Diary Revisited
Witold Gombrowicz, Villa Anahi, Tandil, Argentina, 1959, photo from the archive of Rita Gombrowicz/FOTONOVA

Diary Revisited

Talk with Allen J. Kuharski

Gombrowicz uses his own idiosyncratic terms like ‘maturity’, ‘immaturity’, ‘superiority’, ‘inferiority’, ‘form’. The index almost killed me. I would say it’s like annotating Nietzsche, with the level of it

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ALAN LOCKWOOD: When Rita Gombrowicz visited Kraków this spring, she had just received the Yale University Press edition of the Gombrowicz Diary. She went to the new see-saw in Podgórze that commemorates her late husband and, in a conversation afterward, she praised your work on the Diary’s index for Yale, and other work you’re doing on the volume. What have you been at work on? 

ALLEN J. KUHARSKI: I worked with Richard Lowe, an information technology expert on database design, and with two research assistants on all the indexing work on the Yale edition. Then just as it came out in May, I was in touch with a colleague in Norway who works on Gombrowicz, Knut Grimstad. He knew about the Yale edition, and knows Agnes Banach, who was doing the new Norwegian translation. All the wheels started to turn, and the publisher there, Flamme Forlag, agreed to do a new index, and to include annotations that I would write. Those capsule biographies and definitions are hugely helpful and enriching, especially for the non-Polish reader. In Norway, the annotations in the first of their two volumes come to 45 pages. They didn’t cut anything.

They took all of what you compiled?

All of it. We’ve shown the material to Rita and she really likes it. It will come out on Gombrowicz.net in English, and I am working to get French, German and Spanish translations for that site. The question will be how we can let people know that even though these annotations are not in the book that Yale has published..

..they will be available online. Will Yale eventually include them, in an e-book edition or second edition?

It’s too soon to say, though it would be great if they decide to do that. And we want to make sure that all future non-Polish editions will have something like these annotations. Just after completing them, I got Marci Shore’s book Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, also published by Yale, which has a section, “Cast of Characters”, containing many of the people referred to in the Diary.

Rita Gombrowicz also spoke of Yale’s Diary edition being 43 years in the making, since Gombrowicz died. When did your involvement with the Diary begin?

Lillian Vallee, the translator of the Diary, was my first professor of Polish literature, at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s. She put me on this path personally, professionally, artistically. In the 1980s, I was a graduate student in Berkeley, California, doing work on Gombrowicz and theatre, when Lillian was commissioned to do the translation of the Diary by Northwestern University Press. It turned into something like an eight-year process – in the end it must have been a labor of love for her. One of my first published pieces was a review for the San Francisco Review of Books of Volume One, which came out around 1987. Later I wrote a piece called “Gombrowicz and Faust”, published in Dialog in Warsaw and in New Theatre Quarterly in the U.K., that was inspired by reading the Diary through in its entirety.

Then last summer I was in Paris visiting Rita and she said that Yale was reissuing the Diary in a single volume. I said it really, really needs an index – Lillian Vallee and I had originally proposed one for the Northwestern edition but they declined – and in September, Yale contacted me about doing the index. The thing about indexing this book – probably any book but especially this book – the key and the nightmare is that you have to do a subject-theme index. To do names, place, titles, that index took about 25 percent of the time. The French edition has what it calls a subject-theme index that is half a page, just cursory, obvious things.

Allen J. Kuharski

Prof. Allen J. Kuharski is chair of the Department of Theater at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. His critical writings and translations related to Polish theatre have been widely published and performed in the U.S., Poland, Great Britain, France, Austria, Norway and the Netherlands. He is a co-editor of Witold Gombrowicz: Complete Works, published by Wydawnictwo Literackie. He was named a Friend of Polish Culture by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in 2002 and received the Stanisław Witkiewicz Prize from Polish ITI in 2006.

What are “obvious things”?

“Music”, “art”, “women”. The very broad strokes. The Wydawnictwo Literackie index from 1997 has an exhaustive index, 50 or 60 pages, that includes a subject-theme index. We used that as a model for Yale, then we cut and found things we wanted to add. For example, all the citations from Shakespeare, indicating what play, act, scene and character. The index almost killed me. I would say it’s like annotating Nietzsche, with the level of it. Gombrowicz is using broad philosophical topics like “being” or “the artist” or “faith” and then his own idiosyncratic terms like “maturity”, “immaturity”, “superiority”, “inferiority”, “form”. There are dozens if not hundreds of such references that you have to catch – most explicit, but some also implicit.

And there are confusions or corruptions in the different editions about what constitutes the integral text of the Diary. Halfway through the work for Yale, we found two missing passages that Lillian never realised had been cut. And just weeks ago we found a third missing passage, that Rita in particular was very concerned about. It will be available in the Norwegian edition, but is not in this Yale edition. These are the kinds of things we are able to perfect in the text by comparing the Polish, English, French, German – I have all of these on my desk when we’re working.

Step by step, mistake by mistake, getting it straightened out.

Yes – exactly! Another thing, when you are dealing in Polish with foreign names and terms, the form at the end of a name morphs constantly. When it’s a foreign name, this can cause confusion (laughs). I found for the first time in the Norwegian edition that a key person in Argentine cultural history is misidentified in every previous edition, including Yale, where we didn’t catch it. It’s a woman, and in every previous edition she’s identified as a man.

Who is she?

The poet Alfonsina Storni.

And she was “Alfonsino Storni” for all these years?

Yes. It was partly because I was doing the annotations, searching on Google to see who we should have an annotation about. But if you searched using that other name, you didn’t get her.

One thing that you confront about the text constantly is how polyglot it is, in language and culturally. Names, nicknames and slang in Russian, Polish, Spanish, German, English and French, are constantly in play. It is a cosmopolitan, internationally minded text, intrinsically. References to six languages and six cultures are always in play. It’s incorrect to say it’s primarily a text about a Polish émigré intellectual and Poland. That’s a piece of it. It’s also about all these other things. In the later years, for example, he talks about postwar Germany and postwar France – in effect talking about the American-sponsored NATO, and the ironies and hypocrisies of nominally democratic West Germany.

Rita Gombrowicz said that, late in his life, they would wonder if the complete Diary wasn’t just a lot of paper they could use for packing – that there wasn’t the understanding among publishers then that this is an important book in 20th century literature.

It certainly has become that, and certainly in Poland it has become that. But there were already translations of the early parts, sections from the early 1950s especially, into German and French. I found them in the library in Berkeley in the 1980s. Some were from the 1960s, when it was only in Kultura that they would have been published in Polish. The French edition was out in 1981, and the German complete edition that I work from came out in 1988. The full text is a monster. The Yale one is 750 pages, the Norwegian is over 1000 pages total, because of the way they designed it, plus the annotations.

Now – and I think Rita has the right to be proud – in addition to the complete Polish edition there are now comparable editions in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish and Norwegian. It’s becoming a long list, in this kind of comprehensive format. And in Norway, it’s being published by a literary press, not an academic press, as is the case in English with Yale. In Norway it is like Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Vintage are in the U.S., a very fine literary press.

Comparable to Wydawnictwo Literackie in Poland?

Wydawnictwo Literackie is very institutional. This Norwegian publisher is more like Gallimard in France, doing top-shelf Polish and world literature.

How does the publication of the complete Diary influence the strange case of Gombrowicz’s writings in the U.S., where his work deserves to be better known?

It’s huge. I think that having the index and being able to navigate the text – it’s like having a CAT scan, and you realise the immense breadth of it. Looking at the annotations for the Norwegian edition, for example, you realise that even Volume One is already a complete survey and critique of Polish culture and literature from the Renaissance to the 20th century. He’s going through it all, like going back in English to Marlowe and Shakespeare then going all the way down to Hemingway, Henry Miller, Kerouac, the Angry Young Men in England and Harold Pinter. Then there’s a whole polemic about philosophy and philosophers in it. He addresses the vision of a Western cultural canon, with names from world literature, art history, music and his choices are extremely eclectic. Then the surprising thing is that he moves outside of European, Western culture, and has a whole discussion of Latin America and Argentina, the writers, culture and politics, and of Cuba.

A decade and more before those cultures were being embraced in other parts of the world.

And he was nurturing some of these writers. Some are people he knew and was an important influence on.

Virgilio Piñera, for example?

And Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu. I’m getting more and more interested in the connection to Cuba. Both Piñera and Rodríguez Tomeu were very significant writers of their generation who were then severely repressed by the Castro regime. Now they are being revived, promoted and embraced as important writers of 20th century Cuban literature and theatre. I’m a theatre person, and Piñera was a significant playwright, more than a cult figure. He’s kind of like Gombrowicz was in Polish literature before the end of communism, discussed in intellectual circles, theatrical circles, literary circles, Cuban expatriate circles. Whatever post-communist Cuba is going to be, Piñera will certainly be in that literary canon, and so will Rodríguez Tomeu.

Allen J. Kuharski, photo: Ted KostansAre you thinking about writing again about the Diary?

Yes. There are fascinating, important groups that Gombrowicz reveals, sometimes on purpose and sometimes unintentionally, that I had not grasped for all the time I’ve been dealing with it. One is the vast material of writing by women in pre-World War Two Polish literature. It’s enormous. I’ve always been aware that it’s neglected in Poland and outside Poland. With the best writers such as Maria Dąbrowska, Maria Kuncewiczowa or Pola Gojawiczyńska, it’s completely baffling why they are neglected. But when you go through the annotations and pull out the women, it’s a revelation to have those names as a list, and to have those profiles of who they are. The first name, on the first page of Volume One, after all the “me me me’s”, is Józefa Radzymińska, a Polish woman with a literary profile. I’m sure he didn’t do it by design, but that’s who is there, right on page one. Then it emerges, as this marvelous Loch Ness monster, this massive literature by women that he can’t avoid. Even though he’s condescending – and Gombrowicz is at his worst with women, as a category, you know.

I do.

This is something I want to do a polemic with, in writing. It’s like he doesn’t know what to do with this vast presence in the literature, and in the end it’s this mix of grudging respect and faint praise. It’s a huge subject, and they are every kind of writer, it’s not just one type of literature.

The other thing, when you pull out names on the list of annotations – again I don’t think it’s anything he set out to do, it’s just the world he lived and wrote in – are the many Jewish writers and intellectuals.

That is a rich list.

I follow that literature and felt I was aware of who people were. But he drops a name – oh! – and assumes the reader knows and just moves on. We don’t know, outside of Poland. It gives enormous insight into independent Poland, then the Holocaust and the war, then the people who survived the war and the Holocaust. There was the emigration, and people who joined the Party and became part of postwar Polish communism and its culture, and his polemics with them. Sometimes they supported him and sometimes he was taking them on. The picture you get of Polish-Jewish intelligentsia is fascinating, huge and extensive. It’s way more than I had understood, having read the book twice and more. Gombrowicz was admired and supported by Jewish intellectuals in Poland, and felt very grateful and in sympathy with them. It’s a theme in the Diary that reveals a world and a milieu.

How does this varied world of Polish intelligentsia register in the English-language world, where readers are likely at a loss with most of these names – not to mention the limited comprehension of independent Poland between the wars?

I think, even more if you look at the Jewish intellectuals than the women, that in these lives and this history of the war, these people crossed many cultural, linguistic and political boundaries. It’s not just a Polish story. When you’re talking about the Jewish-Polish intellectuals, it’s already a Jewish story and a Polish story. Parts of it occur in the Soviet sphere. Or it’s a Latin American story. Or an American story. Or it becomes a French or a German story, or a Norwegian story, because now (laughs) there are Norwegian stories that I’ve learned. The figures that emerge, like Gombrowicz, their biographies are fascinating, as people, as intellectuals and writers, as political players. You find out that these Polish figures and these circles are anything but hermetic or self-contained, or provincial or whatever the stereotype may be.

The difficulty in understanding is that you have to be prepared to move between Poland, France, Buenos Aires, New York, London, at the turn of a page. It’s a supremely cosmopolitan world. To give a comparison, I just gave a talk at the Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia on Tony Kushner. The Wilma Theater there has just been doing a big production of Angels in America.

The Wilma Theater hosted Michal Zadara’s production of Gombrowicz’s Operetta, and did their own well-received production of Slobodzaniek’s Our Class in English last year. What happened in your talk about Kushner?

I was talking about Kushner, not as a Jewish playwright, but as an American playwright. It was about the writer who is – and we don’t have enough examples of this in American culture, but Kushner is one, and Arthur Miller is another – the playwright who is a public intellectual. And who is also politically engaged and a political spokesperson. And a target. Someone who conducts polemics beyond “I hope you like my play.” Kushner and Miller and a few other Americans, including Eugene O’Neill, are writers, artists, who are also public intellectuals and political players in the country, and maybe the world.

Now when you look at these Polish biographies of that generation and era, no one had the privilege to just be a writer with talent. Everyone was forced into the role of public intellectual. Frankly, it would have been a definition of “second-rate”, in terms of talent and intellect, to not have been a voice in public affairs. Some of these were on the right, politically – though not so many that Gombrowicz emphasises – and most were on what we consider the left, even if they were the anticommunist left, which is where Gombrowicz was, the secular anticommunist left, not the Catholic left. What you see is that Jewish or Gentile, left wing or right wing, the people who were in that world, they were an army of Tony Kushners. Everyone was, if not militarily engaged out of political commitment to fight the Nazis or the Communists or at times both, they were engaged with concerted, sustained, politically conscious public life. Including Gombrowicz. Which is why his works were banned or censored until 1989. And the Diary was key to that censorship.

The dozen passages that the censor board would not let past. And Rita Gombrowicz  maintained the insistence of her late husband that..

..that they have to be there.

He was publishing precise criticisms of communist regimes.

Along with the critique of the Polish communist regime and the critique of the Soviet regime, there is a baseline critique and negation of Marxism. It’s not just the governments, it’s Marxism: taking Marxism apart. That’s why I say it’s like annotating Nietzsche or Leszek Kołakowski. Political philosophy, and other dimensions of philosophy, are part of the book. But the political-philosophy argument is why it was a banned book. It would be much more convenient for our world – and for Yale’s promotion, and for my ongoing own work on issues of sexuality in Gombrowicz as well – if it were because of his confessions of bisexuality that he was writing a banned book. It has in fact been the Catholic Church in post-Soviet Poland that has publicly objected to Gombrowicz’s treatment of sexuality – though the fundamental issue is his categorical atheism. But the communists weren’t really concerned about the confessions of his bisexuality – they were really concerned about a baseline critique of Marxism.

In New York Times Sunday Book Review (published 31 August 2012 – A.L.), there’s a long article about George Orwell’s diaries, which have just been published. Orwell’s dates are similar to Gombrowicz’s, especially their birth dates, but his diaries sound way less interesting. As a public, politically engaged individual, though, Gombrowicz sounds a lot like Orwell.

What makes Orwell’s diaries seem less interesting than Gombrowicz’s? Do they seem less interesting as literature?

The way they are described makes them sound much more the way you would expect a diary to be: about trivial day-to-day life, his gardens and animals, mundanity. Gombrowicz, when he writes about the mundane, it’s in counterpoint or as a foil or it’s a trap – suddenly the mundane leads you into these political or philosophical discussions. It’s all tactical and by design. The Diary is so tightly written; he took a lot of care in editing it. Rita is wonderful about it, in her introduction to the Yale edition, writing that the Diary really works more like a novel. And Gombrowicz writes about this bending of genres. In one great passage, he wonders, “Can I make Gombrowicz, in this diary, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Cervantes’ Don Quixote”? He’s acknowledging this “I”, this first-person Gombrowicz, is a construction, a character, a mask, a literary conceit.

With this approach providing a more immediate connection to the reality, the multiform cultural overlays that he’s aware of. Rather than creating a fictional character, he transforms his self and his person, utilising the means he can in working a literary form and making the connection between a literary construct named Gombrowicz, and his experience. Doesn’t it come in the late 1950s, when suddenly he’s writing of himself in the third person, in italics?

Yes, it’s one of the strange sort of postmodern things he starts playing with. There are always layers in what he’s doing, and he’s always very playful with genre, and self-conscious about genre. The genre he’s really interested in and he is practicing is not always the genre that’s on the surface of a given text. The other level of it, the really important thing, is about the truth that he can access. He’s a writer that believes that artistic, creative work can access a higher level of truth than biography or history that document reality. The Diary is not the truth of a documented reality. The Diary is the truth of a play like Hamlet.

Yale University Press for over a decade has been bringing out his books: the novels translated for the first time directly from Polish, and titles such as Polish Memories that were previously unavailable in English. Has this helped prepare an English-language readership to take up this vast Diary and the world it presents? To wrestle with Gombrowicz, to risk infection, as it were?

This is where I’m different than a lot of people who are dealing with Gombrowicz. My focus is on Gombrowicz and theatre, the plays and how the texts that are not plays can be turned into performance. I’m struck still, if we’re talking about an English-language readership, with how Gombrowicz has discrete audiences. Separate audiences that are interested in different parts of the work, and that are not very good about acknowledging each other. Maybe the Diary now will help and prove a catalyst for bringing these readerships together.

There are four productions of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia happening in the U.S. this year. But if you read Ruth Franklin’s wonderful five-page New Yorker magazine review of the Diary, would you know that Gombrowicz is a playwright with four productions in the U.S. in 2012? She represents two of the segmented Gombrowicz readerships in the States: the New York literary elite, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books – Gombrowicz has always had following in the New York, high literary world – and something else. Ruth Franklin is a child of the Polish-Jewish diaspora. Her parents left Poland in 1968 during the anti-Semitic campaign. She’s a part of the intellectual Jewish Polonia– not the working-class, kiełbasa-eating, blue collar people, but an intellectual and artistic milieu, both Jewish and gentile, made up of people like Ruth Franklin, Gombrowicz and myself. The Polish intellectual diaspora has its own relationship to Gombrowicz. They don’t necessarily have much conversation with the New York publishing literary insiders, such as Gary Indiana and Susan Sontag – there’s a curtain. They should, but they don’t. Franklin is an interesting example of at least one person crossing those lines.

In New York, though, more people know Gombrowicz from live performances of his work than know about him from reading the novels and the Diary.

Is that so?

Yes. And it’s certainly true in Philadelphia, where I teach. In Philadelphia, we’ve had such a long tradition of doing Gombrowicz in the theatre here that 110 people turned out for a little theatre company doing a fund-raising benefit for their production of Ivona that opens this week. We used it as a way to announce that the Diary was out, and had copies available and sold them. The audience came because Gombrowicz is a playwright, not because he wrote the Diary. Thousands and thousands of people in Philadelphia have seen Gombrowicz’s work in live performance. About 8000 people in Washington, D.C., saw one production.

At Wooly Mammoth Theater in 2009, during the month-long run of Hell Meets Henry Halfway, the adaptation from the novel Possessed by Pig Iron Theater Company and playwright Adriano Shaplin. Which has also toured the States, Poland and other countries.

Yes. Three hundred people per show in Washington, eight times a week. So there’s this theatre audience that I’m dealing with all the time and that Rita is very aware of because it’s an important part of her life as Gombrowicz’s widow – the theatre is a lucrative part of the literary estate. The theatre director of this Ivona in Philadelphia, Tina Brock, she’s read the Diary. I’m disappointed with theatre directors, here in the States or anywhere, who don’t read the Diary, but this is just the way it works. I’m also disappointed that Ruth Franklin doesn’t know, when she writes in the New Yorker, to mention that Gombrowicz has an interesting and significant production history in New York and in American theatre. When I went to the centenary conference in Kraków in 2004, there were maybe eighty or ninety speakers. Only three of us were talking about the theatre. This indicates that the same problem exists in Poland between various audiences and readerships for Gombrowicz’s work.

And I do my best to let people know this: Ivona, Princess of Burgundia is Gombrowicz’s best-known text outside of Poland. In every other nation, certainly in Europe, people who know who Gombrowicz is, and those who know any text, will generally know Ivona first. Why? Because it is performed all the time. People don’t focus on that, and Polish literary people don’t think about theatre in Germany, Scandinavia, France, Italy or the U.S. It’s just an interesting footnote to them that maybe a million people have seen Ivona in Germany.

How many did you say?!

(Laughs) I’m pulling a number out of my head. But seriously: at least hundreds of thousands of people have seen the play in live performance there. It could be over a million by now – I’m currently working on documenting that audience over time. This has gone on now for generations, since 1964.

With new generations of theatre people grappling with that piece, staging it for new audiences to consider.

Right. Twenty years ago I went to Amsterdam to do an acting workshop with Dutch theatre people. I used Gombrowicz as the focal point, and in the first half hour it came up. I was making my pitch about the material, and they asked, “But why are you talking about Gombrowicz like we don’t know who he is? Gombrowicz for us,” they said, “is a modern classic, like Beckett, Genet, Ionesco.”

What was your reply?

I said, “Thank you for reminding me!” After having to provide all this song and dance in the U.S. back then, it was great to hear them say, “We’re already there.” Now there are probably a hundred people in Philadelphia, theatre professionals, that have worked on Gombrowicz. One colleague here at Swarthmore has designed three Gombrowicz productions. These aren’t Polish Americans, or children of the Polish diaspora. These are American theatre professional artists who are interested in Gombrowicz as a theatre artist to perform.

This goes back to the Norwegian edition of the Diary. The reason I was able to take the annotations on is that I have a Norwegian colleague at Swarthmore College, Laila Swanson, who is a costume designer. She just designed our production of Ivona at Swarthmore College. She’s been in the U.S. twenty years and now she’s on our faculty, and she was prepared to help with that edition, because I don’t know Norwegian. Now she’s one of the exceptions in the Amerian professional theatre community that has actually read the Diary in addition to producing one of the plays. That’s the hope, that these worlds can come closer together over the publication of the Diary. Now if I can get Ruth Franklin to come down to Philadelphia to see our Ivona, maybe she’ll write another kind of article in the New Yorker. Just as Susan Sontag came to see Ferdydurke as a play when we presented it in New York.