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Youth, Warsaw (1911-1928)


1911
The Gombrowicz family settles in Warsaw at 3 Służewska Street, in an elegant neighborhood near the Łazienki or Royal Baths Park.

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At left: The building at 3 Służewska Street just after construction in 1905. At right: The neighborhood around Służewska Street in Warsaw, 1930.

During a school vacation, Witold Gombrowicz returns to the countryside, where “the story begins.”

“I was friends with various boys my age, the sons of farmers and grooms. This had come about because when I was still a little kid of ten, Janusz had organized for me a ‘guard,’ that is, a company of village boys whom I commanded. Of course, even then I went through great torments, because during drills my mother or the governess would call from a distance that I shouldn’t get my feet wet or ask ‘Aren’t you cold in that?’”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
“MOTHER: Don’t realize that you’ll expose both me and yourself to a serious illness! Germs! Bacteria! So many bacteria! Touching the ground with your bare foot! Terrible filth, mud, rot, gutters, garbage… How can you touch the world, with your bare foot! Don’t you realize what the world is!”
—History (An Operetta) [Trans. Kuharski and Bukowski]
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Spending time with his old playmates in Małoszyce, Witold Gombrowicz becomes aware of the class difference that separates him from them.

 

“In theory I was the leader, the young master, a higher being born to command. In practice, all the attributes of my superiority—my shoes, my scarf, my governess, and, horror of horrors, my galoshes—thrust me into the depths of mortification; and it was with a surreptitious, carefully concealed admiration that I regarded the bare feet and coarse shirts of my subordinates. […] at about the age of ten, I had discovered something awful: that we ‘masters’ were an utterly grotesque and ludicrous phenomenon, something foolish, painfully comic, and even abhorrent.”

—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]


In Warsaw, Witold Gombrowicz pursues studies along with a cousin in a private course specially organized at the home of the Baliński family for himself, Kazimierz Baliński, and Antonin Wasiutyński.

1914
At the outbreak of the First World War, the Gombrowicz finds itself entrenched in the countryside, at Małoszyce. The region becomes a scene for military operations.

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The Legion of Józef Piłsudski in the countryside during the First World War in a drawing by Józef Świrysz-Ryszkiewicz.

“I think the front lines must have run past our house about four times, back and forth, back and forth, the booming of the cannon in the distance, then coming nearer and nearer, buildings on fire, armies fleeing, armies advancing, bombardments, corpses near the pond, and Russian, Austrian, German detachments stationed in our house. We boys used to pick up the bullets, the bayonets, the belts, the cartridge clips. The fumes of brutality were pervasive, exciting, although the world of the masters to which I belonged saved me from direct contact with the war.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]1915

 

1915
At age 11, Witold enters the “highly aristocratic” school of Saint Stanisław Kostka in Warsaw.

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Witold the student.

“I entered the second grade, and so I was one of the youngest; and because I had a restless and contrary temperament, I soon became the victim of every possible variety of corkscrew, single and double scissors, nelsons, and garden-variety kicks and punches. […] Despite this I didn’t relegate myself to the ranks of the milksops.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

 

Witold raises two white rats, an experience that will later inspire his story “The Rat.”

He falls for the Polish Romantics Zygmunt Krasiński and Juliusz Słowacki, as well as for the adventure novels of the German Karl May, creator of the character Winnetou.

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1918 class photo at Saint Stanisław Kostka School. Witold is in the middle row, first on the left, standing, wearing a tie.


Here, he also meets Tadeusz Kępiński, his future biographer, who remembers:

“He seemed to me to be different from the other boys at school. He had blue veins in his temples, a high white forehead. His nose was straight, his lips red, slightly parted. He had clear brown eyes and blond hair. If his ears weren’t so big, you could have disguised him as a girl. He didn’t pronounce his R’s, which is why I immediately felt a sort of bond with him in this deficiency. ”
—Tadeusz Kępiński, Witold Gombrowicz et le monde de sa jeunesse (Witold Gombrowicz and the World of His Childhood) [Trans. Dubowski]
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Illustrations for The Blue Uniform, a Polish literary classic for young people by Witold Gomulicki, published in 1905.

 

1916-1917
The three countries that have occupied Poland for over a hundred years disintegrate: Russia is shaken by the Bolshevik Revolution, while Austria-Hungary and Germany are gradually losing the war. Józef Piłsudski, head of the Polish Legion, begins to fight for Poland’s liberation.

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Józef Piłsudski, hero of Polish independence (J. Malczewski, “Portrait of Chief Józef Piłsudski,” 1916). - The fight for Poland’s independence during the First World War. (Wiktor Kossak, “Charge of the Uhlans at Rokitna, June 1915”).

“In those years the world war awakened in me an incurable longing for the West. I pored over news from the front, took a pencil, and, with a solemn mien, marked on the map every little village around Rheims and Amiens that was taken, as if the entire war depended on it. For me, Europe began on the other side of that front; the Russians and Germans were a second-rate existence, laughable, barbaric, separating us from the other place—from civilization.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

 

As Gombrowicz enters adolescence, a feeling of strangeness in relation to his surroundings grows within him. As Gombrowicz enters adolescence, a feeling of strangeness in relation to his surroundings grows within him. The question of superiority/inferiority gnaws at him; this existential experience will become one of the principal themes of his work.

“Yes, I hated the drawing-room. I secretly adored the pantry, the kitchen, the stables, the stable lads, the farm girls—what a Marxist I was then!—and my sexual instincts, which were aroused early, were nourished by war, violence, soldiers’ songs and sweat. It bound me to those soiled and laborious bodies. Degradation became my ideal forever.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]

 

1918
With the end of the First World War on November 11, Poland is proclaimed independent after over 120 years of political non-existence. Józef Piłsudski becomes head of the new government.GIF - 36.6 ko

Warsaw, 1918: Crowds celebrating the end of the war pull down German signs. - A patriotic poster from 1918: “The country calls upon you! Buy National bonds” (B. Nowakowski). - Poland reappears, with new borders: the administrative apportionment of 1921.

“How splendid was that year of 1918! I was still too young to appreciate the entire beauty of the First World War’s finale, infinitely more imbued with poetry than the end of the Second World War. It was an emotional awakening to a new life filled with promise, the crumbling of monarch’s thrones and of the fashion for stiff collars, moustaches and notions of “honor”, the freedom of the body rendering the freedom of the spirit complete.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

""Sex-Appeal", a Polish foxtrot composed by Henryk Wars and sung by Adam Aston in 1937, an evocation of the sexual liberation that occurred after 1918.


Witold Gombrowicz spends his afternoons at the home of his friends Antonin and Kazimierz Baliński on Wiejska Street, whose father presides over the scholarly circle. They will become for him a sort of chosen second family throughout his formative years.


1919

“As far as the intellect was concerned, I was still in the first form (aged fifteen) when I started glancing at [Kant’s] "Critique of Pure Reason".”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]

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The discovery of philosophy: Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Scheler.

Reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer have a profound impact on young Witold; he will sustain great admiration for these two philosophers for the rest of his life. He also reads the great classics of both Polish and world literature, as well as adventure novels.

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Witold Gombrowicz’s passion for philosophy grows: Hegel and Russell.

Witold Gombrowicz, along with his brother Jerzy, becomes fascinated by naval combat accounts and genealogy.

1920
The Polish-Soviet War breaks out. In August, the Polish army breaks the offensive of the Soviets near Warsaw. While his brother Jerzy volunteers for enlistment, Witold Gombrowicz, urged by his mother to fulfill “his duty,” is sent to a civil institution charged with expediting packages to soldiers.

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The War of 1920:The War of 1920: “Hey! All Poles, fix bayonets!” and “To arms. Let’s save the country! Let’s think of our future!” - Jerzy Gombrowicz, Witold’s brother, as a soldier in the Polish army in the 1920s. - Polish scouts during the war years.

“That year of 1920 turned me into a creature “unlike all others,” apart, living on the margins of society. […] This break with the crowd, with the nation, forcing me to seek my own paths and to live by my own efforts, began for me in that memorable year of the Battle of Warsaw.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
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At left, the Gombrowicz-Kościesza coat of arms. At right, the Kotkowski-Ostoja coat of arms of Gombrowicz’s mother’s family.


Another passion: genealogy. Witold Gombrowicz begins work on his family history, Illustrissimae familiae Gombrovici, his first non-academic writing..

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Fragment of his family tree drawn by Gombrowicz in 1952.

 

1922
Witold Gombrowicz prepares for his final high school exams, called the “certificate of maturity” in Polish. He will later title his first book Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity. 

The question of immaturity/maturity will become one of Witold Gombrowicz’s principal themes.

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Readings from childhood: Montaigne, Shakespeare, Rabelais, and Goethe.


Witold Gombrowicz is by now a voracious reader. Pascal, Rabelais, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann and Alfred Jarry become his literary models.

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alfred Jarry, Thomas Mann.


On his exams, “Itek” (Witold Gombrowicz’s surname) receives final marks of “excellent” in Polish, “good” in religion and history, and “sufficient” in all other subjects.

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“Świadectwo dojrzałości”: graduation certificate.


Gombrowicz enrolls at law school in Warsaw.

“I didn’t go to classes. My valet, who was much more distinguished than I, attended them in my place.”“I didn’t go to classes. My valet, who was much more distinguished than I, attended them in my place.”—Witold Gombrowicz, Cahier de l’Herne [Trans. Dubowski]


 Witold Gombrowicz is, of course, being ironic here; he had no valet. Gombrowicz becomes interested in Roman law.

His friend Tadeusz Kępiński takes him to a course taught by the renowned logician Tadeusz Kotarbiński.


1923

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Witold with a gamekeeper in Potoczek.


Minor pulmonary fevers prompt Witold Gombrowicz to begin taking vacations in the Tatra Mountains at Zakopane and in the central Polish countryside, in Potoczek, at his brother Janusz’s home. These become Witold’s favorite vacation spots.

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Janusz Gombrowicz, Witold’s brother and proprietor of Potoczek, with his son Józef.


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Hunt at Potoczek. Unlike his brothers, Witold Gombrowicz had no interest in this typical pastime of the landed gentry.
 

 In the “complete solitude of the forests,” Witold Gombrowicz begins to work on his first novel, the story of a bookkeeper, which he soon destroys. 

Together with Tadeusz Kępiński, he decides to write another, inspired by second-rate sentimental literature.

“I decided to coauthor a thriller to make ourselves a pile of money. […] I am inclined to think that this idea of a ‘bad novel’ was the high point of my entire literary career—I have never before or since been struck by a more creative notion. […] my project was […] to give myself to the masses, to become worse, lower—not only to describe that immaturity, but precisely to write through it.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

 

1924
Witold’s brother Jerzy marries and settles in Wsola, near Radom, where Witold will often visit. Here, he will write many of the stories making up his Memoirs From a Time of Immaturity, as well as much of his first novel, Ferdydurke.

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The manor at Wsola. Witold Gombrowicz (sitting, at right) with his brother Jerzy and Jerzy’s wife Aleksandra, née Pruszak (sitting on the railing at left), proprietors of the estate. In the photo at right, their daughter Tereska sits on Witold’s knee.


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Wsola today, the only Gombrowicz family estate still in existence. Since 2009, it houses the Gombrowicz Museum since 2009. 

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Family gathering: Witold seated with his sister Rena. Behind them, at right: Jerzy, Aleksandra and little Teresa. At left: Janusz and Franciszka with their son Józef.

 

1926
Witold Gombrowicz works on an audacious and very personal text which he dare show to only one friend, Mrs. Szuch, who advises him to destroy it. He does so immediately.

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Witold Gombrowicz in Wisła, with a young student, Krystyna Maryańska-Zgrzebnicka.

During a vacation in Southern Poland, Gombrowicz courts a young student in Wisła, Krystyna Maryańska-Zgrzebnicka.

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Krystyna Janowska, Witold Gombrowicz’s first love.

Witold falls in love with Krystyna Janowska, the young daughter of a manor neighboring his brother’s at Wsola.

“But for me, the balloon’s passenger brought much greater joy than the balloon. Over meadows, fields and groves I was getting acquainted for the first time in my life; I was getting acquainted constantly and every more closely, and she listened to me so willingly that I would have kissed her small, attentive and comprehending ears a thousand times. But even though women supposedly love romanticism, I didn’t speak to her of the black man or of my other adventures, on account of an inexplicable and burning shame that cautioned me not to say too much. The day came on which we exchanged rings, and then the wedding day began to draw near.”
—“Adventures,” from Bacacay [Trans. Johnston]
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Witold Gombrowicz plays the dandy with his cousins, Inia Skibniewska and Gutek Kotkowski.

Gombrowicz’s family seems to want him to marry a young countess, a friend of his sister, but Witold remains evasive.


1928
Having obtained his law license, Witold Gombrowicz is sent to France by his father to continue his studies. He enrolls in the Institute of International Studies in Paris, but does not attend classes. He embarks on a “pilgrimage to the heart of Europe”, leaving in May for a year-long vacation in France. In Paris, he lives on the Rue de Belloy, near Avénue Kléber in the XVIth district, leading a “disorderly life.”

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Bohemian Paris as seen by the photographer André Kertesz: “Au café”, “Bistro”, “The Café Dôme,” and “Paris 1927.”

“If I wished to sum up my stay in Paris in a few words, that above all would be it—walking the streets. Not even roaming. Walking.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
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Les Invalides, the tomb of Napoleon.

“One day, walking down some Parisian street […], I went into a church to take shelter from the rain. To my surprise I saw something like a well, with a catafalque at the bottom. I stared at it and then left, because the rain had stopped. Years later I found out that this was Napoleon’s tomb.”—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
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At the Louvre.

“The artistic world attracted me with its freedom and glitter, but it repulsed me morally and physically. Thus, the trip to the Louvre was far from innocent. Steps. Statues. Rooms.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]


La Joconde.
Mona Lisa

“The face of the Mona Lisa—how beautiful it is! […] But what of it for us? It’s beautiful, but it renders the faces of its devotees hideous. In the picture is beauty; in front of the picture is snobbery, stupidity, a dull-witted effort to grasp something of the beauty about which one is told that it exists.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

Witold Gombrowicz makes a Chinese friend, Chou, who leads him to student cafés in the Latin Quarter. Here, Gombrowicz debates with Parisians, grabbing the “bull of Western superiority” by its horns for the very first time.

“As a Pole, a representative of a weaker culture, I had to defend my sovereignty: I could not allow Paris to get the better of me!”“As a Pole, a representative of a weaker culture, I had to defend my sovereignty: I could not allow Paris to get the better of me!”—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]

Shortly afterward, Witold Gombrowicz leaves for the Pyrenees for several months. He spends six months in Vernet-les-Bains, Le Boulou, Port-Vendres, and Banyuls, experiencing the dazzling beauty of the South of France. His first view of the Mediterranean is a revelation.

“That which all the cathedrals and museums of Paris had been unable to achieve was managed by the ribbon of that vertiginous highway heading straight for the sea, and all at once I understood the South, France, Italy, Rome, and a thousand other things. Everything for the first time became precious to me.”
—Polish Memories [Trans. Johnston]
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Near Banyuls.

According to the biography which he writes for the Cahier de l’Herne, dedicated to him, Witold Gombrowicz “spends time with friends who take part in the white slave trade. He is to be arrested, but avoids imprisonment through the intervention of the priest Barcelo, who later becomes his friend.”