In the summer 1939, the Polish playwright Witold Gombrowicz traveled by ocean liner to Argentina with no intention to stay. His arrival, however, coincided with Hitler's invasion of Poland, and Gombrowicz would remain in South America until 1956, during which time he maintained this diary (to be released in three volumes). The New World attracted him, he would later claim, because of its "youth" and cultural "inferiority."
Considering exile not a misfortune but believing that for a writer such a state of extreme vulnerability could prove beneficial to his work, Gombrowicz resolved to turn an obvious psychological and material disadvantage into a potential intellectual adventure.
The first volume of his diary now reaches the American public ably translated by Lillian Vallee. It argues persuasively for the advantages of exile, despite the hardship and cost: Gombrowicz was forced to leave behind his career as a full-time writer and take a job as a bank clerk. Exhausted, asthmatic, the only writing available to him is the diary.
This first English translation won't provoke the American readers in the same way the original excited the Poles when they read it in the Paris-based emigre magazine Kultura about 30 years ago. Time smoothes out everything. The names of the luminaries who then occupied the Polish Parnassus but whom Gombrowicz assailed as possessing neither brains nor talent mean little here, and by now they don't mean much even in Poland--a revaluation due, at least in part, to this diary. What was once considered a merciless attack on the sacrosanct today makes us reflect on the transitory character of cultural values, and on bad taste and incompetence--the moving spirits behind sentimentality and kitsch that Gombrowicz exposed and fought. Similarly, nobody will be scandalized by his arrogance, misanthropy and latent homosexuality, since in this country, as opposed to pre- and postwar Poland, no one expects an author to be a moral authority.
Gombrowicz wrote against the grain, and played the enfant terrible of Polish culture, of all "official" culture. In "Ferdydurke," a veritable circus of a book written in 1937 and translated into 30 languages, Gombrowicz punctured various balloons of pomposity and self-indulgence that "small nations"--such as Poland--and the provinces tend to inflate. He opposed the sterility of the established, superior and adult, and celebrated the creativity of the unfinished, inferior and childish. To this he added in his Argentine diary: "Today's poet ought to be a child, but a cunning, sober, and careful child."
Believing that reality can best be described by a disinterested observer who tries to understand, and not to please, Gombrowicz chose the position of an eccentric outsider who dares to voice what others silence. By choosing to publish the diaries, laying bare subversive ideas and peculiar sexual preferences, criticizing and deriding foes and friends alike, Gombrowicz made himself the self-appointed scourge of Polish culture. He revelled in giving offense, subsequently analyzing the reactions of his infuriated and offended compatriots in later volumes of the diary which he continued to write.
Gombrowicz devoted his entire career to assault on mediocrity and pettiness, exposing the contradictions and absurdities of existence and culture, politics and art, confronting his readers with the intricacies of fate. In Poland they are threatening to turn Grombrowicz, the hater of all pedestals, into a national monument, perceiving his a rebours ideas as the Truth. The more detached American public may be able to read this diary the way it should be read: as a scintillating presentation of a controversial author, a commentary on his novels and plays (which themselves deserve a wider audience), a discourse on contemporary culture, and as the story of a writer in exile who, born an aristocrat, is suffocated by mediocrity, strives for grandeur, and falls in love with infancy and inferiority.