Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Dark as soaring pine

Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish born writer famous for his eccentric diaries, died 50 years ago today. His translator believes these diaries can bring you wild, extravagant dreams, and revive your imaginative garden plot. He recommends you ‘let Gombrowicz rise from your garden, dark as soaring pine, translucent as a magnolia blossom.’

Gombrowicz was born in 1904 at Małoszyce near Opatów, 100km or so south of Warsaw, then part of the Russian empire, and was the youngest of four children. In 1911, his family moved to Warsaw, where he was schooled at Saint Stanislaus Kostka’s Gymnasium, before studying law at Warsaw University, earning a master’s degree in 1927. He spent a year in Paris, where he studied at the Institut des Hautes Études Internationales, before returning to Poland. In 1933, Gombrowicz published Pamiętnik z Okresu Dojrzewania (Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity), a collection of humorous stories; four years later came his first novel, Ferdydurke (which brought him some literary fame), and a year after that his first play, Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy.

In 1939, Gombrowicz was working as a journalist on board a new transatlantic passenger vessel, MS Chrobry, heading for South America, when he heard the news about Germany’s invasion of Poland. He decided to remain in Argentina until the war was over, but he stayed until 1963. During this time, he tried to establish himself as a writer in Buenos Aires, but mostly his works - including a Spanish translation of Ferdydurke - failed to bring him any success. He did, however, manage to publish in the Parisian journal Culture, and, in time, he had more books published in Polish, not least Pornografia (1960). From 1947 to 1955, he worked as a bank clerk, thereafter he was able to make a modest living from his literary output.

On his return to Europe, partly thanks to a scholarship from the Ford Foundation, he went first to Berlin - the closest he would get to his native Poland, now Communist, which had run a campaign to discredit him. But he soon moved to Vence, in France, with Rita Labrosse, a Canadian he had met in Paris who acted as his secretary. By this time, he was well known globally, his books having been translated into several languages, and his plays produced internationally. His last book, Cosmos, was published in 1965, and it won him, in 1967, the Prix International. A year later he married Labrosse. He died on 24 July 1969. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Words without Borders, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or Porta Polonica

Three volumes of diaries are among the most important of Gombrowicz’s literary output - indeed the Paris Review calls them his masterpiece. Three volumes have been translated by Lillian Vallee and published in English: Diary - Volume One 1953-56, Diary - Volume Two 1957-61, and Diary - Volume Three 1961-66 (Northwestern University Press 1988, 1989, 1993). 
A single volume compendium of the diaries is in print and available from Yale Unversity Press which says: ‘Not a traditional journal, Diary is instead the commentary of a brilliant and restless mind.’ Some pages of this can be previewed at Googlebooks.

These are not ordinary diaries by any stretch of the imagination. Entries are rarely dated, and are often more like notes; daily preoccupations are replaced by metaphysical introspection; and making any sense isn’t always the writer’s main preoccupation! Here is the concluding paragraph of the translator’s Afterword: ‘This is not a book for the pusillanimous or the pedantic. But if you want wild, extravagant dreams, if you want to reclaim every dead plant and neglected corner of your imaginative garden plot, take Diary, read it twice, dance with it in the rain, pass it on to a loony friend. Let Gombrowicz rise from your garden, dark as soaring pine, translucent as a magnolia blossom.’

And here is Pankaj Mishra assessment of the diary in The New York Times: ‘In Witold Gombrowicz’s hands, the journal became an iconoclastic polemic addressed to a small readership of fellow exiles. He began it with a nice bit of self-mockery: “Monday. Me. Tuesday. Me. Wednesday. Me. Thursday. Me.” Certainly humorless self-love, as Anaïs Nin’s diaries reveal, is fundamentally inimical to this quasi-literary form. It works best as a severe tribunal for the self that frequents the world and, dependent on fickle opinion for affirmation, is periodically injured and insulted.’

The following (dated) extracts all come from the original third English volume.

30 October 1966
I must (because I see that no one will do this for me) finally formulate the main problem of our times, one that completely dominates the entire Western episteme. This is not a problem of History, or a problem of Existence, or a problem of Praxis or Structure or Cogito or Psychology or any other of the problems that have spread across our field of vision. Our main problem is the problem of the smarter, the dumber.

I return to it, although I have brushed up against it on many occasions. . .  The Stupidity that I sense is getting stronger all the time, in a way that is increasingly humiliating, that crushes and weakens me; it has gotten stronger since I moved closer to Paris, the most blunting of cities. I do not assume that I am alone in feeling I am within its reach; it seems to me that all those who participate in the great march of modem consciousness have not been able to muffle in themselves its acompanying step. . . its tearing through the undergrowth right here, right here. . . I wondered and I still wonder how to settle on a Law that would most concisely describe the specific situation of the European spirit. I see nothing except


Actually I am not talking about a certain contingent of stupidity, not yet overcome, that development will come to terms with sooner or later. This would be a matter of stupidity progressing hand in hand with reason, which grows along with it. Have a look at all the picnics of the intellect: These conceptions! These discoveries! Perspectives! Subtleties! Publications! Congresses! Discussions! Institutes! Universities! Yet: one senses nothing but stupidity.

I must warn you that I am formulating the law the smarter, the dumber without a bit of jesting. No, this is really so. . . And the principle of inverse proportionality seems to get at the very essence of this, for the more noble the quality of reason, the more despicable the category of stupidity; stupidity has become cruder thanks to nothing but its own coarseness, and it eludes the increasingly more subtle instrument of intellectual control . . . our reason, too smart to defend itself against stupidity that is too stupid. In the Western episteme what is stupid is stupid in a gigantic way - and that is why it is elusive.

I will allow myself by way of an example to indicate the stupidity accompanying our, ever more rich, system of communication. Everyone will admit that this system has been splendidly developed of late. Precision, wealth, the profundity of language in not just brilliant expositions but even in peripheral ones, bordering on publicism (like literary criticism), are worthy of the greatest admiration. But the inundation of wealth brings about a flagging in attention, therefore increasing precision is accompanied by increasing disorientation. The result: instead of a growing understanding, you have a growing misunderstanding.

And there are even cruder complications marching onto the scene. Because the critic (let us stick with this example) is, it is true, learned, saturated with readings, oriented, but also overworked, overscheduled, bored, barren; he races to one more premiere, to see one more play, and, after such a onetime look, to hurriedly dash off one more review - which will be thorough and superficial, excellent and slapdash. And, unfortunately, I don’t see that the Western episteme will be capable of solving the contradictions of the communication system, it cannot even register them, as they are beneath its level. . .  The vulnerability of the episteme when faced with the most blatant stupidity is a characteristic feature of our times.

An acquaintance of mine told me a story from before the war. They were drinking a nightcap on the veranda when Uncle Simon showed up. “What?” I asked. “Why, Simon has been resting in the cemetery for the past five years!” “Well, yes.” she replied. “He came from the cemetery in the suit he was buried in, he greeted us, sat down, drank some tea, chatted a bit about the crops, and returned to the cemetery.” 

“What?! And what did you do?! . . .” “What did you want us to do, my dear, in the face of such cheek. . .” And this is why the episteme cannot muster a riposte: it is too shamelessly stupid!

But - what luxuries!

L’ecriture n’est jamais qu’un langage, un système formel (quelque verité qui l’anime); à un certain moment (qui est peut-être celui de nos crises profondes, sans autre rapport avec ce que nous disons que d’en changer le rhythm), ce langage peut toujours être parlé par un autre langage; écrire (tout au long du temps) c’est chercher à découvrir le plus grand langage, celui qui est la forme de tous les autres. (Roland Barthes)

Hm . . . what? . . . One has to admit: they do not lack cheek!

We so-called artists are mountain climbers from birth; this kind of intellectual-verbal hike really agrees with us; if only it did not make us dizzy.’

1 January 1967
Rita and I stepped into 1967 yesterday. The two of us, without champagne, looking out our window at the silence, emptiness, our beautiful Place du Grand-Jardin, the steep roofs of old Vence, the cathedral tower, with the stony walls of the mountain far away, which the moon floods with a mystical light.

The moon was so strong that one could see a sheet of water beyond Cap d’Antibes on the other side.

Almost nothing happens to me. The unremarkable state of my health has become something of a cloister for me. I live like a monk. Breakfast at nine, then writing, mail at noon, car excursion into the mountains a stroll, we come back, lunch, newspaper, nap, correspondence, reading. . . . Most often we visit Maria Sperling and J6zefJarema, who have a lovely house and an even more beautiful garden on one of the slopes overlooking at nine, then writing, mail at noon, car excursion into the mountains a stroll, we come back, lunch, newspaper, nap, correspondence, reading. . .  Most often we visit Maria Sperling and Józef Jarema, who have a lovely house and an even more beautiful garden on one of the slopes overlooking Nice.

There is no lack of visits because this is the drawing room of Europe, someone is constantly appearing, from America, Australia, Sweden, Poland, there are scads of kings, financiers, maharajas, admirals, movie stars during the holidays. But nothing ever happens. Sometimes, with an effort bordering on self-torment, I try to unearth in my head some lost detail from years ago. For example, I wondered about this yesterday evening and right before falling asleep last night and this morning: in which courtyard, on what street, did I run for cover from the downpour then, in September 1955, in Buenos Aires, during the revolution, when I fled from my endangered apartment to Russo’s.

In spite of everything, there is a lot of bitter irony in this: that now, after an Argentine fast of many years, I have finally made it to such an elegant country, to such a high civilization, to such landscapes, to such bakery goods, fish, delicacies, such roads, beaches, palaces, cascades, and elegant things that, unfortunately, I with my television, record player, frigidaire, and dog, cat, I in the mountains, in the sun, in the air, at the seaside, that I would have to enter a monastery. But in the depths of my soul I acknowledge that the Force, which has not allowed me to consume my success too greedily, is right. I have known for a long time, from the very beginning - I was warned in advance - that art cannot, should not, bring personal gain. . . that it is a tragic business. Something else seems unjust to me: that my artistic work has furnished me so few of the pure pleasures that are allowed the artist; if writing gives me a certain satisfaction, then it is a cold, stubborn, and even reluctant satisfaction; but how often do I write like a kid at school doing his homework; and more often in terror; or in nagging uncertainty. It is true that there were times when I was on the verge of total obsession, I was in no state to tear myself away, for hours after tearing myself from the paper I would persist in a strange, barren excitement, repeating sentences and phrases just written down (I remember one such maniacal stroll in Buenos Aires, near the river, when my head was buzzing not even with sentences but with loose words from The Marriage). But this had the character of speeding, some sort of gallop, trembling, shaking, and did not have much in common with joy.

Perhaps this is unjust and a little cruel, that my lofty vocation was accompanied by such an awful lack of illusions and pitiless sobriety. The anger that mounts in me when I think about artists like Tuwim, D’Annunzio, or even Gide, would it not be connected to their being able to read someone their text without the desperate suspicion that they were boring him? And I also think that a little of that feeling we call the societal meaning of the artist would be more desirable than my certainty that socially I am a zero, a marginal being. This is quite sad, however: to devote yourself to art but at the same time to be beyond it, beyond its ceremony, hierarchies, values, charms - with a practically peasant distrust - with a peasant’s cunning and reluctant smile.

And if one were to accept that at the heart of this matter is an extremely pleasant and salutory thoughtlessness, then why, I ask, have I never known those plots and games, those artistic pranks and frolics, that the Skamandrites - or the romantics in Victor Hugo’s day - the surrealists, or other frisky young people knew? My time was bloody and raw, agreed. War, revolution, emigration. But why had I chosen this time (when I was being born in 1904 in Małoszyce)?

I am a saint. Yes, I am a saint. . . and an ascetic.

In my life there is a contradiction that knocks the plate out of my hands at the very moment it nears my lips.’

21 August 1967
I have been thinking and thinking . . . this is the third week. ... I don’t understand a thing! Nothing! L. finally arrived, looked everything over in great detail, and finally said the same thing, that it was worth at least $150,000. At least! In this dry, pine forest, a crunching underfoot, as if from Poland, with a royal panorama at the top, with princely views onto the processions of castles, St. Paul, Cagnes. Villeneuve, as if rising from the illuminated sea.

A beautiful oak hall on the first floor and three large rooms in the suite. On the first floor two more rooms with a common yet spacious bathroom. Solid verandas and . . .
Why does he want only forty-five thousand (but in cash)? Has he gone crazy? This elusive rich man. . . who is he? Could he be one of my readers? Is this price exclusively for me? The lawyer says: Such are my instructions.


3 September 1967
I cannot think about anything else. At any rate the twenty thousand will make things much easier. . .’

7 September 1967
Should I buy it?’

9 September 1967
I bought it.’

14 September 1967
Now the measuring - the counting, deliberations - arguments.

I want Jarema’s wall hanging with its deep and juicy juxtapositions of black-green-ruddy texture to stand in the hall with its oak paneling, the counterpart to the goldish red tapisserie of Maria Sperling, saturated with a black net of rhythms . . . and hanging there, at the end of the suite of rooms, on the wall of my study.

An indistinct mulatto at the bottom.

And he is a maniac, maniac, maniac!

It never in my life occurred to me to have a son. And actually it is a matter of real indifference to me whether legitimate or illegitimate. My spiritual development, my entire intellectual development, were of the kind that today I am beyond the orbit of this dilemma. And the fact that some half-mulatto shows up on my doorstep with a tender “daddy” . . . from where, how, why?. . . who cares, I could get used to the idea in the end, get accustomed to it. But as far as blackmail. . .

Who gave him money for the trip from Brazil? And these constant about-faces, tricks, pirouettes with the nomenclature, with the name, what for? To shock? To stun, to weaken? Is he counting on being able to make my head spin with his multiple-name dance of a half-breed, with this dance of a warring Apache, he, the supposed (because even this is not certain) son of an indistinct mulatto, conceived of an accidental night, by way of passing, driving by, of a hotel night, which has dropped into the night of forgetfulness. . . I know nothing. . . I don’t remember.

Out of the empty blackness comes a son!

I bought Louis Philippe armchairs, have to reupholster them, in dark green.’

1 November 1967
Rosa, Rosa, Rosa, and Henry, Henry, Henry and Rosa, Rosa, Rosa and Henry, Henry, Henry.

What Henry are you talking about!

In the rotundities of my study.’

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