Gombrowicz's Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality

Edited by Ewa Plonowska Ziarek. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Selected bibliography of Gombrowicz criticism. Notes on contributors. Index. xi + 327 pages. Paper.

Angela Brintlinger

In an essay some ten years ago, Czeslaw Milosz posed a question which this volume continues to attempt to answer: "Who is Gombrowicz?" The collection under review, Gombrowicz's Grimaces, examines how Gombrowicz can contribute to our understanding of modernism, of gay and gender studies, and of national definitions. This erudite and interesting series of articles is well written, well organized, and convincing in its argument: that Gombrowicz belongs right in the middle of today's conversations about literature and self-presentation. Using contemporary theoretical approaches from Deleuze, Kristeva, Lacan, Judith Butler and beyond, these scholars bring Gombrowicz from the periphery into the center.

In the world of academia, Slavicists tend to feel marginalized, and Poles and Polonists feel marginalized even in Slavic studies. Outside the walls of universities and scholarly institutions, national literatures, particularly of the Slavic world, make news and noise mostly thanks to the Nobel Prize or political events within the country of origin. Readers of Polish literature are rare within the university, and we expect them to come mostly from the ranks of people of Polish origin. What, then, of Gombrowicz, whose biographical fate made him an exile to--from the point of view of Eurocentrism--an even more marginal land, Argentina, and whose self-fashioning, among other factors, kept him outside of the Polish national canon? What is his place in modern literature, in the history of the twentieth century, and in the various studies of that century which have emerged at its end?

Witold Gombrowicz, the singer of antinomies and contradictions, of dialectic, of love of order simultaneous with love of chaos, is neither a "Polish writer" in the usual meaning of the term, nor an "emigre writer." Ewa Plonowska Ziarek emphasizes his role as a figure of "in-betweenness," and in this collection she gathers together authoritative and insightful studies of Gombrowicz by scholars of Slavic, Latin America, English, theater and comparative literature from all over the world to demonstrate that "in-betweenness" can also be central.

The collection is divided into three sections. The first, "Gombrowicz's Aesthetics: Writing, Self, Performance," focuses on Gombrowicz's autobiographical non-fiction (his diaries and A Kind of Testament) and the role of author/narrator in his major novels. Tomislav Longinovic argues that "kind of" is a "perfect linguistic signifier" for Gombrowicz as an author and a human being (34). Valerie Deshoulieres considers Gombrowicz's persona to be that of a chameleon. Such changeability offers a natural link with the theme of Immaturity. In Gombrowicz Deshoulieres sees a different Romanticism--without the 19th century accouterments--an art of the fragment and the fragmentary. Dorota Glowacka explores the figures of Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz in a duel of Form. In the final article in this section, Hanjo Berressem uses catastrophe and chaos theory to look at form and content in Gombrowicz's major novels.

The second section of the book, "Modernity and the Trajectories of Exile," features a particularly interesting look at Gombrowicz from the perspective of Argentinian letters by Latin American scholar Marzena Grzegorczyk. Certainly students and readers of Gombrowicz think about how accidental exile to Argentina affected the writer, but Grzegorczyk shows in her essay how the writer affected his place of exile, how Gombrowicz himself became a character in Argentinian culture. In an elegant essay, Piotr Parlej examines the way in which Gombrowicz's dialectical structures remained fresh (or scandalous) for both official socialist realist writers and anti-Communist Polish post-war poets who, in rejecting politicized aesthetics moved too far toward lyricism. Katarzyna Jerzak's interesting discussion of Gombrowicz's exilic character and that of the Francophone Romanian E. M. Cioran reveals that each was engaged in a similar project: having rejected nationalism, patriotism and religion, "all traditional ways of belonging in and despite exile," Cioran and Gombrowicz chose a strategy which Jerzak calls "defamation," a strategy of intensified confrontation with their home cultures.

In the collection's third section, Ziarek, Agnieszka Soltysik and Allen Kuharski examine Gombrowicz using theories from queer studies, postcolonial thought and performativity. Ziarek, in her essay, considers the role of aesthetics in national culture and of love in national affiliations through analysis of Gombrowicz's novel Trans-Atlantyk Soltysik considers Gombrowicz in light of Abdul JanMohamed's notion of "specular [sic] border intellectual," while Kuharski suggests that performing Gombrowicz in the English-speaking world will offer a new--queer--angle from which to view his philosophical system and his personal politics.

As a conclusion to Gombrowicz's Grimaces, Beth Holmgren updates her 1988 survey of Gombrowicz in the United States, classifying Gombrowicz studies as introduction, juxtaposition, and exoticizing. She points to the recent translations and retranslations of Gombrowicz as a sign of American translators trying to finally "get Gombrowicz right" for a nonspecialist audience. In her essay, Holmgren imagines various ways to use American publishing, packaging, and advertising enterprises to "sell" Gombrowicz, to save him from the "ghetto" of East European fiction.

One of the things to celebrate about this collection is that it takes Gombrowicz and his works seriously for their own sakes, as literary and aesthetic phenomena. Too often in the "peripheral" literatures we are guilty of boosterism, of promotion for promotion's sake, of efforts to turn the study of Slavic literature into the glorification of Slavic culture. If we at the periphery want other disciplines and other readers to take "our" writers and cultural figures seriously, then we need to approach them with the tools of theoretical analysis, the gravity of scholars, not national apologists, and the responsible clarity of unbiased commentators. This collection proves that as a subject of study, Gombrowicz has a lot to offer contemporary literary criticism, that he can and must be central to considerations of modernism, of exile, and of national and gender definitions. What the collection does not do is beat its bass drums loudly to drown out the whispers of insecurity and insignificance often heard on the periphery, and that is something we can truly applaud.


Back to the April 2000 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 7/15/00