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Polish Memories Hardcover – Sep 10 2004
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About the Author
Witold Gombrowicz is the author of Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk, Pornografia, and Cosmos, the first two available from Yale University Press. These, along with his plays and the three-volume Diary, have been translated into more than thirty languages.
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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.
Gombrowicz was in Argentina when Germany invaded Poland, and he never returned. He had nothing but scorn for communism so after WWII he was persona non grata in Poland, with all of his books blacklisted. He wrote these autobiographical pieces in the late Fifties to be delivered as broadcasts over Radio Free Europe. They were gathered together and published in book form in connection with the centenary of Gombrowicz's birth.
Who was Witold Gombrowicz as a person? Judging by this memoir of sorts, he was a keenly intelligent Pole of aristocratic/bourgeois background who was uncomfortably suspended between the forms and traditions of yore and the irreverent and bohemian modes of modern life as it existed in the years before WWII. He also was conflicted about what it meant to be Polish in a European literary culture. He was a fierce individualist and by instinct a contrarian. In public he tended to the role of intellectual gadfly, cloaked with a patina of calm and suave indifference, but beneath the façade he was painfully self-conscious and dreadfully insecure. Above all, he was insufferably vain.
POLISH MEMORIES is written informally (a propos of material that will be read over the airwaves), and if you can sustain interest in the content, it reads easily enough. That "if", however, will be a formidable hurdle for many. In the end, I think, the book will appeal only to three groups of (perhaps overlapping) people: 1) those interested in Polish culture and society from between the World Wars; 2) those interested in the vibrant and creative Polish literary scene from the same period (for example, Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz were friends and mutual supporters, though that does not stop Gombrowicz from making a few catty remarks about Schulz); and 3) those interested in Gombrowicz's literary theories and the biographical sources for some of his themes and approaches to literature.
POLISH MEMORIES is studded with notable comments and observations. For example, Gombrowicz explained his apolitical orientation thusly: "My maturity manifested itself in the conviction that `life is life,' as my uncles in the country would say, and that no reforms, campaigns, movements, or struggles could bring my colleagues an ounce more sense, or turn the earth into a paradise. I was a realist through and through; I abhorred illusions, slogans, and paper theories. I loathed enthusiasm." But it is not a particularly enjoyable book, at root because Gombrowicz was not a particularly pleasant person.
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