Authors: Witold Gombrowicz

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Polish novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

Biography

Witold Gombrowicz (gawm-BRAW-veech), one of the greatest twentieth century innovators of Polish prose and drama, was born on the estate of his father in Małoszyce (about 125 miles east of Warsaw). He was educated privately at home before he was sent to the Wielopolski Lyceum in Warsaw in 1915. Between 1923 and 1926 Gombrowicz studied law at the University of Warsaw, where he obtained his master’s degree. Though he detested the legal profession, Gombrowicz believed that this course of study would provide him with knowledge set in an exact discipline.{$I[AN]9810002071}{$I[A]Gombrowicz, Witold}{$I[geo]POLAND;Gombrowicz, Witold}{$I[tim]1904;Gombrowicz, Witold}

During an ostensibly academic sojourn in France following his graduation Gombrowicz led a questionable social life. Eventually, when his father refused to support him any longer, Witold was forced to return to Poland, where he obtained a modest position in the Warsaw courts.

The young writer’s first short stories soon made their appearance: Seven tales were published in 1933 under the collected title Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania (diary from the period of maturing). After the publication of this work Gombrowicz left his legal career and dedicated himself entirely to literature. In 1934 he wrote his first drama, Iwona, which was, however, not staged until many years later. Gombrowicz also published a few critical articles and polemics in Varsovian literary gazettes. Following Iwona, two years’ work on his first preserved novel was crowned in the year 1937 with the publication of Ferdydurke, which became Gombrowicz’s best-known, best-received, and most successful work of fiction.

In this early work the main problem Gombrowicz addressed throughout his entire later period–the problem of form and chaos–is already articulated. “Form” is shorthand for the repressive, conformist forces that individuals struggle against despite their attraction to the security that form provides in a chaotic world. Imperiled by opposing forces, individuality represents the highest value to Gombrowicz as the only source of beauty, novelty, and renewal.

In the late summer of 1939 Gombrowicz participated officially in the maiden voyage of the Polish transatlantic liner Bolesiaw Chrobry, on which he sailed to Buenos Aires with a number of other Polish writers. By the time they docked in Buenos Aires, World War II had broken out in Europe. Thus began Gombrowicz’s thirty-year-long exile from his homeland.

For a time Gombrowicz, without money or a knowledge of Spanish, was almost totally isolated, cut off from friends and family. He supported himself by writing pseudonymous articles for local newspapers, but during the first five years of his exile he wrote nothing of any import. At last, in 1944, he began work on the play The Marriage, which was translated into Spanish three years later and published in Buenos Aires with the financial aid of a wealthy friend.

A subsequent position as secretary at the Banco Polaco in Argentina brought Gombrowicz a more stable existence. During this period he wrote his next novel, Trans-Atlantyk, which evoked a storm of comment. A semiautobiographical work, it is also a serious and biting polemic on behalf of the individual. One of the catch phrases from Trans-Atlantyk is the cry to forget about the Fatherland (ojczyzna) and concentrate rather on the Sonland (synczyzna).

Gombrowicz continued his polemic against Poland and Polishness in the feuilletons he wrote for the Polish emigré periodical Kultura, published in Paris in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. These articles, subsequently gathered into the three-volume Diary, are an extraordinary journal. Although the intellectual journeys of Gombrowicz can be traced to a certain extent, the Diary is above all a collection of political and social polemics, literary criticism, and fiction. Many critics hold the Diary to be the consummate literary works of the author, of more value even than Ferdydurke and Gombrowicz’s other fiction.

Two other novels appeared during the Argentine sojourn: Pornografia, in which the author continues his battle with patriotic stereotypes, and Cosmos, in which he strives to bring the chaos of the macrocosm under the control of the microcosmic individual.

In 1963, as the result of the belated worldwide acclaim he received for Ferdydurke, Gombrowicz was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation, which permitted him to return to Europe and take up a year’s residence in Berlin. At the conclusion of the year he moved to France, where he lived out his final five years. Occasionally he suffered from chronic asthma, which he had inherited from his mother, and in July, 1969, he died of a heart attack. After many decades of obscurity, during which his work remained misunderstood and vilified, Gombrowicz was ultimately recognized as the creator of Polish existentialism and as a great European writer of his time.

BibliographyBerressem, Hanjo. Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz’s Fiction with Lacan. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999. A theoretically advanced psychoanalytical reading of Gombrowicz.Longinovic, Tomislav. Borderline Culture: The Politics of Identity in Four Twentieth Century Slavic Novels. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993. Discusses Gombrowicz’s fiction.Thompson, Ewa M. Witold Gombrowicz. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Includes biography, analysis of major works, and a good bibliography.Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska, ed. Gombrowicz’s Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. A collection of essays.
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