I recently engaged in some risky business. Armed with a free afternoon I took myself out to my favorite vegan discount lunch buffet and wandered over to Spoonbill & Sugartown looking for a new good read. Having worked in an independent bookstore for an extended stint while living in Cambridge, I’m partial to scouring shelves for used paperbacks. Hardcovers don’t do much for city living or transportation. However, I made an exception to the rule that day and picked up a copy of the new translation of Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia.
In short, the novel is itself a rare bird. With a witty introduction by Sam Lipsyte and a fantastic new translation by Danuta Borchardt, on the surface it’s a novel about the isolation and brutality of wartime Poland. Seeking to escape German occupied Warsaw, the unnamed narrator and his dandy-ish friend, Fryderyk, travel to the countryside where they take up with an elderly farming couple whose young daughter, Henia, is betrothed to a man who they deem an ill-suitor. As their fascination with the rural wilds wares thin, united in isolation and boredom, the two elderly gents embark on a wild plan to split up the young lovers through staging various encounters with a young farmhand, Karol.
Gombrowicz is a wildly ambitious stylist. The books entertains a manic elision of modes of telling – the scenes between the young lovers are relayed in hyperbolic metaphor which then abuts highly controlled passages of description about the bucolic nature of the rural countryside. The book feels oddly contemporary. It has somehow performed an act of time travel, condensing various stylistic trends from the philosophical underpinnings of Kundera to Cortazar’s and Schultz’s love for the imagistically bizarre, the psychological obsessions of Robbe-Grillet and Duras to the insight and levity of contemporaries such as Lipsyte. When all’s said and done, this produces one precocious, eccentric voice.
The book has a sense of the imagined familiar which may be an effect of trying to capture a war Gombrowicz didn’t actually experience which transpired in a country with which he was intimately familiar and often highly critical of. Born in Poland, having traveled to Argentina before the war broke out, he decided to reside in Buenos Aires until peace was resumed.
A raucous romp which has now entered my cavern of classics. Well worth a read.