Posts Tagged ‘Witold Gombrowicz’

More Gombrowicz: “Only phenomena capable of a ruthless life have the right to exist.”

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

“Terribly Polish.” (Photo: Bogdan Paczowski)

A week after Witold Gombrowicz arrived in Buenos Aires in 1939, Germany invaded Poland.  He couldn’t go back.  Thus began two decades of South American exile.

He began his Diary some time later, in 1953, and continued writing till his death in 1969. According to Ruth Franklin writing in the New Yorker:  “In the diary, Gombrowicz describes himself as ‘Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland.’ Gombrowicz rebellion was primarily targeted at what he came to call ‘form.’  … Though his diary project was defined by the search for self, he was not yet ready to thrust himself into it. Later, the diary grew more adventurous, branching into increasingly personal territory and experimenting more with the form and structure of his entries. Gombrowicz’s quest to save Polish culture from its own admirers becomes a favorite theme of the diary. … His exhibitionism begins in mild form, with an almost sheepish account of his daily routine. … But soon the diarist moves into the darker corners of his personality.”

And then Ms. Franklin describes precisely the incident I described in my previous post, which I had found when I first opened the book at random –  “Gombrowicz, Argentina, and a restroom on Callao Street, 1955.”  So what are the odds in a 783-page book?

Here’s an earlier diary entry from 1954, more under the rubric of “Terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland.”

In Poland the tower of a too aristocratic culture crashed and everything there, except for the factory chimneys, will become dwarfed in this and the next generation. Should we, the Polish intelligentsia in exile, shrivel up because of this? This is strange but true: even though we have been suspended in a void, even though there will be fewer and fewer people capable of understanding us, we must continue to think in an unsimplistic and unprimitive way, in a way that is in keeping with our level, just as if nothing at all had changed in our situation. We must simply because this is natural in us and nobody should be more stupid than he is. We must realize ourselves completely and speak our bit out to the last letter, because only phenomena capable of a ruthless life have a right to exist.

Gombrowicz, Argentina, and a restroom on Callao Street, 1955

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Do it, do it, do it. (Photo: B. Paczowski)

If there had not been a seminar at Stanford a few weeks ago, in preparation for The Collected Works’ production of Witold Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona, had not Lillian Vallee come to speak … well, I might never have found out about the Yale University Press’ new 783-page edition of Gombrowicz’s Diary, translated by Lillian.  (The New Yorker, last summer, called the translation “heroic” – how did I miss all this?) Now I have it.  I opened it at random.  Here’s Gombrowicz in Argentina, 1955:

Should I tell or not? A year ago, more or less, the following happened to me. I stopped in a café on Callao Street to use the bathroom. … All kinds of drawings and scribblings were on the walls.  Yet the unconscious urge would never have assailed me, like a poisonous dart, if I hadn’t accidentally fumbled across a pencil in my pocket. The pencil turned out to be an ink pen.

Enclosure, isolation, the certainty that nobody would see, some sort of stillness … and the murmur of water whispered: do it, do it, do it. I took out the pencil. I wet the tip.  I wrote on the wall, high up so it would be hard to erase.  I wrote something quite vulgar in Spanish like:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please comply …
S–– not on the toilet seat but straight in its eye!”

I hid the pen. Opened the door. I walked through the whole café and mingled with the crowd on the street. And the graffito remained.

From that time on, I exist with the awareness that my graffito is still there.

I hesitated to disclose this.  I hesitated not for reasons of prestige but because the written word should not serve to spread certain … manias.  But I won’t hide the fact that never would I have dreamed that such things could be this … electrifying … and I can hardly refrain from reproaching myself. I wasted so many years without tasting this inexpensive and risk-free delight.  There is something in this … something strange and intoxicating … resulting most likely from the horrible openness of the graffito, which is there on the wall, in union with the absolute secrecy of the perpetrator who cannot be found out. And also because this is not at all on the level of my work. …


“Review your platitudes”: Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona onstage in San Francisco

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Michael Hunter (right) and the Franconia Performance Series, 2012 (Photo: James Lyons)

The last time we ran across Michael Hunter, he was chumming around Stanford with Mario Biagini, the associate director of Workcenter, a theatrical endeavor based on the principles of 20th-century theater pioneer Jerzy Grotowski.  Michael has been busy since then.  He has recently established a theater company in San Francisco, The Collected Works, with four other graduates of the Stanford doctoral program in drama.  One of them is Florentina Mocanu-Schendel – we’ve written about her, too, here.

Gombrowicz in Vence, 1965. (Photo: B. Paczowski)

This weekend, they’re taking on Witold Gombrowicz‘s Princess Ilona in San Francisco. The great Polish writer is known mostly for Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and his Diary.

Princess Ilona was  first published in the literary journal Skamander in 1938, and first performed in 1957 at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, when the Communist government in Poland briefly lifted a ban on Gombrowicz’s work.  After that, his work vanished from Poland until the 1970s (and was not published until the 1980s).

He’s not as well known, at least in the U.S., for his drama – so this Bay Area premiere will be a rare treat indeed. The  first performance begins on Thursday, Jan. 24 and continues through February 9 at San Francisco’s Performance Art Institute. Buy tickets here.

But wait!  It gets better!  Lillian Vallee, Swarthmore’s Allen Kuharski, author Erik Butler, Michael Hunter and Stanford’s Branislav Jakokljevic will have a panel discussion at 1 p.m. on Friday, January 25, in Piggott Theatre, Memorial Auditorium.  “We’ll be discussing Gombrowicz’s legacy, his Diary, and my production in San Francisco,” Michael wrote me in an email.

Lillian is mostly known to me as one of the fine team of Czeslaw Milosz translators; I got to know her when she contributed to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz, and we later met face to face at a Milosz centennial celebration at the Nobel poet’s home in Berkeley.  She’s just published a new edition of Gombrowicz’s  Diary with Yale University Press.

Director Michael Hunter

The deadlines are swift and terrible this week, so I’ll pinch a short description of the play from the company’s press release:

Princess Ivona (or Ivona, Princess of Burgundia) is the first, and most internationally performed, of the plays of Witold Gombrowicz, the influential Polish novelist, playwright, and diarist, whom John Updike has called “one of the profoundest of the late moderns” and Milan Kundera “one of the great novelists of our century.” Widely performed and celebrated throughout Europe and on the East Coast, Gombrowicz’s timeless and wickedly funny allegory is finally being introduced to Bay Area audiences, by a brand-new company of gifted and experienced theatre makers, in the exciting new warehouse space of the Performance Art Institute.

The play follows the bizarre intrigues of a self-confident Royal Court, whose members enjoy an unchallenged sense of privilege, luxury, and control – over both themselves and others.  The presence of a strange, awkward, silent young woman who mysteriously wanders into their world soon throws the court into a tailspin – the King and Queen begin to unravel at the core of their being, and the rational functioning of the court’s administrators becomes increasingly lunatic.  As the play spirals towards its astonishing ending, both the story and Gombrowicz’s inventive language become more outlandish and theatrical.



The company calls the play a “well-built and versatile machine,” quoting Gombrowicz: “A writer can, if he wishes, describe reality as he sees it or as he imagines it to be; this produces realistic works (…) But he can also apply a different method in which reality is reduced to its component parts, after which these parts are used like bricks to construct a new edifice, a new world or microcosm, which ought to be different from the regular world and yet correspond with it in some way … different but, as the physicists say, adequate.”

I like this shorter Gombrowicz injunction, from the Collected Works website: “Review your platitudes.”

Lillian and Kuharski will hold a “talkback” after the Friday night performance in San Francisco.  Who knows?  You might even find me there.  It all depends on me clearing a few deadlines first…


“Anything might happen”: Kultura in Maisons-Laffitte and the politics of exile

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Kultura’s former digs.

“Absolutely secret, absolutely necessary,” said Andrzej Bernhardt at the steering wheel, driving me from one side of Maisons-Laffitte to the other.  “It was very dangerous. Anything might happen.”

Compared to the hustle-and-bustle of Paris, this little burg, about half-an-hour away from the Paris Étoile station, is sleepy and comfortably suburban.  It was not always so.

When Polish poet Czesław Miłosz defected in 1951, he was immediately whisked to the Kultura headquarters here, in Maisons-Laffitte, for protection. Kultura, founded in 1946 in Rome by Jerzy Giedroyć with associates Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, had become the intellectual and cultural bastion of the substantial Polish émigré community, a circle that included (and published) Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Witold Gombrowicz, Marek Hłasko, Jan Kott, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Józef Czapski, Konstanty Jeleński, and Bogdan Czaykowski.

“Kultura was observed by Polish agents. It was quite delicate to keep him inside.  Very difficult for everybody,” said Andrzej, a member of the board for managing Kultura.  “He tried to stay involved – but not even the postman could be allowed to see him inside.” Hence, he couldn’t go into the garden, or be seen at a window. He had survived the destruction of Warsaw, and Nazi and Soviet occupation, only to find himself imprisoned outside Paris, albeit in an elegant mansion.

During Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Communist government, the writer and painter Józef Czapski, another critical figure in Kultura, had approached him.  If Miłosz should ever change his mind and decide to jump ship, Kultura would protect him, he told the poet.  So here he was, without his family or any means of making a living.

“It’s exciting but difficult to explain today,” said Andrzej. “How can you explain the reality of the 1950s?” How indeed?  It was a time when, for half of Europe, the written word could be its own kind of atom bomb, and its writers were dangerous cultural ninja.

We arrive at our destination, across from the small town’s park. This was the site of the original Kultura, which ran a publishing house and monthly literary journal of the same title, and operated as a sort of Polish kibbutz.

Giedroyc at Kultura, 1997 (Photo: Mariusz Kubik)

“He was in a difficult position in France, where nothing like Free Europe existed – in fact, the French Foreign Office was cultivating their prewar friendship with Poland as a means of discouraging a revivial of an aggressive Germany,” wrote former diplomat John Foster Leich in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Commenting on Miłosz’s defection in Paris, I remember Burke Elbrick, the head of the Polish desk at the U.S. State Department, saying that ‘only a Pole would be so careless to defect in France rather than the United States, where he would have had a much better and safer life.'”

The influential Kultura may have provided an island of calm for the poet, who was denounced by the Parisian intelligentsia who were universally left-wing and pro-communist – but Kultura was no idyll. Zofia Hertz recalled that, in the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle was approached by the Polish authorities and asked to “liquidate us, arrest us, yet he didn’t, De Gaulle came to us and did not listen to them.”

What was Giedroyć like? Wojiech Sikora, Kultura’s president, hands me a brochure for the Giedroyć centenary in 2006.  “He was rather solitary. He hated crowds. He used to work a lot, he was lonely. But he took care of ordinary people – in Poland and France as well.  Everywhere where he knew someone.

Kultura today

“He hated all the manifestations of Parisian life, the high life,” Wojiech continued. “He lived and worked in the same place. He used to work till late at night. So many letters to answer, so many books to read.” He typed all his own letters, on a manual typewriter.

Andrzej added, “He was very simple, in a way. Not very sophisticated.  Someone very easy to communicate with.”  Needless to say, he was a Polish patriot.

Kultura moved to its new digs on Avenue de Poissy in 1954. The new house is capacious but still homey, wooden, stuffed with offices and walls of books – an intimate space, as well as a public one.  A small wooden cross is above the front door, Polish style.

Although the building is empty today, except for my two hosts, they tell me that scholars and students regularly visit and work – sometimes staying a day, sometimes for weeks.  In the final issue of Kultura in autumn 2000, Zofia Hertz and Henryk Giedroyć wrote, “We would like to preserve our house, which is always open for everyone, not as a museum but as a center teeming with life and work.”

Kultura moved here in 1954

And so they have. The Cold War is over, and now Kultura serves as an archive. The empty stables adjoining the house include 150,000 letters to and from Giedroyć. “Every day people come from Poland and ask what one should do, what he thinks,” Hertz recalled – and the evidence is here.  Over a thousand of the letters are exchanges with Miłosz. The Warsaw publishing house Zeszyty Literackie has issued two volumes of the letters, but they otherwise remain unpublished … and many of them are not yet inventoried, or chemically treated for preservation, and so on.  Eventually, they will be digitized as well.

Moreover, Giedroyć and Kultura collected all kinds of documents about Eastern Europe – 180 meters of them. “Letters but not only,” according to Andrzej. That’s in addition to 100,000 books.

“Taking care of our archives – that’s become our basic vocation. Now we are trying to organize it in a professional way,” he said.

They also gave me a xerox of Miłosz’s 11-page essay “Nie” [No] from the May 1951 Kultura (it has never, to my knowledge, been translated into English).  Although Miłosz had asked for political asylum in February, 60 years before my winter appearance on the Kultura doorstep, he did not hold a press conference until May 15, perhaps to coincide with the article’s appearance.

According to the account in the Manchester Guardian the next day, the press conference was a précis of his 1953 landmark book, Captive Mind:

Mr. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who for the last four years has been Cultural First Secretary of the Embassy in Washington, and had recently ben appointed to the Embassy in Paris, explained at a press conference today why he has broken with the Communist regime in Poland.

His statement was the more interesting because he obviously had for a long time a lively sympathy for the regime and has not much admiration for the West. He summed up his reason for leaving by saying that “Socialist realism is systematic lying.” The writer, under what he called “the New Faith,” communism, was a highly valued member of the community …

“I am here because I have conquered in myself historical fatalism, which is a serpent. An intellectual who lets himself look perpetually at historical fatalism behaves like a fascinated rabbit. Do not believe that historical necessity can be a standard of individual action for a man. Even if this necessity exists I know that my duty is to act against it for I know that the New Faith brings a great misfortune to humanity.

“I do not know any greater misfortune for man. The principal interest of the New Faith is not the economic organisationof society but the creation of a new human type by killing in man what, for lack of a better term, one may call metaphysical being.

“The New Faith is the most perfect incarnation of demoniacal thought history has seen. In front of it there is a bad world divided by eternal contradictions, but a world which is nearly human. I belong to that world and I am going to serve its cause. It is not true that the West is an ichthyosaurus with a small brain, as has been described in Communist propaganda. But it is true that its intellectual potential is at present asleep. The spirit of America is still asleep. The victory of man over this human demoniacal force is possible but not before the West has given man a social system which assures him bread and the excitement of collective effort without all the lies of the new faith.

There were other published letters from Miłosz in the Kultura files – open letters to Polish friends, still explaining his decision, and explaining and explaining and explaining again.

But it’s only a handful among thousands and thousands of letters, manuscripts, documents.  Over the years, Kultura published more than 500 books and more than 600 issues of Kultura.  That, too, is only a fraction of its legacy, and that of its founder.  According to Miłosz, “It was even said sometimes that  Giedroyć had overthrown communism in Poland.”