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The road to the fame (1956-1963)

 


1956 ­
Witold Gombrowicz writes for six hours a day. He works on his new novel, Pornografia, which he will finish in February 1958.

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Preface to Pornografia: "Man aspires to the absolute. To plenitude. To absolute truth, to God, to total maturity. To embrace everything, to realize oneself in the plenitude, this is the imperative."

“‘The Novel’ (it is difficult to call my works novels) does not go well. Its language, which is too stiff, paralyzes me. I dread that everything that I have written up to now—about a hundred pages—is awful tripe. I am not in a position to judge this because in my long coexistence with the text, I lose all sense of it, but I am afraid . . . that something is warning me. . . . Will I, therefore, have to throw everything into the trash can, several months’ work, to begin from the beginning? My God! And what if I have lost my ‘talent’ and will never write anything, anything, at least, on the level of my former works?”
—Diary, 1956 [Trans. Vallee]


Witold Gombrowicz’s financial situation improves: He receives scholarships from Paris, from the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Radio Free Europe.
He buys himself a Remington typewriter.

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Witold Gombrowicz and Roland Martin: The French translation of Ferdydurke, signed “Brone.”.

In May, Witold Gombrowicz begins the French translation of Ferdydurke with Roland Martin, a journalist and translator based in Buenos Aires. This translation will be published in Paris in 1958 under the pseudonym “Brone.”

“In Argentina, it wasn’t often Gombrowicz had the occasion to speak French. While he had good pronunciation and knowledge of the language, his French was a bit ‘rusty.’ Sometimes he didn’t understand certain words. I had to explain it to him in the clearest way possible, giving him examples. He never let any word he didn’t know slip by. I always did the first draft alone, from the Spanish text only. I gave it to Gombrowicz, who passed it through a screen, in his way. We met after that.”
—Roland Martin, Gombrowicz en Argentine (Gombrowicz in Argentina) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

In July, Mundo Argentino, the journal directed by Ernesto Sábato, publishes the Spanish translation of the story “Philibert’s Child Within.”

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Khrushchev’s report on the crimes of Stalin set the stage for the de-Stalinization of Eastern Europe. This is the great “thaw.” Pictured, Mirosław Adamczyk’s poster for an exhibition on the 1990s, illustrating the cultural turmoil of the period.

From early 1956 on, the political situation in Eastern Europe changes. In Poland, de-Stalinization means hope for liberalization in the domain of culture.

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In June, workers’ riots in Poznań provoke the return of Władysław Gomułka to power (where he will stay until 1970). These riots will also spzrk the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Witold Gombrowicz and other Polish writers in exile see an opening emerge in the great ideological wall of their country. For some, this marks an occasion to return home; for others, like Gombrowicz, it means an opportunity to finally publish their works in Poland legally. Though the Association of Polish Writers in Exile explicitly forbids “all collaboration with institutions controlled by totalitarian powers,” Gombrowicz signs contracts with editors in Poland for his novels Ferdydurke and Trans-Atlantyk, as well as his dramas Ivona, Princess of Burgundia and The Marriage.

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October 1956: Under the Hungarian and Polish flags, students protest in Budapest, reclaiming their freedom. Imre Nagy agrees to talk with the crowd.

At the end of December, Witold Gombrowicz leaves for Necochea, for a two-month vacation at Duś Jankowski’s. Afterward, he goes to Goya and Mar del Plata. He writes intensively throughout this period.


1957
In May, Jerzy Giedroyc’s Literary Institute publishes the first volume of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary (1953-1956).
In Poland, this work will not see publication until 1986, and even then, certain passages will be censored.

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Trans-Atlantyk and The Marriage are published in Poland for the first time. Drawing by Jan Młodożeniec.

By contrast, catching the wave of political liberalization, Ferdydurke (Ed. PIW, Warsaw), Trans-Atlantyk, The Marriage (Ed. Czytelnik, Warsaw), and Bacacay (Ed. WL, Kraków), as well as an expanded version of his collection of stories, Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity, are published in Poland.
The play Ivona, Princess of Burgundia appears in print for the first time since 1938, in an edition with illustrations by Tadeusz Kantor.

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« The collection of stories sees a definitive edition and gains a new title: Bacacay.
 
“My brother wrote my from Poland that several theaters wanted to put on "Ivona, Princess of Burgundia" and that there was also a possibility to play "The Marriage". They expected me to join the Union of Authors and composers for the stage, as otherwise, I would have no way of defending myself against various abuses.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to Jerzy Giedroyc, March 7, 1957 [Trans. Dubowski]
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 1957, Ivona, Princess of Burgundia: For the first time, Gombrowicz is performed in the theater. Poster by Jan Lenica. The actress Barbara Krafftówna as Ivona.

The world premiere of Witold Gombrowicz’s Ivona, Princess of Burgundia takes place in November in Warsaw at Teatr Domu Wojska Polskiego (today known as Teatr Dramatyczny), directed by Halina Mikołajska, with Barbara Krafftówna in the title role. This was the first stage production of one of Gombrowicz’s plays in any language.

There would not be a second Polish production of the play until 1975 (which would take place on the same stage in Warsaw). The stage production was adapted for broadcast on Polish television in April 1958. Witold Gombrowicz’s other theatrical projects were never realized professionally in Poland before his death.
Witold Gombrowicz finishes the French translation of Ferdydurke, which he then sends to Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński.


In Paris, François Bondy publishes a flattering review of Ferdydurke, prompting Maurice Nadeau to publish the book the following year in his series Les Lettres nouvelles.
Throughout 1957, Witold Gombrowicz also continues to work on his novel Pornografia.
Witold Gombrowicz takes his first trip to Tandil. He will return here often, creating a new circle of young Argentinian friends.

“From here, from the mountain, Tandil looks surrounded by prehistory—shattered mountains of rock. I ate a delightful breakfast in the sun, trees, flowers.
“But I feel uncertain, alien, this unknown life is bothering me. . . .”
—Diary, 1958 [Trans. Vallee]

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Tandil today.

1958

“On 4 February of this year (’58) I finished Pornografia. This is what I have called it for the time being. I am not promising that the title will stay. I am in no hurry to publish it. Too many of my books have appeared in print lately.”
—Diary, 1958 [Trans. Vallee]

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Drawing by Joanna Remus.

At the end of January, Witold Gombrowicz’s play Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is released in Polish. However, in February, Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw is forced to stop playing it.


The Warsaw production of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, directed by Halina Mikołajska, is broadcast on Polish television in April.
In May, Witold Gombrowicz learns via letter from his brother Janusz that his work has once again been banned in Poland, where the regime has hardened. 

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The Polish edition of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, illustrated by Tadeusz Kantor.

Witold Gombrowicz passes the first four months of the year in Tandil, where his young Argentinian friends await him: Mariano Betelú (Flor di Quilombo), Jorge di Paola (Dipi), and Jorge Vilela (Marlon).

In March, Gombrowicz’s first serious asthma attack sends him to a clinic.

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Tandil, April 19, 1958: A reception in Witold’s honor at Mariano Betelú’s.

“In Tandil I am the most illustrious of men! No one equals me here! There are seventy thousand of them—seventy thousand inferiors. . . . I carry my head like a torch. . . .”
—Diary, 1958 [Trans. Vallee]
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Witold Gombrowicz in Tandil in 1958.
“Witoldo was a formalist. He was distant and sarcastic. He was thin and wore an old-fashioned dark vest with very thin white stripes and a poor-quality tie. I never saw him again in this suit. After that, he wore an old raincoat, and, on his head, a cap in Tandil, a hat in Buenos Aires. There was a pipe and an inhaler for his asthma on the table."
—Mariano Betelú, Gombrowicz en Argentine (Gombrowicz in Argentina) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]
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 Mariano Betelú, the closest of Witold Gombrowicz’s young Argentinian friends. With Marlon and Dipi.

From May to October, weak and tired, Witold Gombrowicz rests at Santiago del Estero.

“Sunday. Beauty! You will rise where you are sown! And you will be as you were sown! (Do not believe the beauty of Santiago. It is a lie. I have made it up!) Monday. The sunlight is blinding and full of colors, as if filtered through stained glass. It seems to saturate objects with colors. Light and shadow. The aggressive blue of the sky. Trees laden with golden and enormous pomedos, blooming red... yellow... People walk around without jackets.”

—Diary, 1958 [Trans. Vallee]


In Santiago, Witold Gombrowicz works the second draft (the first dating from 1950-1951) of what will later become Operetta. These sketches, titled History, will be published in 1975. He continues work on his Diary, introducing his double.

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 Santiago del Estero, the oldest city in Argentina.

In October 1958, Ferdydurke, translated by “Brone,” a pseudonym for Witold Gombrowicz Gombrowicz and Roland Martin, appears in French with a preface by Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński.


Upon returning to Buenos Aires, Witold Gombrowicz records extracts from his Diary for the Polish wing of Radio Free Europe, for which he also works on Argentinian Peregrinations and Polish Memories, which are never aired. These texts will only be discovered and published after Witold Gombrowicz’s death.

1959
The year begins and ends in Tandil, where Witold Gombrowicz vacations for the fifth time. He suffers from the heat and worries about the economic crisis in Argentina. He begins to think of moving to another country.

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Witold Gombrowicz in Tandil.

Witold Gombrowicz invests his revenues in a semi-automatic machine that produces small plastic objects in his friend Karol Świeczewski’s plastic factory.
He sends money to his family in Poland and awards a scholarship to Mariano Betelú.

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Plastic figurines from Świeczewski’s factory.

In April, Witold Gombrowicz is nominated for a prize for the best foreign writer. However, Lawrence Durell ultimately wins.
Italian, American, English, and German writers become interested in Witold Gombrowicz’s work. In September, he signs a contract with the American publisher Harcourt Brace for Ferdydurke.

Following edits for Argentinian Peregrinations, Witold Gombrowicz begins to write Polish Memories - also for Radio Free Europe - which he will finish in the spring of 1961.

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1958-1961, texts written for radio: Argentinian Peregrinations and Polish Memories will be discovered and edited in 1977, after Witold Gombrowicz’s death.

“’I sing for myself and the Muses,’ all right. But while singing, I remain implanted in you and I am obligated to acquire, by the sweat of my brow, my proper place in the society in which I live. It will not be unhelpful to introduce you through the backdoor into my theater, and that is exactly the use which my "Diary" serves.”
—Argentinian Peregrinations


Witold Gombrowicz continue le Journal que la revue Kultura publie régulièrement.
En 1959, il rédige entre autres les pages consacrées au poète skamandrite Jan Lechoń et celles sur la main du serveur du café El Querandi.

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1959, an important year for the Diary; extracts are published in French.

The journal Preuves publishes extracts of the Diary, preceded by an article by Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński: “Witold Gombrowicz, or Adult Immaturity.” Witold Gombrowicz sends Jeleński his manuscript of Pornografia, which sustains Jeleński’s enthusiasm. In October, Jerzy Giedroyc proposes the publication of this new novel by Kultura.
In the summer of 1959, Gombrowicz’s mother dies in Kielce, Poland, at the age of 87. Witold asks his sister Rena to destroy the letters he has written to her.
 
“As for Mother, like I said to Rena, I am less subject to complaining about the terrible tortures that she certainly inflicted upon me with her disastrous form (without a doubt I am not the only one), because it is certainly what awakened my artistic dispositions. In any case, our mother was the most striking element that contributed to the fashioning of our spirits.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to his brother Janusz, August 9, 1959


1960
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The music of Beethoven fascinated Gombrowicz throughout his entire life. He also admired the work of Chopin.

Witold Gombrowicz regularly listens to music, buys new recordings, and works on his gramophone. Beethoven and other 19th- and 20th-century composers will continually inspire him.

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Brahms, Wagner, Debussy.

“Music absorbed two hours a day for me: I abandoned the quartets to plunge myself into Schönberg and Bartók, Brahms, Debussy, etc. Very instructive.”
—Letter from Gombrowicz to his sister Rena, 1960
IMG/mp3/Beethoven_-_String_Quartet_Op._130__Alla_danza_tedesca_Busch_Quartet.mp3
The "Danza Tadesca", an excerpt from Beethoven 13th Quatuor, op. 130, of which Witold Gombrowicz was particularly fond of«Danza tedesca» du 13e quatuor op. 130 de Beethoven, qu’appréciait particulièrement Witold Gombrowicz, interprété par le Quatuor Busch.

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Gombrowicz was also interested in 20th-century music: Bela Bartók, Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky.

In April, the first stage production of Witold Gombrowicz’s The Marriage takes place in a student theater in Gliwice in Silesia, directed by Jerzy Jarocki and designed by Krystyna Zachwatowicz. The production was closed by government censors after only a few performances. Zachwatowicz would later design the French premiere of the play directed by Jorge Lavelli in 1963-64 as well as the Polish professional premiere of the play in Warsaw in 1974, directed by Jarocki. Jarocki would eventually stage more productions of The Marriage than any other director, doing the play both in Poland and abroad.


Witold Gombrowicz continues work on his Diary and texts for Radio Free Europe.


In June, Kultura publishes the Polish edition of Pornografia. This same month, Witold Gombrowicz signs a contract with Juilliard in Paris for the French translation of the novel.

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Translations of Ferdydurke multiply.

In September, Ferdydurke is published in Germany, in a translation by Walter Tiel. In November, Witold Gombrowicz agrees to the publication of the novel the Netherlands and Belgium.


During this year, Gombrowicz leaves Buenos Aires frequently. He spends the beginning of the year in Tandil; in May, he returns to Mar del Plata, where he meets Polish director Andrzej Wajda at a film festival. In October, he spends two months in Montevideo, Uruguay.

“Wednesday, Montevideo. I stroll in a tidy city, with odd balconies and congenial people. Montevideo. Here the old decorum still reigns after having been expelled from many other parts of South America. Kind faces, rich apparel, a beach twenty minutes away by bus, this is the life! And if I moved here permanently?”
—Diary, 1960 [Trans. Vallee]
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Witold Gombrowicz in Tandil.

In November, François Bondy, director of the French journal Preuves, pays Gombrowicz a visit in Buenos Aires.

“Bondy probably (I know him very little) is one of those people whose strength lies in his absence; he is always removed from what he is doing, keeping at least one foot somewhere else, his wisdom is the wisdom of a calf that suckles two mothers.”
—Diary, 1961 [Trans. Vallee]


1961
In January, Gombrowicz’s sister Irena dies of an asthma attack in Radom, Poland. At her request, he destroys their correspondence, which she had deemed “too intimate.”

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Rena Gombrowicz (at left) has often been compared to the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943).

In February, Witold Gombrowicz begins to write Cosmos. He listens to Mozart frequently.
“[…] For me, Cosmos is black, primarily black, something like a black stream, turbulent, full of whirlpools, obstacles and flooded areas, carrying a mass of refuse, and in this stream a besotted man, at the mercy of the waters, trying to decipher and to understand so that he can assemble what he sees into some whole. Blackness, terror and night. Night crossed by a violent passion, an unnatural love. What do I know? It seems to me that this dramatic aspect of Cosmos will only be fully perceptible in many years’ time. It is an austere book, and I have less fun in it than in my other works.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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Allemagne : la première traduction du « Journal ».

“To enjoy the beauty and the drama, we don’t have to ‘publish,’ it’s enough to have something inside of one’s self. Try to understand the importance that joy, cordiality, good humor, a sense of the comic, of the ironic, etc. have for an artist. All of this signifies that artist’s independence from the world. This independence also signifies victory. The more infantile you will be, the more victorious; the more serious you will be (in the sense of worldly matters), the more conquered.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to Mariano Betelú, November 19, 1960


1962
This year, Witold Gombrowicz writes Cosmos, his last novel and most mysterious work.

Kultura’s Literary Institute also publishes his Diary (1957-1961).

Pornografia comes out in France and Italy.

Ferdydurke is published in the Netherlands in a translation by Willem A. Maijer.

In May, Witold Gombrowicz is nominated for the Formentor Prize.

Witold Gombrowicz reads much Sartre, whose works in French are sent to Gombrowicz by Jerzy Giedroyc, his editor in Polish.

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The philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre fascinated Gombrowicz.
“This Sartre has tormented me for so long, for there is a curious mix of things of an extraordinary value and relevance and a marvelous nonsense of Cartesian abstractions which, ‘nota bene,’ like ‘phenomenological ontology,’ holds to an equilibrium.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to Jerzy Giedroyc, August 16, 1962 [Trans. Dubowski]
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 Witold Gombrowicz at his home in Buenos Aires, early 1960s. Photo by Miguel Grinberg.

In October, Witold Gombrowicz participates in the Congress of the Pen Club in Buenos Aires, sitting in a folding chair.

“Madariaga, Silione, Wiedlé, Dos Passos, Spender, Butor, Robbe-Grillet, etc.—all of them are in Buenos Aires, invited by the local PEN Club. The sessions lasted about five days and were a nagging pain on the subject of the Word, the Writer, Culture, Spirit, etc., as always.”
—Diary, 1962 [Trans. Vallee]

On March 28, Argentina is taken by the fall of the Frondizi government. Political crisis breaks out; strikes multiply.


From February to December, Witold Gombrowicz stays in Buenos Aires. He suffers from the cold and falls ill.


He begins to think of moving to a better climate for the sake of his asthma.


He begins to meet his friends at Café La Fragata.

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Café La Fragata in the 1970s. Photo by Sandra Filippi.

1963
Witold Gombrowicz spends the early months of the year in Piriapolis: He recopies Cosmos, works on the next part of his Diary, and plays checkers in Bar San Sebastián.
On February 28, Witold Gombrowicz receives a telegram from the Ford Foundation inviting him to spend a year in Berlin as a writer in residence. He accepts the proposal.
Upon returning to Buenos Aires, Witold Gombrowicz receives news from London that Wiadomości, the Polish émigré review that, up until this point, had been only hostile toward him, has awarded him its prestigious literary prize.

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Upon returning to Buenos Aires, Witold Gombrowicz receives news from London that Wiadomości, the Polish émigré review that, up until this point, had been only hostile toward him, has awarded him its prestigious literary prize.

In Paris, Jadwiga Kukułczańka finishes the French translation of The Marriage.
 
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On the eve of the departure: Ada and the "boys" stand around Witold Gombrowicz

All month, Witold Gombrowicz prepares for his departure for Europe: He gives away books and recordings, buys a whole new wardrobe, and says his goodbyes to his Polish and Argentinian friends.

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On board the ocean liner in the final moments before departure.

On April 8, Gombrowicz departs on the transatlantic liner Ferderico Costa bound for Cannes, France.
He has no idea that he will never see Argentina, which he now considers a second home, again.
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During the voyage, Gombrowicz wins a chess tournament.

“When I boarded the Federico off Buenos Aires I had behind me twenty-three years and two hundred and twenty-six days of the Argentine (I counted them) and with me, in my suitcase, the text of an unfinished novel: Cosmos.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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The “Argentinian transatlantic of Gombrowicz,” drawn by his friend Mariano Betelú.
to the beginning
 
[1] Witold Gombrowicz plays here with a verse from Act I, Scene III of Jean Racine’s Phèdre, a classical French dramatic tragedy of the 17th century, by substituting "Odile" for "Ariane".
The original verse is:
Ariane, ma soeur, de quel amour blessée.
Vous mourûtes au bord où vous fûtes laissée !
English translation by A.S. Kline:
Ariadne, my sister! Wounded by what passion
Did you die on the shore, where you were abandoned?