“Chase me if you want. I’m running away, mug in my hands.”
Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz’s fundamental work and first novel, is considered a 20th-century classic.
“My writing is based on traditional models. In a sense "Ferdydurke" is a parody of a conte philosophique in the manner of Voltaire.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
Ferdydurke was born from the hurt that Witold Gombrowicz felt around certain critical articles about his first book, Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity. After being judged as “immature,” Gombrowicz’s first aim was to write a pamphlet against critics and “cultural aunties.”
However, once swept up in his subject, Witold Gombrowicz decided to settle the score with culture and with the world in becoming himself “the champion of immaturity and Form, at least in its relation to immaturity.”
“Man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul, be it even the soul of an idiot.”
It is in Ferdydurke that we find the earliest instances of the central themes of Gombrowicz’s work, including immaturity, inferiority vs. superiority, and form.
Certain sayings from Ferdydurke, like “cultural aunties,” infiltrated popular culture, where they took on particular significance and began to function as references in the Polish language.
“But how to describe this Ferdydurkian man? Created by form, he is created from the exterior, which means inauthentic, deformed. To be a man is to never be oneself. He is also a constant producer of form: He secretes form indefatigably, like the bee secretes honey.”
—Gombrowicz’s preface to the French edition of Pornografia, 1962 [Trans. Dubowski]
Ferdydurke, first published in October 1937 in Warsaw (Ed. Rój), carries a printer’s imprint from 1938.
The cover and illustrations for this first edition are Bruno Schulz’s. Schulz was an ardent defender of the book and already the well-known author of The Cinnamon Shops (1934).
The novel includes two “interludes,” which had been written earlier: Philidor’s Child Within and Philibert’s Child Within. Witold Gombrowicz inserted these into his 1957 collection Bacacay as independent stories.
Ferdydurke would not reappear in Poland until twenty years later in 1957, thanks to a passing liberalization of the Communist regime.
When published, the book was so successful—over 10,000 copies sold—that it was quickly banned again the following year.
It would then remain banned until 1986, at which point it was re-edited by Wydawnictwo Literackie of Krakow.
From the 1990s onward, Ferdydurke, as a classic of Polish prose, became required reading in Polish schools.
In 1947, Ferdydurke was translated into Spanish (its first foreign edition) and published by Argos of Buenos Aires. This translation was written in a quasi-burlesque atmosphere at Café Rex in Buenos Aires with a group of Witold Gombrowicz’s young chess-player friends—without a Polish/Spanish dictionary, with Gombrowicz himself participating and all under the leadership of two Cuban writers, Virgilio Piñera and Humberto Rodriguez Tomeu.
“It was not a face that had turned into a mug, but a mug that had never ever had the honor of being a face—his mug was as dumb as a leg!”
Witold Gombrowicz was inspired by this Spanish version for the French translation, which he completed himself in collaboration with Roland Martin, a young Frenchman from Buenos Aires. Together, they signed the work under the pseudonym “Brone” (Julliard, 1958, “Les lettres nouvelles”). This French translation was then used as the basis for several other translations, with the author’s consent.
La deuxième traduction française, par Georges Sédir, établie à partir de l’édition polonaise de 1957, a été publiée pour la première fois en 1973.
“The book can be quite indigestible for those who attribute a certain importance to their person, their convictions and their beliefs, for a ‘dedicated’ painter, scientist or ideologist. The western readers of Ferdydurke are divided as follows: frivolous individuals who amuse themselves without worrying about anything else; serious readers; serious and offended readers.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
“Look—that basic body part, the tame and kindly pupa is the basis, therefore it is the from the pupa that all basis begins.”
L’action de Ferdydurke is set in the early 1930s in Warsaw, in a manor in the Polish countryside.
It represents a satire of three milieus: school, the bourgeoisie, and the landed gentry.
“To run meant not only running from school but, first and foremost, running from oneself, oh, to run from oneself, from the sniveling brat into which Pimko had turned me, abandon the brat, be the man I once was!”
One morning, Joey, an immature thirty-something, wakes up in the body of an adolescent schoolboy. Everyone treats him as a greenhorn, easily infantilized and ridiculed. Joey first finds himself in a caricature of a school, where the ridiculous Professor Pimko tries to overpower the pubescent impulses of his students and their disinterest in their studies. Two important scenes include the raping of Siphon the idealist’s ears, and the duel of grimaces between Siphon and Mientus, the realist.
“She ignored me—she ignored me as befits a modern schoolgirl, realizing perfectly well how much in love I was with her modern charms.”
Joey finds himself next in a bourgeois family, the Youngbloods, the very incarnation of “modernist” fashions such as sports, hygiene, and the snobbery of keeping up with fashion. These trends were inspired by the American lifestyle.
Joey falls in love with a modern schoolgirl, the Youngblood daughter, who despises his unfashionable manner of expressing his love for her. Joey spies on her through the keyhole, and seeks to compromise her beauty and her style.
The Landed Gentry
“The mystic clasp broke! The servant’s hand fell on the lordly countenance. Crash, bang, and stars […]”
Joey’s adventures conclude at a manor, where he must face the archaic manners of a landowning noble family—a setting well-known by the author on account of his own family background. At the novel’s end, we witness a servants’ revolt against the masters, and the narrator’s kidnapping of the property-owners’ daughter.
“It is the grotesque story of a man who becomes a child because others treat him as one. ‘Ferdydurke’ aims at unveiling the Great Immaturity of humanity. The man, as described by the book, is an opaque and neutral being that must express himself through certain behaviors, and by consequence, becomes, on the outside—for others—much more defined and precise than he is in his intimate self. This causes the tragic disproportion between man’s secret immaturity and the mask that he wears to interact with others. He can only adapt in his inner self to this mask, as if he really were what he seems to be. We can say that the ‘Ferdydurke’ man is created by others, that men create themselves by imposing forms, or what we call ‘ways of being,’ upon themselves.”
— Witold Gombrowicz, preface to the French version of Pornografia [Trans. Dubowski]
“It’s the end, what a gas, And who’s read it is an ass!”
The word “Ferdydurke” appears only in the novel’s title—not once in the text itself.
Witold Gombrowicz never revealed the mystery of the title; he claimed both that he had chosen it because it signified nothing and was difficult to pronounce in Polish, and that he had found it by chance in an English newspaper.
In 1984, Bogdan Baran hypothesized that the title stemmed from Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt, which was translated into Polish in the 1930s.
“Who do you think I ran into the other evening at the De Luxe restaurant? Why, old Freddy Durkee, that used to be a dead-or-alive shipping clerk in my old place―Mr. Mouse Man we used to laughingly call the dear fellow. One time he was so timid he was plumb scared of the Super, and never got credit for the dandy work he did. Him at the De Luxe! And if he wasn’t ordering a tony feed with all the ‘fixings’ from celery to nuts! And instead of being embarrassed by the waiters, like he used to be at the little dump where we lunched in Old Lang Syne, he was bossing them around like a millionaire!”
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt, chapter 6
This hypothesized origin of the title was confirmed in 2000 by Professor Henryk Markiewicz, who discovered an unknown story by Witold Gombrowicz, Ears, in 1935. Ears was an apparent pastiche of a fragment of Babbitt. In this short text, we meet the character of old Ferdy Durkee, a store clerk. He is terrorized by Mr. Mouse-man, the owner, whom Ferdy succeeds in humiliating through teasing and, finally, by forcing him to undress completely.
These explanations of the story’s title appear in the edition of Ferdydurke in the Complete Works edited by Włodzimierz Bolecki, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2007, pages 402-402. The novel Ears can be found here as well, pages 263-265.
My world collapsed and promptly reset itself according to the rules of a conventional prof. I could not pounce on him because he was seated. For no apparent reason, sitting itself assumed a prime importance and became an obstacle to everything else. Not knowing what to do or how to behave I fidgeted in my seat, moved my leg, looked around at the walls and bit my nails, while he went on sitting, logically and consistently, his seat fairly and squarely filled with that of a prof, reading. This went on for a terribly long time. Minutes weighed on me like hours, seconds stretched and stretched making me feel like someone trying to drink the ocean through a straw.
Do you know what it feels like to be diminished within someone else? Oh, to be diminished within an aunt is unseemly enough, but to be diminished with a huge, commonplace prof is the peak of unseemly diminishment. I noticed that the prof was like a cow grazing on my greenness. It’s a strange feeling—to see a prof nibbling at the green of your meadow, which is actually your apartment, to see him sitting in your chair and reading—yet actually nibbling and grazing. Something terrible was happening to me, and, at the same time, I was surrounded by something stupid and brazenly unreal.
“And are we familiar with the spirit of the times? How about the spirit of Hellenic civilization? And the Gallic, and the spirit of moderation and good taste? And the spirit of the sixteenth century bucolic writer, known only to myself, who was the first to use the word ‘umbilicus’? And the spirit of language? Should one say ‘use’ or ‘utilize?’” His questions caught me by surprise. Ten thousand spirits suddenly smothered my spirit, I mumbled that I didn’t know, he then pressed on: what did I know about the spirit of the poet Kasprowicz and his attitude toward the peasantry, he then asked about the historian Lelewel’s first love. I cleared my throat and quickly glanced at my nails—they were blank, no crib notes there. I turned my head as if expecting someone to prompt me. But of course there was no one there. What a nightmare, for God’s sake! What was happening? O God! I quickly turned my head back to its usual position and looked at him, but with a gaze that was no longer mine. It was the gaze of a schoolboy scowling childishly and filled with hatred. I was suddenly seized with an inappropriate and rather old-fashioned itch—to hit the prof with a spitball right in the nose.
Farewell, O Spirit, farewell, my oeuvre only just begun, farewell genuine form, my very own, and hail, hail, oh terrible and infantile form, so callow and green! Tritely proffed by him, I ran in mincing steps by the side of the giant prof who muttered on: “Chirp, chirp, little chickie … The sniffling little nose … I love, ee, ee […]” Ahead of us a refined lady was walking her little pinscher on a leash, the dog growled, pounced on Pimko, ripped his trouser leg, Pimko yelled, expressed an unfavorable opinion of the dog and its owner, pinned his trouser leg with a safety pin, and we walked on.
—Ferdydurke, Chapter 1: “Abduction” [Trans. Borchardt]
“Gombrowicz capers and thunders, hectors and mocks, but he is also entirely serious about his project of transvaluation, his critique of high ‘ideals.’ Ferdydurke is one of the few novels I know that could be called Nietzschean; certainly it is the only comic novel that could so be described. […] Nietzsche deplored the ascendancy of slave values sponsored by Christianity, and called for the overthrowing of corrupt ideals and for new forms of masterfulness. Gombrowicz, affirming the ‘human’ need for imperfection, incompleteness, inferiority … youth, proclaims himself a specialist in inferiority. Swinish adolescence may seem a drastic antidote to smug maturity, but this is exactly what Gombrowicz has in mind. ‘Degradation became my ideal forever. I worshipped the slave.’ It is still a Nietszschean project of unmasking, of exposing, with a merry satyr-dance of dualisms: mature versus immature, wholes versus parts, clothed versus naked, heterosexuality versus homosexuality, complete versus incomplete.” “Extravagant, brilliant, disturbing, brave, funny, wonderful… Long live its sublime mockery.”
—Foreword to Danuta Borchardt’s English translation of Ferdydurke
Bruno Schulz: “Gombrowicz ‘this demonologist of culture, this obstinate bloodhound of cultural lies’”
“Gombrowicz shows that when we are not mature—but of a poor sort, scum quarreling in the shoals of concrete in an attempt to express ourselves—and that when it is our lowness we have to deal with, we are much closer to truth than when we are noble, sublime, mature, and definitive. […]
“All the forms of man, his gestures and his masks have covered up the human, have absorbed the refuse of a miserable but concrete and only true human condition, and Gombrowicz revindicates them, adopts them, calls them back from a long exile, from an antique diaspora.”
—Bruno Schulz, Ferdydurke [From Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz: With Selected Prose, Ed. Ficowski]
“I consider Ferdydurke to be one of the three or four great novels written after Proust’s death.”
―Milan Kundera, “Gombrowicz malgré tous,” (Gombrowicz in spite of them all), Le Nouvel Observateur, March 8, 1990 [Trans. Dubowski]
“A master of verbal burlesque, a connoisseur of psychological blackmail, Gombrowicz is one of the profoundest of late moderns, with one of the lightest touches. Ferdydurke, among its centrifugal charms, includes some of the truest and funniest literary satire in print.”
—John Updike, back cover of Ferdydurke, Yale, 2000