Review: Witold Gombrowicz’s Bacacay


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.

Review of Witold Gombrowicz ,
Translation by Bill Johnston
( New York: Archipelago Books, 2005 )

For readers, like myself, acquainted with Witold Gombrowicz's writing only through his path-breaking novels, such as Ferdydurke and Pornografia, this newly translated collection of his (mainly) early short stories, will surprise by revealing the author had a second string to his bow.

Imagine if you will, Kafka without institutions. That is the atmosphere of his novels and a number of the stories included here. By this I mean as follows: In The Trial or The Castle, for example, the hero finds himself drawn into the gears of a vast, close-mouthed bureaucracy, which has unfathomable rules and operations that contain manifold, disquieting elements. In The Trial, the protagonist K cannot learn of what he is accused and the court employees all have their own agendas. For instance, on sneaking back into a court out of session, he finds that what he took to be law books his judges were continually examining were, in fact, porno magazines.

In Gombrowicz, by contrast, it is everyday life (not a bureaucracy), which seems to be governed by social laws that the protagonist has not been let in on, although everyone else seems au courant.

Take the story "Dinner at Countess Pavahoke's." A middle class "striver," the narrator, is invited to an aristocratic salon, because, he thinks, he displays extraordinary cultural refinement. Yet, he feels left out on the joke, when he finds the nobility seated around him at dinner are fantastically effusive about the sauce on the rather pedestrian cauliflower dish on which they are gourmandizing. He grows increasingly uneasy when he hears a peasant boy named Cauliflower has disappeared in the vicinity. Is there some double entendre intended, he wonders, when the guests say they love the taste of cauliflower?

Even more disturbing is the gradual derangement of the world experienced by the sheltered maiden in "Virginity."

One mild August evening, at sunset, Alice was taking a walk along the garden path ... It was a small but agreeable garden surrounded by a wall that was covered with climbing roses; a hobo lying in the sun on the top of the wall broke off a piece of brick and threw it at Alice.

From then on, Alice's world grows increasingly bedeviled.

The heart of the aforementioned novels and stories is the author's finding just the right, tiny discrepancy in the quotidian, introduced into just the right milieu in order to destabilize the world view of just the right character type. Now, in Bacacay, besides this form, Gombrowicz introduces another device. He employs his unsettling method on works of the mass cultural genres, such as detective fiction and nautical yarns. It could be said that such works are not so provocative in that these genres by definition already contain disturbing factors, from poisonings to sea serpents. Gombrowicz's task in these stories is to select events and details that are upsetting in a way that is different from the norm of these stories, be they absurd or subtly humorous. An example can be taken from the sea story "The Events on the Banbury." The officers are so bored, as one explains:

"We used to play dominoes, old maid, snap, and jack-straws, and we would take turns singing old songs from operettas. ...For the last few days," he said frankly ... "we've been throwing balls of bread at a deuced tiny little bug that we pulled out from under the cupboard."

Stories of this type, which make up half the book, are filled with a delightful zaniness, although, to my taste, they do not have the existentially raw impact of that so distinguishes Gombrowicz's work when he is drawing back his main string. In any case, you can sample arrows shot from both in this exquisite collection.