Witold Gombrowicz

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Witold Gombrowicz
Witold Gombrowicz by Bohdan Paczowski - detail.jpg
Witold Gombrowicz
Born Witold Marian Gombrowicz
(1904-08-04)August 4, 1904
Małoszyce, Congress Poland
Died July 24, 1969(1969-07-24) (aged 64)
Vence, France
Occupation Novelist, dramatist, diarist
Language Polish
Nationality Polish
Alma mater University of Warsaw
Notable works Ferdydurke
The Marriage

Witold Marian Gombrowicz (August 4, 1904 – July 24, 1969) was a Polish writer. His works are characterised by deep psychological analysis, a certain sense of paradox and absurd, anti-nationalist flavor. In 1937 he published his first novel, Ferdydurke, which presented many of his usual themes: the problems of immaturity and youth, the creation of identity in interactions with others, and an ironic, critical examination of class roles in Polish society and culture. He gained fame only during the last years of his life, but is now considered one of the foremost figures of Polish literature. His diaries were published in 1969 and are, according to the Paris Review, "widely considered his masterpiece".[1]


Polish years[edit]

Passport photo, 1939

Gombrowicz was born in Małoszyce, in Congress Poland, Russian Empire to a wealthy gentry family. He was the youngest of four children of Jan and Antonina (née Kotkowska.) In an autobiographical piece, A Kind Of Testament, he wrote that his family had lived for four hundred years in Lithuania on an estate between Vilnius and Kaunas but were displaced after his grandfather was accused of participating in the January Uprising of 1863.[2] He would later describe his family origins and its social status as early instances of a lifelong sense of being between ("entre").[3] In 1911 his family moved to Warsaw. After completing his education at Saint Stanislaus Kostka's Gymnasium in 1922, he studied law at Warsaw University (in 1927 he obtained a master’s degree in law.) Gombrowicz spent a year in Paris where he studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales; although he was less than diligent in his studies his time in France brought him in constant contact with other young intellectuals. He also visited the Mediterranean.

When he returned to Poland he began applying for legal positions with little success. In the 1920s he started writing, but soon rejected the legendary novel, whose form and subject matter were supposed to manifest his 'worse' and darker side of nature. Similarly, his attempt to write a popular novel in collaboration with Tadeusz Kępiński turned out to be a failure. At the turn of the 1920s and 1930s he started to write short stories, which were later printed under the title Memoirs Of A Time Of Immaturity, later edited by Gombrowicz, and published under the name of Bacacay, the street where Gombrowicz lived during his exile in Argentina. From the moment of this literary debut, his reviews and columns started appearing in the press, mainly in the Kurier Poranny (Morning Courier). He met with other young writers and intellectuals forming an artistic café society in Zodiak and Ziemiańska, both in Warsaw. The publication of Ferdydurke, his first novel, brought him acclaim in literary circles.

Exile in Argentina[edit]

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Gombrowicz took part in the maiden voyage of the Polish cruise liner, Chrobry, to South America. When he found out about the outbreak of war in Europe, he decided to wait in Buenos Aires until the war was over, although he reported to the Polish legation in 1941 but was considered unfit for military duties. Gombrowicz was actually to stay in Argentina until 1963 — often, especially during the war, in great poverty.

At the end of the 1940s Gombrowicz was trying to gain a position among Argentine literary circles by publishing articles, giving lectures in Fray Mocho café, and finally, by publishing in 1947 a Spanish translation of Ferdydurke written with the help of his friends, among them Virgilio Piñera. Today, this version of the novel is considered to be a significant literary event in the history of Argentine literature; however, when published it did not bring any great renown to the author, nor did the publication of Gombrowicz's drama Ślub in Spanish (The Marriage, El Casamiento) in 1948. From December 1947 to May 1955 Gombrowicz worked as a bank clerk in Banco Polaco, the Argentine branch of Pekao SA Bank, and made a friendship with Zofia Chądzyńska, who introduced him to the Buenos Aires political and cultural elite. In 1950 he started exchanging letters with Jerzy Giedroyc and from 1951 he started having works published in the Parisian journal Culture, where, in 1953, fragments of Dziennik (Diaries) appeared. In the same year he published a volume of work which included the drama Ślub (The Marriage) and the novel Trans-Atlantyk, where the subject of national identity on emigration was controversially raised. After October 1956 four books written by Gombrowicz appeared in Poland and they brought him great renown despite the fact that the authorities did not allow the publication of Dziennik (Diary).

Gombrowicz had affairs with both men and women. In his later serialised Diary (1953–69) Gombrowicz wrote about his adventures in the homosexual underworld of Buenos Aires - particularly his sexual experiences with young men from the lower class, a theme which he picked up again when interviewed by Dominique de Roux in A Kind of Testament (1973). [4]

Last years in Europe[edit]

Gombrowicz's grave in Vence

In the 1960s Gombrowicz became recognised globally and many of his works were translated, including Pornografia (Pornography) and Kosmos (Cosmos). His dramas were staged in many theatres all around the world, especially in France, Germany and Sweden.

Having received a scholarship from the Ford Foundation, Gombrowicz returned to Europe in 1963. He stayed for a year in West Berlin, where he endured a slanderous campaign organised by the Polish communist authorities. His health had deteriorated during this stay and he was not able to go back to Argentina. Gombrowicz came back to France in 1964. He spent three months in Royaumont abbey near Paris, where he met Rita Labrosse, a Canadian from Montreal who studied contemporary literature. In 1964 he moved to the Côte d'Azur in the south of France with Rita Labrosse, whom he employed as his secretary. He spent the rest of his life in Vence, near Nice.

Gombrowicz's health prevented him from thoroughly benefiting from this late renown, and worsened notably in spring 1964; he became bedbound and was unable to write anymore. In May 1967 he was awarded the Prix International. The following year, on 28 December, he married Rita Labrosse. On the initiative of his friend Dominique de Roux, who hoped to cheer him up, he gave a series of thirteen lectures about the history of philosophy to de Roux and Rita, ironically titled "Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes", transcribed by de Roux. The lectures started with Kant and ended with existentialism. The series ended before Gombrowicz could deliver the planned last part, interrupted by his death on July 24, 1969.[5][6] He was buried in the cemetery in Vence.


Book cover of 1938 edition of Ferdydurke

Gombrowicz wrote in Polish, but did not allow his works to be published in Poland until the authorities lifted the ban on the unabridged version of Dziennik, his diary. In it, he described the Polish authorities' attacks on him, and because he refused publication in Poland he remained largely unknown to the general reading public until the first half of the 1970s. Still, his works were printed in Polish by the Paris Literary Institute of Jerzy Giedroyć and translated into more than 30 languages. Moreover, his dramas were repeatedly staged around the world by the prominent directors such as Jorge Lavelli, Alf Sjöberg, Ingmar Bergman along with Jerzy Jarocki and Jerzy Grzegorzewski in Poland.

The salient characteristics of Gombrowicz’s writing include incisive descriptions of characters' psychological entanglement with others, an acute awareness of conflicts that arise when traditional cultural values clash with contemporary values, and an exasperated yet comedic sense of the absurd. Aesthetically, Gombrowicz's clear and precise descriptions criticise Polish Romanticism, and he once claimed he wrote in defiance of Adam Mickiewicz (especially in “Trans-Atlantic”). The writing of Gombrowicz contains links with existentialism and with structuralism. Gombrowicz's work is also well known for its playful allusions and satire, as when in "Trans-Atlantic", a section of the text takes the form of a stylised 19th century diary, followed by a parody of a traditional fable.

For many critics and theorists, the most engaging aspects of Gombrowicz’s work are the connections with European thought in the second half of the 20th century, which links him with the intellectual heritage of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Paul Sartre. As Gombrowicz stated, "Ferdydurke was published in 1937 before Sartre formulated his theory of the regard d'autrui. But it is owing to the popularization of Sartrean concepts that this aspect of my book has been better understood and assimilated."[7]

Gombrowicz uses first-person narrative in his novels, with the exception of Opętani. The language of the writer includes frequent neologisms. Moreover, he created 'keywords' which shed their symbolic light on the sense covered under the ironic form (e.g. "gęba", "pupa" in Ferdydurke.)

In the story "Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania" the author above all engages in paradoxes which control the entrance of the individual into the social world and also the repressed passions which rule human behaviour. In Ferdydurke (his first novel, published in autumn 1937, the date on the cover 1938) discusses form as a universal category which was understood both in the philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic sense. Furthermore, this form is a means of enslavement of the individual by other people and society as a whole. Famous phrases of Gombrowicz are found in the novel and became common usage in Polish, for instance words such as "upupienie" (imposing on the individual the role of somebody inferior and immature) and "gęba" (a personality or an authentic role imposed on somebody). Ferdydurke can be read as a satire on various Polish communities: progressive bourgeoisie, rustic, conservative. Therefore, the satire of Gombrowicz presents the human being either as a member of a society or an individual who struggles with himself and the world. Stage adaptations of Ferdydurke and other works of Gombrowicz were presented by many theatres, especially prior to 1986, before the first 9 volumes of his works were published. It was the only official way of gaining access to the works of the writer.

Memorial plaque at the Gombrowicz's Warsaw home (1935–39)

The first dramatic text written by Gombrowicz was Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda (Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, 1938), a tragicomedy — a play that describes what the enslavement of form, custom, and ceremony brings. In 1939 he published in installments in two daily newspapers the popular novel Opętani, where he interlaced the form of the 'gothic novel' with that of sensational modern romance. In the text entitled Ślub, which was written just after the war, Gombrowicz used the form of Shakespeare’s and Calderon’s theatre. He also critically undertook the theme of the romantic theatre (Z. Krasiński, J. Słowacki) and portrayed a new concept of power and a human being created by other people. In the novel Trans-Atlantyk Gombrowicz juxtaposes the traditional vision of a human that serves the values of the new vision, according to which an individual frees oneself of this service and basically fulfills oneself. The representative of such a model of humanity is the eccentric millionaire-homosexual Gonzalo.

The novel Pornografia shows Poland in times of war when the eternal order and the whole system of traditional culture, based on the faith in God, collapsed. In its place a new drastic reality appears, where the elderly and the young cooperate with each other in order to realise their cruel fascinations streaked with eroticism. Kosmos is the most complex and ambiguous work of Gombrowicz. In this text the author portrayed how human beings create a vision of the world sense, what forces, symbolic order and passion take part in this process and how the novel form organises itself in the process of creating sense. Operetka is the last play of Gombrowicz and it uses an operetta form in order to present the changes of the world in the 20th century in a grotesque way, that is the transition to totalitarianism. At the same time, the author expresses a tentative faith in rebirth through youth. According to many scholars the most outstanding work of Gombrowicz is Dziennik (Diaries), which was published in serial form in Kultura in 1953–1969. Dziennik is not only the author’s record of life but also a philosophical essay, polemics, collection of auto-reflection on folk poetry, views on politics, national culture, religion, world of tradition, present time, and many other important issues. At the same time, the author is able to write about the most important topics in the form of an ostensibly casual anecdote and to use the whole range of literary devices.

Two novels by Gombrowicz were adapted for film: Pornografia directed by Jan Jakub Kolski (the film was completed in 2003) and Ferdydurke directed by Jerzy Skolimowski.

The year 2004, the centenary of his birth, was declared the Year of Gombrowicz.

The writer’s final extensive work, Kronos was published in Poland on the 23 May 2013 by Wydawnictwo Literackie.[8]


Gombrowicz's works are characterised by deep psychological analysis, a certain sense of paradox and an absurd, anti-nationalist flavor. In 1937 he published his first novel, Ferdydurke, which presents many themes explored in his further writings: the problems of immaturity and youth, the masks taken on by men in front of others, and an ironic, critical examination of class roles in Polish society and culture, specifically among the nobility, representatives of the Catholic Church and provincial Poles. Ferdydurke provoked sharp critical reactions and immediately divided Gombrowicz's audience into rival camps of worshipers and sworn enemies.

In his work, Gombrowicz struggled with Polish traditions and the country's difficult history. This battle was the starting point for his stories, which were deeply rooted in this tradition and history. Gombrowicz is remembered by scholars and admirers as a writer and a man unwilling to sacrifice his imagination or his originality for any price, person, god, society, or doctrine.

Oeuvre: bibliography, translations, adaptations[edit]

Gombrowicz's novels and plays have been translated into 35 languages.[9]

Other translations[edit]

Film adaptations[edit]

Documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert made a documentary set in the radical French psychiatric clinic La Borde entitled Every Little Thing (French La Moindre des choses); released in 1997, the film follows the patients and staff as they stage their production of Gombrowicz's Operette.[12]

Opera adaptations[edit]

  • Die Besessenen (The Possessed) (2008–2009) – composed by Johannes Kalitzke, premiered in 2010 at the Theater an der Wien (Vienna, Austria) on 19 February.
  • Opérette (2002) – composed by Oscar Strasnoy, premiered in 2003 at Grand Théâtre de Reims, France.
  • Geschichte/History (2003) – a cappella opera composed by Oscar Strasnoy, premiered in 2004 at Theaterhaus de Stuttgart.
  • Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne (2009), composed by Philippe Boesmans, premiered in at the Paris Opera.
  • Yvonne, Prinzessin von Burgund (1973), composed by Boris Blacher, in four acts, premiered in Wuppertal.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Piepenbring, Dan (4 August 2014). "Birthday Suit". Paris Review. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Witold Gombrowicz (1 September 2007). A Kind of Testament. Dalkey Archive Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-56478-476-6. 
  3. ^ Jon Bartley Stewart (2013). Kierkegaard's Influence on Literature, Criticism and Art. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-4094-6514-0. 
  4. ^ http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/30/imp-of-the-perverse
  5. ^ Guide to philosophy in six hours and fifteen minutes, Gombrowitz.net 
  6. ^ Ewa Płonowska Ziarek, The Rhetoric of Failure: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism, p. 235 
  7. ^ Gombrowicz, Witold (1978), Three Novels: Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and Cosmos, Grove Press, p. 8, ISBN 0-394-17067-9 
  8. ^ "Kronos – the Strange New Case of Gombrowicz". culture.pl. 08.05.2013.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  9. ^ Complete bibliography of Witold Gombrowicz's works
  10. ^ Template:Http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4035268/
  11. ^ Template:Http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/locarno-interview-andrzej-zulawski/
  12. ^ Every Little Thing at the Internet Movie Database


External links[edit]