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Diary (1953-1969) : introduction


A Radio Free Europe recording of Witold Gombrowicz reading a fragment of his Diary in Polish (1953, chapter 4). 

“I, therefore, want to speak out. I must say this though about the following: none of this is categorical. Everything is hypothetical. Everything is dependent—why should I conceal this?—on the effect it has.
“That characteristic defines everything I have produced as a writer. I have tried various roles. I assume various postures. I impose various meanings on my experiences and if one of these meanings is accepted by people, I live on in it.
“This is what is youthful in me.”

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In Vence, 1965. Photo by Bohdan Paczowski.

After all, art takes place among living, concrete, and, therefore, imperfect people. Today there is a glut of styles that bore, fatigue, and turn our stomachs because they are the fruit of a creative recipe, the work of an unsocial and poorly brought up people. The word should be aimed at people not at theories, at people not at art.
Diary [Trans. Vallee]1954

Begun in Buenos Aires in 1953 and finished in Vence in 1969, Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary is the work of his life. It is the fruit of his collaboration with Kultura, the Polish emigrant monthly, published in Paris by Jerzy Giedroyc.

I must form the Gombrowicz-thinker and the Gombrowicz-genius, the Gombrowicz-demonologist of culture and many other indispensable Gombrowiczes.
Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to Jerzy Giedroyc, August 6, 1952 [Trans. Dubowski]
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Portrait by Zygmunt Grocholski, Buenos Aires, 1953..

First published in fragments in the journal Kultura, the texts were gathered into three volumes during Gombrowicz’s lifetime. Jerzy Giedroyc’s Literary Institute published the Diary 1953-1956 in 1957, the Diary 1957-1961 (only half of 1961) in September 1962, and the Diary 1961-1966, with Operetta, in November 1966.

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Portrait by Mariano Betelú, Tandil, 1958.

I consider it very important that these fragments appear in the order in which they were written, because they are a whole. […] I am composing this mosaic with greater premeditation than it might seem.
Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to Jerzy Giedroyc, June 7, 1954 [Trans. Dubowski] 1954

The texts that appeared in journals from 1967until Witold Gombrowicz’s death in 1969—thirty pages that were to make up part of a fourth volume—will ultimately be added to the third volume.

Think of my diary as the intrusion into European culture of a villager, of a Polish country gentleman, with all the mistrust, the common-sense and the realism of a peasant.
A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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Zeichnung von Witold Gombrowicz von Siegfried Woldhek.

The splitting of the Diary into volumes was rather done for editorial convenience than after the author’s wish, for the Diary represents a continued literary enterprise that only Gombrowicz’s death interrupted.
To restore the unity of the Diary, which Witold Gombrowicz constructed as a total work of art, some editors have published it in two or even in one single volume.

« “The individual is a nut so impossible to crack that no theoretic tooth will be able to manage it. And so nothing will be able to justify your defeat, bumblers!” »

It would be hard to come by a fate more ironic: that I, again, now, in my bewilderment, ebb, must sculpt myself in the fog that I am—and have to transform this fog, dust cloud, into a fist!
Diary [Trans. Vallee], 1963

Like Montaigne, to whom he has often been compared, Gombrowicz himself is the true subject of the Diary. This is not a narcissistic introspection, but rather an observation of the “self in action” in relation to his readers, for whom Witold Gombrowicz invents multiple incarnations of himself on a quest for his own Form.

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Drawing by Vasco, 1969

My truth and my strength rely on my endless spoiling of the game. I spoil it for myself and others. I do not fight artificiality in myself. I simply limit myself to revealing it whenever it appears in me: I spoil my elegance, I force myself to use other tactics, I change the situation for myself. And I would ask this of my dignified colleagues as well: the endless spoiling of their elegance, ruining their situation, tearing the cobwebs until the most deeply personal energies work their way to freedom.
Diary [Trans. Vallee], 1962

To measure the diversity and richness of the Diary’s themes, one only needs to go through the index accompanying the editions.
The index of the 2004 Polish edition (Ed. Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków) includes almost 20 pages and 400 themes. Andrzej Zawadzki, its author, specifies, in an accompanying note:
“The Diary is many books in one. Furthermore, everything in it is significant. Each motive or idea occupies an important place in the precise architecture of the ensemble of the text. In fact, the thematic index of the Diary could fill an entire volume—a fairly big one—in and of itself, which would make its use impossible, of course.”

It is mostly because of the Diary and some of its passages concerning Stalinism, Soviet control in Poland, and the ideological hypocrisy of the Communist regime, that Witold Gombrowicz’s work was banned in his own country.

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Drawing by David Levine, 2005.

Published as samizdat (illegal copies passed from person-to-person across the Soviet bloc as a form of resistance), the Diary circulated covertly for over thirty years.
The Diary and the journal Kultura stood for freedom of speech throughout the Communist years in Poland.
Even when forbidden, the Diary influenced all of twentieth-century Polish literature and reinvigorated Polish culture.
It was only officially published in 1986, but even then, with twelve cuts by the Polish censorship.
Three years later, at a turning point in the Polish political regime, Gombrowicz’s magnum opus was finally published in its entirety, Gombrowicz’s dearest wish.
Witold Gombrowicz realized he was creating a philosophical and cultural “home chronicle.” This is why it is possible to extract autonomous fragments from the text, which do not lose any of their coherence when considered separately. Among the best-known are:
Against the Poets, written and published in 1951, appears revised in the Diary at the end of 1956.
On Dante, inserted in 1966.
The years 1963-1964 are as well-known as the Diary Paris-Berlin, which corresponds to Gombrowicz’s return to Europe after twenty-five years in Argentina.

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Zechnung von Witold Gombrowicz von Karl Jung.

Sure, mystification is advisable for a writer. Let him muddle the waters around himself a bit so that no one knows where he is—a clown perhaps? Scoffer? Wise man? Cheat? Discoverer? Blusterer? Guide? Or perhaps he is all of these at once? Enough of this blissful sleep in the womb of mutual trust. Be vigilant, spirit! Be prepared! And so long, nitwits!
Diary[Trans. Vallee], 1961