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Entry into Literature, Warsaw (1929-1939)


1929

“The day after I returned from Paris I got into a Warsaw tram. The faces. Faces that were somnolent, torpid, flaccid, haggard… the poverty that is as overpowering as sleep… and that Slavic ponderousness. And that strange, exotic clothing, no longer European. For a long time after Paris I was on the lookout for un-Europeanness in Poland; I tried to discover the essence of Poland’s marginality in relation to Europe.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

Back in Warsaw, Witold Gombrowicz begins an internship with an examining magistrate at the trial court. Twice a week he attends trials and writes reports; he finds this work both interesting and instructive.


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Witold Gombrowicz in the 1930s.

“I was much closer to the point of view of the criminal, who had ‘gotten into trouble’ through bad luck.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

Outisde of work, Witold Gombrowicz reads voraciously and devours piles of books, if a bit at random. He also plays tennis.

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The elegant quarter of pre-war Warsaw. - The interior of Café Ziemiańska, painted by J. Rapacki. The capital city center.


Gombrowicz begins to write stories that will eventually become part of his collection Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity: Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer, The Premeditated Murder, The Memoirs of Stefan Czarniecki, and Virginity.


1930
Witold Gombrowicz frequents the capital’s literary cafés, the most famous of which is Café Ziemiańska. When he is not admitted to the bar at Radom because of his political views, which are considered too liberal and pro-Semitic, he abandons his legal career entirely.
Now a young “dandy,” he vacations in the Tatras at Zakopane, a popular vacation spot for artists and intellectuals of the time.

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Witold with his friends at Zakopane.

“It was 1930. I […] found myself at Zakopane. The pension I was staying at was called ‘Mirabella’ […] People didn’t drink at ‘Mirabella.’ Youth was enough for us. We laughed, we had fun, and we had fits of crazy laughter. All of us! Except one young man: […] Witold Gombrowicz. He was likeable, but rather stiff. He didn’t take part in our discussions. He didn’t play cards. We all wore ski gear; Gombrowicz was dressed for hunting: laced boots, knickerbockers, a little feathered hat. We saw him most often in the lobby, winning at chess with the best players in Zakopane. He never smiled, but he wasn’t dismal. His mouth was set in a sort of distinguished grimace that was rather artificial. Some of us made fun of the way he walked. He would tilt his head ever so slightly back and turn it from side to side, as though he were sniffing something. Hanka Bal used to say he looked like he was inhaling the scent of bouquets that were being carried behind him.”
Tadeusz Breza in Cahier de l’Herne Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

 

1933
Witold Gombrowicz publishes his first book, a collection of stories entitled Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity. The publication, by Rój in Warsaw, is paid for by his father. Some critics make use of the title in their appraisal of the author, labeling him as “immature”.
The stories of this collection will be reprinted in 1957, in an expanded volume entitled Bacacay.

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Witold Gombrowicz’s first book. At right, the same collection, expanded and under its new title, published in 1957.


Witold Gombrowicz writes his first play, Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, by night, sleeping on a rug, watching over his ailing father.

“Ivona is more a product of biology than of sociology.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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“Ivona, Princess of Burgundia,” drawing by Joanna Remus.


Witold Gombrowicz’s father dies on December 21. Witold inherits half of the Małoszyce estate and receives part of the revenue from property rental.

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Witold Gombrowicz with his parents. At right: Witold’s father, Jan Onufry Gombrowicz, wealthy businessman, at a health resort in Krynica.


Witold Gombrowicz is noticed by the press and, now an up-and-coming new writer, begins to contribute regularly to Warsaw journals as a literary critic.

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One of his stories, “Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s,” illustrated by Denis Lhomme (above) and Stanislao Lepri (below).


 

1934
Witold Gombrowicz befriends two exceptional artists, both painters and writers: Bruno Schulz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, known as Witkacy.

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Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), self-portrait and some of his drawings.


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Witkacy (1885-1939) and some of his paintings.

The literary scene of the time is dominated by the journal Skamander and its circle of poets: Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Julian Tuwim, Antonin Słonimski, Jan Lechoń and Kazimierz Wierzyński.


Witold Gombrowicz, feeling himself at the fringes of this influential group, begins to meet with his own circle at Café Ziemiańska. He also frequents another café, the Zodiak.


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The “Skamandrites”: Tuwim, Lechoń, Słonimski, Iwaszkiewicz and Wierzyński.

“Every evening around nine I’d head out to the café—the Ziemiańska, which was popular in those days. I would sit at a table, order a ‘small black’ coffee and wait till my café companions gathered. […] It must be added that a Warsaw café and the Ziemiańska in particular, was not like other cafés of the world. One entered from the street into darkness, a fearful haze of smoke and stale air, from which abyss there loomed astonishing faces striving to communicate by shouts and gestures in the ever-present din.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

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Caricature by Jotes (Jerzy Szwajcer): The crowd of writers at Café Ziemiańska.


Witold continues work on Ivona, Princess of Burgundia and writes two stories: Philidor’s Child Within and Philibert’s Child Within, which will become part of his first novel, Ferdydurke and which will be included in Bacacay in 1957.

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“Philidor’s Child Within” as a cartoon by Denis Lhomme.

 

1935
After the death of Marshal Piłsudski, the political regime in Poland becomes increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic. Anti-Semitism spreads.

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Józef Piłsudski dies on May 12, 1935. The nation is in mourning; he is given a royal funeral.


Following the death of his father, Witold Gombrowicz, his sister Rena, and their mother move to 35 Chocimska Street. He settles in a two-room apartment across from his mother and sister’s.

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Witold will live at Chocimska Street until he leaves Poland. This is the only building pertinent to Gombrowicz in Warsaw that will survive the war. A commemorative plaque was installed here at his Centennial.


Rena, who holds a diploma in mathematics, is now a militant progressive Catholic. She is active in young aristocratic circles circles and works as a radio broadcaster.

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Rena and Witold’s mother. The two women will live together until their deaths.


Witold Gombrowicz completes Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, and writes a series of short critical articles, among others on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Freud’s Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and Joseph Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea. These texts are collected today in a publication entitled Varia.


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Cervantes, Conrad and Freud. Conrad would greatly inspire Gombrowicz.

 

1936
Poland is shaken by strikes and violent demonstrations by the peasantry. At the universities, young groups of fascists provoke conflict among students.


According to his autobiographical sketch in the Cahier de l’Herne dedicated to himself, Witold Gombrowicz “is still working on Ferdydurke. A few trips. Infatuation with the cook. Affairs with the maidservants. Flirtations with a young and beautiful poetess.” [Trans. Weitz]

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Aniela Brzozowska, the Gombrowiczes’ maid in the 1930s. It is she who will exclaim: "It’s the end, what a gas, and who’s read it is an ass!” when Witold announces to her the completion of editing for Ferdydurke. (These words are then added to the end of the novel.)

« He had no high expectations of his new novel, which he considered as rather a settling of scores than as the “opus magnum” that would pave his way to the Pantheon.
—Tadeusz Kępiński, Witold Gombrowicz et le monde de sa jeunesse (Witold Gombrowicz and the World of His Childhood) [Trans. Weitz]
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A boat trip on the Vistula. Witold Gombrowicz’s “poetic” correspondence on this journey from Warsaw to Gdańsk appeared in the Tygodnik Ilustrowany in 1935.

 

Witold Gombrowicz also publishes several articles on new literary fashions and praise for Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. These texts can be found today in the Varia volumes.

In the journal Studio, an exchange of “open letters” between Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz appears.
 
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A literary polemic between Gombrowicz and Schulz, known as the one “on the subject of the doctor’s wife in Wilcza Street.”

 

1937

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Drawing by Joanna Remus.


Ferdydurke is released in October by Rój, with half the expenses of publication paid by the author.

“My last few days passed under the thunderous, dazzling impact of Gombrowicz’s book. All attempts at classifying this work fail. It is a book on an altogether grand scale, pioneering and revelatory.”
—Bruno Schulz, Letter to Roma Halpern, November 16, 1937 [Trans. Arndt and Nelson, from Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz: With Selected Prose, Ed. Ficowski]
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Bruno Schulz created drawings to illustrate the first edition of Ferdydurke.

“This book, in a certain way, situated me face-to-face with life.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]

Skamander publishes Witold Gombrowicz’s story On the Kitchen Steps.


Witold Gombrowicz writes reviews of the French translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Polish translation of Henry de Montherlant’s Les Jeunes Filles. These articles can be found in the Varia volumes.

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James Joyce and Henry de Montherlant.

 

1938
Publication of Witold Gombrowicz’s first play, Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, in the prestigious Warsaw literary review Skamander (no. 93-95).
Witold Gombrowicz travels to Italy via Austria. He visits Vienna, Rome and Venice, where he senses the rising influence of fascism and a mood “heavy and poisoned by some savage element that has infiltrated the peace of the gothic and the renaissance masterpieces.”

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1938: The annex of Austria by Hitler. Hitler’s army occupies the Sudetenland.

“When we drew into the suburbs of Vienna I saw crowds of cheering people with torches. Cries of ‘Heil Hitler’ reached our ears. The city was in a frenzy. I understood: It was the Anschluss. Hitler was entering Vienna.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
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Warsaw, 1957: The first production of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, twenty years after its publication.


Upon returning to Poland, Witold Gombrowicz rests in the Tatras. Skamander publishes Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. The play “attracted no attention and the pre-war Polish theatre took no interest in it,” according to Witold Gombrowicz himself in A Kind of Testament.

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If the publication of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia goes unnoticed at the time, Ferdydurke continues to draw critical attention.


In its autumn edition, Skamander publishes a long study of Ferdydurke by Bruno Schulz:

“Here the mechanism of our ideals is revealed to be based on the dominance of naive literalness, metaphors, and primitive imitation of linguistic forms. Gombrowicz is a master of this ridiculous and grotesque psychic machinery; he knows it will blow all the fuses, lead to splendid explosions in a wonderful and grotesque condensation of substance.”
—Bruno Schulz, “Ferdydurke” [Trans. Arndt and Nelson, from Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz: With Selected Prose, Ed. Ficowski]


Witold Gombrowicz writes articles for the press on Bruno Schulz’s work, the autobiography of H. G. Wells, and Lloyd George’s Memoirs. Today, these texts can be found in the Varia.

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George Wells and Lloyd George.

 

1939
Witold Gombrowicz’s last year in Poland is marked by a burst of literary activity.

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“Szczur” – “The Rat.”


His story The Rat is published in the prestigious journal Skamander.

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“Opętani” — “Possessed”.


In June, the Possessed series is launched in Warsaw’s newspapers (Dobry Wieczór, Kurier Czerwony and Express Poranny) under the pseudonym Zdzisław Niewieski.
The war interrupts publication of its final chapters.

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"Possessed" will be published as a book in 1973, long after Witold Gombrowicz’s death, by Kultura’s Literary Institute.


On July 29, Gombrowicz embarks on the liner Chrobry for its maiden diplomatic voyage to Argentina along with other writers, including Czesław Straszewicz, journalists, and diplomats.


He is invited at the suggestion of a young Ministry of Industry worker, Jerzy Giedroyc, who is enamored with Ferdydurke. After the war, Giedroyc will found the journal Kultura and become Witold Gombrowicz’s editor in Polish.

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Witold Gombrowicz’s passport.


This marks a definitive goodbye to Poland, one that Gombrowicz, now 35, could never have imagined at the time. He will never return to his native land.

 
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