Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz (trans Danuta Borchardt). Yale University Press. 192 pp. $15.00.
August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance to see the sights, world war breaks out. The natural, dutiful response is to pile back aboard with your countrymen and head home to Europe. You line up on the dock with your bags and wait. Then, something—a big something—makes you turn around. You leave your group and slip through the crowd and into the streets, never to see Poland again. So began the self-imposed exile of Witold Gombrowicz.
Trans-Atlantyk may be Gombrowicz’s most autobiographical novel but getting caught up in a comparison between the author and protagonist, though tempting, would be as silly as the plot, which starts reasonably enough then quickly descends into a giddy chaos of deranged office scenarios, pompous soirees, disgraced honor, and botched duels. The story is told in the style of a gawęda, or fireside chat. There is no direct equivalent in English. It’s a form of spoken storytelling favored in the homes of Polish noblemen during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the book is written in a baroque Polish that flits merrily between tired clichéd phrases, contemporary slurs, and Gombrowiczian neologisms. This slippery, tricky style is offered to the reader in a slim novel that is a joy to read.
For this particular joy, we can thank Danuta Borchardt, who is also known for her preeminent translation of Gombrowicz’s magnum opus, the “untranslatable” Ferdydurke, published by Yale University Press in 2000. Susan Sontag, who wrote the introduction to the Yale edition, tussled with Borchardt over the complex word pupa. The cultural critic and novelist insisted it should become rump. Borchardt wanted toosh. Neither would budge, and they finally settled on leaving it as-is: pupa stood. In 2006, Charles Simic spoke anxiously of Trans-Atlantyk’s fate in English: “For Stanislaw Branczak and other eminent Polish critics, [Trans-Atlantyk] is one of the funniest and most original works in their literature, but an English reader can barely glimpse that from the translation we now have.” Simic was referring to the Yale University Press edition translated by Carolyn French and Nina Karsov in 1994, which required a decade to produce. In their Translators’ Note, they declare Trans-Atlantyk “simply too Polish to be Englished.” The Polish scholar Jerry Jarniewicz put French and Karsov on the hook: “[their] decision to translate Polish idiomatic expression literally . . . deeply affected the final result of their work.” Happily, Borchardt’s new translation now offers a comparatively unobstructed view of the originality and humor that Simic previously mourned as inaccessible. Borchardt makes Gombrowicz’s nonsense make sense.
The stars of Gombrowicz’s great Argentinian adventure are the writer Witold Gombrowicz, his three moronic bosses, the filthy-rich homosexual Gonzalos, the noble Thomas (a Pole), and his son, the delicious Ignatio. Ignatio is Gombrowicz’s answer to Thomas Mann’s Tadzio. Although Ignatio is, unlike the sickly Tadzio, a strapping lad, these boy-men share the same appeal. They are beautiful because they are full of life and urgent sensuality, always threatening to expire before it fades: Tadzio is dying; Ignatio is enjoying the last few days with his father before heading off to war. All goes asunder when this hodgepodge of men sits facing each other at a bar. Witold’s countryman Thomas gets wind of Gonzalo’s attempt to seduce Ignatio, and, faced with the apparent indignity of it all, Thomas challenges Gonzalo to a duel. Witold and his employers are named as seconds. Things are quickly out of hand.
When the duel between Thomas and Gonzalos is to take place, the seconds, in an effort to make sure no one gets hurt, only pretend to load bullets into the duellers’ pistols. Almost immediately, it dawns on the co-conspirators that they’ve made a non-fatal error. The winner will be whoever is first to draw blood, but puffs of smoke draw nothing: “He aimed, aimed, fired, but so what ’twas empty empty: and from his paff naught but a whack.” They are stuck. They must shoot indefinitely, or until they realize they’ve been duped. What a disaster! Meanwhile, a cavalcade gallops past, chasing imaginary hares. Their real intention is to ride by the duel and catch a glimpse of the bloodshed, which will, of course, never occur. Gombrowicz writes: “From the beginning the nonsensical and the absurd were very much to my liking, and I was never more satisfied then when my pen gave birth to some scene that was truly crazy, removed from the (healthy) expectations of mediocre logic, and yet firmly rotted in its own separate logic.” The translator Bill Johnston compares Gombrowicz to Monty Python.
Intellectuals are the real sad cases of Trans-Atlantyk; they are the most pompous and false strata of society. When Witold is forced to attend a literary salon to show off his Polish “genius,” he overhears a group of poets whose conversation has meandered onto the subject of socks. They quickly correct themselves and slip into raptures about one another’s poems. Soon enough, they are back to socks.For Gombrowicz, all social customs strangle the individual, cutting him off from spontaneity. He even gave this system a name: “the interhuman church.” The ritual of church got under his skin, and so he warned us, “Of all artists, poets are people who fall to their knees most persistently.” Falling to one’s knees becomes the epitome of an empty gesture. True to form, whenever things get a bit much for the great, genius writer Witold, he drops to his knees—indeed, the humbling gesture of prayer, but also, lest we forget, the gesture of being knighted. So frequently is there cause to drop to one’s knees, Gombrowicz teaches us, that it might be easier if writers arrived at literary salons already on them.
With willful absurdity, Gombrowicz will describe almost anything, including a man twiddling his thumbs for seven lines. The man, in this case, is debating whether Witold has disgraced Poland by not returning. After circling the question, the man decides that Witold is neither at fault nor not at fault: “Seeing then, that he’s thus his thumbs twiddling, methinks: ‘Why are you twiddling thus, wait ‘til I twiddle back to you,’ and I too begin twiddling, at the same time saying to him: ‘That’s your opinion, sir.’” This is all part of Gombrowicz’s elaborate joke. He condemns anyone who mimics, be it twiddling, flattery, manners, respect, or military action. For Gombrowicz it’s all equally stupid.
At one point, without any warning, Witold is carried off and thrown into a dark cellar, where the industrialist trio have decided to imprison each other and their employees. Witold’s fellow prisoners are all in on this perverse mind-trap. They strap spurs to their shoes and, if anyone tries to leave, whoever is closest sticks the would-be-escapee in the leg, or in whatever bit of flesh they can catch. Why would they do this to each other? What is keeping them there in the dark? Nothing. Nothing but each other.
For Gombrowicz, everything is empty—the world itself is a big fat empty gesture: “Yes ‘tis Empty. Even though self-evident is the horror of impending affairs, even though they’re seducing the Son, also is Empty, Empty, so that one prays for fear, for terror, and like a mushroom yearns for drizzle.” The book asks—no, demands—that people shake off their “pomp” and fill in the emptiness. Despite Gonzalos’s crazy antics, he does just this and prevails in many ways as the hero of the novel. Instead of trying to be an upstanding member of the community, he actively tries to pervert it. He champions youth. He celebrates sons not fathers, life instead of duty, frivolity over dignity.
While reading Trans-Atlantyk I often thought of the trite phrase: I don’t know whether to laugh or cry (mind you, I was already laughing or at least smirking when I had this thought). But that’s okay. Gombrowicz did not look down his nose at worn-out expressions and he always had the last laugh. He did so, in this case, literally, as the novel ends thus, “And on from Laughter to Laughter, Ha-ha with Laughter, ha-ha with Laughter, they ha-ha, ha-ha, they Ha-haha!” When you reach this page you’re left with two choices. Not between laughing and crying. Between laughing and falling to your knees.
Mieke Chew is the editor in chief of Higher Arc magazine. She lives in Brooklyn.
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