Monday, 7 January 2008
Kundera's Pléiade: Witold Gombrowicz
Milan Kundera's brilliant 2005 "essay in seven parts" on the novel Le Rideau (The Curtain) has a passage in which the Czech novelist (who these days writes in French) introduces what he calls "la pléiade des grands romanciers de l'Europe centrale". These four central European twentieth century writers - Kafka, Musil, Broch, and Gombrowicz - did not, he argued, form a movement or school. In fact, it was remarkable that four writers who never spoke to each other should have evolved such a similar aesthetic. Which was? According to Kundera they were "poets of the novel" who were: "fired by the form and by its novelty; attentive to the intensity of each word, of each sentence; seduced by the imagination's potential to cross the boundaries of "realism"; but at the same time proof against all the seductions of the lyrical: hostile to the idea of turning the novel into a form of personal confession; allergic to all forms of ornamentation in their prose; entirely concentrated on the real world. They all conceived of the novel as "a great anti-lyrical poetry/une grande poésie anti-lyrique".
Now there's enough there to argue about for several weeks but what struck me about his Pléiade when I encountered it in 2005 was that I had, shamefully, barely heard of the fourth name, the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969). I immediately read his extraordinarily original first novel, Ferdydurke and have recently been catching up with the rest. The excellent Dalkey Archive have just re-issued his autobiographical A Kind of Testament (originally 1968; translated by Alastair Hamilton). Hamilton is also the translator of his 1966 novel, Pornografia, a fascinating story of psychological manipulation that, as its title hints, goes right to the edge of what could have become questionable, as two older men engage in a complex psychological choreography with a young, half-innocent, half-knowing, couple against a background of occupied Poland in 1943. Gombrowicz's skill is to put traditional elements of fictional narrative to work in the service of a highly intelligent, innovative novelistic gift. I am still trying to absorb and comprehend his ideas about Form and the notion of "immaturity" but the journey is proving exhilarating.