Witold Gombrowicz's shape-shifting Diary proposes an antiphilosophical philosophy
Diary (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
by Witold Gombrowicz
translation by Lillian Vallee
Yale University Press
$20.00 List Price
When Witold Gombrowicz departed Poland on the liner Chrobry in 1939, he was a minor literary figure unknown beyond his native country, the author of a collection of short stories, a play that virtually no one reviewed, and the novel Ferdydurke, his absurdist provocation that offered him a toehold among the more progressive critics and intellectuals in Warsaw. That July, Gombrowicz set sail for Argentina on the maiden voyage of the newly christened Chrobry as part of a cultural tour for the Polish government. The ship reached Buenos Aires a month later, just as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was announced. A week later, when Germany invaded Poland and the ship was given the order to return at once, Gombrowicz made an apparently last-minute and fateful decision to stay in Argentina, which spared him the terrors of wartime Poland but left him in a country where he was cut off from his livelihood, not to mention the culture and language of his native country. Like any number of those displaced by the war, he faced a future of extreme penury.
Gombrowicz’s displacement in Argentina is one of the mythical tales of European writers in exile, a rival and counterpart to Stefan Zweig’s suicidal dead end in Brazil, or to the Germans who amassed in California, some, like Brecht, to return after 1945, others to make an uneasy peace in their new, New World homes. Yet the tale of Gombrowicz’s exilic life in South America has a more quixotic cast than any of these. His hasty decision was––as critics such as John Bayley have noted—almost an impulse to maroon