My bright liner is still contemplating this passage:
Here it is: the time has come, the hour has struck the clock of history—make an effort to overcome form, to liberate yourselves from it. Stop identifying yourselves with that which delimits you. You, artists, try to avoid all expression of yourselves. Don’t trust your own words. Be on guard against all your beliefs and do not trust your feelings. Back away from what you are on the outside and tremble at the sight of a snake.
I don’t know, truly, whether such things should pass my lips this day, but the stipulation—that an individual be well defined, immutable in his ideas, absolute in his pronouncements, unwavering in his ideology, firm in his tastes, responsible for his words and deeds, fixed once and for all in his ways—is flawed. Consider more closely the chimerical nature of such a stipulation. Our element is unending immaturity. What we think, feel today will unavoidably be silliness to our great-grandchildren. It is better then that we should acknowledge today that portion of silliness which time will reveal … and the force that impels you to a premature definition is not, as you think, a totally human force. We shall soon realize that the most important is not: to die for ideas, styles, theses, slogans, beliefs, and also not: to solidify and enclose ourselves in them; but something different, it is this: to step back a pace and secure a distance from everything that unendingly happens to us.
from Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz
Back in 1996 I was poking around the small student bookstore at my daughter’s college in upstate New York and I noticed a book containing two novels by Witold Gombrowicz. As you might imagine, I wasn’t familiar with the author but when a book is on the syllabus for a college-level course, it usually is worth while reading so I grabbed a copy and took it home. I read the two novels sometime later and was quite impressed. One, Cosmos, was excellent. My comments on the book suggested a tinge of Existentialism, an unusual mystery and enough twisting of the text to remind me of Alain Robbe-Grillet. The other novel was titled Pornografia but it was not pornographic.This was a story of the relationship between a young person and an old person. I wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as I was Cosmos.
Now fifteen years later I am about to embark on my third novel by Witold Gombrowicz. Ferdydurke. A friend suggested that this one was strange and difficult to grasp: she wondered if I had read it. Obviously not but I found a copy and intend to start reading it as soon as I finish A Frolic of His Own (soon). Here’s what the back cover has to say about the novel:
In this bitterly funny novel by the renowned Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, a writer finds himself tossed into a chaotic world of schoolboys by a diabolical professor who wishes to reduce him to childishness. Originally published in Poland in 1937, Ferdydurke became an instant literary sensation and catapulted its your author to fame. Deemed scandalous and subversive by Nazis, Stalinists, and the Polish Communist regime in turn, the novel was officially banned in Poland for decades. It has nonetheless remained one of the most influential works of twentieth-century European literature.
John Updike wrote of Gombrowicz:
A master of verbal burlesque, a connoisseur of psychological blackmail, Gombrowicz is one the the profoundest of late moderns, with one of the lightest touches. Ferdydurke, among its centrifugal charms, includes some of the truest and funniest literary satire in print.
It sounds like a winner to me and would be a good selection for the Experimental Fiction group. Apparently the new translation is the first taken directly from the Polish and not relying on the old interim French translation. Look for it from the Yale University Press, read it carefully, and share the book with your friends. Keeping books you have already read on the shelves is like saving moldy bread in the bread-box. Throw away the bread, turn the bread-box into a small bookcase, and pass your previously read books on to other readers. It’s an excellent form of recycling and it makes those over-priced books seem just a bit more economical.
What book am I intending to read next? Well, first we have to limit this to the book I plan to start reading next. Finishing books is often a random shot in a dark room with chickens. Look at the books I am reading now (some more actively than others): The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis, The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud, The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch, The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann, 60 Stories by Donald Barthelme. Fairly soon one of these will be the next book I have read, but which one? So I am limiting this intensely important quest for the next book I will read to the next book I will start reading without too much concern for those other books I am currently reading.
Conveniently I maintain a list of the books I hope to read in the near future right here on this site. It’s usually a pool of about thirty titles that furnish the eight to twelve books I read during the month. Of course this list is only a starting point and a single trip to the library or an emergency order to Amazon can introduce major changes. It’s probably reasonable to check the February list for my next book to read but March is getting very close. Here are the books on the February list that I haven’t started reading:
- Knowledge of Hell — António Lobo Antunes
- The Eye In the Door— Pat Barker
- Anonymous Celebrity — Ignácio de Loyola Brandão
- Normance — Louis-Ferdinand Céline
- Jacques the Fatalist — Denis Diderot
- Jesus Freaks — Andre Duza
- Boswell: A Modern Comedy — Stanley Elkin
- Ferdydurke — Witold Gombrowicz
- The Finkler Question — Howard Jacobson
- The Adventures of Sindbad — Gyula Krúdy
- Tyrant Memory — Horatio Castellano Moya
- Marya: A Life — Joyce Carol Oates
- Vineland — Thomas Pynchon
- The Rainbow Stories — William T. Vollmann
- Black Boy — Richard Wright
- Revolutionary Road — Richard Yates
- Germinal — Émile Zola
Looking over this list I see a couple of titles I want to start reading: Ferdydurke, Germinal, Normance, and Jacques the Fatalist. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to select Ferdydurke by the Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. A friend on the internet asked me about this book and suggested it was strange (she had evidently read it in a Yahoo reading group where others had similar responses); now, since I tend to revel in books that are strange (especially ones with strategic bodily fluids) I am intrigued by Ferdydurke. I have read a couple of other works by this author and, if memory serves, at least one of them received whatever passed as a gold star back then. If I read it next I can comment on it before my friend forgets that she asked me.
So the next book I will read is Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz. Although I really should have read the Zola this month …