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Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz

Ferdydurke (1937)

by Witold Gombrowicz

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Like Sartre's Nausea, only good. ( )
1 vote palaverofbirds | Mar 29, 2013 |
This book is, as Susan Sontag in the Introduction says, "an epic in defense of immaturity", and it is like no other. Gombrowicz insists on the word immaturity, and not youth, because it represents something unattractive, something inferior. Thus being, how can such a book grab us? But grab me it did, as I was in turns amused, repelled, entertained, annoyed, mostly provoked by the idea of immaturity as embodied by Joey (can a name be more annoying than this?) and his friends. I read on, more out of curiousity at how much more bizarre and eccentric things can turn, how twistedness and contrariness can continue to be served up without the author exhausting the themes with repetition. But Gombrowicz is not the master for nothing, and the excellent translation captured the nuances and moods, that the reading (including a couple of chapters which were more like essays by the writer on writing), was a pleasure and an experience in itself.

Joey is a 17-year old schoolboy, recently 30-year old writer who was torn between his obsession of projecting an image of serious maturity to the outside world through his writing and his inability to let go of his infantile self.

But I was, alas, a juvenile, and juvenility was my only cultural institution. Caught and held back twice - first by my childish past, which I could not forget, and the second time by the childishness of other people's notions of me, a caricature that had sunk into their souls - I was the melancholy prisoner of all that is green, why, an insect in a deep, dense thicket.

Joey's transformation into his juvenile self occurred as a result of his abduction by a professor Pimko into an absurd world where everything was grotesque, upside down and inside out -- the big was small, the small monstrously big, the shapes unnatural, gestures outrageous, actions manic, and reasoning absurd. Here, he could let himself go; the more infantile one was, the better. Pimko takes him to a schoolyard full of sniveling brats where his idiotic pupa paralyzes him amidst their infantile tricks, violence and teenage braggadocio. (In the translator's notes, "pupa" is described as Gombrowicz's metaphor for the gentle, insidious, but infantilizing and humiliation that human beings inflict on one another, or belittlement.) Here, it is the vilest, most disgusting, and most distorted expressions and behaviour that are rewarded. After a while he realizes he has to run away, lest he fall prey to all this freakishness.

Yet instead of running away I wiggled my toe inside my shoe, and the wiggling paralyzed me and foiled my intentions to run, because how was I to run while I was still wiggling my toe...?...All I needed was - the will to run. But I lacked the will. Because to run one needs the will, but where is the will to come from when one is wiggling one's toe....

Joey's education in this world continues beyond the school confines, to his boarding house where he becomes infatuated with the daughter of his landlady, who represented everything he was not. Between school and home, we see his encounters with contrasts: maturity/immaturity in all its forms, modernity/old fashioned ways; youth/old age; innocence/knowledge; ability/ineptness; awkwardness/sophistication; politeness/impoliteness; faces/counter-faces; composition/decomposition; symmetry/assymetry; artificiality/naturalness; thesis/antithesis; theory/practice.

He journeys with Kneadus, a classmate, into the countryside to look for a farmhand whom they wished to emulate (again the contrast -- cityboy/farmboy), and came to the estate of Joey's aunt and uncle. Here, he finds another world where the lords of the manor and the peasantry entrap and hold onto each other in childishness. He sees more contrasts: city ways/rugged farmhand ways; the city streets/the countryside; lords/servants.

Blind actions. Automatic reflexes. Atavistic instincts. Lordly-childish fancy. I walked as if into the anachronims of a gigantic slap in the face, which was simultaneously a tradition of many centuries and an infantile smack, and it liberated, in one fell swoop, the lord and the child.

After a while, Joey decides to escape from this world where he felt totally infantilized. And again, an abduction takes place which he thought would bring him back to the city...and, we hope, the maturity that has so far eluded him. But really, what hope does he have? At the book's closing, Joey assumes the author's voice taunting, challenging, provoking us, "graceful bundles of body parts, now let it all begin -- come, step up to me, begin your kneading, make me a new mug so I will again have to run from you....Because there is no escape from the mug, other than into another mug...." And ends with, "It's the end, what a gas, And who's read it is an ass!" I can see Joey sticking out his tongue at me, and doing an anti-face grimace. How can it not be.

This was a fun read, and I found some of the situations truly hilarious. There is nothing subtle about them. An example is the face/anti-face contest which was so inane and truly gross, but also so stupidly funny. It struck me that this was not so unreal, as kids actually do it. What I didn't enjoy though was the brutality with servants (hitting the face -- mug/pupa?) though it was regarded common practice by masters, and was accepted without question by, and even was a point of honor among servants. I was also turned off by references to rape of the female servant by Kneadus.

The playfulness of the subject extends to the fantastic wordplay that Gombrowicz employs, which I enjoyed very much. And we do not mind the inanity and grossness that assail us readers, the pokes at our sensibilities -- it is all fun. And why should a mirror into ourselves show only what is decent, mature, and sophisticated? Why can't we look at the mirror of Ferdydurke, see our own pupas and laugh at the same time? We might yet take advice from Joey, in his former 30-year old self, when he reflected:

What is the connection, where is the bond between the king of beekeepers and the inner man, between the man and the youth, between the youth and the boy, the boy and the child that, after all, he once was, what comfort is the king to the little brat in you? A life unmindful of these bonds, a life that does not evolve in unbroken continuity from one phase to another is like a house that is being built from the top down, and must inevitably end in a schizophrenic split of the inner self. ( )
8 vote deebee1 | Feb 27, 2013 |
First things first: this book needs to be read quickly. Not superficially, nor lightly, but in less than 3 days. Unfortunately that's not the case here, for various reasons (one of them being leaving it 3500 miles away...) What's necessary is to be caught in its special web, to live in its linguistic reality.

At first I thought I was in for a Pirandello redux (1st chapter)[1], and then (2nd chapter) I started almost actively hating it, saying, but this isn't even a novel! (it's a philosophical-psychological-political treatise, I thought). But of course I should have known better, because as always the first pages tell you how to read the rest of the pages (waking from a dream that puts into question his very being, the narrator contemplates the state of his writing, and thus his soul). And WG was way ahead of me, predicting my reaction, as we see in the brilliant 11th chapter [2]. (I'd already been hooked by the 4th...)

So what do we have here then? Well, if not a story (as I was clamoring for in the 2nd chapter), scenes then, and certainly a world, our world, through a comic and surreal (yet all too real) lens of immaturity. And body parts. Yes, body parts, parts not connected to the whole... Can our ideologies (trans)form our faces? What exactly is the connection between our bodies and our souls? In our infancy (immaturity), they (everyone really) entrap us inside someone else's body, someone else's soul, but that soul fits us like a shoe that's too tight...

Yawn. Boring, you say. Been there, read that (Pirandello, for one). But the beauty is in the unpredictability of it all (as in Bolaño, who called this book one of the "key novels of the 20th century" [3]). You don't know what's coming next because you've never seen what's happening now. Dancing inside the bedroom of a teenage girl's bourgeois parents in order to "cast" some sort of bad-taste spell? A colonel who shoots a tennis ball out of the air right in the middle of a game, and the players continue to play for a bit? Two dueling philosophy professors who shoot off the body parts of their respective wives/lovers? There's that, and more, my friends...

[1] I'm thinking of Pirandello's _One, no one and 100000_. Right down to the narrator's name: here Gingio, there Gengè (translator's license, or original? Most likely the former...)

[2] "It would also be appropriate to establish...whether what we have here is a novel, a diary, a parody, a pamphlet, a variation on an imaginative theme, a work of non-fiction..." (p 172, my translation from the Italian...) (the answer is "all of the above", of course...)

[3]"Tra Parentesi", page 123 of the Italian Adelphi edition. Apparently, Milan Kundera said something similar: "I consider _Ferdydurke_ one of the 3 or 4 greatest novels written after the death of Proust" (my translation of the Italian translation of the French in the article _Gombrowicz malgré tous_ in "Nouvel Observadeur", March 1990). ( )
1 vote donato | Dec 25, 2011 |
Mindbending prose that sets all of our taken för granted truths about ourselves and our place in society in a new light. What does "growing up" mean when you think about it? Ferdydurke makes you wonder... ( )
  leakim | Sep 14, 2011 |
I read about this new(ish) translation of Ferdydurke a few months ago and I decided to give it a try, having all but given up on my quest to find a copy of the original Spanish translation. Throughout the years I had encountered numerous references to Gombrowicz and his influence on Argentine literature (in fact, just the other day I read a short note by Roberto Bolaño concerning a Catalan translation of the text), and my curiosity regarding Ferdydurke had grown to great proportions. I find people like Gombrowicz, who leave their home countries and find some degree of fame and notoriety in foreign lands, to be quite fascinating, and Ferdydurke has a mythical quality to it which made me very excited to finally read it, no matter the language. I knew that it was the story of a thirty year old man banished back to his teenage years, and that it dealt with issues of maturity and immaturity, but beyond that, I didn't know what to expect. I was very glad that in her short introduction to the translation, Susan Sontag mentioned that in order to understand the true uniqueness of this book, it's important to remember that it was written in 1930s Poland. In the eighty years since its publication, the cult of immaturity has risen in prominence. One need do no more than turn on the TV and browse the cable offerings to find example after example of immaturity being celebrated. Also, many books have been written in the past eighty years along similar lines as Ferdydurke (The Tin Drum is one example that came to my mind, and this book's protagonist reminds me a lot of Oskar). Maybe this book isn't as weird and revolutionary in 2011 as it was in 1937, but I still found it wonderfully strange, as well as absolutely hilarious.

Joey Kowalski is visited by Professor Pimko, who reverts him back to the age of 17 and sends him to school. At school, two factions representing youthful purity and perverse maturity are at each others' throats, led by Syphon (the chief proponent of purity) and Kneadus (who is on the side of obscenity and also has a strange attraction to farmhands). Joey eventually ends up refereeing a grimace-off between the two leaders, where they make a bunch of faces in an attempt to force the other side into submission.

After the school episode, Joey is sent to live with the Youngblood family. Father Youngblood is an engineer, mother Youngblood is a modern and progressive wife, and their beautiful young daughter, Zeta, is coveted by many men, including Joey. Joey tries to insert himself into a relationship with Zeta, but she's out of his league and not really into him. He also tries to maneuver two other individuals, Professor Pimko (representing age and wisdom and ridiculous maturity) and Kopyrda (the cool, aloof young student who stayed above the initial fracas between innocence and profanity) into a simultaneous midnight rendez-vous with Zeta which he hopes will lead to disaster for both sides. All parties do end up colliding in a potentially explosive faceoff, but Joey ends up being rescued by Kneadus, who has been secretly visiting the Youngbloods' maid and wants Joey to come with him to the countryside in search for a flesh-and-blood cure for his farmhand obsession.

In the countryside, the pair of teenagers stay with Joey's noble family, and Kneadus finds his farmhand. His fraternizations with the peasant class are frowned upon by the nobility, and there's a lot of slapping of faces and other body parts by all those involved (the best part is when Joey slaps Visek, the farmhand: he has to muffle the noise, so he slaps him through a rag!). Kneadus's actions are more and more reprehensible in the eyes of a lazy, gluttonous group of noble men and women whose rigid social mores prohibit any and all socialization with the ignorant peasants who serve their beck and call.

Between the three sections depicting teenage school life, Joey's homestay with a modern, urban family, and their journey into the backward countryside, there are interludes entitled "The Child Runs Deep in Filidor" and "The Child Runs Deep in Filibert," each with their own prologue. I found the Filidor chapter, where the High Filidor, champion of synthesis, does battle with the Analyst (the Anti-Fildor), to be especially amusing.

Even though the book was pretty zany, it provided a surprisingly realistic portrait of 1930s Poland. The three parts concerning the school, the home and the countryside illustrated a series of ideological struggles between different factions of Polish society. The schoolboys fighting over whether they should be innocent or perverse, the modern parents arguing over how their daughter should wield her blossoming sexuality, and the struggle of the conservative rural gentry to maintain their dominance over the subservient peasantry in the wake of the Russian Revolution, are all presented in a relatively comprehensive and easy-to-grasp manner. The author also intervenes a few times to discuss issues of artistic creativity, helping the reader to better understand the literary culture into which the book was born. Everyone might be slapping each other in the mug, or doing other exceedingly odd things as a giant ass is rising in place of the sun, but in the meantime, their social status and worldviews are presented relatively clearly. Reading this book gave me an idea of what Poland was like in the 1930s, and I enjoyed seeing it through Gombrowicz's (or Joey's) eyes. The narrator's perspective as a "mature" adult transported back to the age of 17, forced to look at his world and its occupants through the eyes of a youth, yet with a 30-year old mind fully aware of the ridiculousness of adult life and adult conceptions of maturity, was compelling and hilarious. I've often imagined what it would be like to go back to high school with the knowledge on life and human interaction that I have acquired since then. Having experienced what I've experienced in the past nine years, how would I interact if I were placed back in the hallways of my high school? How would I see the world if I were seventeen again? This book gave me the chance to do just that, and I had a great time as Joey experienced the Poland of his day in an altered, newly-immature body.

Apparently this book presents great challenges to translators: the language is just as crazy as the story, and I can imagine it would be very, very hard to find suitable ways to express Gombrowicz's Polish in any foreign tongue. For example, the author has chosen the word "pupa" to represent something like a butt, but I can only imagine what the word and its connotations originally were in Polish. There is lots of talk of peoples' mugs, farmhand mugs and engineer mugs and old and young mugs, and, while it's basically a face, one wonders what exactly "mug" was in Polish. This is the first direct translation from the original Polish to English, and I found it very enjoyable. If possible, reading this English translation published in 2000 made me even more excited to find a copy of the original 1947 Spanish translation by Gombrowicz, Virgilio Piñera, et al. I think I've figured out how to obtain a copy of that text, and hopefully, I will have it in my possession within the next month or so. Reading it as a companion to the English translation should be a lot of fun, because not only will I experience the story in a new language and with a new set of words to express such bizarrity, but I'll be able to compare the two and get a better idea of what the author wanted to express.

March 7, 2011:

When I finished reading Ferdydurke in English last month, I put in a request for an interlibrary loan of the original Spanish translation, done in Buenos Aires in 1946 by the author himself, along with a group of his literary acquantances (including the Cuban author Virgilio Piñera). Suddenly it was here and I only had a month to read it and return it, so I found myself hurriedly re-reading it last week. It's the first time I've ever read two different translations, in two different languages, of the same book. It was interesting; would any translator have dared change the name of the protagonist from Joey to Pepe? Being your own translator, I suppose, allows you a great deal of liberty, given that if you think something should be a certain way, since you wrote it in the first place, your reasoning will be pretty much always be justifiable.

I enjoyed both versions; it felt like the same book, and I suppose that this Spanish translation justified my thoughts that the recent English translation was probably a good one. Gombrowicz's preface was really great, in that he clearly explained what his book was about and why he wrote it. He summarizes his project by stating: "Here the author, confessing his own immaturity, obtains--I believe--greater sovereignty and liberty with respect to form and, at the same time, puts the mechanism of his immaturity on display." He also explains that he doesn't fully believe that his work will be well-received at the time of its publication: "I very much doubt that my reasons will be shared by the consecrated masters of both literatures (Polish and South American), but I fix my hopes in the masters who have not yet been born." He came off as very modest and passionate about writing, and I think he probably didn't give himself enough credit; I have a feeling many of the consecrated masters he spoke of enjoyed Ferdydurke immensely. You can find his preface (in Spanish) here: http://www.literatura.org/wg/ferdywg.htm. In closing, he states:

"I'm thrilled that Ferdydurke has been born in Spanish in this way, and not in the sad workshops of the book business! One last word: it's likely that my book will pass by unnoticed, but surely some of my friends will feel obligated to say a word or two, those sorts of things that are said when an author publishes a book. I would like to ask them to say nothing. No, don't say a thing, because, due to all different kinds of falsifications, the social situation of the so-called "artist" has in our times become so pretentious that everything that you could say to an artist sounds false and, the more sincerity and simplicity you put into your "I liked it a lot" or "I loved it," the greater the embarrassment for the artist and for you yourself. Keep quiet, then, I beg you. Keep quiet in hopes of a better future. For now--if you want to express that you liked it--, simply touch your right ear when you see me. If you touch your left ear I'll know that you didn't like it, and the nose will mean that your judgement is somewhere in between. With a simple and discreet movement of my hand I'll thank you for the attention you have paid to my work and thus, avoiding uncomfortable and even ridiculous situations, we'll understand each other in silence. I give my warmest greetings to everyone."

I once again had a great time reading this book. I also learned that it was made into a movie in 1991. Crispin Glover is in it. I had no idea how Crispin Glover could have managed to get involved in a Polish production of Ferdydurke. I thought, wait, is Crispin Glover Polish? He's not, and it turns out that this movie (also known by the title "30 Door Key") is in English, even though it was filmed in Poland. I would like to watch it, although it looks quite difficult to obtain. Some day. ( )
3 vote msjohns615 | Jan 10, 2011 |
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» Add other authors (45 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Witold Gombrowiczprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Doebele, H.P.Cover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hedin, Bengt-ErikTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hedlund, MagnusTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klei, Herman van derTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kunicki, JanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maijer, Willem A.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ruig, Chris deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stoepman, FritsCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stolpe, JanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0300082401, Paperback)

In this bitterly funny novel by the renowned Polish author Witold Gombrowicz, a writer finds himself tossed into a chaotic world of schoolboys by a diabolical professor who wishes to reduce him to childishness. Originally published in Poland in 1937, Ferdydurke became an instant literary sensation and catapulted the young author to fame. Deemed scandalous and subversive by Nazis, Stalinists, and the Polish Communist regime in turn, the novel (as well as all of Gombrowicz's other works) was officially banned in Poland for decades. It has nonetheless remained one of the most influential works of twentieth-century European literature.Ferdydurke is translated here directly from the Polish for the first time. Danuta Borchardt deftly captures Gombrowicz's playful and idiosyncratic style, and she allows English speakers to experience fully the masterpiece of a writer whom Milan Kundera describes as "one of the great novelists of our century."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:26 -0400)

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Yale University Press

Two editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300082401, 0300082398

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