For several years, I have had a reoccurring nightmare, which begins with my waking up in my parents’ home and getting ready for school. In the dream, I am an adult, and there is nothing extraordinary about my attending secondary school; it is merely a tiresome inconvenience. I am not obliged to wear the uniform or to attend many lessons; I am there only because I have been informed that there is one more round of exams I have to take. Sometimes I am the only one taking these exams; sometimes I am joined by a few of my old schoolmates, appearing in adult guise (though it’s been years since I’ve seen many of them in the flesh, so I can only imagine what they look like now); sometimes they appear as their teenaged selves, while I alone am fully-grown; sometimes they alternate between adolescence and adulthood; at other times, their form is vague and indistinct, or their presence is felt but not visualized. The teachers who appear vary from one dream to the next, but they always take the form of people who actually taught me all those years ago. They are always clearly visualized, and always look and act just as they did when I was their student, even though their real-life counterparts are all retired or (as in a few cases) dead. They display no surprise on encountering me again in the classroom, greeting me either with wry commiseration (the teachers who liked me) or cold hostility (the ones who didn’t). For most of the dream, there is an air of absolute normality: unpleasant, but no more so than the daily grind of waking life. The tone always changes, however, when I encounter younger pupils: bratty little eleven- and twelve-year-olds, who, in huge, threatening numbers, encircle me and ruthlessly taunt me, mocking my incongruous adult presence and odious maturity. I am always the sole victim of these taunts, for if, in the dream, I have returning peers, they are unmolested, and do no more than sadly shake their heads and walk away as I am abused. The abuse has the effect of transforming me, for I sense that my body is no longer that of an adult, but that of an eleven- or twelve-year-old, though I am aware that my mind has not regressed. By the time the nightmare ends, or imperceptibly becomes something else, I have been condemned to the hellish fate of repeating my school years (which, I should state, were not unhappy), my consciousness as a man in his late twenties or early thirties trapped in the body of my younger self, excruciatingly aware that everything I am being now taught is something I’ve already learned, that I have sat through this very same lesson, that I have heard the teacher utter these very same words, that I know it all already, or most of it, but this fact does not excuse me, for I must do it all again, and again, and again, with no end in sight.
I thought of this dream as I read Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (the title is a nonsense word), a bizarre, obsessive plunge into puerility, which sees the thirty-year-old narrator, Kowalski, transformed by a jovially condescending teacher, Professor Pimko, into an adolescent. This is how the transformation is described:
I strained to get up, but just at that moment he looked at me indulgently from under his spectacles, and suddenly―I became small, my leg became a little leg, my hand a little hand, my persona a little persona, my being a little being, my oeuvre a little oeuvre, my body a little body, while he grew larger and larger, sitting and glancing at me, and reading my manuscript forever and ever amen―he sat.
It’s not made clear how Pimko brings about the transformation, or whether there’s any physical alteration. The air of unreality that hangs over the book prevents the reader from assuming that Kowalski literally becomes small. Just prior to Pimko’s appearance Kowalski has an uncanny, dream-like encounter with his own ghostly double, which vanishes after he strikes its face. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of the novel, the narrator’s misadventures having always an unreal, dream-like (or nightmarish) quality to them, embracing the grotesque and illogical, and with little use for explanation and motivation. Pimko gives no satisfactory reason for his visit, nor is he ever asked to give one; he simply shows up uninvited. Nor do we know the nature of his relationship with the narrator; we might assume that they were formerly teacher and pupil, but that much is never stated. Once the professor has Kowlaski in his power, he leads him to a school and enrols him there. Thereafter, Kowalski’s desire to escape the tangled thicket of ineluctable immaturity is thwarted at every turn by paralysis; no-one perceives him as anything other than a mere boy, and the more he tries to insist upon his maturity, the more naïve and immature he appears.
The story comprises three distinct movements. The first takes place in the school, where dreary teachers bore their students with rubbish like ‘Great poetry must be admired, because it is great and because it is poetry, and so we admire it’. The second movement finds Kowalski lodging with a liberal bourgeois family composed of an engineer, his activist wife and their achingly modern teenaged daughter. The third includes some sharp social satire (despite Gombrowicz’s stated disavowal of any political intent) as the narrator stays with some aristocratic country relatives. It is in this section that Danuta Borchardt’s translation runs into some problems. In her prefatory note, she writes that although she is most comfortable with British English, she decided to use American English because it is less formal. Maybe, but British English doesn’t have to be formal, and it would have been much better suited to registering the differences between the language employed by Kowalski’s upper-crust relatives and that employed by their servants. The Britain of the 1930s, with its class system, provides a much closer equivalent to the Polish society of Gombrowicz’s time than does its American counterpart. Apart from the theoretical justification behind Borchardt’s decision, in practice it leads to some unhappy results, with ‘peasant’ dialogue that is not recognizable as either British or American, but some strange mixture of the two (sample: “Yer lo’dship! Yer lo’dships, damn it! They won’t let oop! They’re curs! O Jesus! They’re twistin’ ya round too!”). It is possible that Gombrowicz’s Polish is equally odd at such points, and that the translator is simply trying to reflect this, but an explanation would have been helpful if this is the case. However, this is a quibble; in general Borchardt’s translation is a joy to read.
Kowalski’s situation may seem freakish and arbitrary, but it is not entirely so. At the beginning of the book, before he is transformed, he is already dreaming of himself as a sixteen-year-old, and then, in a half-dreaming state, before fully awakening, he worries that his body parts have become confused, and that some of them belong to his juvenile self. As a man of thirty, his status as a mature adult ought to be secure, but instead his friends and relatives plague him with their concerns about his inexperience and lack of direction. He is a published author, but finds that rather than earning him respect and prestige, as he had intended, this has only exacerbated his problems―but then, what did he expect of a book entitled Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity?* The manuscript that Pimko reads to Kowalski’s discomfort is intended to be his magnum opus, the fullest artistic expression and sum total of himself, an act of self-assertion written in reaction to his horrifying vision of his own double, which had upset his sense of self. Kowalski’s ordeals may not quite be a logical development of his inquietude, but neither are they unconnected with it. Gombrowicz is toying with and poking at the anxiety that, I suppose, everyone must feel at some points in their adult life (not indefinitely, I would imagine): the doubts one feels about one’s maturity, the nagging questions over whether one has truly grown up, whether one has left behind childhood and adolescence, and is fully prepared to meet the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood. Perhaps even those old enough for youth to seem hazily distant do not entirely shake off these uncertainties, which perhaps mutate into something else (for example, amazement at the gulf of years between one’s youth and one’s senescence, questions of what one retains within). Being of the same age as Gombrowicz was at the time of Ferdydurke’s publication, I am ill qualified to pursue this enquiry.
The agitated psychology of Ferdydurke is accompanied by a disordered physicality, both mental self and bodily self being prone to breaking down, becoming distorted and unfamiliar. Gombrowicz’s contemporary, the writer Bruno Schulz, provided the first edition with an apt illustration depicting heads and limbs emerging from a tree (see above), which conveys something of the confusion of body parts one finds in the text. As Kowalski lies dreaming of his 16-year-old self, the following sensations come upon him:
Further: as I lay awake but still half dreaming, I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose―and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.
Perhaps even David Cronenberg would balk at attempting to realize such horrifying corporeal violence and chaos. The confusion of body parts doesn’t just occur within one individual; twice in the text, multiple characters end up in a brawling heap, all individuality erased, indistinguishable from one another as they fight. So there are twin terrors at play here: there terror of disintegration, of wholes breaking down into parts, and the terror of integration, of wholes being reduced to parts, subsumed into larger wholes. The tortuous relationship between whole and part is amusingly explored in an interlude concerning two academic antagonists, one of them a high-minded Synthethist, the other a disreputable Analyst, who is able to ‘fillip a nose and thus activate it into a life of its own’. When the Synthesist attempts to attack his enemy, the reply he receives is both funny and rather chilling:
“You heap of things!” replied the Analyst with a dreadful, analytical disdain. “I too am a heap. If you wish―kick me in the abdomen. You won’t be kicking me in the abdomen, you’ll be kicking my abdomen―nothing more. You wanted to attack my cheeks by slapping them, didn’t you? You can attack my cheek but not me. There is no me. No me at all. No me!”
This interlude, entitled ‘The Child Runs Deep in Filidor’, is itself a part that has become subsumed into a larger work, being originally a story included in Gombrowicz’s previous book Memoirs from the Time of Immaturity. Here, it appears with its own preface; later in the book, another formerly separate story appears (‘The Child Runs Deep in Filibert’), again, with its own preface.
Three body parts in particular feature prominently in Ferdydurke: the buttocks, or pupa;** the face, translated here as ‘the mug’; and legs, especially calves. It’s the legs that I found most striking, the narrator displaying something of an obsession with them. Most hilariously, ‘after a moment’s profound reflection’ (ha ha), the narrator translates a parodic modernist love poem into ‘comprehensible language’:
Horizons burst like flasks
a green blotch swells high in the clouds
I move back to the shadow of the pine―
with greedy gulps I drink
my diurnal springtime
Calves of legs, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves―
The calf of my leg:
the calf of my leg, calf, calf,
calves, calves, calves.
This will give you, I hope, an idea of Gombrowicz’s sense of humor; Ferdydurke is frequently a laugh-out-loud book, though the laughter always has a hint of mania about it. The really disconcerting thing is the feeling, never far beneath the surface, that mockery has you in its sights, which is made explicit by the closing lines:
It’s the end, what a gas,
And who’s read it is an ass!
*There is some degree of identification of the narrator with Gombrowicz himself. The latter was just over thirty at the time of the novel’s publication, having made his literary debut a collection of short stories with same title as Kowalski’s first book; to what extent the reader understands Kowalski to be a stand-in for the author is not a matter of great interest to me.
**The range of special nuances of this Polish word are apparently difficult to convey in English, and so Borchardt leaves it untranslated.