‘Cosmos’ tells the story of two self-pitying young men on holiday in the Polish countryside. It is a kind of mystery novel, but not the sort in which the body is discovered in the library at the beginning of chapter two. The investigation and the (nonexistent) crime are surreal and nonsensical, but for some reason, I had to continue reading to find out what the (nonexistent) solution to the (non) crime was going to be. Perhaps because I had paid for the book.
The experience of reading it is a bit like being tickled: enjoyable in an uncomfortable way. I was glad when it was over, yet also glad that I had read to the end.
At the beginning of the story, Gombrowicz’s narrator (suspiciously also called Witold), finds a hanged sparrow, and is determined to investigate. We are not informed why he wants to investigate, or why his friend Fuchs goes along with it so eagerly. The two men stay at a nearby guesthouse, and Witold becomes obsessed with two young women: one beautiful (Lena) and the other disfigured (Katasia). Witold’s investigation seems to centre on the hanged sparrow, but most of his thoughts and ruminations are about the two women. Each of the characters seems to feel thwarted in some way: the beautiful Lena is married, and therefore unattainable for Witold; Leo, Lena’s father, is also sexually frustrated, while his wife, Kulka, takes out her rage at looking after everyone in the household by battering inanimate objects with an axe. Fuchs complains ceaselessly that he is bullied by his boss, and Katasia’s chances of marriage have been wrecked by her disfigurement. Having set up a cast of characters whose motivations we can begin to understand, Gombrowicz goes on to make the dialogue and the events of the plot so surreal that it is hard to forget that the whole thing is pure make-believe. This surreal quality is certainly deliberate, and at times hilarious. When Fuchs goes looking for a clue to the non-existent mystery in Katasia’s room, he takes a frog as an alibi. Who wouldn’t?
The most entertaining surreal moment comes in chapter 5, after Witold has strangled, then hanged Lena’s cat in an attack of jealous fury. Even though he describes himself committing the ‘crime’, he still continues to investigate and speculate about who might be guilty:
“‘But who hanged the cat,’ he said….
Supposing she (Kulka) had done it? Supposing she had done it? Of course I was very well aware I had done it myself…. She would have been perfectly capable of throttling the cat and hanging it. It would have been just like her.”
And a few lines later:
“So… the culprit might have been Leo himself…. Of course, it was I who had done it, but he could have done it… Though he had actually not done it, since I had done it myself.”
This is the sort of witty writing that would work well on the stage, but I have a weakness for realism in fiction, even if it is of the magical sort, and in a novel I have to admit to finding it a little annoying.
‘Pornografia’ is a more conventional plot, in that the characters are placed in a degree of peril which is heightened as the story goes on. The motivation of these characters, though, is almost as hard to figure out as that of the young protagonists of ‘Cosmos’. The pornography referred to in the title (as the jacket blurb informs us) is the spectacle of two teenagers starting an illicit romance for the voyeuristic pleasure of two ageing intellectuals. If this is sounding suspiciously like ‘Lolita’, in a way it is. The main difference is that Nabokov was cunning enough to call his anti-hero Hubert Hubert (and in a later reworking of the idea, Humbert Humbert), whereas Gombrowicz goes right ahead and calls his protagonist…. Witold Gombrowicz.
This novel, like ‘Cosmos,’ is about frustration (Witold is tortured by his own lack of romantic interest in adults), but Gombrowicz also throws in a good deal of material about the opposition between atheism and religion. Frustrated intellectual #2, Frederick, is, we are told, an expert destroyer of religion. Frederick goes to a mass and makes the priest look silly. Frederick visits a dying saint and supplants the cross in her dying moments. Frederick makes teenagers shag each other (we think) and kill their rightful fiancées in a manner in which the Pope would definitely not approve. It seems that, like Richard Dawkins today (Dawkins is on Twitter – worth a look even if you disagree with him – @RichardDawkins), Gombrowicz mainly defines atheism in terms of the religion of which one is not a member. The religion of which Frederick is not a member is very definitely Roman Catholicism.
Readers who have no particular interest in Pope-bating will probably find ageing intellectuals #1 and #2 fairly hard to like. Frederick stages creepy set pieces in which he encourages the teenage lovers, Karol and Henia, to outrage conventional morality in the person of Albert, Henia’s fiancée. The theatricality of it is deliberate, and the pornography intellectuals #1 and #2 are enjoying is a sadistic theatrical production rather than the paper or celluloid variety. Sexual attraction is presented, rather oddly, in terms of killing and brutality rather than in terms of, say, a nice kiss. In one significant scene at the beginning of the novel, Karol and Henia together crush a worm. This incident is dwelt on in a rather heavy-handed way, and Gombrowicz makes it quite clear that Witold and Frederick are looking forward to seeing Albert treated the same way as the worm.
If Gombrowicz was teasing social conservatives in mid 20th century Poland, he was not doing it in a spirit of free love and flower power: in a way the fact that he was writing well before any 1960s liberalisation, and in a culture that was not touched by it in the same way as Western Europe and the USA were, makes his ideas more interesting, though not necessarily more likeable.
For me, ‘Pornografia’ scores over ‘Cosmos’ in the plot department, but the motivations of the characters are just as difficult to get to grips with. I suppose sadism just doesn’t do it for me.