Bizarrely, I am convinced that a writer incapable of talking about himself
is not a complete writer.
– Journals, Vol 1
There must be a good reason why I never read Witold Gombrowicz before now, but all I can think of are bad ones. It must be a decade since I first had people recommend his books to me, but I think I was frightened off. I’ve never been slow to pick up translated fiction, particularly European – in fact I sometimes wonder if I favour them – so why was this? A feeling, perhaps, of an otherness so foreign that I would never be able to make it make sense to me. Look at the names: first the author. Witold Gombrowicz: a name with no way in, no obvious anglicised equivalent (not like Franz, not like Patrik). Or look at the titles of his books: Ferdydurke. Bacacay. They are untranslatable and unknowable. But then I read Keith Ridgway’s praise of him: again and again. Right. Fine.
Bacacay was Gombrowicz’s first book, or almost. His first book contained seven of the twelve stories here, published as the eminently translatable Recollections of Adolescence in 1933. Only when Gombrowicz became famous as a novelist did he add more stories to the book and republish it, in 1957, as Bacacay, a title which comes from a street in Buenos Aires where Gombrowicz lived, and which gives no clue to the content of the book. Gombrowicz said that he chose the title “for the same reason that a person names his dogs – to distinguish them from others.” Yet it is the last of Gombrowicz’s fiction to be translated into English (in 2004, by Bill Johnston, who also provides an afterword). Does this make it the dregs of his work, vaguely ho-hum like the endless slim volumes that Calvino’s next of kin keep pulling out from the bottom of his desk drawer?
Bacacay is no apprentice work, no runt of the litter. The earliest story was written when Gombrowicz was 22 years old, but it is fiction fully formed. There is character, voice and vision: that unmistakable quality of words that could never have been put together in quite this way by anyone else. The variety of content makes it artificial to try to round up these stories, but they are unified mainly by the tone: deceptively light, funny too, but with more than a homeopathic hint of strangeness and fear. (Gombrowicz described his “vision of the world” as “sinister, erotico-sensual and frankly monstrous.”) The closest relation I can come up with is Robert Walser: Gombrowicz has the skittishness, the sense of not really taking it seriously, leaving the reader with the seductive impression that his effects are achieved almost by chance. As such, it flatters us into thinking that the force of the fiction, and the control and power which gives it that force, comes from our reading as much as from the author’s writing. In a sense that is true, as it’s true for any work by any author – a book is a dialogue, not a monologue – but rarely does the author’s intelligence efface itself so carefully.
Another way of looking at this is that the stories generally resist straightforward interpretation. This seems to be something that Gombrowicz encouraged: early editions of Recollections of Adolescence included a ‘Short Explanation’ where the author explained the stories. You can read them here, and they make interesting afterwords for the reader to bounce their own thoughts against. Later editions, however, contain no intervention: the reader is free to make of, and take from, the stories what they will. The most appealing stories, like the opening ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’, combine clear ideas with an unsettling sense of the uncanny. In this story, the narrator begins to direct his life according to the actions of a stranger – the lawyer of the title. He appears to be ceding control over his life to the other man, but as the choice to do so is all his own, the control may really be flowing in the other direction. It is all the more interesting because this reverses the expected order of power between the two: one the one hand a wealthy lawyer who moves in certain circles, on the other our man, who barely moves at all, for whom “sickness, epilepsy, was my only occupation … there were indications that my debilitated organism would not last long.” His attentions soon develop into interventions. “Imagine the lawyer coming out of a public lavatory, reaching for fifteen groszy, and being told that it has already been paid. What does he feel at such a moment?” What indeed?
The shorter stories in Bacacay are the strangest – and the most invigorating – ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’ among them. The oddest is the shortest of all, ‘Philibert’s Child Within’, and it’s worth reproducing its opening paragraph in full, to see the effects Gombrowicz can achieve – and to show that oddness needn’t mean impenetrability.
A peasant of Paris had a child toward the end of the eighteenth century; that child had a child in turn, that child in turn had another child, and again there was another child; and the last child, as tennis champion of the world, was playing a match on the centre court of the Parisian Racing-Club, in an atmosphere of nail-biting tension and with endless spontaneous rounds of thundering applause. And yet (how terribly perfidious life can be!) a certain colonel of the zouaves in the crowd sitting in the side stands suddenly grew envious of the faultless and captivating play by both champions and, wanting to show the six thousand spectators gathered there what he too was capable of (the more so because his fiancée was sitting at his side), all at once he fired his revolver at the ball in flight. The ball burst and fell to the ground, while the champions, unexpectedly deprived of their target, for a short time went on waving their racquets in a vacuum; but, seeing the absurdity of their movements without the ball, they leaped at each other’s throats. Thunderous applause rang out from the spectators.
That’s the way to do it. Throughout, Gombrowicz digs deep even as he entertains. “What a relief it is to be Polish,” says the narrator in ‘The Memoirs of Stefan Czarnicki’, “and it is no wonder everyone envies us and wants to wipe us from the face of the earth.” (Gombrowicz wrote in Polish but lived in Argentina for much of his life. Clive James, in his essay on Gombrowicz in Cultural Amnesia, writes: “It was Poland’s fate that its artists had no home, especially if they were still in Poland. Their best way of keeping their country alive was to leave it.”) Elsewhere, as a magistrate investigating a death in ‘A Premeditated Crime,’ echoes of Robert Walser’s narrators, those little men who don’t quite fit, ring loud: “What an intolerable situation! What a dilemma for a person as sensitive, and above all as irritable, as I am!”
The difficulty with writing that is constantly surprising is the risk of devolving into whimsy. This would only be a risk with Gombrowicz if you didn’t feel that he means every word of it, that he is, as the quote at the top suggests, talking about himself. Even when we expect a reverse, we don’t anticipate that it will have the teeth that the story ‘Virginity’ does, with its unusual awakening for Alice, a young girl being wooed by a suitor. Whatever you expect this exchange between them to be about – “It’s disgusting!” “It’s blind, strange, mysterious, shameful and lovely!” – I bet you’re wrong.
The story which feels the most claustrophobic and internal is at the centre of the book. ‘Adventures’ is a more open title for it than Gombrowicz’s original choice, ‘Five Minutes Before Sleep’, which marks down its origins as lying in the author’s pre-dream fears. In it, the narrator is perpetually pursued and tortured by another man into whose control he falls, a man who “thought for a long time how, with me as an intermediary, he could enjoy experiences he would never have dared to try on his own – just like the Englishwoman who placed a bug in a matchbox and threw it over Niagara Falls.” This is a supremely ironic description of the “domineering unboundedness” to which our man is subject: dropped to the bottom of the ocean in a sort of bathysphere (“a thoroughly unique fate”); thrown overboard to float forever in a glass bubble; escaping and returning to the thing he can never really escape from. It is a sort of counterpoint to the perverse illusion of control in ‘Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer’. These are the author’s dreams, the character’s nightmares, coming from within to terrorise him, and to delight us: if delight is the word. And it is all delivered in a scrupulously innocent, irresistible voice. As one character says to another in the second story here: “Oh, how awful you are. You have no idea how awful you are.”