- Gombrowicz’s Grimaces: Modernism, Gender, Nationality
In the opening paragraph of her introduction to this long overdue volume, Ewa Plonowska Ziarek asks: “How does one read Gombrowicz? In particular, what does it mean to read Gombrowicz in the nineties in the United States?” (1). The collection of essays assembled in Gombrowicz’s Grimaces does not offer a straightforward answer to this prefatory question; as the editor herself acknowledges, the heterogeneous composition of the volume reflects the hybridity of its subject’s own biographical and literary makeup, from his Polish-Argentinian-French trajectory of exile to the dazzling and dizzying spectacle of the textual games he played with himself as much as with his readers. In this context, Ziarek’s introduction, a miracle of comprehensive and lucid synthesis, serves as a necessary preamble and a helpful framing of the volume’s contents. Even so, readers coming to Gombrowicz’s Grimaces with little or no preparation will find some of the essays tough going: this collection resolutely (and explicitly) refuses to configure itself as another rudimentary “introduction” to the Polish writer’s work, an end-of-the-century update of Ewa M. Thompson’s 1979 monograph (written for Twayne’s World Authors series, it was the only book in English wholly devoted to Gombrowicz until the publication of the present volume and, also in 1998, of Hanjo Berressem’s The Lines of Desire: Reading Gombrowicz’s Novels with Lacan). The editor and the contributors opt instead for in-depth analytic approaches that, furthermore, do not focus exclusively on well-established shibboleths of Gombrowiczian criticism (which has flourished primarily in Poland and France), but rather range over a broad expanse of comparative and theoretical territory
Several of the essays continue the critical tradition (described in Beth Holmgren’s useful and engaging “Post/Script”) of reading Gombrowicz alongside another writer or writers, although they do not perpetuate that tradition’s frequent slippage into what Ziarek calls a “game of legitimation”: “an attempt to prove that the value of the experimental Slavic literature is comparable to the achievements of the Western avant-garde,” typically carried out under the heading of “Reading Gombrowicz with . . .” (15). Dorota Glowacka’s exploration of the complicated “literary kinship” between Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz belongs here, as does Katarzyna Jerzak’s incisive and superbly written critical confrontation of Gombrowicz and E. M. Cioran, two Eastern European expatriates who redefined their experience by rejecting such “traditional ways of belonging in and despite exile” as patriotism and religion, and adopting instead what Jerzak calls a “strategy of defamation”: an adversarial mode par excellence that seeks its sustenance in the forces of abjection and directs itself not only against the “centripetal pull of attachment,” but also against its twin topos in the modernist poetics of exile, “the glorification of homelessness” (180). Similarly illuminating is Piotr Parlej’s contrastive reading of Gombrowicz’s “postdialectical” reinvention of dialectics against the anti-dialectical “lyrical option” privileged by many Polish dissident writers (most notably Zbigniew [End Page 207] Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski) in their contestation of officially sanctioned politicized aesthetics.
A more predictable, if no less valid for being predictable, range of Gombrowicz’s affiliations is explored in the essays that avail themselves of such currently prominent theoretical paradigms as postcolonial theory, Benedict Anderson’s recasting of the nation as an “imagined community” or, last but not least, queer theory. Here, Ziarek’s brilliant analysis of the complicated interplay between “national form,” homosexuality and Baroque aesthetics staged by Gombrowicz in the novel Trans-Atlantyk (1952) proves particularly rewarding. In fact, it is Trans-Atlantyk and, unsurprisingly, the Diary, that emerge as the two texts most frequently cited and discussed by the contributors; by contrast, Gombrowicz’s plays, for several decades the writer’s main claim to international recognition, are given scant attention: only one play, the unfinished (and fascinating) History, is considered at any length. Other minor gaps and weaknesses could be noted here, but it would be unfair and counterproductive to emphasize them: on the whole, Gombrowicz’s Grimaces is an important contribution, likely...