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Writer and worker (1947-1955)

1947
In April, Ferdydurke is published in Spanish, Ed. Argos of Buenos Aires.

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Porträt von Witold Gombrowicz von Zygmunt Grocholski.

On August 29, Gombrowicz gives his lecture “Against the Poets” at Fray Mocho’s bookshop.

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“Against the Poets”: Down with the boasting poet, grandiloquent and sentimental.

“If only a poet could treat his singing as a mania or ritual; if only he would sing as those who must sing even though they know they sing in a vacuum. If, instead of a proud ‘I, the poet,’ he were capable of saying these words with shame or fear . . . even with revulsion. . . .”
—Diary, 1956 [Trans. Vallee]1956

In September, the only issue of Aurora, the “Diary of the Resistance,” comes out, drawn up by Witold Gombrowicz. Today, it can be found in the Varia.

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The heading of Aurora.

“MANIFESTO. Because it is no longer possible to write in the literary press of the Surface, for everything shocks, we find ourselves obligated to descend beneath the subsoil to make, from time to time, the other clandestine voice of this Diary heard. Preserve the sacred flame of the Resistance! Support the warm Committee of Resistance and the slow, discreet, and subterranean Movement of Renovation!”
—Aurora [Trans. Dubowski]

In September, Witold Gombrowicz completes his drama The Marriage.
At the end of the year, he accepts a post at the Banco Polaco, directed by a friend, Juliusz Nowiński. He will work here for over seven years, until 1955.

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Witold Gombrowicz with Juliusz Nowiński, director of the Banco Polaco.

Virgilio Piñera and Humberto Rodriguez Tomeu leave Argentina. They will sustain a correspondence with Witold Gombrowicz.


Upon completing The Marriage, Witold Gombrowicz sends a typewritten copy of the text to his family and several friends in Poland. Thanks to a subsidy granted by Cecilia Debenedetti, he begins translating it into Spanish with Alejandro Rússovich.

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The Marriage: From the Polish Ślub to the Spanish Casamiento.

“We reread Hamlet together, and Gombrowicz took it as inspiration for El Casamiento because he wanted to create situations symmetrical to those in Hamlet, but on a formal level. At Rex, we worked out loud sometimes, with noise, on purpose. You spoke loud, and when silence came, you had to lower your voice.”
—Alejandro Rússovich, Gombrowicz en Argentine (Gombrowicz in Argentina) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

In Warsaw, the journal Nowiny Literackie, headed by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, a Skamander acquaintance, publishes his “Letter to the Ferdydurkists”, addressed to Iwaszkiewicz’s two daughters, admirers of Gombrowicz’s subversive talent (published today in the Varia).

“If there is one among you still breathing, let him not lose courage, for me, I am not dead. Maybe a bit far away and pushed aside, I carry out an existence just as marginal and doubtful there, where America sticks its finger between three oceans. What is a Ferdydurkist but a man who asks art to be a creator?”
—Letter to the Ferdydurkists [Trans. Dubowski]
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Die Bezeichnung „Ferdydurkist“ wird international benutzt.

Also this year, the Literary Institute’s journal Kultura is launched. This institution of Polish émigré culture, founded by a group of soldiers from General Anders’s army—Jerzy Giedroyc, Józef Czapski, Zygmunt and Zofia Hertz, and Gustaw Herling-Grudziński—will quickly become a stronghold of the free thought and culture forbidden in Communist Poland.

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Jerzy Giedroyc, editor of the monthly Kultura, director of the Literary Institute, and Witold Gombrowicz’s future editor in Polish. The seat of this important institution of Polish emigration is at Maisons-Laffite, outside Paris.


1948

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Witold Gombrowicz at the Banco Polaco: “a meager employee, assassinated daily by seven hours pushing papers.”

In June, Alejandro Rússovich, who works with Witold Gombrowicz on the Spanish translation of The Marriage, moves to Venezuela Street, to a room neighboring his.

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Banco Polaco, Tucuman Street. Witold at the end-of-year reception. Behind, Halina Nowińska.


Witold Gombrowicz continues his work at the Banco Polaco—the first and last salaried work of his lifetime, which bores him to no end.

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At the bank, Witold Gombrowicz sat at the desk at right.

“In front of him, at his desk, a secretary worked, Mrs. H. Z., who could not stand him and pressed me to inform my husband of all the ‘crimes’ Mr. Gombrowicz was guilty of. He was late again, he dressed like a hobo; he ate oranges like a pig and spit the seeds out into the trash; his shirt was missing a button and—the worst—he had fallen asleep at his desk again.”
Halina Nowińska, Gombrowicz en Argentine (Gombrowicz in Argentina) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]
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Reception at the Polish Consulate of Buenos Aires in honor of Iwaszkiewicz. Left to right: Witold Gombrowicz, Cecilia Benedit de Benedetti, de Obieta, Iwaszkiewicz, and Rússovich.

In October, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, a friend and fellow writer, comes to Buenos Aires. He and Witold Gombrowicz discuss the situation in Poland, as well as the possibility of publishing Gombrowicz’s work in Warsaw.
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The Marriage in Spanish, the first translation of a theatrical work of Gombrowicz. Fifteen years later, the Argentinian Jorge Lavelli will make the play famous with his productions of it in Paris and Berlin.

El Casamiento, the translation of The Marriage, appears in November under Editions EAM of Buenos Aires, directed by Cecilia Benedit de Debenedetti, who assumes the fees.

“He definitively separated himself from the Argentinian literary milieu that he did not frequent much anyway, and mostly for economic reasons. His way of being, provocative and little serious, had never facilitated his relations with the cultivated spaces of the capital.”
— Gombrowicz, Cahier de l’Herne [Trans. Dubowski]
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Peronism reigns in Argentina until a coup d’état in 1955.


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Witold Gombrowicz was not a sympathizer of the Perón regime, but followed Argentinian politics with a passion.


1949
This year is consecrated to Witold Gombrowicz’s new novel, Trans-Atlantyk. He writes much of it during his hours at the Banco Polaco.

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Writing: A Polish-Argentinian transatlantic becomes Trans-Atlantyk.

“Listen, this is how I cursed Poland:
‘Drift, drift towards your country! Your holy and accursed country! Drift towards that Obscure Monstrous-Saint who has been dying for centuries but cannot give up! […] Drift towards your Raving Lunatic . . . so that his lunacy can torture you, your wife and your children, so that he can condemn and assassinate you in his agony, by his agony!’
“You could get beaten up for something like that. And, as I left the Banco Polaco after work, I glanced round discreetly because the Polish colony in Buenos Aires was large and quick on the draw.
“Nobody beat me up. My curse was decked in a buffoon’s livery, thanks to which I could smuggle in a fair quantity of dynamite.”
 A kind of Testament. Conversations with Dominique de Roux. 
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The novel “Trans-Atlantyk” comes out in national colors. Drawing by Joanna Remus.

Witold Gombrowicz suffers from his liver and eczema of the scalp. He takes time off from the bank to rest at Mar del Plata and work on Trans-Atlantyk in peace.

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Mar del Plata, early 1950s.


In May, with Alejandro Rússovich, Witold Gombrowicz meets with two young French women to translate The Marriage into French, but this translation is never published.

“We dreamed, we fantasized. Witold kissed the hands of the young girls, who pulled them back quickly. It was an old Polish custom, he’d say. One was named Odile and Witold said to her: "Odile, ma sœur, de quel amour blessée, vous mourûtes au bord où vous fûtes laissée..." [1] He made all kinds of jokes of this manner. These young girls were rich, and Witold did not have money, but he found ways to repay them. One night, we found six little kittens in the street on the way to their house…. We put them in our pockets to give to them as a gift. Witold gave them one, and they replied, ‘Thank you.’ He pulled out another, a third…. They were completely stupefied.”
— Alejandro Rússovich in Gombrowicz en Argentine (Gombrowicz in Argentina) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

Witold Gombrowicz sends typewritten copies of Ferdydurke to France for publication—to Gallimard, among others—but with no success.


From Warsaw, Iwaszkiewicz encourages Gombrowicz to return to Poland, but Paris seems more appealing to him at this point, if a return to Europe is at all possible.
Iwaszkiewicz dedicates his Voyage to Patagonia to Gombrowicz, who translates his drama Summer at Nohant and takes steps to encourage its performance in Buenos Aires.


Witold Gombrowiczreceives a letter from his older brother, Janusz, and begins a regular correspondence with his family in Poland.

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Trans-Atlantyk: A satirical vision of Polish emigration. The novel’s adaptation by Janusz Opryński, 2004.


The year closes with Gombrowicz seeking an end to Trans-Atlantyk.


1950

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Apart from a student production in Gliwice directed by Jerzy Jarocki in 1960, the Polish stage career of The Marriage would not begin until 1974, five years after Witold Gombrowicz’s death. Poster by Leszek Zebrowski, 2004.
 
In May, disappointed at hearing no response from Poland about The Marriage, Witold Gombrowicz begins a correspondence with Jerzy Giedroyc, director of the journal Kultura in Paris. 

Giedroyc complains of difficulties in finding an editor for the play among Polish émigré circles. However, Gombrowicz receives letters glowing with praise for the play from Polish writers such as Józef Wittlin and Maria Kuncewiczowa, who call it a “new Hamlet.”

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Józef Wittlin and Maria Kuncewiczowa, two Polish émigré writers whose glory began before the war.


All year long, Witold Gombrowicz seeks publication for The Marriage in French.

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Ślub—The Marriage—by the Voeffray-Vuilloz company, Lausanne, 2003.


En juillet, il donne sa pièce à lire à Jean-Louis Barrault qui fait une tournée en Amérique latine avec sa compagnie.

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Barrault and Renaud, the mythic couple of the French theater, touring in the U.S., 1952. The theatrical glory of Gombrowicz will be born in France, with a production of The Marriage directed by Jorge Lavelli in 1963.

In November, Witold Gombrowicz sends the French text of The Marriage to André Gide and Albert Camus.

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The Nobel Prize in Literature. At left, Gide, who receives it in 1947; at right, Camus, who will receive it in 1957. From 1967-1969, Gombrowicz will come within inches of receiving the award himself.


In June, Witold Gombrowicz writes his introduction to his novel Trans-Atlantyk, now complete.


Despite three weeks of vacation in Córdoba, Witold complains of his liver.
Witold lacks funds to make copies of The Marriage in Polish, which he had hoped to distribute according to his wishes.


“I see nothing before me . . . no hope. Everything is coming to an end for me and nothing wants to begin. An account? After so many tense years full of hard work, who am I? A clerk exhausted by seven hours of clerking, stifled in all writing ventures. I cannot write anything except for what I write in this diary. Everything suffers because for seven hours every day I commit murder on my own time.”
—Diary, 1955 [Trans. Vallee]

1951

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Martin Buber (1878-1965), the great Jewish philosopher.


Witold Gombrowicz sends the Polish text of The Marriage to Martin Buber, whose Problem of Man Gombrowicz has read, along with Alejandro Rússovich. Buber writes back, calling the play “of an exceptionally audacious experience.”
In 1955, Martin Buber will send a letter of recommendation on Witold Gombrowicz’s behalf to encourage his popularity among foreign editors.
Discouraged by the silence of editors, Witold Gombrowicz takes leave once again to rest at Mar del Plata.

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Witold Gombrowicz sends a postcard from Mar del Plata to Mrs. Halina Nowińska, wife of the director of the Banco Polaco.


From May to June, Kultura, in Paris, publishes extracts of Trans-Atlantyk, which provoke hostile and violent reactions from the Polish émigré community. Gombrowicz’s criticism of a particular breed of Polish patriotism is considered scandalous.

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Trans-Atlantyk in Kultura: Gombrowicz finally addresses Polish readers.

“Trans-Atlantyk was such folly, from every point of view! To think that I wrote something like that, just when I was isolated on the American continent, without a penny, deserted by God and men! In my position it was important to write something quickly which could be translated and published in foreign languages. Or, if I wanted to write something for the Poles, something that wouldn’t injure their national pride. And I dared—[…]
“That is what happens in the hour of defeat. One writes, in spite of everything, for one’s own pleasure. What a luxury I permitted myself in my misery!”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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Trans-Atlantyk sparks a true scuffle—the first polemic among Witold Gombrowicz’s Polish readers.


From 1950 on, Witold Gombrowicz begins the earliest sketches of the play that will become Operetta fifteen years later. He will return to this idea in 1958. A first, incomplete version, titled History, will be published posthumously in 1975.


Gombrowicz finishes a story, The Banquet, which he will include in his collection of short stories.

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Czesław Miłosz and Witold Gombrowicz, two giants of Polish literature discovered by Kultura, will become friends.

The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz seeks political asylum in Paris. He takes refuge in Maisons-Laffitte, home of Kultura.
This journal publishes Gombrowicz’s “Against the Poets” for the first time. Miłosz responds with an open letter. Their polemic will extend through the following year, always in Kultura. Today, this correspondence can be found in the Varia.

1952
Witold Gombrowicz’s collaboration with Jerzy Giedroyc, editor of Kultura in Maisons-Lafitte, becomes more specific.
In his letters, Giedroyc encourages Gombrowicz to write a journal, to be published in Kultura. This marks the beginning of the Diary, a great work Gombrowicz will continue until his death.

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Jerzy Giedroyc and Witold Gombrowicz, the editor and his author; a close collaboration that will span three decades.


At Giedroyc’s request, Gombrowicz translates E. M. Cioran’s “The Advantages and Inconveniences of Exile” into Polish, adding his own, highly critical commentary.

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Gombrowicz the Pole vs. Cioran the Romanian: “Rimbaud? Norwid? Kafka? Słowacki? … To each man his exile.”

“Cioran’s words reek of a basement coolness and the rot of a grave, but they are too petty. Who is he talking about? Who should one understand to be the ‘writer in exile?”
—Diary, 1953 [Trans. Vallee]
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ILP: The Literary Institute in Paris, editor of Witold Gombrowicz’s work in Polish.

Jerzy Giedroyc decides that the Literary Institute, the printing house of Kultura, will publish The Marriage and Trans-Atlantyk in the same volume, with a preface by the writer Józef Wittlin.
The book will appear in January 1953. This will be the first of Witold Gombrowicz’s works published in Polish since the war, which marks the start of the exceptional history of Jerzy Giedroyc’s publication of the Polish editions of his work. The French Literary Institute will remain Witold Gombrowicz’s one and only editor in Polish.


On July 26, Evita Perón dies in Buenos Aires. With a lavish funeral and national mourning throughout Argentina, her legend is born.

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The character of Evita Perón, her popularity, and her mythification fascinate Gombrowicz. Madonna as Evita in Alan Parker’s 1996 film.

In the context of the Cold War, the US-financed Radio Free Europe begins Polish-language emissions based in Munich, destined for Poland. Witold Gombrowicz hastens to collaborate with this institution.

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Jan Nowak Jeziorański, director of the Polish wing of Radio Free Europe.

1953
After having received Polish copies of The Marriage and Trans-Atlantyk, Witold Gombrowicz begins editing his Diary.
“People buy a diary because the author is famous, while I wrote mine in order to become famous.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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Diary, graphics by Joanna Remus.

In France, Preuves, the journal of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Congrès pour la liberté de la culture), publishes a review of the Argentinian edition of Ferdydurke, signed by François Bondy, its director.
In December, the same journal publishes several excerpts of the text in French, translated and introduced by Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński.

Bondy will not meet Witold Gombrowicz until several years later in Buenos Aires; the same will go for Kot Jeleński, who will then become Witold Gombrowicz’s translator, his “invaluable partisan,” and one of his closest friends.

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Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński in the 1940s. At center: Jeleński with his wife, Leonor Fini, creator of this double portrait. At right: With Witold in the 1960s in Vence, France; photo by B. Paczowski.

“Ah, Jeleński, my friend!
“Oh, to finally get oneself out of this suburb, foyer, hutch and become not a—Polish, that is inferior, right?—author, but a phenomenon having its own meaning of justification!”
—Diary, 1954 [Trans. Vallee]


Witold Gombrowicz publishes his story “The Banquet” in Wiadomości, the Polish daily in London (and rival of Giedroyc’s Kultura). Jerzy Giedroyc makes several acerbic remarks regarding this choice in his letters, but still seeks to help Witold Gombrowicz in finding the economic support that will allow him to quit his position at the bank. Kultura publishes his Diary regularly.



March 5, death of Stalin.
Despite the dictator’s death, Poland, like all other Communist bloc countries, is at the height of Stalinism. A rupture will not come for three years.

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The cult of the “Father of Nations”. Communist Poland celebrates 60 years of Comrade Bierut. Warsaw constructs the Palace of Culture, a gift from Stalin and a typical example of the Stalinist aesthetics.

In May, in Warsaw, the next-in-line to the Party, Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz, publicly attacks Witold Gombrowicz, calling him a reactionary, an anti-Polish, and a degenerate—a pawn of American imperialism and “German revanchists.” It is Gombrowicz’s Diary, published by Kultura, however banned by the Communist regime, which prompts this attention from Cyrankiewicz.

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At left: Cyrankiewicz with Stalin in 1947. At center: Józef Cyrankiewicz. At left: The “renegade” Gombrowicz.


1954

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“Witoldo” was not a fan of the tango, but he did love the popular districts of Buenos Aires.

Witold Gombrowicz’s Polish friend, the painter Janusz Eichler, departs for the countryside, and leaves Gombrowicz his workshop in the district of the tango La Boca.
Witold Gombrowicz also receives a letter from Albert Camus, expressing his desire to help Gombrowicz achieve publication in France.

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Camus’s letter to Gombrowicz. At right: The French writer receives the Nobel Prize in 1957.


Exhausted, Witold Gombrowicz takes a three months’ leave from the bank. He spends it in the countryside, first at Verientes, near Córdoba, at the home of his Polish friends the Lipowskis.

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Witold Gombrowicz in Vertientes, at the Lipowski's.

Next, he goes to Goya, in the Corrientes province, at the Rússoviches’. The previous year, Alejandro had married Rosa Maria Brenca and left Venezuela Street.

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Witold Gombrowicz, Alejandro Rússovich, his wife, Rosa Maria, and Sergio, Alejandro’s brother.


Witold Gombrowicz consecrates all of his time to writing.

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Alejandro Rússovich in Goya.

“Tuesday. Nothing happened. If I am not mistaken, a whole herd of horses is watching me and cows, too, are looking at me in great numbers.”
—Diary, 1954 [Trans. Vallee]



In October, the Polish Club of Buenos Aires organizes a debate centering around Witold Gombrowicz’s work. His friend, Karol Świeczewski, introduces him.

“Yesterday at the Polish Club, I dropped by right at the end of the steamrollering of my soul and works. […] When I got to the auditorium, however, the majority greeted me in a friendly manner and I had the impression that that things had changed quite a bit since fragments of Trans-Atlantyk had appeared in Kultura.”
—Diary, 1954 [Trans. Vallee]
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1955, the Existentialist picnic at Maximo Paz. Witold Gombrowicz as “king of the philosophers.”


By the year’s end, Witold Gombrowicz begins to give philosophy courses to his Polish friends Maria Świeczewska, Krystyna Eichler and Halina Grodzicka. These courses continue successfully for six months.

“He spoke for about an hour and then we asked questions. After each course, he would pass around his hat. If his collection was meager, he would say: ‘I am illuminating your heads and here you are, economizing on a poor genius.’”
— Maria Świeczewska, Gombrowicz en Argentine (Gombrowicz in Argentina) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

 

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The chamber pot offered by Gombrowicz to Rússovich on the occasion of the birth of his child. “Gombrowiczian” illustrations by Janusz Eichler.


Gombrowicz continues to send fragments of his Diary to Kultura. Thanks to Giedroyc, who acts as intermediary, Gombrowicz begins a correspondence with the directorate of Radio Free Europe’s Polish wing.

1955

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“An important year. Begun in melancholy, Corrientes Street, it became the year of liberation, from 1. the bank, and 2. Peronism.”

In May, Witold Gombrowicz leaves his post at the Banco Polaco, where he has worked since 1947. He decides to consecrate himself entirely to literature. He will survive thanks to a small stipend from the American National Committee for a Free Europe (Radio Free Europe) and his philosophy courses “for Polish ladies.”


In June, the “Revolución Libertadora” (Liberating Revolution) breaks out, ousting Juan Perón from power. Rioting in Buenos Aires’s city center and bombardment of the Plaza de Mayo, near Venezuela Street. Witold Gombrowicz takes refuge with the Rússoviches.


“Thursday. Should I tell or not? A year ago, more or less, the following happened to me. I stopped in a café on Callao Street to use the bathroom. . . . All kinds of drawings and scribblings were on the walls. Yet, the unconscious urge would never have assailed me, like a poisonous dart, if I hadn’t accidentally fumbled across a pencil in my pocket. The pencil turned out to be an ink pen. […] I wrote on the wall, high up so it would be hard to erase, I wrote something quite vulgar in Spanish […] I hid the pen. Opened the door. I walked through the whole café and mingled with the crowd on the street. And the graffito remained.”
—Diary, 1955 [Trans. Vallee]


Witold Gombrowicz begins a new novel, Actaeon, the earliest version of Pornografia.

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“Diana chasing Actaeon,” L. Vanvitelli.

During his vacation in Goya, Witold Gombrowicz translates his story “The Banquet” into Spanish with Sergio Rússovich, Alejandro’s older brother.
Witold visits a Polish friend, Stanisław Odyniec, at Mar del Plata.

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Władysław “Duś” Jankowski, at his estancia at Necochea.


Next, Witold Gombrowicz visits the estancia La Cabaña in Necochea, which belongs to Duś Jankowski, another Polish friend. He will make several return visits here.
Necochea.

“Sun, sun, it floods the beaches much deeper than the dirtied ocean water, it shines and sparkles around, it makes the eyes blink and plasters them with a subtle languidness. Without the sun, it is impossible to understand South America. One of my Polish friends couldn’t understand why, in this country, a light clicking of the tongue means ‘no.’ After a few years, when the sun’s ardor had roasted him to the marrow, he understood.”
—Argentinian Peregrinations [Trans. Dubowski]