- Bacacay: History and composition of the collection
- Bacacay: Title
- Bacacay: Immaturity
- Bacacay: Composition of the collection
- Bacacay: as seen by...
The collection Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity, published in 1933, became Bacacay in 1957.
The collection of stories Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity was the first of Witold Gombrowicz’s books to be published (Ed. Rój, Warsaw, 1933).
This first edition, never published again in this form, contained seven stories:
- Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer
- The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki
- A Premeditated Crime
- Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s
- The Events on the Banbury
- On the Kitchen Steps
- The Rat
- The Banquet
Witold Gombrowicz’s stories were published once again as a collection in Poland in 1957 (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow). This time, however, they appeared under the title Bacacay.
This edition, reworked and augmented by the author, remains the definitive version of the collection.
It contains twelve stories, five of which were added to the original seven of Memoirs. These additional stories include two that had already previously appeared as part of Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke (Philidor’s Child Within and Philibert’s Child Within) as well as:
- On the Kitchen Steps
- The Rat
- The Banquet
“Great! I’ve written something stupid, but I haven’t signed a contract with anyone to produce solely wise and perfect works.”
Preface to The Child Runs Deep in Philidor. [As appears in Borchardt’s translation of Ferdydurke the title of this story is translated as Philidor’s Child Within in Johnston’s English translation of Bacacay.]
To avoid the misinterpretations about the publication of the Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity that Witold Gombrowicz experienced in 1933, he decided to change the title of the collection.
When republishing the expanded volume in 1957, after considering several titles (including Adventures and Variations), Witold Gombrowicz finally chose Bacacay—because the word had nothing to do with the contents.
Bacacay is the name of a street in one of the Buenos Aires suburbs Gombrowicz inhabited in 1939, early in his time in Argentina. In Polish, Witold Gombrowicz transformed the original spelling of the street name from “Bacacay” (the Indian name of a battle) to “Bakakaï” in order to aid its proper pronunciation in that language
In the preface to Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity, published in 1933, Witold Gombrowicz explains his position on immaturity, a major theme of his work. This preface was pulled from the collection just before publication:
It is clear that if the reader is wiser, the book will also reveal itself to be wiser; the more stupid the reader, the more sterile he is, and the more stupid the book; it is possible that the book itself can be more stupid. As for my vision of the world, which is a sinister, erotico-senusal and frankly monstrous one, I will repeat it once more: it is not necessary to be frightened. I do not deny it; it constitutes my legitimate propriety, and who among you does not know the benign complexes, the revolts and the troubles of this difficult period that is maturation—the affectation and the ‘frivolous’ distance that characterize it? I sincerely envy those individuals who, from the age of thirteen, attain the plenitude of harmony and reach a psychological equilibrium when facing contemporary problems. A benevolent reader will perceive, however, that the title the present work is precisely ‘Memoirs from a time of immaturity,’ and not ‘Diary from a time of immaturity.’ Hence, he will draw the conclusion that my soul has long been free enough from this swamp to look around at the world.
Witold Gombrowicz, Unpublished preface from Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity, 1933 [Trans. Dubowski]
Tancerz mecenasa Kraykowskiego
“Yes, there’s nothing so difficult and delicate, so sacred even, as human individuality”
Written in 1926, the story Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer was the first text with which Witold Gombrowicz felt satisfied enough to continue working on it.
This story was first published in 1933 in the collection Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity (Ed. Rój, Warsaw), which was financed by the writer’s father. Like the other stories in this book, Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer was later included in the 1957 volume Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków).
“The hero of the ‘Dancer,’ gravely offended by Kraykowski, loves him rather than hating him, adores him while he should despise him, because he is too weak to oppose his own reason to that of the energetic Lawyer. He presses him because he is unable to destroy him.”
“Summary Explanation,” Varia [Trans. Dubowski]
Excerpt: A few days later (this was on a deserted street in the late evening) Lawyer Kraykowski stopped, turned around, and waited with his cane. It did not behoove me to retreat, and so I walked on, though a faintness overcame me; then he seized me by the arm and shook me, banging his cane against the ground.
“What’s the meaning of these idiotic libels? What are you after?” he shouted. “Why are you trailing around after me? What is all this? I’ll take my cane to you! I’ll break your bones!”
I was unable to speak. I was happy. I received it into myself like a communion, and I closed my eyes. In silence I merely bent over and offered my back. I waited—and experienced some of those perfect moments known only to one who truly has but a few days ahead of him. When I straightened up he was walking quickly away, tapping his cane. My heart full, in a state of grace and beatitude, I returned home through the empty streets. Too little, I was thinking; too little! Too little of everything! More—ever more! [Trans. Johnston]
Pamiętnik Stefana Czarnieckiego
“And wherever I see some mysterious emotion, whether it is virtue or family, faith or fatherland, I always have to commit some villainy. This is my mystery, which for my part I impose upon the great enigma of being.”
Written in 1926, The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki was first published in 1933 as part of the collection Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity (Ed. Rój, Warsaw).
Like the other stories in this book, The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki was later included in the 1957 volume Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow).
Written in first person, like most of Witold Gombrowicz’s prose, this scathing story recounts the moral degeneration of a boy that, from birth, has struggled to find his place. Named after a historical hero whose name invokes Polish patriotism, this son of a converted Jew and an anti-Semitic father never succeeds in forging an identity for himself—nor in gaining acceptance by the society that rejects him, despite his incessant efforts to conform to the dominant ideology.
In a preface to the collection pulled just before publication, Witold Gombrowicz wrote:
“In the ‘Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki,’ I envisioned the phenomenon of race observed through the eyes of a fictional character, himself completely without race.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia [Trans. Dubowski]
Stefan Czarniecki (1599-1665) was a great Commander of the Polish crown. Poland’s national hymn invokes this historical character, a symbol of the “invincible soldier” and an incarnation of Polish patriotism. In the first version of this story, published in 1933, the main character had the Biblical name of Jacob. This Jewish reference, contrasted by the typically Polish family name, indicated, from the beginning, the character’s identity conflict, as well as the problematics of the text. Witold Gombrowicz changed the character’s name to Stefan before its republication as part of Bacacay in 1957.
Excerpt: All this, I confess, was strangely charming, strangely lovely—yes, lovely, that’s exactly it; but it was also strangely unconvincing. Yet I never lost heart. I read a lot, especially the poets, and acquired as best I could the language of mystery. I remember an assignment—The Pole and Other Nations. “Of course, it is unnecessary even to mention the superiority of the Poles over the Africans and Asians, who have repulsive skin,” I wrote.
“But the Pole is also unquestionably superior to the nations of Europe. The Germans are uncouth, violent, and flatfooted; the French are petty, undersized, and depraved; the Russians are hairy; the Italians have bel canto. What a relief it is to be Polish, and it is no wonder everyone envies us and wants to wipe us from the face of the earth. Only the Pole does not arouse our disgust.” I wrote thus, without conviction, but I felt that this was the language of mystery, and it was precisely the naïveté of my assertions that was sweet to me.
Zbrodnia z premedytacją
“Looking straight ahead, I said with gravity: ‘Something’s not right here.’”
A Premeditated Crime was written in 1928, the same year as Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s and Virginity. The text was published for the first time in 1933 in the collection Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity (Ed. Rój, Warsaw). Like the other stories in this book, A Premeditated Crime was later included in the 1957 volume Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków).
An Oedipal parody of a detective story relating the investigation of a non-existent crime, this story demonstrates Witold Gombrowicz’s fascination with popular literature—as well as his genius in playing with conventional forms by twisting them with humor and irony.
In a preface to Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity, pulled just before publication, Witold Gombrowicz wrote:
“‘A Premeditated Crime’ is more complicated. The son has not assassinated the father. The father has not been assassinated. The son only strangles the cadaver when the examining magistrate pushes him to that point. The judge does not cease to force his role, but neither does the family, in a sense. One must not simply be taken with the demonism of the judge and his son, for the story is more of an intellectual nature.
It was about showing the ambiguity of feelings and how an artificial and false situation can reveal terrifying things in men that they could never have imagined.
(P.S. The family truly loved the father, but everyone shut themselves up, seized by their unconscious fear and shame before a death that everyone felt approaching. It is very difficult to explain when one is unsure where the obscurity resides.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia [Trans. Dubowski]
Excerpt: Nevertheless—I suddenly went up to the bed and touched his neck with my finger.
This slight movement had an electrifying effect on the widow. She started.
“What are you doing?” she cried. “What are you doing? What are you doing? …”
“My poor lady, don’t be so upset,” I replied, and without further ceremony I conducted a thorough investigation of the corpse’s neck and the entire room. Ceremony is good up to a point! We wouldn’t get very far if ceremony stood in the way of carrying out a detailed inspection when the need arose. Alas!—there were still literally no signs either on the body or on the chest of drawers, or behind the wardrobe, or on the rug next to the bed. The only noteworthy thing was an immense dead cockroach. On the other hand, a certain sign appeared on the widow’s face—she stood motionless, watching what I was doing with a look of befuddled consternation.
At this point I asked as circumspectly as I could: “Why did you move into your daughter’s room a week ago?”
Biesiada u hrabiny Kotłubaj
“This soup would have been rich and thick
If the cook weren’t such a ...”
Written in 1928, the same year as Virginity, Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s was part of the first book published by Witold Gombrowicz, the collection Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity (1933, Ed. Rój, Warsaw). The book was republished in an expanded version in 1957, which was re-titled Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków).
Witold Gombrowicz sheds light on this story in his preface to the 1933 edition of the collection, pulled from the text just before publication:
“In the grotesque ‘Festin,’ the Countess Pavakhoke and her guests eat a simple cauliflower, while a boy named Cauliflower wanders across the fields, approaches the window, and ends up dying there from exhaustion. The relationship between Cauliflower and the vegetable of the same name is purely formal and consists in the sounds of the word. The sense of the story rests on the idea that hunger and suffering of the poor Peter Cauliflower heighten the sense of taste of the aristocrats dining on cauliflower. The secret that my good vegetarian boy takes so long to discover is the natural cruelty of aristocracy.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia [Trans Dubowski]
“Pavahoke” (“Kotłubaj”) is an authentic family name. It can be found in the 19th- and 20th-century telephone books of the Polish aristocracy, and belonged to a noble family from Eastern Poland. Witold Gombrowicz likely chose this name for its comic resonance in Polish: Kotłu- evokes a cooking-pot, as well as the verbs “to entangle,” “to mill about,” and “to pile.” However, titling her “Countess” is of the writer’s own design.
“I should mention in passing that this story, “Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s—or ‘Countess Kotłubaj’s’ in Polish—almost got me involved in an affair of honor; for the Kotłubaj family, whose roots were somewhere in Lithuania, decided to call me out because of the various games I had played with their name in my story. The true source of my inspiration, however, was not them but a philanthropist and esthete well-known in Warsaw back then, the heiress Marta Krasińska.”
Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
Excerpt: The manservants brought in an immense cauliflower dressed in fresh butter and marvelously browned—alas, on the basis of my prior experiences it could be surmised that it was a consumptive brown.
This was what conversation was like at the countess’s—what a feast it was even in such unfavorable culinary circumstances. I flatter myself that my assertion about Love being most beautiful was not the shallowest of assertions; I even believe that it could provide the crowning moment of many a long philosophical poem. But right away another dinner guest, raising the bidding, tosses out an aphorism that says Pity is more beautiful than Love. Excellent—and true! For indeed, when one thinks more deeply about it, Pity is even more encompassing, and covers more with its cloak, than sublime Love. And that’s not the end of it—the countess, our wise Amphitryon, concerned that we should not dissolve without a trace in Love and Pity, mentions our lofty obligations toward ourselves—and then I, subtly exploiting the rhyme on “-ation,” add just one more thing: “The White Eagle of our nation.”
And the form, the manner, the way of speaking, the noble and refined moderation of the feast battles for the upper hand with its substance!
“No!” I thought in delight.
“Whoever has not attended one of the countess’ Friday parties cannot really say that he knows the aristocracy!”
“The cauliflower is excellent,” murmured the baron, epicure and poet, all at once, and in his voice there sounded a pleasant surprise.
“Indeed,” confirmed the countess, gazing suspiciously at her plate. As for myself, I did not notice anything out of the ordinary in the taste of the cauliflower; to me it seemed as wan as the preceding dishes.
“How very wonderful nature is, that something like virginity is even permissible in this vale of tears.”
Written in 1928, this short story was first published in 1933 in the collection Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity (1933, Ed. Rój, Warsaw). Like the other stories in Witold Gombrowicz’s first book, Virginity was re-published in 1957 in a new, expanded version of the collection entitled Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków). In its newer version, the story saw numerous cuts by Witold Gombrowicz.
Witold Gombrowicz wrote a preface to his 1933 collection of stories, which was never published. Here, he included a presentation of each of the seven texts in the collection. On Virginity:
“In ‘Virginity,’ Paul (a moderately successful virgin) and the foolhardy Alice dream, imagine things, sexually transform the entire world, and end up, rather poorly, gnawing bones before the kitchen. We are not sure what it’s all about. Perhaps nature is playing tricks on them because of their too-pure attitude in life. It’s also a question of the temptation that a troubled, agitated life always represents—a poor girl, pushed by hunger, steals bread rolls, and has a stone thrown at her by the shopkeeper. Alice, who can eat as many rolls as she wants, sees in this gesture a loving caress, for she suffers from another hunger: She is starving for love like the other girl is starving for bread.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia[Trans. Dubowski]
“If someone told me that this story conveys a certain haziness, I would not contradict him. It does have something vague, imprecise, diffused, from which must emanate a perfume of springtime, of youth. One must perceive an underlying flow of premonition and desires. If this is not the case, the story is worth little.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia[Trans. Dubowski]
Excerpt: Skirt, blouse, little parasol, prattle, holy naïveté dictated by instinct—these are delightful, but they aren’t for me. As a man I can neither clasp my arms together nor sully myself innocently. Quite the opposite: honor, courage, dignity, taciturnity, these are the attributes of male virginity. But I ought to maintain in relation to the world a certain male naivety constituting an analogy to virginal naivety. I must take everything in with a clear gaze. I must eat lettuce. Lettuce is more virginal than radishes—why, can anyone guess? Perhaps because it’s more bitter. But then lemon is even less virginal than radishes.
On the male side too there exist marvelous secrets, matters that are locked up with seven seals—the flag and death beneath the flag. What further? Faith is a great mystery, blind faith. A godless person is like a public woman to whom everyone has access. I ought to raise something to the dignity of my ideal, to come to love, to believe blindly and be prepared to sacrifice my life—but what should it be? Anything, so long as I have the ideal. I, a male virgin, bunged up with my ideal!
“How terrifying the self becomes when someone transfers it into a domain that is strange to it, how inhuman a man becomes when used like a probe.”
Written in 1930, this story was published in 1933 in the collection of stories Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity (Ed. Rój, Warsaw). Like the other stories in Witold Gombrowicz’s literary debut, the philosophical story Adventures was republished in 1957, in an expanded version titled Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków).
In the 1933 edition, this story was titled Five Minutes Before Sleep. Witold Gombrowicz changed the title for the second, 1957 edition of the collection Bacacay.
In his preface for the reader, ultimately withdrawn from the 1933 edition before publication, Witold Gombrowicz introduced this story as a suite of images that haunted him in his youth, just before he would fall asleep:
“I always reread with emotion this story of desperation, where terrifying tortures, persecutions, the infiniteness of the oceans, the sexual anxiety of youth and the painful emotion of one’s own immaturity tie up into a crown of tortures that prevents the hero from enjoying happiness in the company of his beloved in a great hot-air balloon, placid like an elephant.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia [Trans. Dubowski]
In Adventures, two autobiographical allusions are transformed into literary themes: Skin and breathing. From childhood, Witold Gombrowicz suffered from both a skin condition and respiratory troubles, which later transformed into chronic asthma—and ultimately brought about his death.
Excerpt: On that island I survived two months of a monkey’s existence, hiding in the hollows of trees, in dense bushes and the tops of palms. The monsters organized formal hunts for me. Nothing could have amused them better than the embarrassment with which I rushed from their touch—they hid in the undergrowth, jumped out unexpectedly, ran along with a merry and lascivious roar—and had it not been for the characteristic odor hircinus, had it not been for the decrepitude of their degenerated limbs, and the desperate fear that augmented my strength, I would have fallen into their clutches a hundred times over. And above all, if it had not been for my skin—my skin, contracting without a moment’s rest, susceptible, chapped, terrified, exhausted, in eternal perturbation. I ceased to be anything else but skin—with it I would fall asleep and wake up, it was my only, it was my all.
Zdarzenia na brygu Banbury
“Staring at one’s feet was a punishment for inadequate cleanliness—whoever had dirty feet had to stare at them for almost an hour.”
Written in 1932, the fantasy story The Events on the Banbury was first published in 1933 in the collection Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity. Like the other stories, it was later taken up again by Witold Gombrowicz for the expanded, 1957 volume Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow). At this time, Witold Gombrowicz removed the story’s original subtitle: The Aura of the Spirit of F. Zantman.
In the preface to the 1933 edition of the collection, ultimately pulled before publication, Witold Gombrowicz wrote:
“The ‘Events on the Banbury’ constitute, as the subtitle states, an attempt to bring the ‘aura from the mind’; the principle of this story is contained in its last word: ‘The exterior is a mirror in which the inside can be observed!’ The exterior reality refracts itself differently in each one of us; the more the psychic faculties are thrown out of order, the greater the deformation. This is the dramatic story of a mind described through exterior events. It is the incessant work of a brain weaving a net that ultimately strangles it. Zantman has gone mad, overwhelmed by the arbitrary, the maniacal monotony and the fundamental indecency of grotesque and absurd phenomena counteracting the best-kept secrets of the soul.”
“A Summary Explanation,” Varia [Trans. Dubowski]
The name “Banbury” is a possible allusion to Oscar Wilde’s famous comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, whose first Polish production took place in 1919 at Teatr Mały, Warsaw. “Banbury” is a character imagined by one of the story’s principal characters—a self-purported (and chore-avoiding) “invalid” living in the countryside.
In her preface to a new edition of the story (Wyd. Morskie, Gdańsk, 1982), titled Existential Drama on the Sea (Drama egzystencji na morzu), professor Maria Janion qualifies The Events on the Banbury as “one of the most profoundly and irrevocably pessimist works of all Polish literature.” She compares Witold Gombrowicz’s philosophy here to Edgar Allen Poe’s ingenious story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a classic of fantasy literature. The boat represents “this place in which ennui distills itself in an exceptional manner,” and thus becomes “an isolation which permits observation, with an acuity that is impossible elsewhere, of the tragic incidences of Man and Form.” [Trans. Dubowski]
Excerpt: Around midnight the sea wind turned into a storm. The brig pitched like a child’s swing, creaking as it hurtled forward; and in a short time the momentum had increased so much that I could not tear myself away from the back wall of the cabin. The Banbury held out valiantly, meeting the wind with a sharp starboard tack.
After twenty-six hours the pitching ceased, but I preferred not to go out on a deck. For there most certainly had been a mutiny, and if not a mutiny then in any case something like it—so I thought I was better advised to stay on my own till I knew for certain what I would find outside. I locked my door and blocked it with a cupboard; in the corner I had a packet of sponge biscuits and eleven bottles of beer.
Filidor podszyty dzieckiem
“The child runs deep in everything.”
Written in 1935, this text was inserted into the novel Ferdydurke, which was first published in 1937. In 1957, when assembling the new version of his collection of stories, Bacacay, (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow), WitoldGombrowicz decided to include Philidor’s Child Within as well as Philibert’s Child Within (Filibert podszyty dzieckiem).
The two texts now appear in both Witold Gombrowicz’s collection Bacacay [English translation by Johnston] and Ferdydurke, his first novel [English translation by Borchardt].
The grotesque duel between the representatives of Analysis and Synthesis ridicules philosophical positions so strict that they become infantile. As he will do later with the figure of the Poet, Witold Gombrowicz makes a caricature here of intellectual practices and attitudes that have become mere mechanisms of thought, rather than foundations for the individual’s own genius of creation.
The name “Philidor” is an ironic reference to French composer François-André Danican-Philidor (1726-1798), a writer of opéras comiques and a very famous chess player in his time.
According to the memoirs of his childhood friend Tadeusz Kępiński, Witold Gombrowicz, who loved chess, had studied Philidor’s classic Analysis of the Game of Chess in great depth. Kępiński remembers that Gombrowicz loved to reproach him during their chess matches with: “My good man, you play nothing like Philidor.” (T. Kępiński, Gombrowicz and le monde de sa jeunesse/Gombrowicz and the world of his childhood; trans. Dubowski.)
The name “Philidor” sounds completely absurd in Polish. In the first French version of Ferdydurke (1958), prepared by Witold Gombrowicz with Ronald Martin under the pseudonym “Brone,” “Philidor” was replaced by “Philifor” in order to come across as strangely in French as it does in the original Polish. However, Georges Sédir, author of the novel’s second French translation (1973), decided upon a return to “Philidor.”
These onomastic games and the play of titles are characteristic of Witold Gombrowicz’s style, indicating at once the complexity of the multiple possible interpretations, as well as his taste for playful neologism and lightly absurd humor.
Excerpt: Anti-Filidor walked up to our table and silently looked daggers at the Professor, who rose to his feet. At first they tried to apply spiritual pressure. The Analyst pressed coolly from below, the Synthetist responded from above, with a gaze charged with defiant dignity. When the duel of looks gave no definitive result, the two spiritual enemies began a duel of words. The Doctor and master of Analysis declared:
The Synthetologue responded:
The anti-Filidor roared:
“Noodles, noodles, namely a mixture of flour, eggs and water!”
Filidor retorted instantly:
“Noodle, namely the higher being of the Noodle, the highest Noodle himself!”
As it appears in Borchardt’s translation of Ferdydurke.
Excerpt: Anti-Philidor had predicted and anticipated Philidor’s plans with devilish cunning. This sober Bacchus had tattooed on his cheeks two rosebuds on each side and something like a vignette involving doves! As a consequence the cheeks, and along with them the slap on the cheek intended by Philidor, lost all meaning, let alone a higher one. In essence a slap on the cheek administered to rosebuds and doves was not a slap on the cheek—it was more like striking wallpaper. Not wishing to allow the widely respected pedagogue and educator of youth to make a fool of himself by hitting wallpaper because his wife was sick, we firmly discouraged him from actions he would later regret.
“You cur!” roared the old man. “You despicable, oh, despicable, despicable cur!”
As it appears in Johnston’s translation of the story in Bacacay.
Filibert podszyty dzieckiem
“Oh, how one must always anticipate everything!”
Written in 1935, this text was inserted into the novel Ferdydurke, which was first published in 1937.
In 1957, when assembling the new version of his collection of stories, Bacacay, (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków), Witold Gombrowicz decided to include Philidor’s Child Within as well as Philibert’s Child Within.
The short story Philibert’s Child Within is a burlesque description of an unexpected, diabolic suite of incidents that occur over the course of a tennis match at the “Racing Club.” A colonel shoots at the ball, which hurts an onlooker, whose wife slaps another onlooker, while another attacks an innocent bystander, and so on. This absurd chain reaction culminates in general mayhem and ends in a miscarriage. The rhythm evokes a fast-forwarded cartoon or a Chaplin sketch. The humor and cruelty of chance is reflected here in a narrative construction at once simple and extremely precise, whose mechanism corresponds to a verbal and logical tall tale.
“Literature is marked with the seal of acuity.”
Diary [Trans. Vallee]
Philibert is the name of a saint and a first name of the Savoyard Dynasty of the 15th and 16th centuries. As is always the case with Witold Gombrowicz, this choice represents an onomastic game, with no reference to the text’s contexts whatsoever. This arbitrary state of the author enfolds a humorous aspect into a purportedly realistic story that, in actuality, obeys a fundamental logic of the absurd.
Excerpt: Now, carried away by example, he instantly mounted a woman sitting below him, and she (a minor office clerk from Tangier), surmising that these must be proper city manners and quite the thing to do—also carried him on her back, taking pains to make her movements appear totally relaxed.
Whereupon the more sophisticated sector of the public began to applaud tactfully so as to cover up the gaffe in front of the delegates from foreign consulates and embassies who had thronged to the match. But this led to yet another misunderstanding, because the less sophisticated sector mistook the applause for a sign of approval, and they too mounted their ladies. The foreigners showed increasing astonishment. So what could the more sophisticated sector of the company do? As if nothing had happened, they too mounted their ladies.
And this almost certainly would have been the end. But then a certain marquis de Filiberthe, sitting in the grandstand with his wife and her family, was suddenly roused by the gentleman within and stepped into the center of the court in his light-colored summer suit and, pale yet determined, he coolly asked if anyone, and if so who, wished to insult his wife, the marquise de Filiberthe? And he threw into the crowd a bunch of visiting cards inscribed: Philippe Herta de Filiberthe. (Oh, how terribly careful we must be! How difficult and treacherous life is, and how unpredictable!) Dead silence ensued.
As it appears in Borchardt’s translation of Ferdydurke.
Excerpt: And all at once, at a walk, bareback, on slender-fetlocked, elegant, fashionably dressed women, no fewer than thirty-six men began to ride up to the Marquise de Philibert so as to insult her and remember that they were gentlemen, since her husband, the Marquis, had remembered that he was a gentleman. She in turn, out of fright, gave birth prematurely—and the whimpering of the child was heard at the Marquis’s feet beneath the heels of the trampling women. The Marquis, so unexpectedly finding a child within, provided with an complemented by a child just as he had stepped out alone as a grown and self-sufficient gentleman—became embarrassed and went home—while thunderous applause rang out from the spectators.
As it appears in Johnston’s translation of the story in Bacacay.
Na kuchennych schodach
“Woe betide those who abandon their own dirt for the cleanliness of others; dirt is always one’s own, cleanliness always another’s.”
Witold Gombrowicz wrote On the Kitchen Steps in 1929, but chose to withhold it from the 1933 Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity (Ed. Rój, Warsaw). The choice to keep this rather obscene story from the public came out of regard for the author’s father, who financed this first book.
The voyeurism and sexual assaults committed by a bourgeois man to his maid central to the story carried a strong risk of straining the family’s well-being, and was sure to be misinterpreted by Witold’s father, Jan Onufry Gombrowicz.
After his father’s death, however, Witold Gombrowicz published On the Kitchen Steps—in 1937, in the autumn edition of the prestigious Warsaw journal Skamander.
The text was definitively integrated into the collection of stories along with four others in 1957, when published in Kraków under the new title Bacacay.
Erotic fascination with a maid, that force of sexual attraction that a brutish and primal nature may exercise on an educated and socially superior person, and the tyranny of convenience that, like a straitjacket, imprisons the personality of the one who submits to its will: These are Gombrowicz’s themes that appear by excellence, with force and provocative suggestion, in this early text.
Bruno Schulz, cartoonist, writer, and friend of Witold Gombrowicz, also explored the topic of the masochistic adoration of a servant in his own pictorial and literary work. In 1936, in the Studio monthly, Witold Gombrowicz published an open letter to Schulz, inviting him to take a position on their scandalous reputation as obscene and disgusting writers—and also against the petit bourgeois opinion of the “doctor’s wife from Wilcza Street.”
The maid Aniela Brzozowska was a longstanding figure of the Gombrowicz household. Witold kept a tender and friendly memory of she who inspired the end of Ferdydurke: ”It’s the end, what a gas, And who’s read it is an ass!” She was also the target of his childhood teasing and squabbles, not devoid of eroticism.
Excerpt: And I could see that at the thudding of the maid’s footsteps she quaked like a leaf; but on my account she was prepared to put up with a great deal. Along with her trunk the maid brought into our apartment her own affairs, in other words vermin, toothache, chills, picking her fingers, lots of crying, lots of laughing, lots of laundry; it all started to spread around the apartment, and my wife compressed her lips ever more, leaving only the tiniest crack. Of course, the process of instructing the maid commenced at once; to the side, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that this took on ever crueler forms and eventually became a kind of leveling of the terrain. The maid writhed as if burned by red-hot iron; she couldn’t take a single step that was in accordance with her own nature. And my wife was unremitting—deep within her grew the spirit of strangulation, of hatred, the more so because I too was slightly hateful off to the side, though I could not have explained why or to what purpose. And I watched with narrow-eyed amazement as before my wife there arose primitive powers, truly different than Majola soap, and a vicious and prehistoric battle raged.
“For, by an inscrutable force of Nature, even the strongest person has one single thing foreordained in this world that is stronger than him, that is above him and that he cannot tolerate! Some cannot tolerate primroses, others liver, while still others get hives from wild strawberries; but it was an astonishing thing that the murderer, who had not been enfeebled by torture with either little sticks or little pins, was afraid of a rat.”
Written in 1937, The Rat was published in 1939 in the prestigious Warsaw literary journal Skamander. Witold Gombrowicz added it to his collection of stories in its 1957 expanded edition, Bacacay (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow).
This cruel story tells of the physical abuses inflicted upon the murderer Hooligan, a thick brute whose only weakness is a terrible fear of rats, by the old judge Scorrabini. The sadism of the old man, his will to humiliate and force his victim, who was himself a torturer, into submission, and his perverse joy in Hooligan’s terror contribute to the mood of grotesque horror, which culminates in the story’s final scene.
Excerpt: And every day at seven in the evening Skorabkowski would descend into the torture chamber, wearing his tobacco brown housecoat, with little sticks or little wires in his hand. And every night, from seven onward, the appeals judge would labor in the sweat of his brow over the voiceless villain, silently, silently.... Silently he would approach him and to begin with would tickle him on the heel for a long, long time, so as to stimulate him to a spasmodic dainty giggle; then he would administer petty mortifications with the sticks and constrict his field of vision with the aid of boards; he would prick him with pins and show him peas, beans, and small beets... . But the brigand did not take it silently, but in silence. And his silence grew, surging and thrusting through the darkness, becoming equal to his most magnificent roars—and it was in vain that the judge attempted with his own silentness to vanquish the bored silence of the bandit—and hatred filled the dungeons! What was it that Skorabkowski actually wanted? He wanted to change the bandit’s nature, refashion his voice, transform his broad laugh into a narrow giggle, reduce his roar to whisper, shorten and diminish his entire figure; in a word, he wanted to make him resemble himself, Skorabkowski. With the assiduity of a tracker he sought his weak points, subjecting him to particular and terrible examinations in order to find that point minoris resistentiae, the weak spot through which he could properly set about the bandit. Yet the bandit exhibited no weak spots, but only remained silent.
“Gentlemen, the king must be forced upon the king; the king must be imprisoned within the king; we must lock up the king in the king...”
Written in Argentina in 1946 at the same time as The Marriage, The Banquet (Bankiet) was first published in April 1953 in Wiadomości, the Polish émigré newspaper in London.
Witold Gombrowicz added this story to his new collection Bacacay for its publication in Krakow in 1957.
In a scene reminiscent of a fairy tale, a sumptuous banquet on the occasion of King Gnouillon’s marriage to the Archduchess, Witold Gombrowicz explodes the laws of the genre, slicing open his stereotypical narrative to reveal a grotesque stampede. Rather than illustrating a moral, The Banquet tells how an ugly, greedy prince unmasks the hypocrisy of his court, whose courtesans wish to hide his royal vices and trap him in his social rank. Once again, Witold Gombrowicz twists an ordinary setting and idealized form inside out and back again: In his world, the hidden and the shameful must ultimately destroy the established order and the straitjacket of social norms.
The scene of the royal court banquet also appears in Witold Gombrowicz’s plays Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, The Marriage, and Operetta, where the fairy tale is broken by ironic misappropriation. The banquet is a stylistic exercise of Gombrowicz’s, in which he dismantles the classical workings of story in favor of a new construction, somewhere between the grimace and irony.
Excerpt: The disgrace! The disgrace! The horror! So fanatical in its baseness was the king’s soul, so trivially narrow, that he did not covet larger sums but precisely petty ones; small sums were capable of leading him to the very depths of hell. Oh, the most fundamental monstrousness of this matter was the fact that even bribes did not attract the king so much as tips—tips for him were like sausage to a dog! The entire hall had frozen in mute anticipation. Hearing the familiar, oh-so-sweet sound, King Slothbert put down his goblet and, forgetting everything else, in his boundless foolishness ... licked his lips unobtrusively... . Unobtrusively! That was what he imagined. The king’s lip-licking burst like a bomb in front of the entire banquet, which went red-faced with shame.
Archduchess Renata Adelaide let out a muffled cry of disgust! The eyes of the government, the court, the generals, and the clergy turned to the person of the old man who for many years had guided the helm of the state in his toil-worn hands. What was to be done? What course of action was to be taken?
In 1966, I was waiting for the first publication of my first novel. I met Maurice Nadeau, who opened the doors of ‘La Quinzaine Littéraire” to me, and I subscribed to “Lettres Nouvelles.” Before reading Bacacay, I only knew Witold Gombrowicz by name. I was astonished, overwhelmed by this reading. In a few feverish days, I read all I could find about him. […]
I discovered something new within myself … violence and sarcasm … that I had never found in literature before, in ours least of all.
In Bacacay, there is one astonishing story in particular Virginity. It’s the story of a young girl, at whom stones are thrown by beggars. She tells the story to her fiancé, an officer, who reassures her, but one night, dressed to the nines, they set out to go to the theater, she asks her fiancé to go out the back door, makes him cross the courtyard full of piles of garbage, and pulls a piece of old, rotten meat out of one of them, shoving it into the young man’s mouth, crying: ‘Bite!’
You can see this meat as the woman’s sex. You can think it’s beauty itself, youth itself. You can think that it is the inaccessible love that is rotted by death. This scene could be a brutal summary of "Pornografia", if not the entire work of Gombrowicz.
Pierre Bourgeade  in Gombrowicz vingt ans après (Gombrowicz Twenty Years Later), Paris, 1989 [Trans. Dubowski]
There is a very beautiful story of Gombrowicz’s that I like a lot: A Premeditated Crime He situates himself on the farm of a Polish estate and tells the story of a murder. But it’s not a typical story: a murder has been committed, and you’re looking for the culprit. A very beautiful story. What interested me most in it was, of course, the reversal of the situation. It’s a very good mental exercise, and it corresponds somehow to the reality in which we lawyers evolve. Sometimes we don’t have any idea at the beginning: something has happened, and we look for the facts surrounding the people and not, the other way around, the people who correspond to the facts. But this story has a much more complex logic.
Otto Schily  in Gombrowicz en Europe (Gombrowicz in Europe) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]