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New Finds

A Polish Joke

Is Witold Gombrowicz one of the greatest novelists of the century? You decide.

Book Cover You might think that receiving rave endorsements from writers such as Milan Kundera (“one of the greatest novelists of our century”) and John Updike (“a master of verbal burlesque…one of the profoundest late moderns” [whatever that means]) would earn Witold Gombrowicz more recognition. More of a following? T-shirts with his name on them? A fan page on Facebook?

At least his works continued to be published in this country. Newly minted by Grove Press, and freshly translated from his native Polish by Danuta Borchardt (apparently the previous translation was from a French version), Pornografia was written in Argentina after Gombrowicz decamped from Poland in 1939.

Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, two intellectuals travel to a friend’s farm where they are possessed by the idea of setting up a sexual relationship between the farmer’s betrothed teenaged daughter and a young farmhand—which produces its own mayhem including the murder of the girl’s future mother-in-law. Their private game is set aside when the two men are ordered to assassinate a disloyal high-ranking member of the resistance and they plot to involve the two youngsters in their scheme.

It is a farce, thriller, mystery, and a romance—adventurous readers may be beguiled by novelist Sam Lipsyte’s observations in his introduction:
All who enter may revel in the many layered excitements of Pornografia, though the reader is advised to refrain from slapping ready rejoinders to the existential difficulties the novel raises. “The primary task of creative literature is to rejuvenate our problems,” said Gombrowicz in A Kind of Testament, a series of interviews with Dominique De Roux. And Gombrowicz did exactly that, through philosophy, satire, critique, all of it powered by a subtle and vicious comic prose that continues to offer dazzling views of our individual and collective derangements.
“I am a humorist, a joker, an acrobat, a provocateur,” Gombrowicz once said. “My works turn double somersaults to please. I am a circus, lyricism, poetry, horror, riots, games—what more do you want?”
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