Émigré’s Delight: Gombrowicz at the Beinecke Library

Photograph of Gombrowicz on board the Costanera by M. Swieczewska. Courtesy of Yale University.

Through January 15, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library exhibits The World of Witold Gombrowicz, selections from the archive of the caustically funny Polish émigré writer who worked out of obscurity, then was the favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, the year he died. Curated by Vincent Giroud, the exhibit is part of Gombrowicz Autumn, a series of stateside events taking place concurrently with centenary celebrations in Poland—where Gombrowicz didn’t set foot for the second half of his life, and where his books weren’t openly available until 1986. An international conference met at Yale, with Hell Meets Henry Halfway, a recent theater adaptation of Gombrowicz’s serial novel Possessed, playing at SoHo’s Ohio Theater, and Anthology Film Archives screening feature films (the 2003 New York Film Festival premiered Jan Jakub Kolski’s take on the novel Pornografia). Three September publications are English firsts: Yale University Press’s Polish Memories (written for Radio Free Europe broadcast), some wry, late-life philosophy lectures, and Archipelago’s Bacacay story collection—“a very good place to start,” suggests curator Giroud: “So original, so unusual, so fascinating.” 

In her forward to Yale’s 2000 translation of the novel Ferdydurke, Susan Sontag cited it as the sole Nietzschean comedy, adding that “few writers’ lives have so clearly taken the shape of a destiny.” Gombrowicz encompassed two world wars, massive cultural repressions, and an exile’s hard lot. Hot on the 1930s Polish avant-garde scene, he took a journalistic jaunt in 1939 on a new ocean liner to Buenos Aires, then stayed when the Blitzkrieg struck Poland days after docking. During the 24 years he lived and worked in Argentina, his work was forbidden, first under the Nazis and then under Poland’s communist regime. The 1957 thaw brought new editions at home, then a new crackdown—but those new editions were translated rapidly across Europe. Edged out by Saul Bellow in 1966 for the International Prize for Literature, then the most prestigious after the Nobel, Gombrowicz won the following year for his novel Cosmos (out in a new Yale translation next year) and placed second for 1968’s Nobel.

Grove Press published 1960s translations from French and German editions, then Northwestern brought out his much-lauded Diary, but Gombrowicz remains little known here—a particularly scandalous fact in the theater world, where his three great plays make him, in Giroud’s words, “one of the most performed playwrights of the 20th century.” Yale’s current Theater magazine is devoted to Gombrowicz, and the Beinecke exhibit includes “kindest personal regards” from Ingmar Bergman, who staged Ivona, Princess of Burgundy in 1995, and Albert Camus’s enthusiasm for Gombrowicz’s second play, The Marriage. On a mini-screen, Jorge Lavelli’s Berlin Festival production of that play startles in black and white, as does the renowned Argentine director’s lavish, colorfully histrionic musical production of Operetta. Correspondence with Nobel laureate and fellow émigré Czeslaw Milosz, painter Jean Dubuffet, and composer Mauricio Kagel (who refers to “the spiritual Baedeker of your Diary”) are on view, as is that of legendary Polish theater director Tadeusz Kantor, who incorporated Ferdydurke’s opening school sequence in his famous 1975 production, The Dead Class. Argentine supporters smile from photos, and a postcard shows the liner on which Gombrowicz returned to Europe in 1963 on a CIA-funded Ford Foundation fellowship to Berlin, among the first artists invited to bolster the recently walled city.

Vincent Giroud facilitated Yale’s acquisition of the Gombrowicz archive from the writer’s widow (and greatest champion), Rita, to join that of Milosz at Beinecke. The following excerpts come from a chat with the Rail at an Upper East Side luncheonette.

Rail: You quote Józef Wittlin (a major émigré ally), saying that Gombrowicz’s books “have such explosive force that they upset all of our intellectual and affective resources.”

Vincent Giroud: Gombrowicz is a great debunker. Comparisons with Nietzsche are very apt: he’s a disturbing writer because he questions the established values and such unquestioned attitudes as self-respect, adulthood, rationality, and hierarchy. Young Poles fell in love with his work, then continued to read it—clandestinely—because they saw him as a liberator from the communist regime that told them how to think. Here, today, he can be seen as a liberator from the opposite of that.

Rail: In Poland, his French translator noticed that “part of the youth spoke Gombrowiczian,” with Ferdydurke’s phrase “rape through the ears” being, in your words, “recycled politically to mean Stalinist propaganda.” Seems a useful tool to resist the current anti-thinking climate of our day.

Giroud: Totally. The farcical element is extremely important in Gombrowicz’s work. He sees humor as that explosive force, as a weapon, as Molière did, as Alfred Jarry did, too. Gombrowicz was a very famous man in Europe by the time he died, but mention him to people important in the theater world here and you’ll get no particular reaction. He was way before his day: Ivona was written in 1938, then when it was first performed 20 years later, one thought, oh, my, yes, it’s Ionesco, it’s Beckett.

Rail: Who in fact were writing 10 and 15 years later.

Giroud: Exactly. His prescience is one of the many paradoxes of Gombrowicz as a writer.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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