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Witold Gombrowicz (pronounced VEE-told gom-BROH-veetch) was the author of novels, plays, an early collection of short stories, and autobiographical works (see Bibliography). He was born on August 4, 1904 in Maloszyci, Poland to Jan-Onufry and Antonina Marcela. The elder Gombrowicz was a wealthy lawyer, land-owner and chairman of an industrial association; his wife was the daughter of Ignacy Kotkowski, also a land-owner.
Witold was raised Catholic and studied with private tutors and at an aristocratic Catholic school in Warsaw. The son followed the father as far as law studies (he attended Warsaw University from 1922 to 1927 and graduated as master of law) but later admitted to having no interest: "I didn't go to the lectures. My valet, who was more distinguished than I, went instead." From 1927 to 1929 he studied philosophy and economics at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Paris. But he neglected his studies and, when his father cut off his allowance, Witold reluctantly began training to become a lawyer in Warsaw. Here he began frequenting literary cafes and writing short stories -- the first writings he did not destroy.
The collected stories were published as Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity (1933) and met with harsh criticism and faint praise that made Gombrowicz regret the title. Ferdydurke, in fact, seemed to deal with the author's sudden self-consciousness as a public entity; and while self-consciousness is often detrimental to a writer's craft Gombrowicz wielded it as a weapon to separate the outer layer of the persona from the nameless inner depth of the person. Susan Sontag has called Ferdydurke "one of the most important overlooked books of the 20th Century."
Gombrowicz's principal works were written in Argentina, to which fate transported him virtually the day before the outbreak of WWII in 1939, and where he remained for 24 years. His struggle with identity now assumed new ferocity as he was branded a Polish émigré writer; the story of these first years in exile is "documented" in the hilarious Trans-Atlantyk, written while filling a sinecure position at the Polish Bank in Buenos Aires.
After eight years in Argentina, Gombrowicz collaborated (in 1947) with a team of South American writers to translate Ferdydurke into Spanish, but the resulting work was ignored. In fact, apart from publications in the émigré review Kultura, issued by the Polish Literary Institute in Paris, Gombrowicz was virtually unknown until 1957 -- when the Communist regime in Poland briefly lifted its ban on his work (in place since the Nazi invasion of 1939) and Ferdydurke was reissued. It was interpreted as an insightful premonition of totalitarianism and became an overnight success. Other publications followed, as did stage performances of his plays -- which were compared to Beckett and Ionesco. A new ban in 1958 removed his work from Polish shelves, but not before they gained notice in the west.
Though his works have been translated into 30 languages, he remains largely unknown outside of Europe. A Ford Foundation grant in 1963 permitted Gombrowicz to leave Argentina at last to spend a year in Berlin. A return to unfriendly Poland was out of the question and after a brief visit to Paris his asthma drove him to the south of France, where he lived his few remaining years in Vence. He won the prestigious International Prize for Literature in 1967 for Cosmos (his novel Pornografia previously missed the prize in 1960 by one vote) and was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1968. The asthma reduced him to near speechlessness and also affected his heart. Though he survived the first heart attack, the second took his life at midnight on July 24, 1969.
Cosmos, considered Gombrowicz's best novel, is an absurdist mystery in which the instinctive human search for order and meaning becomes the "culprit," just as it had in Pornografia. Most of his writings, in fact, deal with the distorting power of Form over the human mind, the seductive allure of immaturity (formless yet imbued with the potential for form), and thus with the questions of identity and the possibility of relationship. His fiction hinges on moments in which the antithesis or incongruity of Form and reality becomes public and undeniable, and Gombrowicz is often as hilarious as he is revealing.
In his journals he was uncompromising in defrocking imposters and poseurs; every page of the Diaries contains some sparkling insight that transcends the cultural or historical particulars of which he wrote.
On the centenary of his birth, Poland declared 2004 to be "The Year of Gombrowicz." (See Polish Culture). Yale University hosted an international conference (October 22nd - 23rd, 2004) featuring academic panels, an exhibition of Gombrowicz materials in the Beinecke Library archives, and a performance of Ferdydurke by the Polish acting company Teatr Provisorium. More info...
A new English translation of Gombrowicz's Cosmos by Danuta Borchardt has just been published (September 12, 2005) by Yale University Press. It is the first direct translation from the Polish original and has been called "graceful, powerful, and inventive . . . a great gift to all lovers of Witold Gombrowicz's quirky prose." by Jaroslaw Anders.
The first English translation of Gombrowicz's Bacacay (first published in Polish in 1957) was published in October 2004. Archipelago Books "From his very first stories, collected in Bacacay, he launches an attack on the artificial reality of grimaces, conventions, airs and graces. He mocks its solemn mascarades--you might say he kneads it with powerful hands and relishes the comic deformations he inflicts upon it."-- Eric Chevillard
A new translation of Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke by Danuta Borchardt was published in September 2000 by Yale University Press (paper and cloth). Foreword by Susan Sontag. Dust jacket by Bruno Schulz (reproduces original cover art from 1937). Yale University Press. "This promises to be, at last, the English translation of Ferdydurke that we have all been waiting for."-- Stanislaw Baranczak, Harvard University
First posted: February 22, 1996
Last updated: January 13, 2011