Origins of a ‘pre-internet blog': The story of Witold Gombrowicz’s seminal and controversial ‘Diary’

Diary by Witold Gombrowicz

Diary by Witold Gombrowicz

The controversial Diary of the eminent polish author Witold Gombrowicz, has now been published in English after years of being out of print. In this extract from the book’s Forward, Rita Gombrowicz discusses the origins of this influential and dazzlingly honest book, and describes its difficult relationship with communist censors.

Extract from Diary by Witold Gombrowicz (from the Forward by Rita Gombrowicz)

When Witold Gombrowicz began writing his Diary  in 1953, he was forty-nine years old. He had been living in Buenos Aires since 1939, when the war had caught him by surprise. As a promising young writer, he had been officially invited to the inaugural voyage of a new maritime route between Poland and Argentina, departing from the port of Gdynia the 29th of July 1939 on the dazzling transatlantic liner Chrobry (The Brave). On August 22, the day after he arrived in Buenos Aires, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact. A week later, the Nazis invaded Poland. The ship was scheduled to return to Europe. Gombrowicz boarded the liner alongside his fellow Poles, but at the last minute—shortly before the Chrobry cast off—he darted down the gangplank, clutching his two suitcases. He had just decided to remain in Argentina. He spent the war in extreme poverty, waiting to know the fate of his country before taking up writing again. But by 1945, Stalinism descended on Poland. His destiny as a writer was sealed. Gombrowicz refused to write in any language other than Polish, relying on émigré publications like so many other Eastern European writers, and in the tradition of Nabokov who still wrote in Russian when he lived in Berlin.

To break out of anonymity, Gombrowicz himself translated his novel Ferdydurke (published in Warsaw in 1937) into Spanish, with the help of several friends, including the Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera. But the publication of this translation in Buenos Aires in 1947 was ignored in literary circles. Argentines were not interested in the work of this Pole they’d never heard of before. In December of that same year Gombrowicz resigned himself to working at a Polish bank in Buenos Aires. The bank director, a friend of his who knew his work, gave him permission to write while at the bank. This is how he came to write the novel Trans-Atlantic, which was published in Paris by the Polish émigré journal Kultura. But pressure from the other employees forced Gombrowicz to give up writing during working hours. Reduced to being a weekend author, he abandoned the novel format in favor of a new means of expression. So it came to be that in 1952, while reading The Journals of André Gide, he had the idea of writing his own diary. On August 6 of that same year, he wrote to Jerzy Giedroyc, the director of Kultura:  ‘‘I must become my own commentator, even better, my own theatrical director. I have to create Gombrowicz the thinker, Gombrowicz the genius, Gombrowicz the cultural demonologist, and many other necessary Gombrowiczes.’’ The Diary was the realization of this mad ambition. But Gide had written his diary when he was already famous, whereas Gombrowicz wrote his to become so. He was and would remain for a long time ‘‘the greatest of the unknown writers,’’ as one French journalist called him.

His Diary is the fruit of his monthly contributions to Kultura, which he began in 1953 and continued until his death in July 1969. Each chapter headed by a Roman numeral corresponds to one monthly contribution. The days are used as a form of punctuation. The first publication of the Diary in Polish in three separate volumes (1957, 1961, 1967) did not reflect any particular intention on the part of the author, but rather a need at the time to gather the texts together in book form. In truth, the Diary forms a single continuity that was severed only by his death. ‘‘It is very important to me that these fragments appear in the order in which they were written, because they are a whole… I arranged this mosaic with more premeditation than it may appear,’’ he wrote to Giedroyc on April 8, 1957.

In this new edition, we have reunited in one book the three volumes that were published in the United States by Northwestern University Press between 1988 and 1993, as well as writings dated from 1966 to 1969 that until now had appeared only in Kultura. It is solely in this unified format that his writings take on their internal coherence and reveal the author’s intentions. Professor Allen Kuharski and Richard Lowe have compiled an exhaustive index that will help readers to orient themselves among the different chronological and thematic readings.

The literary journal Kultura and its publishing house L’Institut Littéraire were founded in 1947 by Jerzy Giedroyc, who would go on to direct them until his death in 2000. This Polish journal, which was published at Maisons-Laffitte near Paris, had three thousand subscribers scattered across the world. Unlike most émigré publications, it was neither nationalist nor focused on the past. Kultura was unique in that it opposed the communist regime, while at the same time seeking to slip under the heavy veil of censorship to bring freedom of expression to those who remained under the communist dictatorship. In the quality of its contributors and in the independence of its spirit this politico-literary journal ranked among the top European periodicals. The communist regime quickly came to see it as an enemy and outlawed it severely—even if the party leadership themselves read it eagerly. Couriers used subterfuges of all kinds to smuggle the outlawed journal and other banned books into the country, including using false book covers. Some of these couriers were captured, brought to trial, and imprisoned. Gombrowicz’s Diary was the heart of the journal. He touched on subjects that were fundamental for Poles, such as exile, patriotism, communism, and Catholicism, provoking fierce debates with his readers, whose letters and responses he published. In this way, Gombrowicz created a genuine forum for discussion, a pre-Internet ‘‘blog.’’ With his Diary, Gombrowicz completely renewed Polish culture. Kultura provided for Gombrowicz’s literary survival, and thanks to it he became an icon of liberty.

In communist Poland, all of Gombrowicz’s works—as well as Kultura itself—were banned for as long as the communist bloc existed. However, his Polish countrymen would make several attempts to publish his works. The first came in 1956–1958. When Wladyslaw Gomulka came to power in 1956, the regime undertook a brief period of liberalization referred to as ‘‘the thaw.’’ In 1957 Polish publishers, with the permission of the author, issued all of his books with the exception of Diary. Success was immediate. Ferdydurke quickly sold ten thousand copies. His plays were performed. But by the beginning of the following year, his books could no longer be found in bookstores. His plays no longer appeared on marquees. The press kept quiet; ‘‘normalization’’ had returned.

In 1978–1986, editors began printing clandestinely and published all of Gombrowicz’s works, including Diary, using offset printing to produce pocket paperbacks. Then in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, his collected works in nine volumes were published in Kraków, although twelve passages from Diary were censored. It is apparent that all of the ‘‘nonnegotiable’’ sections dealt with the USSR. One example:

‘‘You say that in order for the spirit to function the right way, the needs of the body must be satisfied? You claim that everyone must be assured a minimum standard of living? Where is the guarantee, though, that your system can assure prosperity? [Am I supposed to look for it in the Soviet Union, which, up to now, cannot feed itself without the labor of slaves]’’ (p. 103).

Another example:

‘‘In Tandil I asked a student from Bahia Blanca, a Communist, if he had ever had a moment of doubt and he answered: —Yes, once. I perked up my ears [thinking he would mention the concentration camps, the strangling of Hungary, or the unmasking of Stalin]. But he meant Kandinsky, who was ostracized or really shunned for abstract painting’’ (p. 417).

After 1989, subsequent editions of the Diary would return the twelve censored passages to their proper place. Gombrowicz’s work is now taught in Polish schools. In the curriculum he is considered mandatory reading. Gombrowicz has become a classic.

One of the most fascinating aspects of his Diary  remains its autobiographical character. How, in the limits and constraints of a literary journal, through the eminently Polish and philosophical themes he was supposed to address, was he able to introduce so much personal information about himself with such honesty? Like Montaigne—with whom he has sometimes been compared—he is the true subject of his book. By way of a preface to his first volume, he wrote: ‘‘Monday. Me. Tuesday. Me. Wednesday. Me. Thursday. Me.’’ Over the years he would sketch his self-portrait in relation to his readers, for whom he invented the multiple incarnations of a Gombrowicz searching for his way of being, for his ‘‘form.’’

His Diary is his most personal work, but it is also his most universal work. His defense of his Self is nothing less than the defense of the individual in the face of an era in which its very existence was denied. His critique of ‘‘Polishness’’ is part of the search for identity undertaken by each person and each people. Bruno Schulz called him a ‘‘relentless hunter of cultural lies.’’ A demystifier and a humanist, an iconoclast and yet a moralist, Gombrowicz looked at the world through new eyes: painting, music, literature, philosophy, communism, Catholicism, youth, women, the Argentines, the Poles, the Jews, pain, agony, and death. There are also travel narratives, as well as lyrical and humorous writings. Incomparably rich—autobiography in movement, essay, and work of art—Gombrowicz’s Diary occupies a unique place in contemporary literature.

Rita Gombrowicz, Paris, November 8, 2011

Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Gombrowicz (1904 – 1969) was a Polish-born writer of novels, short stories, and plays. His works are characterized by deep psychological analysis, a certain sense of paradox and an 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.

Rita Gombrowicz was born Rita Labrosse in Montréal in 1935. She is the widow of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, whom she met at the Royaumont Abbey cultural center in France in 1964, and has worked as his literary executor since his death in 1969. She speaks English and French, and holds a doctorate in French literature from the Sorbonne. She is the author of two major biographical works devoted to the writer: Gombrowicz en Argentine and Gombrowicz en Europe, both of which have been translated and published in several languages, as well as of an authoritative Web site on the playwright, www.gombrowicz.net. For forty years, she has been both the public and literary representative of Gombrowicz’s work, most notably during the years of censorship of his writings in communist Poland.

Diary by Witold Gombrowicz is available now from Yale University Press, in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series of translated literature.

4 Comments

  • [...] This short blog post on the publication of Witold Gombrowicz’s diary — a writer about whom I knew nothing but whom I am now enthusiastic to discover more (a Polish literary émigré writing resolutely in Polish from outside the Iron Curtain). [...]

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  • April 10, 2013

    Ramiro

    A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment.
    I do think that you need to publish more on this subject matter,
    it may not be a taboo matter but typically folks don’t speak about such topics. To the next! Best wishes!!

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