Witold Gombrowicz

Witold Marian Gombrowicz (August 4, 1904 – July 24, 1969) was a Polish writer and playwright. His works are characterised by deep psychological analysis, a certain sense of paradox and absurd, anti-nationalist flavor. As a leftist, bisexual, and anticlerical who defied all party lines, his books were banned in communist Poland.[1] In 1937 he published his first novel, Ferdydurke, which presented many of his usual themes: problems of immaturity and youth, 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".[2]

Witold Gombrowicz
BornWitold Marian Gombrowicz
(1904-08-04)August 4, 1904
Małoszyce, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
DiedJuly 24, 1969(1969-07-24) (aged 64)
Vence, France
OccupationNovelist, dramatist, diarist
Alma materUniversity of Warsaw
Notable worksFerdydurke
The Marriage


Polish years

Gombrowicz was born in Małoszyce near Opatów, then in Radom Governorate, 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.[3] He later described his family origins and social status as early instances of a lifelong sense of being between (entre).[4] 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, earning a master's degree in law in 1927. He spent a year in Paris, where he studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales. He was less than diligent in his studies, but 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. He 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 was 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 he 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

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Gombrowicz took part in the maiden voyage of the Polish transatlantic liner Chrobry, to South America. When he learned of the outbreak of war in Europe, he decided to wait in Buenos Aires until the war was over; he reported to the Polish legation in 1941 but was considered unfit for military duties. He stayed in Argentina until 1963—often, especially during the war, in poverty.

At the end of the 1940s Gombrowicz was trying to gain a position in 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 a significant literary event in the history of Argentine literature, but at the time of its publication it did not bring any great renown to the author, nor did the publication of his 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 formed 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, in which fragments of Dziennik (Diaries) appeared in 1953. In the same year he published a volume of work which included the drama Ślub (The Marriage) and the novel Trans-Atlantyk, in which the subject of national identity on emigration was controversially raised. After October 1956 four books by Gombrowicz appeared in Poland and 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) he 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).[5]

Last years in Europe

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 theatres 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.[6][7] His health deteriorated during this stay, and he was not able to go back to Argentina. He went 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 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. It worsened notably in spring 1964; he became bedridden and was unable to write. In May 1967 he was awarded the Prix International. The following year, on December 28, 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.[8][9] He was buried in the cemetery in Vence.


Gombrowicz wrote in Polish, but he 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 which he described the Polish authorities' attacks on him. 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, and 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 in a section of Trans-Atlantic written in 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."[10]

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, with a cover dated 1938) he discusses form as a universal category which was understood in philosophical, sociological, and aesthetic senses. 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.

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, in which he interlaced the form of the Gothic novel with that of sensational modern romance.

In Ślub, 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 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 by 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, his last play, uses an operetta form 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 his most outstanding work is Dziennik (Diaries), not only as a literary work but also philosophical: "The affectingly cool critic of European tradition, the diagnostician of the disease afflicting contemporary thought, the great artist and moralist. If I were to designate a worthy successor to the Joyful science of Nietzschean criticism and poetry in twentieth century literature, I would answer: Gombrowicz in his Diary" (Wojciech Karpiński).[11] Dziennik was published in serial form in Kultura from 1953 to 1969. Dziennik is not only the author's record of life but also a philosophical essay, polemic, collection of auto-reflection on folk poetry, views on politics, national culture, religion, world of tradition, present time, and many other important themes. 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 by Wydawnictwo Literackie on May 23, 2013.[12]


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

Gombrowicz's novels and plays have been translated into 35 languages.[13]

  • Bacacay (short stories, 1933); original title Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania, later retitled Bakakaj
    • Bacacay, tr. Bill Johnston, Archipelago Books, 2004, ISBN 0-9728692-9-8.
  • Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (play, 1935); Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda
  • Ferdydurke (novel, 1937)
    • Ferdydurke, tr. Danuta Borchardt, Yale University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-300-08240-1.
  • Possessed (novel, 1939); Opętani
  • The Marriage (play, 1948); Ślub
  • Trans-Atlantyk (novel, 1953)
    • Trans-Atlantyk, tr. Carolyn French and Nina Karsov, Yale University Press (reprint), 1995, ISBN 0-300-06503-5.
    • Trans-Atlantyk: An Alternate Translation, tr. Danuta Borchardt, Yale University Press, 2014, ISBN 0-300-17530-2.
  • Pornografia (novel, 1960)
    • Pornografia, Danuta Borchardt translator, Grove Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-8021-1925-4.
  • Cosmos (novel, 1965); Kosmos
    • Cosmos, tr. Danuta Borchardt, Yale University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-300-10848-6.
    • Cosmos and Pornografia: Two Novels, tr. Eric Mosbacher and Alastair Hamilton, Grove Press (reissue edition), 1994, ISBN 0-8021-5159-0.
  • Operetta (play, 1966); Operetka
  • Diaries, 1953–1969 (diary, 1969); Dzienniki
    • Diary Volumes 1–3, tr. Lillian Vallee, introductory essay: Wojciech Karpiński, Northwestern University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8101-0715-5.

Other translations

  • A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, Benjamin Ivry translator, Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-300-10409-X.
  • Polish Memories, tr. Bill Johnston, Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-300-10410-3.
  • Possessed: The Secret of Myslotch: A Gothic Novel, tr. Marion Boyars (reissue), 1988, ISBN 0-7145-2738-6.
  • A Kind of Testament, tr. Alastair Hamilton, Dalkey Archive Press (reprint), 2007, ISBN 1-56478-476-2.

Film adaptations

The 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 a production of Gombrowicz's Operette.[16]

Opera adaptations

See also


  1. Jackson, Merilyn (2001). "Theater; In Honor Of Wildness And Wit". New York Times.
  2. Piepenbring, Dan (4 August 2014). "Birthday Suit". Paris Review. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  3. Gombrowicz, Witold (1 September 2007). A Kind of Testament. Dalkey Archive Press. p. 28. ISBN 978-1-56478-476-6.
  4. Stewart, Jon Bartley (2013). Kierkegaard's Influence on Literature, Criticism and Art. Ashgate Publishing. p. 140. ISBN 978-1-4094-6514-0.
  5. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/30/imp-of-the-perverse
  6. Kowalska, Magdalena (2004). "Gombrowicz w Berlinie : czyli Gombrowicz uwikłany w historię" (PDF). Pamiętnik Literacki [Literary Memoir] (in Polish). IBL PAN. 95 (4): 39–110. ISSN 0031-0514 via bazhum.muzhp.pl.
  7. "O krok od Polski : Berlin (1963-1964)". witoldgombrowicz.com. Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  8. Guide to philosophy in six hours and fifteen minutes, Gombrowitz.net
  9. Ziarek, Ewa Płonowska, The Rhetoric of Failure: Deconstruction of Skepticism, Reinvention of Modernism, p. 235
  10. Gombrowicz, Witold (1978), Three Novels: Ferdydurke, Pornografia, and Cosmos, Grove Press, p. 8, ISBN 0-394-17067-9
  11. introductory essay in: Witold Gombrowicz, Diary Volumes 1–3, tr. Lillian Vallee, Northwestern University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-8101-0715-5. See also: Gombrowicz's Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality, State University of New York Press, 1998, p. 6, ISBN 0-7914-3643-8
  12. "Kronos – the Strange New Case of Gombrowicz". culture.pl. 08.05.2013. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  13. Complete bibliography of Witold Gombrowicz's works
  14. Zulawski, Andrzej (2015-12-03), Cosmos, Sabine Azéma, Jean-François Balmer, Jonathan Genet, retrieved 2017-12-28
  15. Pinkerton, Nick (August 14, 2015). "Locarno Interview: Andrzej Żuławski". Film Comment. Film Society of Lincoln Center. Retrieved 2017-12-28.
  16. Every Little Thing on IMDb

Further reading

  • Ewa M. Thompson, "Witold Gombrowicz" (Boston: Hall, 1979), ISBN 0-8057-6351-1
  • William Whiteford, "Witold Gombrowicz: A Biography" (West Columbia, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017, {{ISBN 9781976372742}}
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