Witold Gombrowicz

By: Jacob Mikanowski
August 4, 2015

Gombrowicz  Witold

In the summer of 1939, WITOLD GOMBROWICZ (1904–69), boarded ship bound from Poland to Latin America. For Gombrowicz, a would-be lawyer and budding avant-garde writer, it was supposed to be a short trip — a few readings for the Polish émigrés in Argentina, a bit of journalism, and then home. But by the time he had arrived WWII had broken out. Germany had invaded Poland, and he had nowhere to go back to. Gombrowicz spent the next 24 years in Buenos Aires, eking out a living as a bank clerk and occasional translator, mostly of his own work.

Exile is a hard fate for any writer, but especially for one who wanted to be a rebel against a country that no longer existed, and tested the boundaries of a language no one understood. But in some ways, Gombrowicz was made for exile. His family, Polish gentry from Lithuania, were banished from their estates for participating in the failed revolution of 1863. He grew up in an internal exile of his own. He was at war with everything he found suffocating about Poland, its Catholicism, its nationalism, the snobbery and provincialism of its literary establishment. In his novels he made himself into a prophet of immaturity and a rebel on behalf of form. In Ferdydurke, he embraced the obscene games of adolescence. In Cosmos and Pornografia, he became a detective studying erotic mania and the obscure messages encoded in everyday things. But he could never escape from Polishness, or from himself. With time, that self — philosophical, megalomaniacal and scandalous — became his greatest work. The first four entries of his Diaries read:

Monday
Me.
Tuesday
Me.
Wednesday
Me.
Thursday
Me.

In the end, Gombrowicz left Poland behind, and became his own world.

***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Louis Armstrong, Iceberg Slim.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Hardboiled (1894-1903) and Partisan (1904-13) Generations.

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