Milan Kundera called Witold Gombrowicz “one of the great novelists of our century.” His most famous novel, Cosmos, the recipient of the 1967 International Prize for literature, is now available in a critically acclaimed translation by the award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt. Cosmos is a metaphysical noir thriller narrated by Witold, a seedy, pathetic, and witty student, who is charming and appalling by turns. On his way to a relaxing vacation he meets the despondent Fuks. As they set off together for a family-run pension in the Carpathian Mountains where they discover a dead bird hanging from a string. Is this a strange but meaningless occurrence or is it the beginning of a string of bizarre events?
Zielony Balonik book club notes:
Gombrowicz was better known in People’s Poland for drama & dramatisations of his work than for his novels. Cosmos, and Pornografia, his other late novel, are very different from the novels he wrote in the 1930s. His exile from Poland after 1939 affected his writing – detachment, living in Buenos Aires, latterly in France, any Polish community around him. He continued to write in Polish, and set this book in Poland, based on his memories of the country. Like Leon in the book, he worked as a banker. His work is more concerned with the human condition, with philosophy and language, than with history.
Gombrowicz once compared his conception of literature to an eel. ‘What would become of the eel if you caught it? You’d eat it. Literature and the eel live as long as they succeed in wriggling away.’
Kosmos was published in 1965 in Paris, only available in Poland underground. (The first translation into English was made from the French & German translations.) The book was filmed recently, with the setting changed to Portugal, a controversial choice, but the film was generally well received.
It’s not always an easy book to read – the horror of the cat’s hanging – but innovative, rhythmically interesting, often boring and fascinating at the same time. It’s a kind of anti-detective novel, where everything is resolved, and given a rational / plausible explanation. It remains relevant – hasn’t dated – there are few specific historical references, or events external to the narrative, other than the odd lorry passing along the road. The theme of onanism is highlighted by the translator, although on a first reading it is not be immediately obvious; on a rereading it seems to be everywhere. The more you read, the more you discover.
The Polish has a feel of pre-WW2 language, uses many diminutives and neologisms, and can be deliberately confusing. The diminutives (mainly in Leon’s speech) are unconvincing in the translation. There are odd similes, e.g. heaven is like a sauce.
The central house is a dvorek, or small manor. It is in the forest, which can have sinister connotations in Poland, from folklore but also more recent mass killings and secret burials, not to mention storms and collapsing trees. The Polish mind thinks of partisans and mushroom-picking. (Poles settled in England often preferred suburbia.) The setting is like the 1930s, when there is pressure to conform, but that was also true (in different ways) in the 1950s and 60s, and is still true today.
The first-person narrator – named, like the author, Witold – offers a Joycean stream of consciousness. It’s a study in insanity, of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Both he and his friend or acquaintance, Fuks, have unresolved issues (parents / work). They try to make sense of the signs around them, seeing underlying messages and connections everywhere, while at the same time doubting they’re there; yet they do settle to their work from time to time. The narrator concludes that it is necessary to kill Lena – a loss of control and perspective – yet in the end he doesn’t, the rain falls and quickly everything he has built in his mind crumbles, and he is back home in Warsaw eating with his parents. (Perhaps it’s even to them that he’s telling this story.) He is obsessed with sex, yet confused about it too. He desires Lena, but can’t bear to be with her.
Beauty and the Beast? Hints that Leon might be the latter (Lena, rather than her mother, is the beauty). Leon and Roly Poly’s married life isn’t defined or marked by great historical changes, such as shook 20th century Poland. Ludwik is an architect, and wants to order the world scientifically, but it is he who finds the world too much to cope with, rather than Leon, with his escape into fantasy. Class divisions – Katasia, and the intelligentsia, yet Leon’s comfort depends on his wife’s housework. Roly Poly (Polish ‘Kulka’), her monologue about her married life, secrets and mysteries and lies. Leon fantasises about other women, but has no intention of leaving his wife – the theme of onanism. The narrator feels the newly married couples are ridiculous or disgusting, perhaps with the exception of Venomie, who ‘keeps herself to herself’.
The narrative describes the minutiae of everyday life – food, e.g. butter, radishes, salt – like Knausgaard – precise images, e.g. the description of Lena’s hand on the table.