In 1939, the thirty-five-year old Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz sailed for Buenos Aires on what was supposed to have been a brief tour of the Argentine. A month later Germany invaded Poland, and Gombrowicz was unable to return to Europe for twenty-four years. Gombrowicz continued to write exclusively in Polish, which may be part of the reason that his monumental importance in twentieth-century literature is often overlooked. Milan Kundera places him beside Joyce and Kafka and Thomas Mann, the French existentialists considered him a foundational writer, and he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1968. Today, however, he is known—when and where he is known at all—as the author of Ferdydurke, a bizarre, Rabelaisian rant of a book that made him a literary celebrity before the war. While it is certainly worth reading on its own account, Ferdydurke has obscured the substantial body of work that he produced in the years that followed. The reason might be that it is the most immediately accessible of his novels. It is the only one he wrote entirely in a comic or satiric mode, for instance, and the difficulty of his style is easier to manage, or easier to ignore, when presented in that context. But if the later novels are written in the same style and offer little of the comic relief that Ferdydurke provides, then we have to ask if they are worth the effort it takes to read them. If so, what makes them worth it?
Grove Press has just reissued Pornografia, which Gombrowicz wrote in the late 1950s, in a new translation by Danuta Borchardt. Here we have a narrative voice as antic and confused as the voice in Ferdydurke, but Pornografia is more crisply turned and more clearly resolved. It may be that the exhaustion of his long exile had compelled him to adopt a new narrative mode—it seems as if he had decided to make a sincere attempt to say what he had to say. Pornografia is animated by an unconcealed pain, and that is what lifts it above the ordinary run of modernist invention and makes it poignant and relevant today.
The action takes place in 1943, at a manor house in occupied Poland. In Pornografia, as in all of Gombrowicz’s fiction and in all the writing he did about his fiction, there is the same struggle between what he was pleased to call “youth” and “maturity.” Here, that struggle is visible in the juggling of two central plot elements. We have the horrific reality of World War II and of the German occupation: this is the “mature” and “adult” world of the novel. The “immature” and “youthful” world is presented to us in the potential or presumptive relationship between Henia, the adolescent daughter of the man to whom the manor house belongs, and Karol, a young man who has just returned from fighting with the Polish resistance.
We realize immediately that the narrator, who is also called Witold Gombrowicz, is interested in minimizing the importance of the German occupation—he dismisses the Germans as “unavoidable” and “oppressive”—and in maximizing the importance of the relationship between Henia and Karol. We also learn that no such relationship exists, a fact that he does not conceal but which he refuses to accept. Pornografia then becomes the story of the narrator’s desperate feeling—which he shares with his friend Fryderyk, who shadows him throughout—that a relationship should exist between the two younger characters. Here, for example, is the moment he sees them together for the first time: “It was as if the nape of her neck (the girl’s) was taking a run for and uniting itself with (the boy’s) neck, this neck as if taken by the scruff was taking the other neck by the scruff of the neck!”
The parentheses are the narrator’s own addition, and their presence is not required, but we know what parentheses are. Parentheses are supposed to clarify things. The narrator is struggling to explain his overpowering excitement. Later we learn that Fryderyk feels the same excitement, which seems to derive from the possibility that Henia and Karol could be attracted to one another without being aware of it. We know enough about the two older men to grasp that such a perfect lack of self-consciousness would fascinate them, but it is harder to say why they resolve to act on that fascination. Voyeurism is not enough, it turns out. If there is an organic attraction between Henia and Karol, then Fryderyk and the narrator decide they must bring about its natural consummation.
In his preface to the Grove Press edition in 1966—an otherwise bewildering preface, as it happens, and one that is not preserved in the new translation—Gombrowicz tells us that he wrote Pornografia in the style of a “Polish provincial novel.” He explains that “I [was]… more and more inclined to present what seem to me the most complex themes in a simple, naïve form.” Like most authors of a radically innovative stripe, he must never be taken quite at his word, but we can assume that by “Polish provincial novel” he means the type of story that might take place at a manor in the Polish countryside and one that might have young love as its subject. Pornografia is not such a story. The countryside is haunted by the German army, and there is no love between the young lovers. Gombrowicz probably means that we should consider whether or not it is still possible to tell the old story. Can one write a novel about occupied Poland in which the central themes are love and sex rather than war and death? Is it possible to ignore the occupation entirely? Is that why Fryderyk and the narrator are so desperate to involve themselves in the relationship between Henia and Karol?
The Henia/Karol problem is also one of many literary games in Pornografia. The narrator wants to tell a story that he cannot tell: Gombrowicz the author trips up Gombrowicz the character. Elsewhere we have other games. There is the intense focus on action and intention—why move your foot in that way at that time?—and there is the relationship between Fryderyk and the narrator, who work together so well and so consistently that we are tempted to think of them as the same person. There is the absence of any backstory: there are the Germans themselves, who seem occasionally no more than a structural principle, and there is the hysterical, halting, elliptical style. There is also the maddening suggestion that we are not dealing with occupied Poland at all, but rather with an alternate reality that bears a strong resemblance to occupied Poland. The writer himself, in a note that replaces the original preface in this new edition, admits that the world of the novel is an “imaginary Poland.”
Gombrowicz is a jittery, expansive, ambitious writer, and his games are interesting or irritating to the extent that one is interested or irritated by such things. In Pornografia, though, we are dealing with something more substantial than a literary circus. If we step back, ignore the tricks and the false starts, and conjure up an image of old Witold in his Argentinean exile, we begin to understand the pain that distinguishes and dignifies this novel. The Germans had invaded his country and forced him into exile. It is no great surprise that the occupation should have been one of his main concerns. Yet we must also remember that he is writing fifteen years later, and that he had no direct experience of Poland in wartime. So the occupation must also be understood as a plot device. It transforms the landscape and makes Poland foreign to Polish people. The characters in Pornografia become, in this way, expatriates in their native land.
Czeslaw Milosz, in his introduction to Ferdydurke, tells us that “Gombrowicz touched on subjects that are… incomprehensible to us in this century or maybe just incomprehensible in general.” From a certain perspective, this might be true, but we can read Pornografia in the simple knowledge that while he was writing it, Gombrowicz could not go home. I do not mean Poland, although Poland is certainly part of what “home” must have meant to him. I would argue that “home” also means “youth”—that place or time from which we are banished by adulthood; a thing we do not know we have, as the saying goes, until we have lost it. The freedom of that kind of ignorance is what excites the narrator so intensely. Henia and Karol are at liberty to feel a thing they do not know they feel. They have not yet been exiled to adulthood.
Pornografia is not a novel about war. It is a novel about being young and getting old. It is saved from its own wit because Gombrowicz is brave enough to write sincerely about a subject he might once have regarded as too prosaic for serious fiction. But in the end, is that sincerity not what great fiction promises? Ulysses is as difficult as literature gets, but it would not be the masterpiece it is if it were not also a book about heartbreak. Nabokov plays his own games in Lolita, but that novel is also a sad story about a girl named Dolores. So Pornografia is a book about the universal longing for the time we have lost by growing old. Does it matter that it is a reformulation of something that already preoccupies us? What we ask of art is that it should present a familiar thing in a new and striking way, and that is what Pornografia does.
Aaron Thier is a freelance writer working on his first novel.