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The covers of the Polish first edition of “Ferdydurke” (via Wikipedia)

When I read Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke in the late 1980s the Soviet empire was beginning to totter and crack. An English version of the book, published in 1961 in the UK, had been re-issued in 1986 as part of Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series, edited by Philip Roth. The project aimed to disseminate Eastern European writers in the Anglophone world: a worthy endeavor, though judging from the cobbled-together edition of Ferdydurke — an offset duplication of the 1961 text, with a Czeslaw Milosz essay from another occasion tacked on as an introduction — one with a limited budget.

Sure enough, the book came and went in a whisper. The battered copy I found in a Chicago used bookstore spun a web of contradictions. Gombrowicz’s reputation as one of the indispensable moderns is now secure, but back then he was still a totem of the undiscovered genius, “the greatest unknown writer of our time,” in the words of the French magazine L’Express cited on the back cover. And yet not so obscure: the book provided you with “The History of Ferdydurke,” a survey of the book’s initial sensation, scandal and banning in Warsaw after its publication in 1937 and the 1957 re-issue that sold 10,000 copies in a matter of days, which led to Gombrowicz being lionized by the press in Poland and elsewhere in Europe, especially France. Poland’s Communist authorities promptly suppressed Ferdydurke anew. Thus the book’s jacket copy called it “the revolutionary satiric masterpiece,” though it’s hard to imagine the revolution its author would have sided with.

Witold Gombrowicz by Bohdan Paczowski (via Wikipedia)

The Penguin paperback was in fact an incomplete text, an adaptation based on French, German and perhaps Spanish editions from the 1940s and 1950s. Danuta Borchardt’s 2000 version finally coaxed the recalcitrant Polish original into English — no mean feat, because Ferdydurke does not submit willingly to translation. This is less a matter of unfamiliar Polish references and idioms than the nonsense, verbal farce and linguistic violence that run amok all over the novel. Look no further than the title, an invented word that shames attempts to tease meaning out of it. I’ve held a whimsical belief that it means “horseshit” — baseless, but perhaps more in the spirit of Gombrowicz than the critical suggestion that it alludes to a character in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Freddy Durkee.

The novel opens with a monstrous metamorphosis, but unlike those in Ovid or in Gombrowicz’s nearer cousin Kafka, the transformation is locked within the history of the self. Protagonist Joey Kowalski is wrenched back into his own adolescence as prelude to his abduction by the fussy, risible Professor Pimko. This pedantic “great Belittler” leads Joey to a high school classroom divided into factions of innocent idealists and their crude defilers. Eventually the team leaders duel by flinging facial grimaces at each other, culminating in the “psychophysical rape” of Kneadus, the head of the idealists, when his arch-enemy Syphon whispers filth in his ear.

The savagery is typical of the satire in Ferdydurke, always corporeal, always perched on the border between language and violence. Ferdydurke is an assault against coherence, above all of the body, whose parts wage furious war: “I felt that my body was not homogenous, that some parts were still those of a boy, and that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing myself 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.”

And the pan-mockery never lets up, moving beyond the nightmarish classroom to the all-too-modern home of a bien pensant family and then the countryside, with its enervating ennui. Between the episodes with Joey, Gombrowicz inserts two tales, “The Child Runs Deep in Filidor” and “The Child Runs Deep in Filibert,” each with prefaces that give glancing flashes of what he is up to — or maybe not. For he also intimates that he is pulling a colossal gag, and that you, dear reader, are the butt of the joke. Go read the final words, restored in Borchardt’s edition: “It’s the end, what a gas, / And who’s read it is an ass!”

In the madcap, infantilized world of Ferdydurke, humiliation is a fundamental condition. Joey often endures his belittlement as if it were ordained from above. Degradation is meted out with the inevitability of divine damnation. But Gombrowicz believes not in God but in a wholly human transcendence, something he would later call the “interhuman church,” a phrase that would smack of tepid universalism if uttered by a different writer. Coming from Gombrowicz, it provides the merest scrap of shelter in a storm of debasement, boredom, and the socially mandated “maturity” that stifles the process of self-making so central to his existentialist worldview.

And this is where the satire turns serious if not quite earnest — and where Gombrowicz’s championing of the young, given the triumphalist banalities of global youth culture, may be hard for us to fully grasp these days. For however ferocious his lampooning of the adolescents in Ferdydurke, it is nonetheless immaturity, the freshness and crudeness of youth, that offers a way out of the deadening trivialities imposed by the “demon of order.” “Are we not mortally in love with youth?” he asks in the “Preface to ‘The Child Runs Deep in Filidor.’” “Are we not obliged then, at every moment, to ingratiate ourselves with beings who are below us, to tune in with them, to surrender, be it to their power or their charms — and isn’t this painful violence that’s being committed on our person by some half-enlightened, inferior being the most seminal of all violence?”

The maps have been redrawn, but it seems that the prankster-philosopher Gombrowicz still inhabits something like that “Other Europe” evoked by my Penguin paperback, if we understand this not as a political or geographic entity but as aesthetic terra incognita, a realm where crudeness and craft, like the flesh and the spirit, vie in revelatory tension.

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James Gibbons

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.