Ferdydurke

by JDP

This chaotic and disjointed novel takes satirical swipes at Polish culture, art, politics, class awareness, pedagogy, familial relations, intergenerational struggles, and Gombrowicz’ critics; if you can sort it all out, Ferdydurke makes for entertaining reading for adventurous souls looking to move a bit beyond the standard canon.

Wiltold Gombrowicz / Polish / 1937 / 279 pages
Translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt

This is a pretty absurd book. Your first indication would be the title (which means about as much in Polish as it does in English, i.e. nothing). Your second would be the cover art (which was illustrated by Bruno Schulz, a fellow Polish avant-garde author, and depicts a hydra-like mash-up of tree limbs and human body parts). As a third indication, I would refer you to the novel’s table of contents which boasts a bizarre palette of chapter titles and conveys almost no information about where you, the prospective reader, will be taken in the course if its (honestly-feels-just-a-bit-longer-than) 279 pages. Absurd. But the absurdity is supposed to bite and it is clearly a very serious novel as well (it was banned by Nazis and Stalinists alike, making its early dissemination in 1940s Poland nigh impossible). While most of the politically objectionable punches are pulled until the novel’s finale, Gombrowicz finds plenty to poke fun at in the Polish family, the Polish grade school, and the Polish art scene. When these jokes inform our sensibilities about families, schools, and the arts in general, they are winning witticisms. When they don’t, you just have to keep your head down and plow through until the next page.

The novel is broken into three main segments and each segment is separated by a pair of chapters: the first chapter in each pair is a “preface” and the second chapter in each pair is a short story that Gombrowicz had previously published and transplanted anew into the novel for the sake of ruining the main story’s linearity (by his own explicit admission). In these prefaces, he takes a substantial stab at the stilted and formal pursuit of art. He argues that art need not be so mature, that synthesizing from parts is difficult, and that structure, form, function, etc. are shifty and relative terms. While it reads a bit like an author’s ad hoc justification of his inability to weave a cohesive whole, I’m more inclined to think that Gombrowicz set out to (immodestly and brashly) destroy many of his readers’ expectations about the novelistic form. In many ways, I think he succeeded: a charitable reading of Ferdydurke would almost certainly conclude that the parts are occasionally much more compelling than the whole.

I cite as Exhibit A the first interpolated short story “The Child Runs Deep in Filidor.” This is without a doubt the most dangerously hilarious 15-page passage of the written word I have ever read. I cite as Exhibit B the second interpolated short story “The Child Runs Deep in Filibert” (despite their nominal similarity, the stories are nothing alike). This is much shorter, more explosive, and substantially weirder than the first story, but it serves its purpose well: having wrapped up the second section of the novel that deals with the Polish family, Gombrowicz allows us to catch our breath before plunging us into a ponderous meditation on early-1900s rural life and its aristocratic institutions.

Aside from the sheer sublimity of these two moments, the author makes you work hard to unravel his absurdity. He’s sort of difficult to pin down. There are elements of Vonnegut in his style, but only when Vonnegut was at his most audacious (and, thus, worst). Susan Sontag’s introduction to the novel makes reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a point of comparison, but notes that Gombrowicz eschews much of the logic applied in Lewis Carroll’s novel. I think that there are flecks of Kafka here as well, but of a less precise and less nuanced manner. In the end, I am most reminded of a old childhood favorite of mine, The Phantom Tollbooth, as a suitable jumping off point. Ferdydurke is satirical, yes, but also rather fantastic and considerably (at least to my way of thinking) vague. After reading the portion of the book on the family, for example, I really have no idea if Gombrowicz is “pro modern family life” or “anti modern family life.” After trudging through his multitudinous potshots at both peasants and landlords, I cannot say with any certainty if Gombrowicz prefers one or the other. While I have some idea that he dislikes Polish pedagogy (at least its 1900s manifestation), I would be hard-pressed to find something that he offers up as a plausible alternative.

I don’t intend to summarize the plot of this novel, as the story line itself is largely window dressing for the first-person narration to find itself uniquely situated as an observer of a variety of everyday Polish social situations. Along with the anemic plot comes commensurately anemic characters. Gombrowicz does not give us individuals with personalities, per se, but rather characters as stock representations of different social entities. To this end, then, we see the professor whose professorness is more important than his thoughts, feelings, etc. We see a greedy aristocrat whose propensities toward violence and gluttony trump pages spent in the development and deepening of his personality. The main female character in the novel is referred to more often as “the modern schoolgirl” than she is by her actual name. While schoolboys quickly sort themselves into ideological camps at recess, Gombrowicz throws out their names in such a deluge that it obviates their individual importance.

But I’ll cut Gombrowicz some slack. After all, every lover of novels should occasionally read something that rails against the novel qua novel. And pieces, subdivisions, and fractions of things – both in general and in art more specifically – might justifiably elicit greater interest than their corresponding wholes. As a means for further exploring Eastern European literature, Ferdydurke makes for great reading once one has blown through his fair share of Kundera.

I must admit, though, that if the next book I read coheres more closely to an unbroken narrative arc, I might find myself wishing that Gombrowicz had tried just a little harder with this one.

Rating: 4 / 10

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