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On the Kitchen Steps

Na kuchennych schodach


“Woe betide those who abandon their own dirt for the cleanliness of others; dirt is always one’s own, cleanliness always another’s.”

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“The Chambermaid,” Wojciech Weiss, 1911, National Museum, Kraków.

 Witold Gombrowicz wrote On the Kitchen Steps in 1929, but chose to withhold it from the 1933 Memoirs from a Time of Immaturity (Ed. Rój, Warsaw). The choice to keep this rather obscene story from the public came out of regard for the author’s father, who financed this first book. The voyeurism and sexual assaults committed by a bourgeois man to his maid central to the story carried a strong risk of straining the family’s well-being, and was sure to be misinterpreted by Witold’s father, Jan Onufry Gombrowicz. After his father’s death, however, Witold Gombrowicz published On the Kitchen Steps—in 1937, in the autumn edition of the prestigious Warsaw journal Skamander.

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To achieve publication in Skamander was considered a literary accolade.

The text was definitively integrated into the collection of stories along with four others in 1957, when published in Kraków under the new title Bacacay.

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Octave Mirabeau’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1900) is considered one of the classics of this style of literature, tinted with eroticism and considered scandalous in the early 20th century. Luis Buñuel adapted it for the screen in 1964.

.Erotic fascination with a maid, that force of sexual attraction that a brutish and primal nature may exercise on an educated and socially superior person, and the tyranny of convenience that, like a straitjacket, imprisons the personality of the one who submits to its will: These are Gombrowicz’s themes that appear by excellence, with force and provocative suggestion, in this early text.

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Bruno Schulz’s self-portrait, two drawings from his Book of Idolatry and the journal Studio, where Schulz and Gombrowicz’s polemic of letters was published.

Bruno Schulz, cartoonist, writer, and friend of Witold Gombrowicz, also explored the topic of the masochistic adoration of a servant in his own pictorial and literary work. In 1936, in the Studio monthly, Witold Gombrowicz published an open letter to Schulz, inviting him to take a position on their scandalous reputation as obscene and disgusting writers—and also against the petit bourgeois opinion of the “doctor’s wife from Wilcza Street.”

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Aniela Brzozowska, maid of the Gombrowicz family.

The maid Aniela Brzozowska was a longstanding figure of the Gombrowicz household. Witold kept a tender and friendly memory of she who inspired the end of Ferdydurke: ”It’s the end, what a gas, And who’s read it is an ass!” She was also the target of his childhood teasing and squabbles, not devoid of eroticism.

Excerpt: And I could see that at the thudding of the maid’s footsteps she quaked like a leaf; but on my account she was prepared to put up with a great deal. Along with her trunk the maid brought into our apartment her own affairs, in other words vermin, toothache, chills, picking her fingers, lots of crying, lots of laughing, lots of laundry; it all started to spread around the apartment, and my wife compressed her lips ever more, leaving only the tiniest crack. Of course, the process of instructing the maid commenced at once; to the side, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that this took on ever crueler forms and eventually became a kind of leveling of the terrain. The maid writhed as if burned by red-hot iron; she couldn’t take a single step that was in accordance with her own nature. And my wife was unremitting—deep within her grew the spirit of strangulation, of hatred, the more so because I too was slightly hateful off to the side, though I could not have explained why or to what purpose. And I watched with narrow-eyed amazement as before my wife there arose primitive powers, truly different than Majola soap, and a vicious and prehistoric battle raged.