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By Witold Gombrowicz
Translated from the French by Alastair Hamilton
New York: Grove Press, 1966
Library of Congress Catalog Number: 66-29765
191 pages

Bob Corbett
October 2014

I found this to be a very strange, challenging and confusing novel. In a beginning two Polish intellectuals living in Warsaw, leave there and go to an old friend’s house, a wealthy rural landowner. It is 1943 in occupied Poland and the resistance against the Germans in growing.

The two from Warsaw, the novel’s narrator Witold Gombrowicz and his friend and older man, Frederick, renew ties with Hippolytus, the landlord, his wife and others in the household.

The novel is narrated totally by Witold. However, the dilemma is that we have two Witold Gombrowicz – the narrator and the author himself. I believe one has to separate the two and treat them differently. The author created this novel and wrote it. The narrator is not the author, but a character created by the author and having the same name. That distinction plagued me thought my reading of this strange and creepy work.

The two older intellectuals are fascinated by the sexuality of youth, a good looking boy of around 16, Karol who works on the estate. They also are interested in Henia, a young Dutch girl who lives there with her mother, the housekeeper, and also does some light work.

The two Warsaw men immediately become convinced that there simply must be a sexual relationship between the two, and in case there isn’t, there should be, so they set out to investigate, abet or even create such a thing. Within that framework they find evidence of some sort of attraction and assume or speculate that there is a more significant sexual relationship between the two.

I think it never becomes clear that there really was or even is this sexual relationship at the end of the novel. It is the relationship between Witold the character and Witold the narrator which complicates things. Is this just a little joke on the author’s part, or are we the readers to assume that the author and the narrator are the same person? I don’t quite see how that would work, at least not with the interpretation of the first half the novel that I have come away with. If the two Witold’s are the same person, and if my view is correct about the narrator being deceived by his own imaginations, and that being SHOWN to us by the author, well, something doesn’t work with that interpretation. Either the author knows his narrator is creating much of his interpretation in his own mind, or the author himself is deceived, in which case, as a reader I shouldn’t (seemingly) have been led to think that Witold the narrator is deceiving himself.

Witold the character and his friend Frederick seem to see sex everywhere around the two young folks, but it doesn’t really seem to be there, though they are doing all they can to create it.

They are startled and disappointed when, as Henia’s mother had maintained, that an older, wealthy and very respectable man, Albert, plans to marry Henia. Within a day or so of her revelation of this plan, the engagement actually happens and the two Warsaw men are disturbed. This is not according to their plan. They set out to be sure it doesn’t happen and that if there isn’t a relationship between Henia and Karol they either create one, or at least create the appearance of one. They are good at what they want to do.

The second half of the novel opens with an engagement party at Albert’s house, and during it his very holy aged mother is murdered, at first seemingly by Karol, but it turns out to be a younger local lad who was trying to steal something from the house during the party and was discovered by the mother and she was stabbed to death in the encounter.

The second half of the novel returns to the original farm, and a totally new and seemingly unrelated theme is presented. Siemian, an important leader of the resistance to the Germans comes to the house. He’s in great danger. The Germans are closing in on him and he is very worried. As it turns out not only is he being pursued and is in danger, but he’s lost his belief in the cause; his energy has run out and he has become terrified of his death at the hands of enemies, so he wants help to escape.

The various men at the household appear to know him and honor him as a war hero, but they are not happy with his being there and his wanting them to help him escape. Thus a plot develops alongside the one with the youth, and this sort of splits the novel into two different sections.

In any case the two Warsaw visitors continue to create their image of this romance between Henia and Karol and to get them into situations which often suggests that this is true; it may even, with their help and instigation, be beginning to actually happen. However, Henia’s fiancé, Albert is there, and the Warsaw men make sure he has lots of seeming evidence to be jealous.

All of this explodes in a crashing ending of violence and destruction.

I found there was much to like about this novel and much to dislike! It was totally amusing (probably the author would not like this description) that I found their efforts and imaginations not only strangely sick, but actually funny, and just couldn’t quite accept their own visions of how successful they were.

On the other hand, the work is extremely creative, and the theme of the older men dreaming or imagining this romance was believable; I just wasn’t as much convinced of how easily they did undermined the relationship between Henia and Albert.

The section concerning the once powerful and fearless leader of the Polish underground was very sad, but more believable that the “romance” sections.

The L’Express of Paris (according to the front cover) says “The greatest unknown writer of our time.” On the other hand, one of my favorite Polish writers, Czeslaw Milosz condemns this work as degenerate and disgusting.

I think I would be more to the middle view. I did find it unbelievable that these two aging peeping toms could really create the havoc that author Gombrowicz grants them, but I was also fascinated by the creativity of author Gombrowicz’s imagination.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett