz (18851939) was a gifted painter, poet, philosopher, dramatist, novelist, and iconoclastic wit--a kind of latter-day Polish William Blake or Wyndham Lewis. In this, his greatest--and weirdest--novel (first published in 1927), Witkiewicz created a unique and fascinating hybrid: a novel of education grafted onto a stinging sociopolitical satire that mushrooms into nightmarish dystopian prophecy. The inchoate protagonist, Genezip Kapen, moves from youthful innocence and promise through the formative and transformative crucibles of sexual initiation (and confusion), drug addiction, madness, and murder. His own psychic and moral fragmentation evinces what his author perceived as the larger decline of his country (summed up in its surrender to an invading Chinese communist army) and a culture too effete to survive the pressures of the new century. Witkiewicz's surpassingly strange book is an exhilarating amalgam of Swiftian satire, Dostoyevskian intensity, and (an acknowledged influence) Rabelaisian digressiveness. And one of the most exciting novels of its time. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Let this confessionary review stand as a warning to young influential readers and as a testament to the undeniability of this novels strange powers which I've no doubt will work its fascinations on seekers of great and experimental literary works for centuries to come. How such an immense secret of a work as profound as Witkiewicz's INSATIABILITY has held its breath for so long can only give multiple births to conspiracy theories. When this novel breaks its silence it will be as if a ravenous serial-killer were loosed in your hometown.
I cannot recommend a greater novel in all literary history, of which I am an dedicated adventurous servitor; yet I do so warily, all too well aware of the repurcussions that may be heaped upon me for abandoning moral principles in spreading out the darkness so many have actually thought was the light.
-Czeslaw Milosz on Insatiability
It's bad form to introduce a review with another review, but Milosz's concise summary can scarcely be improved upon. As a work of modernity and madness, Insatiability prefigures Gravity's Rainbow by half a century, and there is a certain resemblance between the two - the hypersexed antihero facing a crisis of self in the face of an overwhelming force, the young man in a historical moment headed for a schizoid breakdown, the biting social satire and grim humor and, not least, the secret transformation of civilization.
Insatiability takes place in a hypothetical late 20th century Poland. A quasi-Bolshevist Europe, and specifically a hedonistic Polish upper class, receives disturbing reports of an Asian tidal wave, an overwhelming Chinese army rolling in from the East, engulfing greater Russia and setting its sights on the puny European peninsula, bearing with it a new religion that utilizes a narcotic as a means of social control. Once again, Poland is the bulwark, the great plain through which the invaders must roll to get at the creamy center. But let's begin at the beginning...
When choosing my destiny, I choose insanity
-Tadeusz Micinski, quoted by Witkiewicz
Genezip (Zipcio) Kapen is marked from birth as a prodigal son, a Valentino-faced scion of the upper middle class drawn towards melancholy and the salon society of the nobility. By means of his repulsive and perverted older friend, the avant-garde composer Putricides Hardonne, he gains entry into the salon of the aging Princess di Ticonderoga, a "blue-eyed vulture" (one of the kinder descriptions) who adopts Zipcio as a sexual initiate, an indefatigable boy-toy. The first half of this long book is mostly taken up with this relationship and the yin-yang of attraction and repulsion he feels for this spoiled and decadent siren. In addition to Hardonne (who early on debauches the boy in the woods) and the Princess (who debauches him everywhere else) there is a bizarre cast of characters dizzying Genezip's mind with philosophies and perspectives which set the stage for his breakdown in the latter half of the novel. Insatiability is a sardonic and misanthropic novel with nary an attractive character, a cesspool of ideas in the form of Witkiewicz's extended rants and ramblings. Actual dialogue is minimal, and usually in the form of extended philosophical discussions, intellectual ramblings which bear little on the perverse passions which form the undercurrent of the interpersonal relations. Most of the pages are either Zipcio's interior monologue or pages upon pages of sarcastic third person observations on the grotesqueness and psychological vileness of the characters.
After Zipcio's awakenings in the first half of the novel, part two (titled "Insanity") follows him into young adulthood. The "Yellow Peril" has become all too real, and society braces for the impact. Genezip has been through school and is now a military officer. He becomes attached to the staff of the Quartermaster General Sloboluchowicz (the "Great Slob'), the dominant figure of the second half and a self-styled, self-assured Nietzschean superman whom Zipcio comes to idolize. Through his sister Lilian (for whom he, of course, has incestuous longing) and her connection with the theatre, Zipcio makes the acquaintance of the delectable Persy, who brings him to her rooms only to torture him with extended sexual teases, which give her a sadistic satisfaction. Zipcio is unaware that Persy is also the Great Slob's mistress, who, in the intervals of strenuous lovemaking sessions, rebuilds his lust by recounting her teasings of Zipcio. Finally, at one point, it appears that Zipcio can control himself no longer and is on the verge of rape when Persy leaves the room. From another door enters another man, an adjunct of Sloboluchowicz, who has been spying on the two under orders of the General. Perhaps as a result of his own arousal from viewing the proceedings, he approaches Zipcio with clearly unwholesome intent. Zipcio picks up a hammer and buries it in the man's temple. He leaves, disoriented but remorseless, and by lucky turn of fate guerilla warfare between rival factions begins that very night. Zenezip is wounded and wakes up in an infirmary.
He finds himself in the care of the gentle and virginal Eliza. Following the murder, Zipcio has experienced a breakdown of sorts, a disassociation from reality. He sees in Eliza a boundless calm and none of the guile that has characterized the women with whom he has heretofore associated. Eliza explains that she is a convert to a new religion, a religion that takes the form of mysterious pills dispensed by an Indian named Djevani, who is a sort of advance man, an infiltrator spreading the neo-Buddhist gospel of Murti-Bingism through Davamesque B2, a pill that takes away the anxieties and concerns of philosophy, the obsessions and insatiabilities of the artist and the intellectual, by revealing the "Grand Truth". Zipcio partakes of the drug and experiences a mind-bending alteration of reality, which leaves him in a schizoid state, by turns docile and psychotically manic.
Zipcio keeps his hands off Eliza, mostly worshiping her virginity and wondering at her inner peace, but also bearing silent witness to a certain contempt of her. Finally, on their wedding night, they consummates their relationship, an act which turns Eliza sexually ravenous - in a word, insatiable. In the heat of sex giving way to his revulsion of her, Zipcio grips his hands around Eliza's throat and strangles her in a last erotic convulsion. He rises the next morning, puts on his uniform, informs the desk that Madame will be staying an extra day, and calmly leaves to join his unit. He travels with Persy and the Great Slob to Polish Byelorussia, where a minor Armageddon is to be staged in the face of the advancing Chinese (the acknowledgement of this second murder is taken calmly by the Great Slob, as he is certain that Zipcio will perish at the front anyway along with the rest of the army, obviating the need for punishment). But it turns out that the Great Slob himself has partaken of Davamesque B2 as well. He knows that resistance to the Chinese is futile, and that his army will be slaughtered. At this point, under the influence, this great leader who has planned martyrdom and a blaze of glory for himself makes the astonishing decision to surrender. Despite angry rebellion by other units in the Polish army, the deed is done, and the group is taken to the camp of the Chinese general, where a group of Chinese are being lazily beheaded for minor infractions in the preparation for a battle that never takes place. Sloboluchowicz has assured himself that a man of his experience, stature and charisma will be invaluable to the Chinese, but he allows no show of emotion when he is calmly informed that they really have no use for him, and he is taken out to be summarily decapitated. In the aftermath, Zipcio, after a brief emotionless fling with Persy, takes up his new position in the new order, a "consummate lunatic, a mild catatonic" and is forcibly married off to a noble Chinese beauty. The new devotees of Murti-Bing, freed of unproductive intellectual inquiry and decadent Western ennui, take their assigned places in the new order.
A summary of the main narrative of Insatiability hardly does the book justice. The neologisms, the obscenities, the mad jargon, poisonous satire, and tooth-grinding contempt of Wikiewicz for the banal shine forth crazily from every dark page. Insatiablity flows forth like a manuscript smuggled out of an asylum, a bizarre, unique document of the early 20th century avant-garde, and a work of breathtaking genius, decades ahead of its time. In a strange coda for one who had created such a novel, Stanislaw Witkiewicz committed suicide at the Russian border upon learning of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Later investigation, it is said, revealed that his coffin held the body of an unknown woman.