Tag Archives: Witold Gombrowicz

Interview with Pornografia translator Danuta Borchardt on PRI’s The World

Danuta Borchardt talks with Bill Marx on PRI’s December World Books podcast about Witold Gombrowicz and her experience translating not just the recently published Pornografia, but Cosmos and Ferdydurke as well. She mentions the possibility of retranslating Transatlantyk and translating his Peregrinations in Argentina (excerpts of which have been published in Words without Borders). The informative half-hour podcast is downloadable and definitely worth a listen (ideally with a crackling fire in the background, snowdrifts and fir trees outside the window, and a mug of mulled wine or cider in hand… Happy Holidays!).


Special Polish literature offer from Archipelago!

Don’t pass up this stunning holiday offer from Archipelago Books: All 5 of their Polish literature titles for only $45, shipping included. That’s almost 50% less than their total retail price. Seriously folks, Polish books haven’t been this affordable since 1989. Here’s what you’ll get:

Translated by the genial Bill Johnston and beautifully produced by Archipelago, these books are already classics of Polish literature in English. Click here for descriptions. To order, please email the publisher directly at: info @ archipelagobooks . org or from their contact page. If you’re not already familiar with Archipelago’s work, a perusal of their website and catalogue is definitely worth while. Also, please consider making a donation to Archipelago, so that more great literature from around the world can find its way to English-language readers.

(Addendum, 29 December 2009: this intriguing Croatian blog just posted a useful compendium of brief reviews and responses to Tulli’s three books with Archipelago: http://zorosko.blogspot.com. I had no idea of the resonance she’s had among U.S. poets, especially. Other authors whose reception is likewise digested include Schulz, Pessoa, Gert Jonke, Merce Rodoreda, Abdourahman Waberi, and James Tate — an eclectic and delightful canon.)


One major bit of Polish literary news of the past month or so, of course, is that Witold Gombrowicz’s remarkable final novel, PORNOGRAFIA, has finally been published in English in a direct translation from the Polish (by Danuta Borchardt). Here’s the Publishers Weekly review (from July):

Pornografia Witold Gombrowicz, trans. from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt. Grove, $23 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1925-4
Gombrowicz’s strange, bracing final novel probes the divide between young and old while providing a grotesque evocation of obsession. While recuperating from wartime Warsaw in the Polish countryside, the unnamed narrator and his friend, Fryderyk, attempt to force amour between two local youths, Karol and Henia, as a kind of a lewd entertainment. They become increasingly frustrated as they discover that the two have no interest in one another, and the games are momentarily stopped by a local murder and a directive to assassinate a rogue member of the Polish resistance. Gombrowicz connects these threads magnificently in a tense climax that imbues his novel with a deep sense of the absurd and multiplies its complexity. Gombrowicz is a relentless psychoanalyzer and a consummate stylist; his prose is precise and forceful, and the narrator’s strained attempts to elucidate why he takes such pleasure at soiling youth creepily evoke authentic pride and disgust. Borchardt’s translation (the first into English from the original Polish) is a model of consistency, maintaining a manic tone as it navigates between lengthy, comma-spliced sentences and sharp, declarative thrusts. (Nov.)

With the book pretty well publicized in advance (starred review in PW, Three Percent, The Quarterly Conversation), I’m surprised it hasn’t been reviewed more widely since its release, especially given the general surge of interest (and re/publication) that Gombrowicz has enjoyed the past few years, and the great review by Neil Gordon that Cosmos got in the New York Times. (The recent demise of Kirkus Reviews, however, suggests the problem may have more to do with the state of reviewing than with the book itself or Grove’s publicity machine.) Salonica World Lit, a wonderful international literature blog written by Monica Carter of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is the one place I’ve found online that has a post-publication review of it (and of a lot of other Central-East European titles besides: the blog is definitely worth following). But that seems to be it so far. Hopefully Grove will release the paperback soon since the book should by rights find its way onto every “Introduction to World/Western/European/Modernist Literature” syllabus in the country. The hardcover, in the meantime, is totally hot:

Tayeb Salih, Conrad, and the Others

The new Harper’s (July 2009) has a great review by Robyn Creswell of the late Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North (موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال), which, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, has recently been republished by New York Review Books (the first English-language edition appeared with Heinemann in 1969).

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The book’s unnamed narrator, a Sudanese man who has spent time in England, reconstructs the life of another anglicized Sudanese, Mustafa Sa’eed, whom he meets shortly before the latter’s suicide. The narrator’s fascination with his semblable/frère resonates, as Creswell suggests, with Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz; and evidently the novel has been held up by postcolonial critics as a kind of Heart of Darkness in reverse, “a classic example of ‘the empire writing back’.” Creswell criticizes the reductionism implicit in that reading, however, and situates the terms of the relationship between the two books within a larger argument about realism and the novel:

The central drama of Salih’s novella is not Mustafa Sa’eed’s journey to the heart of Europe but the confrontation between Sa’eed and the narrator, who, like Marlow, feels himself ‘captured by the incredible,’ faced with a character too big for the otherwise realistic fiction he inhabits. It is Salih’s understanding of this dilemma, which is ethical and literary rather than straightforwardly political, that makes his reading of Conrad distinctive.

While reading Creswell’s review (and I am so intrigued by it that my reading of Salih’s book is not far off either), I found myself recalling my own encounter with Heart of Darkness many years ago, and with V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 essay on it, which Creswell discusses. While Creswell is eager to shed a more complex, literary and ethical light on Salih, and by extension on Conrad, than has been done thus far by postcolonial critics, there is another critique of the postcolonial reception of Conrad that I think bears dwelling on. I had always wondered why postcolonial critics disregarded Conrad’s own history as a colonial subject in an area of the world marked by successive waves of colonization and subjugation of one ethnic group by another (not just of the Poles by the Russians, but of the Ukrainians and Lithuanians by the Poles, and the Jews by everyone), and of empire (which in that part of the world in the nineteenth century had three faces: Russian, Prussian, and Austrian).

Very little has been written about this aspect of Conrad, but it’s crucial, of course, to his relation to Africa and to European imperialism. The translator and scholar Clare Cavanagh has published what I think is the only article so far that addresses this negligent reception (“Postcolonial Poland,” Common Knowledge 10:1 [2004], 82-92). There she not only critiques the postcolonial blindspot to the so-called second world, but situates Conrad into a Polish context that includes Czesław Miłosz, Aleksander Wat, Zbigniew Herbert and Wisława Szymborska. “The most astute and gifted of Poland’s postwar artists,” Cavanagh writes, “have shared Conrad’s wariness, not simply toward one empire or another, but to the very idea of empire that has informed the West from the time, under Rome, that it conceived itself as a global civilization.”

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More aptly, Cavanagh discusses Conrad in relation to Ryszard Kapuściński, whose writing of Africa (no less than that of Iran) invokes all sorts of questions about realism and fiction and empire and ethics and the Other:

Kapuściński’s writing not only expresses much of the postcolonial attitude of Polish poetry and fiction but also clarifies the possibilities for an expanded critique of colonialism than current theory offers. He demonstrates, in other words, a way of incorporating the Second World into our present theoretical frame. In a recent review of Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun, Neal Ascherson, the historian, calls attention to the peculiar tradition to which Kapuściński belongs. It is a tradition, including Conrad, that consists of travel writers from European nations invaded, conquered, culturally dominated, and often settled by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or German empires. These writers knew all too well what it meant to be at the wrong end of colonialism—and during sojourns in Africa, Asia, or Polynesia, they continually recognized aspects of their own experience.

Of course, central and eastern Europe is just as affected by Western cultural hegemony as it has been by Russian and Soviet imperialism, which is no doubt an important reason why its experience has been ignored by Western postcolonial theorists, even Conrad scholars, and is often received along the most conventional of patterns. Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska themselves are often only legible for Western readers as witnesses of tragedy, as the “victims of history,” as one American poet put it not long ago. Just as the poetic and ethical dimensions of Salih’s or Conrad’s work have been overlooked by postcolonial scholars, so too are the Polish poets often instrumentalized for ideological reasons that ultimately impoverish our understanding of them.

But Cavanagh’s article has another objective, which is to link the study of Polish literature to discourses with which literary studies and literary theory have been saturated for decades, but in which Slavic Studies as a discipline has, until recently, been largely uninvolved. And maybe that encounter between fields will be achieved eventually. It is an objective that is a necessary one for Polish Studies, and ideally will also facilitate the reception of Polish literature more generally outside the typical post-Enlightenment/Cold War binarism of West vs. East (Europe) and re-situate it in terms of a broader, global dynamic. The example of Conrad, from both Cavanagh’s and Creswell’s respective perspectives, demonstrates that it actually makes sense to read Salih’s Season of Migration to the North not only in relation to Conrad or Naipaul or other authors like Jamaica Kincaid (who also writes along a South-North meridian), but to Aleksander Wat’s My Century (another New York Review Books reprint, incidentally), for example, or Gombrowicz’s Cosmos or Diaries or Transatlantyk (North-South and East-West) (anything by Gombrowicz, really) .

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A recording of Gombrowicz reading from his DIARIES

Thanks to David Goldfarb, I’ve just learned of this amazing excerpt from the Radio Free Europe archives of Witold Gombrowicz reading the beginning of his Diaries.

What’s in a name?

Bacacay is the name of a long street in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that bisects the geographical center of the city, running northeast to southwest through the neighborhoods of Villa Crespo, Caballito, and Flores.

It is also a village in the Bicol region of the Philippines, not far from Legazpi City, on the southern end of the main island of Luzon.

A search on Google for the meaning of the word has turned up 0 results. But there are some curious, if obscure, leads: “Bacacai” = the (possible?) common name, in Portuguese, of a variety of palm tree; “Bakakai” = “grupo punk rock”; “Baka Kay” = a girl with one friend on Facebook

Steve Dolph from Calque writes:

I’m just about certain that the name in BA is from the famous “Battle of Bacacay” where the Argentine forces (aka the Spanish at that time) repelled Brazilian (ie Portuguese) forces from the western side of Uruguay (what was then known as the Banda Oriental, or East Bank).

Bacacay, of course, is the title of Witold Gombrowicz’s book of short stories, originally published as Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity, and now available in English thanks to Bill Johnston and Archipelago Books.

So why have I decided to name this blog “Bacacay”? For starters, Gombrowicz lived on the street in Buenos Aires, hence his choice of the name for his title. And its indeterminate meaning, foreignness, and persistent dislocation/relocation seem meaningful, useful, and interesting… in the context of what this blog is about: Polish literature’s place in the world outside Poland, and Polish literature’s openness to the world.