Daily Disaffirmation - Witold Gombrowicz's Diary

When Witold Gombrowicz departed Poland on the liner Chrobry in 1939, he was a minor literary figure unknown beyond his native country, the author of a collection of short stories, a play that virtually no one reviewed, and the novel Ferdydurke, his absurdist provocation that offered him a toehold among the more progressive critics and intellectuals in Warsaw. That July, Gombrowicz set sail for Argentina on the maiden voyage of the newly christened Chrobry as part of a cultural tour for the Polish government. The ship reached Buenos Aires a month later, just as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was announced. A week later, when Germany invaded Poland and the ship was given the order to return at once, Gombrowicz made an apparently last-minute and fateful decision to stay in Argentina, which spared him the terrors of wartime Poland but left him in a country where he was cut off from his livelihood, not to mention the culture and language of his native country. Like any number of those displaced by the war, he faced a future of extreme penury.

Gombrowicz’s displacement in Argentina is one of the mythical tales of European writers in exile, a rival and counterpart to Stefan Zweig’s suicidal dead end in Brazil, or to the Germans who amassed in California, some, like Brecht, to return after 1945, others to make an uneasy peace in their new, New World homes. Yet the tale of Gombrowicz’s exilic life in South America has a more quixotic cast than any of these. His hasty decision was––as critics such as John Bayley have noted—almost an impulse to maroon himself, like Conrad’s Lord Jim.

The place Gombrowicz set down in across the ocean—a country “distant from all that, exotic and forgiving, indifferent and given up to its own everydayness,” he writes in his three-volume Diary—provided him with a geographic correlate to imagine the earthy embrace of “immaturity” he had put into antic, fictional form in Ferdydurke.

From the first, I fell in love with the catastrophe that I hated, that, after all, also ruined me. My nature told me to greet it as an opportunity to join with inferiority in darkness. . . . What happened? Yes. I have to confess this: under the influence of the war, the strengthening of the “inferior” and regressive powers, an eruption of some sort of belated youth took place in me. I fled to youth in the face of defeat and slammed the door.

Gombrowicz’s love affair with his “catastrophe” would not be a fling. For another eighteen years after the cessation of the war, he opted to remain in Argentina, where he struggled to feed himself, far from Warsaw, far from Paris, where much of the Polish intelligentsia had gathered, where the émigré review Kultura published his novel Trans-Atlantic and his play The Marriage in the early ’50s, and where the French translation of Ferdydurke in 1958 brought him international acclaim. As for Poland, he never stepped foot in it again, though seemingly every aspect of its literary, artistic, and political culture fired his thought and the pages that fill the Diary up to his death in 1969.

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