ON THE AVENUES: Three books by Polish writers.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
In recognition of our ongoing Polish travels, today’s column combines two previous posts: “ON THE AVENUES: Two books by Polish writers” (22 March 2012) and “Book review: Pornografia, a novel by Witold Gombrowicz” (5 February 2014).
Pornografia, a novel by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Danuta Borchardt.
By the second world war’s end in 1945, the Polish capital of Warsaw nearly had been obliterated from the face of the earth, first razed by the occupying Nazis, and then flattened by Soviet armies in the process of annihilating the retreating Germans. Poland would again rise from non-existence and take its place as a Soviet satellite, but not just yet.
Two years earlier, with the worst still yet to come, the situation was becoming grim for the capital’s artsy urbanites. Two intellectuals languishing in Warsaw’s wartime malaise, with little to do apart from debating abstractions and drinking vodka, are offered the chance to perform an obscure errand (never explained), requiring them to leave the city and travel to the country estate of a provincial squire, whose bucolic days of regional pre-eminence also are ticking down.
After a sweaty, grinding train trip, they find themselves far removed from their familiar milieu, riding around in horse-drawn carts and observing, though not genuinely embracing, the time-honored, unchanged agricultural lifestyle. Rural Poland has yet to be touched directly by the war, although the tumult is keenly felt, contributing to a palpable sense of paranoia. Verily, things aren’t what they seem. Then again, they seemingly never are in works by Witold Gombrowicz, whose novel Cosmos I read in 2012.
Appropriately, Pornografia’s narrator also is named Witold Gombrowicz, and yet in this instance, truth is certifiably stranger than fiction. The real-life writer was far away at the time of the fictional story. He had boarded a cruise ship destined for South America just days prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, and was unable to return after his country’s quick collapse, as it was dissolved and divided between the Nazis and Soviets. Abruptly stateless, Gombrowicz remained abroad, living in Argentina until 1963, and spending the remainder of his life in France.
Perhaps his personal experience with the surreal helps to explain the deep psychological issues inherent in novels such as Pornografia and Cosmos, where a thinly veiled collective delirium seems always to be simultaneously obscuring and exposing the motives of his characters.
In Cosmos, two city slickers visiting the sticks become fascinated with patterns of cracks running across a plaster ceiling, and are obsessed by conspiracy theories pertaining to their host family. Similarly, Pornografia’s two bored Warsaw escapees shift their attention to Henia, the 16-year-old daughter of the estate’s owners, and Karol, son of a neighbor and also 16, who is working on the farm again after an abortive stint (also never explained) in the resistance forces.
She’s a good looking girl, betrothed to an older lawyer from a nearby city. He’s a good looking boy, neither completely adolescent nor a full-fledged adult. They’re a fine couple, except they’re not; Karol and Henia have known each other since childhood, and are chums, though never before regarding one another romantically.
Fevered and voyeuristic, and with a dash of their own latent homoeroticism added for good measure, Witold and his friend Fryderyk convince themselves first that Henia and Karol belong with each other – not in spite of her fiancé Vaclav’s continual presence, but precisely because of it – and hatch an elaborate plan to choreograph the union.
With Fryderyk in the driver’s seat, constructing an ever-more elaborate web of instigation, the ensuing quasi-theatrical campaign becomes progressively creepier. But there is more to the teenagers than meets the eye of the visitors, who conclude that only by manipulating their youthful innocence can the interminable wartime muddle of the adults be made sensible — except that the children turn out to have seen and experienced far more of the world than is immediately evident.
It only strengthens the Warsaw duo’s resolve, and the plot moves tautly toward a conclusion, one complicated by two unexpected developments.
If Witold Gombrowicz did not meet Rod Serling, he should have. The two could have discussed the razor’s edge of sanity, in the twilight zone, where reality and imagination meet … sometimes with palpable consequences.
Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz.
Most often, the act of writing is purely vocational, although conveying coherent thoughts in memos, reports, post-it notes and tweets is a certifiable skill, one not always as simple as it seems.
Instruction manuals are a prime example. Most of them are illustrated with drawings, lest mere words fail in their intended purpose – or in case the product’s purchaser is unable to read the directions, whether owing to illiteracy in a native language or speaking a different tongue altogether.
Obviously, writing can be a forum for artistic expression and experimentation. This is the genre of writing as art, which human societies tend to value just enough to keep the idea alive amid the everyday vulgarisms of popular cultures everywhere.
As an example, there is Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos. It was the exiled Polish writer’s penultimate novel, published in 1965, and although not every reader takes the time to peruse introductions and forwards, the new edition’s comments by translator Danuta Borchardt are very much worth reading.
Borchardt’s translation was prepared directly from the original Polish language edition (not subsequent French and German translations used for the original release of Cosmos in English), and this is especially important for a novel that above all else explores nuances of language, perception and expression – hence its experimental nature, and an overall theme paralleling that of the old Seinfeld television series: In the end, it’s about nothing.
Cosmos has been described as utterly plotless, and while there actually is one, it is quite sparse. At an indeterminate time (probably the pre-war 1930’s), two students from Warsaw arrive in the southern Tatra Mountains to spend their summer holiday. They randomly board with a local family, and quickly are drawn into the household’s daily life. Eventually they accompany their hosts for a weekend outing in the woods, and abruptly, the story comes to an end.
As recounted by the narrator, who is one of the two students, the novel’s progression is resoundingly interior and solipsistic, occurring within his own increasingly meandering consciousness, as opposed to taking place in any setting approximating the world outside. Far fewer real-life interactions are recounted than episodes of brooding and imagined ruminations. It is almost as though a dazed victim of malnutrition or high fever is describing the altered state of reality as it seems to him, which may or may not jibe with actuality.
Philosophically, it makes perfect sense: Is there a reality outside our minds, and can we ever know anything about it?
In Cosmos, this search is by turns comic and tragic. The city-dwelling students react to their own ennui and the relative boredom of their bucolic interlude by concluding quite early in the narrative that a vague conspiracy is taking shape around them, and they become tantamount to bumbling detectives, self-assigned to track obvious clues to their source.
These clues include a dead bird, literally hanged by wire from a tree branch (who would do such a thing?), suggestive patterns of water stains on a ceiling, a scar that has shaped the mouth of the plain housekeeper into something suggestive, the way her altered mouth is suggestively linked to the mouth of the young married daughter’s, and a pile of haphazardly jumbled garbage in the shed. Their conclusions lead to minor, awkward mishaps (and one more serious), but little of consequence comes from it.
The only true jolt comes at the end, has nothing whatever to do with the expanding conspiracy inside their heads, and is barely mentioned.
The novel’s characters occupy perfectly normal spaces in a mundane world, and do their best to define themselves accordingly. They fail – and life goes on. For those properly respecting the value of melancholy in daily life, Cosmos is an unsettling read. It left me contemplating vignettes from my own past, times of irresolution and disgruntlement, especially when exhaustion or weakness had convinced me to invest more psychic energy into imagining an outcome than might possibly justify a conceivable result, even if it were to happen (and never did).
In Cosmos, no one is saved. Then again, we seldom are.
In Search of Lost Meaning: The New Eastern Europe, by Adam Michnik.
While the Communist-era career paths of Adam Michnik in Poland and the late Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia were not precise mirror images, both played epochal roles in their respective countries as the Iron Curtain wound inexorably down.
As indicated by Havel’s forward to this collection of essays, there always existed considerable mutual professional admiration between the two noted revolutionaries, even if Michnik did not become head of state, or found himself cast in the position of rock star, like Havel.
Instead, Michnik was the supreme revolutionary multi-tasker, performing a series of invaluable jobs for the Solidarity-led opposition to Poland’s Communist regime, generally in a subordinate position. He served as journalist, jouster, jester, rabble-rouser, intellectual, organizer, virtual poet laureate and all-purpose public figure, eventually assuming a role approximating that of being his country’s conscience, and appropriately, these essays are primarily concerned with the conscience (and consciousness) of Poland’s history both before and since socialism’s collapse in 1989.
Clannish fractiousness in Poland is the stuff of European legend, and Michnik confronts it head-on, tracing the origins of “gutter” (or “septic tank”) politics from the inception of modern Poland in the aftermath of the First World War to the institutionalized abuses of Communism, and recurring during the past twenty years. Irrespective of ideologies and governmental forms, Michnik sees his country as a place where a pathological need do settle past scores too often usurps all future considerations.
He would feel right at home in New Albany, wouldn’t he?