Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz

I’ve always been intrigued by the relationship between the title of a novel and its content. If there’s one thing that postmodern literature tells us, after all, it is that the act of naming – of claiming the right to narrate and define – is a political act and an exercise of power. And it seems to me that the majority of novel titles fall into one of a few loose categories that each come pre-loaded with a certain type of generic baggage and history. The name of a novel, after all, is usually the first thing we know about it. How far do names reflect content, and how far do they provide a lens through which we perceive its meaning and coherence?

Some examples. Many classics take the name of a character, like a portrait – King Lear; David Copperfield; Emma; Tom Jones; Ana Karenina; Madame Bovary etc. In doing so these novels direct the focus of their content, from before the very first sentence, towards the psychology of a central protagonist. We tune our reading to the wavelength of the bildungsroman, the kunstlerroman, the tragedy and so on, all kitted out with with their own particular codes and tropes, patterns and inevitabilities.

There are titles that refer our attention to an event or chain of events whose significance and causality they will explore: The Odyssey; The Illiad; The Adventures of Augie March; The Trial; The Life and Times of Michael K. Though these novels may concern themselves with a central protagonist, they imply from the outset that their focus is outward – on the sequence of events in which a character takes part – rather than inward, on the way they internalize those events.

Other novels define themselves by their thematic or philosophical concerns: War and Peace; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; Crime and Punishment; Sense and Sensibility; Freedom. These tend to be novels with an essayistic function, the narrative constructed as a way of exploring an abstract subject. Dostoevsky calling his novel Crime and Punishment rather than Raskolnikov instructs us to universalize his actions and experience, placing our focus on the general rather than the particular.

Then there are statements that hold themselves up to be reinforced, ironized or contradicted by the narrative: Tender is the Night; In Cold Blood; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; For Whom the Bell Tolls. Or outward-looking, panoramic novels that provide a pre-definition of a society or condition that they aim to dissect: Vanity Fair; Underworld; Infinite Jest; The Bonfire of the Vanities; The Age of Innocence. Or those that take the name of a defining symbol contained within the narrative, which is in turn pre-identified for the reader as a synecdoche, marking symbolic trails out in advance: The Tin Drum; The Golden Bowl; Light in August; The Glass Bead Game; The Road; The Line of Beauty.

This is not to overstate the extent to which a name alone defines a narrative. How differently would we approach, say, Saul Bellow’s Herzog and The Adventures of Augie March if they were instead called Augie March and The Adventures of Herzog? Would we read The Adventures of Herzog as a postmodern pastiche of the classic American bildungsroman, subverting the idealism of The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin as a commentary on the fragmentation of the individual in contemporary America? Probably not (the odd undergraduate bullshit-merchant here or there notwithstanding), but the coherent outline we superimpose onto its content in retrospect might look a little more shaky without a name that holds it all together for us.

This fits into the general process by which we perceive and compartmentalize meaning. The name of a novel is the first link in a semiotic chain that extends through the aesthetics of the cover, the blurb and quotations on the sleeve, and the picture of the author (large or small, colour or black and white, brooding or smiling?) right through to the typeface and spacing of the text, that has a formative effect on the way we aggregate the meaning of the words that we read. After all, the ‘form’ of a novel is something that we often talk about as if it were concrete, but in practice we can only really comprehend it in the abstract. In fact, if we are to take Terry Eagleton’s droll definition of a novel as ‘a piece of prose fiction of a reasonable length’, then one of the few identifiable features that marks out a novel is that we can’t experience it all at once.

Everybody reads, sees or hears something different in a piece of art of any medium, but the process of reading a novel means that our reception of it is affected by chronology in a unique way. In a film or play, a piece of music or a short poem, the movement and chronology is mediated by the performance. Yet in a long prose narrative, each reader imposes, to a greater extent, his own chronology and experience on the act of reading. Even if we can read a novel in a single sitting – though in the vast majority of cases we don’t – we still only retain a subjectively reordered hierarchy of remembered events, passages, words, phrases or moods.

The nature of these fragments, and the way they link together to form a whole, is therefore never absolute. Each person necessarily experiences them in a different way, at a different pace, in a different frame of mind, and within the context of a personal vocabulary that determines the connotative meaning of the words themselves. The whole remains inaccessible. The actual nature of a novel is perpetually up for grabs.

The multiplicity of meanings inherent in literary texts is one of the cornerstones of deconstruction, but Wittold Gombrowicz, in his bizarre and hysterical novel Ferdydurke, anticipated many of its arguments in the 1930s. Ferdydurke is in a sense an examination – or collection of examinations – of how meaning is generated and imposed by preexistent structures and forms; from the cohesion of a literary narrative right down to the semiotics of our every gesture and expression. And, like Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable – another rehearsal of deconstruction’s major arguments in narrative form – the first form that it wriggles out of is that imposed by the baggage of the literary title (Ferdydurke is a Jabberwocky-esque nonsense word, and does not appear anywhere in the novel).

In his excellent non-fiction work Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera lists Gombrowicz, alongside Franz Kafka, Herman Broch and Robert Musil, as one of the four major novelists of the 20th Century. While Gombrowicz’s wild irreverence sets him apart from the austerity of much of the European Modernist tradition, perhaps accounting in part for his relative obscurity, Ferdydurke’s themes place it squarely within the Modernist canon. Following a preoccupation that runs through Proust and Kafka via Freud, Ferdydurke begins with the narrator awakening in a state of semi-consciousness that precedes the onset of his habitual persona:

“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”

This is a clear echo – albeit translated into Gombrowicz’s ribald and carnivalesque style – of the famous prelude to Marcel Proust’s A le recherché du temps perdu, much of which concerns a young Marcel’s sleep-induced outer-body reveries:

“Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves, and not anything else, and by the immobility of our conceptions of them. For it always happened that when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything would be moving around me through the darkness: things, places, years. My body, still too heavy with sleep to move, would make an effort to construe the form which its tiredness took as an orientation of its various members, so as to induce from that where the wall lay and where the furniture stood, to piece together and give a name to the house in which it must be living”.

Like Kafka’s Josef K., Gombrowicz’z narrator awakens in this fluid state to be confronted with a profound change imposed upon him from outside – he is abducted by a schoolmaster and sent back to school, where he is returned to a state of primordial youthfulness. The style and effect of this narrative is extremely difficult to describe, as it is completely unlike anything else I have read – it wildly oscillates between bizarre slapstick, nonsensical exchanges of childish slang and made-up words, postmodern pastiche, and extended philosophical digressions: Lewis Carroll meets Flann O’Brian meets Proust shouted through a megaphone at Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Sometimes this is intensely irritating (quite possibly deliberately so), but sometimes it is wildly perceptive.

The dynamic that seemingly governs this riot is the tension between form and chaos, wholeness and fragmentation. Gombrowicz is aware like few other authors I know of the illusory nature of coherence – both in literary texts and, by extension, in the forms and structures we use to make life comprehensible, and define ourselves and the world around us:

“do we create form or does form create us? We think we are the ones who construct it, but that’s an illusion, because we are, in equal measure, constructed by the construction. Whatever you put on paper dictates whatever comes next, because the work is not born of you – you want to write one thing, yet something else entirely comes out. Parts tend to wholeness, every part surreptitiously makes its way towards the whole, strives for roundness, and seeks, fulfillment, it implores the rest to be created in its own image and likeness”

In putting this philosophy into novelistic practice, Gombrowicz devises surreal scenarios. Just as any word turns into nonsense if you repeat it enough times on its own (thus separating it from the linguistic structure of which it is a part), in Gombrowicz the separation of any body part from the whole represents a threat to the fragile ontology of the individual. For example, in one chapter, a Professor of Synthetology has an intellectual duel with a Professor of High Analysis, specializing in ‘decomposition’. The latter vanquishes the former by simply naming individual body parts of the Professor of Synthetology’s wife – “The ear, the ear!”… Under the effect of these words the ear immediately came into focus and became lewd” – thus rending her metaphysical identity asunder and leaving her hospitalized. Though recounting the episode in these summary terms does no justice to the absolute insanity of Gombrowicz’s style and effects.

The sometimes irritating childishness of Gombrowicz’s style is borne out of a conviction that the forms and identities of adulthood are arbitrarily constructed and conceal a primordial flux of youthfulness that is our true underlying condition: “The child runs deep in everything”. This is also given a self-reflexive dimension in the form – or formlessness – of Gombrowicz’s fragmentary narrative. Just when it threatens to crystallise into a coherent whole, Gombrowicz will reel off into nonsense, pulling apart the meaning of his own narrative at its syntactic seams:

“And I ask you this in all seriousness and with total responsibility for my words, and likewise with the greatest respect for all your parts without exception, because I know you are all a part of Humanity, of which I am also a part, and that you partly take part in the part of something which is also a part and of which I am also in part a part, together with all the particles and parts of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts, of parts… Help!”

Like Beckett after him and Gertrude Stein before him, Gombrowicz strives to articulate something that precedes the arbitrary structures of language. But Gombrowicz does so with a childish sense of fun that means, though he is often infuriating, he never approaches their impenetrable depths. Whereas Beckett’s last recourse is despair, Gombrowicz’s is nonsense, face-pulling, riotousness and mirth. In fact, if you were to try to sum it up you would probably have to make up a word that sounds like the pre-linguistic, gurgled nonsense of a baby not yet initiated into the structures of meaning that hold together the adult world – something like Ferdydurke.

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  1. Great piece. Reminds me of Keith Ridgway’s views on the novel – which are very influenced by Gombrowicz.

  2. Thanks, glad you liked it. I’m not familiar with Keith Ridgeway’s views on Gombrowicz (or anyone else’s really, other than the Sontag intro), but would be interested to read them if you could point me in the right direction

  1. January 1st, 2012
  2. July 10th, 2013

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