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Steps away from Poland: Berlin (1963-1964)

Witold Gombrowicz takes a short trip to Paris, where he meets the Poles Kot Jeleński and Piotr Rawicz as well as the Argentinians Hector Bianciotti and Jorge Lavelli. The latter is in the process of directing The Marriage.

On May 16, Witold Gombrowicz arrives in Berlin and stays at the Akademie der Künste, where he quickly meets another tenant, the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.
Witold Gombrowicz decides to move twice, and finally settles at 11/13 Bartningallee in the Hansa district, not far from the Akademie, in November. He lives in a workshop-studio on the fifteenth floor of this modern building. This will remain his Berlin residence.

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Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) was invited to West Berlin in 1963, the year she received the prestigious Büchner Prize.

“They treated me [in Berlin], as I have said, with great and impeccable hospitality and with no less impeccable friendship—but no, not a penny’s worth of politics, nonsense, but a lot, I assume, had to do with my being a Pole. Obviously, as a Pole I weighed on their conscience. They felt guilty.”
—Diary Paris-Berlin [Trans. Vallee]
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Willy Brandt was the mayor of West Berlin. Here, at left, he is in the company of future Nobel Prize winner Günther Grass, whom Gombrowicz will meet in 1963.

From August to December, Witold Gombrowicz attempts to re-stage his Warsaw and Argentinian lifestyles through organizing a circle at Café Zuntz with Helmut Jaesrich, director of the journal Der Monat. Witold Gombrowicz comes here every Monday and Thursday from 5 to 7 to meet friends—but this attempt to recreate Warsaw’s Ziemiańska and Buenos Aires’ Rex ultimately fails, and he officially ends the meetings by December 20.

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At the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin. Photos by Léonore Mau.

On July 18, Witold Gombrowicz participates in the “Lesung” organized by Professor Höllerer at the International Students’ House, Eichkamp.

“I am now aware to which extent I have become Argentinian—over there, I used to complain about food, dreaming only of European cuisine. However, here, I see that I prefer a "Bife" with bread and a glass of wine to all these sauces, dressings, and condiments. Moreover, the only element that satisfies me artistically and aesthetically is youth, and I am condemned to spend by time here with these old beards of this literary milieu that bores me.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to his brother Janusz, September 19, 1963 [Trans. Dubowski]

The following week, Witold Gombrowicz meets Barbara Swinarska, a Polish journalist who will publish a false interview with him in Kraków’s Życie Literackie the following month. A press campaign against Gombrowicz breaks out in Poland and will last until the end of the year.
Witold Gombrowicz and his reputation suffer from these Communist attacks—the critic Artur Sandauer, one of his defenders before the war, proclaims Gombrowicz’s “fascist tendencies.” These attacks will compromise his near-return to Poland.

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Erected in August 1961, the Berlin Wall swiftly became a symbol of the Cold War, as well as the antagonism between Western Europe and countries under Communist rule and the yoke of the USSR. Witold Gombrowicz, having arrived in West Berlin in May 1963, also becomes a victim of this ideological campaign as a target of Communist propaganda.

“Thus, the vestiges of freedom of speech that had agonized for a few years were liquefied in Poland. The declarations of Comrade Gomułka and others left no doubt on the subject: Enough of this chatter, from now on, humanity and constructive enthusiasm must once again reign, writers and journalists must march boldly and with discipline towards a ‘glorious future.’”
—Camelot, a text published in Akzente, August 1963 [Trans. Dubowski]

During the summer, Witold Gombrowicz buys an Ebner turntable to listen to his favorite recordings.

He works on the first part of his Paris-Berlin Diary, his farewells to Argentina, and on the near-finished Cosmos.

In autumn, Pornografia is published in Germany under the title Verführung (Seduction).

The Polish press campaign against Witold Gombrowicz intensifies. Jerzy Giedroyc’s Kultura defends him.

Gombrowicz consults a Dr. Mertens for his cardiac pains. In December, he is invited to give a lecture at the Literarisches Colloquium directed by Walter Hasenclever.


On January 7, The Marriage premieres on the professional stage in a production directed by Jorge Lavelli at the Théâtre Récamier in Paris.
The drama school version of the production had won the Grand Prix du Concours des Jeunes Compagnies (Young Companies’ Prize) in June of the previous year.
The critic Lucien Goldmann gives the play a glowing review at the same time as he debates Witold Gombrowicz within it.

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Drawing by Piem in “Le Figaro”: “Ils se marièrent and eurent beaucoup de spectateurs.” (This is a play on words of the French expression “Ils se marièrent and eurent beaucoup d’enfants” [“they marry and have many children”], which appears at the end of fairy tales —similarly to “And they lived happily ever after” in English. Here, however, Piem has replaced “children” with “spectators.”) The program for The Marriage at the Théâtre Récamier, Paris.
“This scenic perfection—and this tranquil audacity— serves a beautiful and strong work from the author of Ferdydurke and Pornografia […] The ‘total theater’ has often been discussed: here is one of the rare examples I have been able to see.”
—Guy Dumur, review in France-Observateur, January 24, 1964 [Trans. Dubowski]
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The Hygeia in Berlin. Witold Gombrowicz, weakened and thin, after returning to his Berlin studio.

Witold Gombrowicz continues to work on Cosmos and his Diary, but falls terribly ill in February.
He stays in room 23 in the private clinic the Hygeia at 23 Fuggerstrasse for over two months.

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Tiergarten Park.

“It was then (while walking in the Tiergarten) that I caught a certain scent, a mixture of herbs, water, stone, wood bark, I couldn’t say what exactly . . . yes, Poland, this was Polish, just like in Małoszyce, Bodzechów, my childhood, yes, yes, the same, why, it wasn’t too far away now, a stone’s throw away, the same nature . . . which I had left behind a quarter of a century earlier. Death. The cycle was coming to a close. I had returned to those scents, therefore, death. Death.”
Diary Paris-Berlin.

Artur Rubinstein plays Chopin’s Nocturne Op. Posth. 72 No. 1 in E minor

Two weeks after leaving the clinic, Witold Gombrowicz leaves West Berlin—for France. He is accompanied to Tegel airport by Lissa Bauer, Otto Schilly, Christos Joachimides, Susanna Fels, and Tadeusz Kulik, who gives him opera glasses as a gift.

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Witold Gombrowicz leaving West Berlin. Photo by Susanna Fels.

Kot Jeleński and Józef Gombrowicz, Witold’s nephew, welcome him at Orly airport in Paris.