Diary: Volume One by Witold Gombrowicz (Quartet Books in conjunction with Northwestern University Press USA £12.95)
GOMBROWICZ, whose plays and novels have been published in 30 languages, has had a major formative influence on contemporary Polish literature. He died in France in 1969, aged 65, having lived the greater part of his intensely creative life as an exile in Argentina, where he arrived, as war broke out, in September 1939. The liner that took him there as a guest on its inaugural voyage, sailed for home. Gombrowicz, medical category D, decided to stay where he was "alone, lost, cut off, alien, unknown, a drowned man".
His diary for the years 195356, now published for the first time in English, is the extraordinary testament of a courageous man whose professed aim in life was nothing less than to transform with his pen, not only the world's received image of the Poles, but to shock his compatriots into a new, realistic awareness of themselves and their relationship with the rest of Europe. "Arrogance, loftiness, ambitions," he tells us, "cannot be removed from writing because they are its motor."
Gombrowicz writes as one who is both "terribly Polish and terribly rebellious against Poland". The Diary is not only a fascinating exploration of his own mind and conscience in an effort to discover the essential "me" that constitutes Gombrowicz, writer and man; it is equally a fearless and irreverent dissection of so-called "Polishness" that complex of parameters, literary, religious and social, by which, as he sees it, his compatriots have allowed themselves to become entrapped
by a traditional reluctance to face facts.
The voice of Gombrowicz, crying in the wilderness of the Argentina he came to love, was primarily addressed to his fellowcountrymen, better-equipped than foreigners to savour the deliberately provocative and mischievous element in his makeup. As a non-Polish reader, one has to allow for the fact that Gombrowicz is an Enfant Terrible, a deflater of reputations, a de-bunker of myths. He is cruelly dismissive of much Polish literature of the past.
Even the national poet, Mickiewicz is not spared. He abominates rhyming verse and poets as a breed. Only Czeslaw, Milosz, who has since won the Nobel Prize, escapes his censure.
It must be said, however, that Gombrowicz assaults the sacrosanct with stylistic grace and sardonic humour which he doesn't hesitate to direct against himself. There was the AngloArgentine lady, for instance, who told him to his face that he couldn't be much of a writer since, so far as she knew, he wasn't famous. The most intense thinkers, says Gombrowicz, tearing a whole range of revered philosophers to pieces, are guilty of the greatest idiocies. Though a rebel, he has no time for Communism which, he says, was "dropped on Poland like a cage over a stunned bird." He also has some sharp things to say about Polish Catholicism.
Gombrowicz once forbade a literary circle in Los Angeles to "discuss me in a boring way." As one of those Polophiles who would probably have to invent Poland if it didn't already exist, I must say I'm glad this compelling book wasn't written for me to read in 1942, when Polish officers with poetry in their kitbags were urging me to learn their language for the sake of their literature. I might have taken Gombrowicz too seriously, abandoned my efforts and robbed myself of much delight and excitement. Even Gombrowicz, brutally frank, admits that when he feels "cold indifference" with regards to his compatriots, "humility and admiration" might be more appropriate. But one of my Polish friends put it this way: "He gave us all a cold shower. Most refreshing."
Noel Clark The reviewer is a former BBC foreign correspondent in Poland and Eastern Europe