Witold Gombrowicz’ Ferdydurke
Mon 11/02/09 11:47 PM
“She threw her beloved from the train a kiss.”
—Danuta Borchardt, demonstrating how the Polish language uses grammar where the English language uses word order.
Susan Sontag described Gombrowicz’ Ferdydurke as a celebration of immaturity. She sees the novel as a glorification of low culture where everything that is base and low is used to counter the sterility of an ersatz Aristocratic Polish high culture.
Milan Kundera looked to Gombrowicz as an important writer in the tradition of the small countries of Eastern Europe. As fragmentary remnants of decaying Empires, these “minor” literatures cultivated the ironic, the absurd and the experimental.
But I am neither a Polish aristocrat nor an east European švejkovina. I am an American. I live in a culture that invented advertising and pop culture and looks upon pornography as an art form. For me, Ferdydurke reads as indictment of our society of immaturity, perfectly captured in his neologism upupienie, where a person is socially coerced into becoming inferior or immature. In the US, we celebrate youth not for its positive qualities of vitality and energy. Rather we have a voyeuristic appreciation for sensationalism and look to the youth to entertain us with their lack of discipline, direction and restraint. For me, Ferdydurke is the dystopian novel of 21st century America.
Susan Sontag, as a critic, places Gombrowicz within the tradition of European literature. Milan Kundera, as a writer, views him as an East European. As a reader, I see him with the eyes of an American. Danuta Borchardt, Gombrowicz’ English translator, places him most appropriately within the context of Latin America, specifically Argentina where he lived and wrote for most of his adult life. Even though he wrote almost exclusively in Polish, she views him as the antithesis of Borges and the forerunner of Bolaño as well as a fellow traveler of real maravilloso. Borges is too intellectual and cerebral; philosophical rather than political. Bolaño is more physical and visceral; engaged with reality and life not idealism. There is an earthy and human quality to Gombrowicz that also shows up in Bolaño and a satirical vision of society and politics that’s is very similar to writers of real maravilloso.