An Unconstrained Review of Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke

by Witold Gombrowicz
Yale University Press; First Edition edition, August 2000
(First published 1937)
320 pages / $8 – 25  Buy from Amazon







Talking past us, talking at us, at the open, the grand begin, from the onset another one of those sharp-edged misanthropic types, ever painful, absurd, so put-upon, the youthful thumb-bite, Lucky Jim, careening off the edge of thought, Under the Volcano, failing to recognize the genius before them, as though that “one-by-one box of bone” were such a shame for strangers, never to really know us, “ordinary fucking people”, sez our protagonist, Joey. From that position of unsteadiness, the feared impossible: not only the absence of reward, its perfect vacuum, sez our Joey, reversed through time to grade school again so that he might try a little better, having done something bad, having made a mistake. Luckily, it can be reversed.

How can we reconcile this, this poetic sensibility, with such devastating crudeness? Where is the perfect delicacy we’d been taught to cherish, the winking allusion, where do we find the much-needed  descriptions of flowers, fields, a fencepost outside Dublin, waves, the blooming of the sakura blossoms, the vividity of maggots teeming in some peasant’s loaf of bread? How will we know how to think of trees if our books don’t tell us? There isn’t even bread here, all the crying children are assholes, the adults hem and haw and reinforce the base. Desire is the catalyst to every reaction, desire, especially those forms which fraternize with grasping, pinching, plumping. He reaches out and takes, he hides, all parties are whisked around like the Country Doctor, excepting those strangers who don’t seem in on the joke . . . but that would mean that we were in on the joke. Were we in on the joke? Where one of our sallow-cheeked Anglophile businessmen might pretend not to be in the apartment while some financial superior is banging down the door for up to five pages at a time, our rollicking little twit plays a long con through the door for . . . well, time kaleidoscopes, but he knows that she knows, she know or does not know, she would never let on, he would never let on. You thought of sex, then? How pathetic. A flower in a shoe provokes a scent-conspiracy enacted by a schoolgirl, but class warfare becomes a bonk on the nose. Anyway, back to sex. I’m not being coy, it’s just that the hierarchy of things is all messed up by Witty, and in the process he’s somehow managed to sneak a guffaw through the keyhole of a sneer. What is any one thing worth to another? I suppose it is true that I don’t know. The only difference between our world and his is that ours is occasionally illogical.

There is some other world out there where certain figures didn’t suffer the storm: Gombrowicz, Babel, Schulz, Brod. Kafka does too, the lucky devil. A whole separate slew of old white men, if a little more sickly than those we wound up choosing for the canon. Perhaps, in this other world, their full lives came at the expense of the popularity of a few of our dour old lepidopterists, those white-haired academicians who made ‘thrilling sentences’ and taught generations of young creative writing students the value of having that same sallow-cheeked businessman’s hands shake while he’s doing the dishes, just a few sentences before the end of the story. Couldn’t we afford to lose some of those endlessly relatable repressed suburbanites? Is it very hard to imagine a world where our writers reminded us, a little more angrily and a little more often, how near we are to nonsense? How funny that is, how sad it is? How horrifying the vacuum, how easy to gibber into it until it at least looks full? Wherefore the men for whom we golf-clapped, endlessly pleasing one another beneath the table?

It is very considerate of us to have excused ourselves for the inconvenience we posed, which did, after all, allow us plenty of time to swap spit-bubbles from Eliot, Pliny, Byron, Mistah Kurtz, to forget about Odessa in favor of some finely hyphenated adjective from the Odyssey, appended like a broach to the neck of a sentence. Still, what is it that drove Gombrowicz to stay in Argentina, what is it that drove an Argentine at the ‘opposite pole’ from the Pole to ask, “Who shall tell me, Israel, if you are found in the lost labyrinth of my blood?” Are we assuming that a people’s ability to save their own work from the fire exonerates us from the time we spent watching from across the street, if not working the bellows, if not ourselves the fire?


October 4th, 2013 / 11:00 am