Pornografia, Witold Gombrowicz (trans. Danuta Borchardt). Grove Press. $23.00. 176 pp. November 2009.
Though in Europe Witold Gombrowicz is a recognized 20th-century master on the order of Thomas Bernhard, and though most of his work has been available at one point or another in English translation, U.S. readers seem not to have caught on to this Polish author who once claimed that Borges (his acquaintance) was trash. They will have yet another chance to discover him this November when Grove Press publishes Danuta Borchardt’s translation of Pornografia, the first direct translation from Polish to English.
The book is a sardonic depiction of a place Gombrowicz never saw: WWII Poland (he was stranded in Argentina). It follows two men as they attempt to defile two youths, and the book skillfully mixes elements of Eros and Thanatos, young and old, purity and obscenity.
We have republished chapter three from Pornografia, an extract that stands on its own and also gives some indication of the novel as a whole. We hope that it whets your appetite for more from this all-too-unknown author.
—The Editors of The Quarterly Conversation
The carriage moved on. Karol sat on the driver’s seat, next to the coachman. She, in the front—and where her little head ended, there he began above her as if placed on an upper story, his back toward us, a slim contour, visible yet featureless—while his shirt billowed in the wind—and the combination of her face with the absence of his face, the complement of her seeing face with his unseeing back struck me with a dark, hot duality. . . . They were not unusually good-looking—neither he nor she—only as much as is appropriate for their age—but they were a beauty in their closed circle, in their mutual desire and rapture—something in which practically no one else had any right to take part. They were unto them-selves—it was strictly between them. And especially because they were so (young). So I was not allowed to watch, I tried not to see it, but, with Fryderyk in front of me and sitting next to her on the small seat, I was again persistently asking myself: Had he seen this? Did he know anything? And I was lying in wait to see a single glance of his, one of those supposedly indifferent ones yet sliding by surreptitiously, greedily.
And the others? What did they know? It would be hard, however, to believe that something hitting you in the eye like this would have eluded the young girl’s parents—so after lunch when I went with Hipolit to the cows, I brought the conversation around to Karol. However, I found it difficult to ask about (the boy) who, having driven me into such excitement, became my shame, while as far as Hipolit was concerned, he probably didn’t think the subject worthy of his attention. Well, indeed, Karol, yes, not a bad lad, the steward’s son, he served in the Underground, they sent him somewhere near Lublin, he got into some mischief there… eee, it was really stupid, he stole something, took a shot at someone, a colleague, or his commander, whatever, devil only knows, yah, nonsense, he beat it home from there, but since he, the rascal, is at odds with his father, they’re at each other’s throat, I took him into my place—he knows machines, makes for more people in the house, just in case. . . . “Just in case,” he took delight in repeating it to himself, as he crushed dirt clods with the tip of his boot. And all of a sudden he began to talk about something else. Did the sixteen-year-old biography not carry sufficient weight as far as he was concerned? Or perhaps there was nothing to do but make light of those boyish pranks, so they wouldn’t become too oppressive. Did he merely shoot, or shoot dead? I wondered. If he had shot dead, one could find him not guilty by reason of his being of an age that erases everything—and I asked whether Karol and Henia had known each other for long. “Since childhood,” he replied slapping a cow’s rump, and noted: “It’s a Holstein! High milk yield! It’s sick, goddamn it!” That was all I found out. And it appeared that both he and his wife had noticed nothing—nothing serious enough to have awakened their parental vigilance. How was it possible? And I thought, if the matter were more grown-up—less juvenile—if it were less boy-girl . . . but the matter was drowned in the insufficiency of their years.
Fryderyk? What had Fryderyk noticed? After church, after that butchering, strangling of the Mass, I had to know whether he knew anything about them—I could hardly bear his ignorance! It was terrible, that I could in no way unite the two states of spirit into one entity—the black one that had originated from him, from Fryderyk, and the fresh, passionate one that came from them—and these two states were separate, nonconfronted! Yet, if there was nothing between the two teenagers, what could Fryderyk have noticed?. . . And I thought it astounding, absurd, that they behaved as if there were no seduction between them! I waited in vain for them to finally give themselves away. Unbelievable indifference! I watched Karol during lunch. A child and a cad. An amiable murderer. A smiling slave. A young soldier. Hard softness. Cruel and even bloody fun and games. This child, still laughing, or rather still smiling, had already had his “shoulder put to the wheel” by grown men—he had the sternness and tranquility of a youngster whom men had taken in at an early age, who had been thrown into war, brought up by the army—and, when he was buttering his bread, when he was eating, there was a noticeably peculiar restraint that hunger had taught him. His voice darkened at times, became flat. It had something in common with iron. With a leather strap and with a tree freshly felled. At first glance totally ordinary, calm and friendly, obedient, and eager as well. Torn between child and man (which made him at the same time innocently naive and relentlessly experienced), he was, nevertheless, neither one nor the other, he was a third possibility, namely, he was youth, inwardly violent, harsh youth that was handing him over to cruelty, to brute force and obedience, condemning him to slavery and degradation. He was second-rate because young. Inferior because young. Sensuous because young. Carnal because young. Destructive because young. And in this youth of his—contemptible. But the most interesting thing was his smile, his most refined attribute, that actually connected him with degradation, because this child could not defend himself, disarmed by his own readiness to laugh. So then all this threw him onto Henia, as if onto a bitch, he was hot for her, and, indeed, this was not “love” at all but merely something brutally humiliating that was happening at his level—it was a “boyish” love in its total degradation. At the same time it was not love at all—and he really treated her like a young miss one knows “from childhood,” their conversation was carefree and intimate. “What happened to your hand?” “I cut it opening a can.” “Do you know that Mr. Roblecki is in Warsaw?” And nothing more, not even a gaze, nothing, just that—who, on this basis, could have accused them of even the most lighthearted love affair? As far as she was concerned, under his pressure (if I may express it this way), she was raped a priori (if this expression means anything at all) and, losing none of her virginity, indeed strengthening it even in the arms of his immaturity, she was actually mated with him in the darkness of his not quite yet masculine brute force. And one couldn’t say about her that she “knows men” (the way one talks about dissolute young women), but only that she “knows the boy”—which was both more innocent and more licentious. That’s what it looked like to me when they were eating their noodles. They ate those noodles like a couple who have known each other from childhood, who are used to each other, perhaps even bored with each other. Well then? How could I expect Fryderyk to see anything in this, wasn’t it just an embarrassing illusion of mine? Thus the day passed. Dusk. Supper was served. We assembled again at the table bathed in the meager light of a single oil lamp, shutters closed, doors barricaded, we ate curdled milk and potatoes, Madame Maria touched the napkin rings with the tips of her fingers, Hipolit stuck his edematous face into the lamp. It was quiet—although beyond the walls that protected us the garden began, full of unfamiliar rustles and breezes, while farther on there were fields gone to weed because of the war—the conversation fell silent, and we were looking at the lamp, a moth was beating at it. Karol, in a corner where it was rather dark, was taking apart and cleaning a stable lamp. Suddenly Henia bent down to cut a thread with her teeth, she was sewing a blouse—and this sudden bending and clenching of her teeth was enough for Karol, sitting in the corner, to blossom and turn hot, though he didn’t even budge. While she, putting the blouse aside, placed her hand on the table, and now this hand lay in the open, above reproach, decent in all respects, a schoolgirl’s hand actually, still mommy’s and daddy’s property—and yet, at the same time, it was a hand laid bare and totally naked, naked with the nakedness not of a hand but of a knee emerging from under a dress . . . and actually barefoot . . . and with this licentiously schoolgirl hand she was teasing him, teasing him in a manner “stupidly young” (it’s hard to call it anything else) yet brutal as well. And this brutality was accompanied by a low, wonderful chant that glowed somewhere within them or around them. Karol was cleaning the lamp. She was sitting. Fryderyk was arranging pellets of bread.
The doors to the porch barricaded—the shutters reinforced by iron bars—our coziness by the lamp, at the table, intensified by the threat of the unbridled expanse outside—objects, clock, wardrobe, shelf, seemed to live their own life—in this silence and warmth, their precocious carnality was also growing stronger, swollen with instinct and the night’s business, creating its own atmosphere of excitement, a closed circle. It even seemed they yearned to attract the darkness of that other, the outdoor fury circling the fields, they needed it . . . even though they were calm, maybe even sleepy. Fryderyk was slowly putting out his cigarette on the saucer of an unfinished cup of tea, and he was taking a long time putting it out, unhurriedly, but when a dog barked somewhere in the barn—then his hand squashed the cigarette butt. With her slender fingers Madame Maria was enclosing the slim, delicate fingers of her other hand as one encloses an autumnal leaf, as one smells a wilted flower, Henia stirred . . . Karol also happened to stir . . . this motion, binding them together, burst forth, raged imperceptibly, and her white knees threw (the boy) onto his dark, dark, dark knees, his immobile knees in the corner. Hipolit’s reddish-brown paws, thick with flesh, the paws that cast one back into antediluvian times, were also on the tablecloth, and he had to endure them because they were his.
“Let’s get some sleep,” he yawned. And he whispered: “Let’s get some sleep.”
Well, this was unbearable! Nothing, nothing! Nothing but my own pornography preying on them! And my fury at their bottomless stupidity—the kid, stupid as an ass, she an idiot goose! Because only stupidity could explain this nothing, nothing, nothing! . . . Oh, if only they were a few years older!
But Karol sat in his corner, with that lantern of his, with his boyish hands and legs—and he had nothing else to do but to work on the lantern, concentrating on it, turning the screws—and, so what if his corner of the room was desired, precious, so what if great happiness was concealed there, within that not quite developed God! . . . He was tightening the screws.
While Henia was dozing at the table, with her weary hands . . . Nothing! How could it be? And Fryderyk, Fryderyk, what did Fryderyk know about it, putting out his cigarette, playing with the bread pellets? Fryderyk, Fryderyk, Fryderyk! Fryderyk, sitting here, seated at this table, in this house, in these nocturnal fields, in this swirl of fury! With his face that was one great provocation because it was, above all, steering clear of
Henia’s eyes were sleepy. She said good night. Soon thereafter Karol, having carefully wrapped the screws in a piece of paper, went to his room upstairs.
And then I said, trying to be cautious, looking at the lamp with its whirring kingdom of insects: “A nice couple!”
No one responded. Madame Maria touched a napkin with her fingers. “Henia,” she said, “will be engaged any day, God willing.”
Fryderyk, who went on rearranging the bread pellets, and not interrupting his activity, asked with polite interest:
“Really? To someone in the neighborhood?”
“Why, yes. . . . A neighbor. Vaclav Paszkowski from Ruda.
Not far away. He drops in on us quite often. A very decent man. Extremely decent.” She fluttered her fingers.
“A lawyer, mark you.” Hipolit brightened up: “He was going to open an office before the war. . . . A gifted fellow, serious, a good head on his shoulders, quite so, educated! His mother, a widow, manages the affairs in Ruda, a first-rate estate, sixty acres, three miles from here.”
“A model of saintly virtue.”
“She’s actually from southeastern Poland, née Trzeszewska, a relative of the Gołuchowskis.”
“Henia is a bit young.. . but it would be hard to find a better candidate. He’s a responsible man, gifted, exceptionally well-read, an intellect, you know, when he arrives here, gentlemen, you’ll have someone to talk to.”
“Unusually thoughtful. Noble-minded and upright. Exceptionally pure morally. He takes after his mother. An unusual woman, of deep faith, almost a saint—steadfast Catholic principles. Ruda is a moral mainstay for everyone.”
“At least no mere riffraff. You always know what’s what.”
“At least we know who we’re giving our daughter to.”
“Thanks be to God!”
“Be that as it may. Henia will marry well. Be that as it may,” Hipolit whispered to himself, suddenly becoming thoughtful.
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