Set in war-torn, German-occupied Poland during World War II, Pornografia is
a key text of late modernism - and this is the first edition that is a translation into English from Gombrowicz’s Polish.
Witold Gombrowicz is a novelist of psychological entanglements, and Pornografia is a novel of erotic entanglement. It is often cruel and sometimes cruelly funny. It is a novel by a man certain that language in some profound way determines ontology, that what we hear and say sculpts the way we are.
Set in a country idyll with the war roaring dully in the background, two refugee intellectuals conspire to contrive a liaison between a pair of kids who have grown up together there in the Polish countryside. Pornografia is an unholy little novel, chillingly dark, at times dripping with cynicism, but at its best beset by bracing, high-brow hilarity and jaded, deeply sublimated hysteria. First published in 1966, it’s only recently that readers have begun to talk about Gombrowicz as a Latin American writer rather than a Polish one. The question of influence is good, if ultimately divisive. Division is precisely Gombrowicz’s strength; you imagine he not only enjoys taking the frog apart with a tiny knife, he begins to split the world apart as if it were empirically just an intimately interbleeding network of heartbeats.
In 1939, Gombrowicz left Poland, escaping to Argentina, where he lived for the rest of his life. I think, as best he could, he 86ed the invasion of Poland by Germany in the fall of ’39 from his life while embracing it as an element in his biography. He wasn’t so much guilty as alive and smart. And that hurt, in that way that surviving disaster sometimes does. So he kept that quiet, at first, then, later, leaked it as attitude, insolence and fiction.
Above the street in Buenos Aires, Gombrowicz wrote a career of large intellectual appetites. His opus includes a major dent in the history of Argentinean theatre - but, in the 20th century, Argentina was so intellectually close to (some would say preoccupied with) French, Spanish and Italian thought that it is easy to see why Gombrowicz was mistaken for a European writer.
To my mind, Gombrowicz is in fictional league with the likes of John le Carré, who also writes as if he thinks that people can be made by the words shared by two or more people. Usually two. When a third is introduced, per Charles Sanders Peirce, randomness, sway and betrayal wag people’s tails (money and sex are the typical thirds played upon in the Gombrowiczian personality trade). Made here means made real: made to act in a certain way; to command; to be taken under the confidence or control of another.
The difference between the crypto-modernist spy novelist, whose philosophical imperatives and narrative interests significantly overlap those of Gombrowicz, is that Gombrowicz practiced point of view from the terrorist’s self-explosion while le Carré at the last minute rips the point of view from the victim to the perpetrator so that, at the wall, we witness shooting children, animals and, at his most wrenching, the beloved. With Gombrowicz, though, things are always kept at a distance.
And that’s the rip-off with most of modernism, and post-modernism, too: you never get to love the characters. You’re minimally or otherwise challenged to recognize them as antecedents, precedents and portents, without ever being rationed the responsibility of response in the dialogical sense of the word.
Like 1970’s-era J.G. Ballard (especially The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash), Gombrowicz’s novels make for a fascinating read, but don’t expect to be more than intellectually engaged.