View Full Version : Witold Gombrowicz: Pornografia
Like a book written by a feverish Poe narrator played for pitchblack absurdist comedy, a hilarious book, incredibly bent, bent, bent, twisted like barbed wire, bugeyed insane, deeply bizarre and disturbing, and possessed by genius. Gombrowicz is considered one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century that no one's ever heard of - Kundera counts him as one of the handful of great modernist writers.
The book begins:
I shall tell you about another experience I had, undoubtedly the most fatal of all.
... and proceeds to launch like a shot into another tale springing directly from the nonexistent first one.
Two old men (the odd old gent Fredrick, and the narrator Witold Gombrowicz) take a trip to the countryside in German-occupied Poland and become obsessed with two youths on the estate, leading at first to frivolous games with slightly dark undercurrents and snowballing slowly and steadily into full-blown madness - there's even a TA-DA! moment with a bloodsoaked knife flung to the ground on the last page. Fantastic, a favorite.
Liehtzu: I've just found your entry here, and saw your enthusiasm. I shall put my copy of "Pornographia" on my To Be Read pile, as I've not read it for decades. Gombrowicz was a favouite of mine, mainly on account of his diaries, but the novels are something I will have to re-acquaint myself with.
I read it in Polish. I must pick it up in English just to compare.
John Updike called this a "sinister little book" and I can't argue with that description. I read it twenty years ago or so and remember liking it but I honestly don't remember much about it now. "Ferdydurke" I couldn't get into at all.
Still haven't read it again since I last commented. But one of Gombrowicz' obsessions was form and conformity.
I am more of a fan of his plays and diaries. The novels have not stuck in my mind either. I imagine the translations were OK, but Edyta will be able tell better than the rest of us can. He wrote it in Argentina, before his return to Europe some years later.
I'm rather obsessed with it in the Alistair Hamilton translation (from the French translation) but and can only imagine how much better it is in a direct-from-the-Polish translation - which is supposedly in the works.
The writeup on the back cover of the Penguin edition I have (with that wonderfully disturbing cover image), sums the book up well:
'One of the greatest novelists of our century.' Milan Kundera
Set in the occupied Poland of 1943, Pornograf?a revolves around a visit to a country estate made by the narrator and the enigmatic Frederick. There the two old men conjure up an illusory love between Henia, their host's adolescent daughter, and Karol, the local administrator's son. As they plot the consummation of this (imagined) relationship, the most trivial events begin to yield an increasingly bizarre and obscene significance. The narrator is gradually drawn into an obsessive and violent game in which the young are more seductive than he could ever have believed.
A masterpiece of philosophical fiction, Pornografia contains elements of the pastoral romance, the melodramatic farce, the political thriller and the murder mystery. Gombrowicz's terse, descriptive snapshots are laced with extraordinary metaphors and starling abstractions: speech silently subverts itself while the uncontrolled play of power and desire bursts into the ordered world of adulthood.
'The great boldness of his spirit... how disturbing his writings are, how challenging and enigmatic.' - Czeslaw Milosz
To be honest I liked 'Cosmos' and 'Possessed: The secret of Myslotch' better--at least was impressed enough to re-read both. I've never gone back to 'Pornografia'--(I can still remember the look on the face of the saleslady years ago when I ordered it--definitely wasn't a look of approval) maybe I should.
About the translation of "Pornografia". My Polish is not so good that I would pick up every nuance, but good enough to get some idea about the translation. Whether Hamilton translated it via the French or directly from the Polish, it looks to me, by random sampling, that he has stuck closely to the original. Maybe the translation could be revised on minor points, but to put Liehtzu's mind at rest, it looks to be a more than adequate translation when it comes to conveying what is written in the original Polish version.
One small text I did find in the Polish version that is not there in the Hamilton translation (I've got the 1966 version of the latter) is a half-page introduction by Gombrowicz himself, which says (in my rough-and-ready translation; this passage may appear in the "Diaries"):
"Pornografia" is set in Poland during the war years. Why? Partly, because the climate of war is true to it. Partly because it is after all Polish - and although it appears to be invented, at first glance, it belongs to a small extent to the genre cheap romantic novel, of the type written by Rodziwicz?wna or Zarzycka (did this similarity disappear during later editing?). And partly to spite - to prompt [provoke?] my native land to house in its breast other conflicts, dramas, ideas than those... ascertained by theory [I think he means World War II as a real fact and the debate about it] .
I do not know this Poland at war. I wasn't there at the time. I have not seen Poland at all since 1939. I saw it as I imagined it. It is therefore an imaginary Poland - and don't worry about the fact that it is at times crazy, at times perhaps a fantasy, because that's not the point, and this is entirely irrelevant to what is going on here.
And one more point. Do not start looking for clues about the Armia Krajowa (in the second half of the novel), clues which are intended in a critical or ironic way. The AK can rely upon my respect for it. I made up the situation - which could occur in any underground organisation - since it facilitated the composition and enhanced spirit of the novel, in this instance rather melodramatically. AK or no AK, people are human - you can find a leader anywhere, a cranky coward, or a murder dictated by a conspiracy.
The real-life Armia Krajowa can be read about here:
Armia Krajowa - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armia_Krajowa)
The Armia Krajowa (AK) was the main Polish resistance movement against the German Nazi invader, but was subsequently disbanded as the Red Army occupied Poland immediately after World War Two. Gombrowicz got into hot water in some Polish exile circles as he didn't actually experience WWII, and was felt to have run away from it. One key Armia Krajowa initiative was the Warsaw Uprising:
Warsaw Uprising - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Uprising)
That failed because the Soviets never came to the assistance of the uprising and waited across the River Vistula until the Germans had wiped out resistance. No love is lost between the Poles and the Russians, especially after it was revealed in 1945 that the Russians shot 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyń Massacre in 1940:
Katyn massacre - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katyn)
All this historical baggage is hinted at in Gombrowicz' brief introduction to what is, to all intents and purposes, a fantasy novel based on a spoof of the romantic novel.
I'm eager to read the novel again, as I am "Cosmos" and indeed "Ferdydurke", though I've no time at present. But as I said earlier, I appreciated the plays and diaries more. So I'd like to see whether I would be more on the wavelength of the novels now, years later.
My fiancee is Polish. The two writers she has suggested to me most often are Gombrowicz and Milosz. Yesterday she bought me a copy of the newly translated Pornografia and Im looking forward to digging in.
Well, D B Cooper, don't expect naked scenes of sex. The pornography is more psychological than real. Two other Polish authors easily available in English are S I. Witkiewicz / Witkacy, who wrote absurdist plays, and Bruno Schulz who wrote about a small Jewish town in what is now Ukraine, Drohobycz, and turns the small town into a source of magical realist stories.
And Polish literature did not stop in the 1950s. There are quite a few authors writing nowadays, such as Olga Tokarczuk and Magdalena Tulli, both available in English.
But Gombrowicz is indeed a master, as much in his very sarcastic diaries as in his novels (e.g. Ferdydurke; Pornografia; Cosmos) and his plays (e.g. The Wedding; Princess Ivona).
So I hope your fianc?e will inspire you to look at Poland through the prism of literature.
I didnt actually think the novel was "pornography" per se. Ive heard of the Bruno Schulz book Street of Crocodiles, so I imagine I will get that sometime soon also. What Im really excited to learn about are the current Polish authors you mentioned, Olga Tokarczuk and Magdalena Tulli. Thanks for the insight and tips on these authors. As soon as I finish the book Im currently reading Im greatly looking forward to my first Gombrowicz.
Magdalena Tulli (the surname sounds Italian) is interviewed here:
Polish Writing: Interview with Bill Johnston on Magdalena Tulli (http://www.polishwriting.net/index.php?id=125)
And three of her books are available in English:
Magdalena Tulli archipelago books (http://www.archipelagobooks.org/author.php?id=17)
And Olga Tokarczuk, the more famous of the two, is also available in English. See the Wikipedia:
Olga Tokarczuk - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olga_Tokarczuk)
Polish Writing: tokarczuk (http://www.polishwriting.net/?s=author&c=tokarczuk)
This was indeed a sinister little book, an elegant exercise in how to create madness out of nothing. Fredrick and Witold are two two urban intellectuals who come to the countryside and enjoy screwing with peoples' minds and manipulate them in weird erotic games. I especially loved their insistance that Henia and Karol were in love and the strategies they used to corrupt them. There's such a lovely tinge of perversion in the novel, at times I thought of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series.
Looking forward to this. Its next in the queue after I finish Remainder.
I read Cosmos a few years ago and was left so confused I couldn't even give it a personal rating. I'm afraid I can't just "go with the flow" of some of these types of texts. Is Pornografia similar?
From what I remember, "Pornografia" and "Cosmos" are similar in style and tone. As I suggested earlier on this thread, his plays are a great deal more accessible and successful, as well as his diaries. I think you have to somehow be more prepared to wander through Gombrowicz' private mental landscape to appreciate his novels. I too was somewhat disappointed reading his novels after the plays. I wonder what I would think now, if I read the whole lot again some 30 years later.
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