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Bruce P. Barten
- Published on Amazon.com
I have been reading books by Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) since I was a regular subscriber to The New York Review of Books and read in an article by Milan Kundera that his form of intellectual existentialism was much more comic than anything Sartre managed to write. One of the few things I learned reading the New York Review of Books was that praise for comedy of that kind was extremely rare. I had been reading philosophy for most of my life and only considered Nietzsche a master of irony, in the form of "many lies tell the poets," and not just the poets lately. Gombrowicz had written a comic novel, FERDYDURKE, in Poland in the 1930s. Most of his novels were written in Argentina after World War II in Polish and were published in Paris.
POLISH MEMORIES, published in a Polish language edition, Wspomnienia Polskie, in 2002, translated into English in 2004 by Bill Johnston for Yale University Press, is based on a typescript that has a few gaps. The flap at the front of the book says these sketches were written for Radio Free Europe during his years in Argentina. There is no date at the beginning, but within the text the dates run from July 4, 1960, to August 30, 1961. His DIARY contains many reactions to the literature being produced in the Polish language during his life. POLISH MEMORIES attempts to explain how well he knew many Polish writers and those who invited them to solons or café tables. The section dated February 6, 1961, starts with "I cannot recall how I first met Bruno Schulz." (p. 113). When his CINNAMON SHOPS was published, Bruno was still a modest schoolteacher in Drohobycz. "He remained such a browbeaten provincial teacher till his tragic death in a German camp." (p. 113). The people in Poland were vulnerable to that kind of influence from outside their borders. The main narrative ends with Witold Gombrowicz reaching Vienna on a train just after Hitler's Anschluss. One of the last characters described was a Nazi spy, which was not obvious until his interaction on the train with Nazi guards was a bit too easy to understand.
The book starts with Gombrowicz's boyhood. What could possibly be wrong with being a Polish country bumpkin who hates school, where he only has a knowledge of Polish and French and is uninterested in learning anything else? Mainly he notices that the schools put so much emphasis on things that are Polish that any knowledge of anything beyond the end of their Polish noses gets crowded out. When Witold has the opportunity to study in Paris in 1928, he does not like the museums because people trying to appreciate great art look so stupid. He walks at night and finds people in a café that he can talk to, usually by opposing their manner of speaking, the reasons they like Paris, or whatever.
Back in Poland as a young writer, he `became known as "the King of the Jews," since it was enough for me to sit down at a table to be surrounded by hordes of Semites; at the time they were my most gracious listeners' (p. 178) in the Ziemianska Café where he became acquainted with a lively group. Joined there by the Nazi spy, "Mr. Brochwicz-Kozlowski, a journalist and author of a volume of short stories, I welcomed him with friendly interest, because he was a groveling coward and a hysterical desire to rise to the top and prey to a sense of his own weakness, arrogant and fainthearted, a slyboots and a ham" (p. 186) and "I found it rather hard to believe that he might be working for Hitler, since it turned out that his mother was evidently, visibly Jewish." Gombrowicz believed that Polish squires had a coexistence with Jews that had lasted for centuries:
One of my cousins, gifted with a sense of humor not infrequently found among the gentry, would converse with his Israelite not on the verandah but from a second-floor balcony, so that he could yell down at the merchantr standing in front of the house: "What are you trying to tell me, Moishe?!" I imagine that many people would see this as a typical manifestation of the gentry's pompousness; but I think that my cousin, in turning himself into a proud master and the merchant into a poor "Moishe," was making a rather profound joke--for he was mocking himself as much as the Jew, and turning the very attitude of the gentry toward the Jews into something grotesque. (p. 177).
We live in a very comic society, where legal protections are likely to fail in the case of anyone who might actually benefit from having some rights. Comedy has become a very deep manner of reacting to what modern society confronts, if we could just figure out what it is, besides comic.