Rita Gombrowicz’s Gombrowicz in Argentina (Gombrowicz en Argentine, 1984) and Gombrowicz in Europe (Gombrowicz en Europe, 1988) pull together her years of research into Witold Gombrowicz's life and work, along with her recently launched Web site on the author, www.gombrowicz.net. The books are structured as a unique biographical pastiche, comprised of interviews, commentary, photographs, and other ephemera tracing the writer's path from Poland to Argentina, where he spent twenty-four years in exile, beginning at the outbreak of the Second World War; to Germany, where he was invited as a Ford Foundation scholar; and, finally, to France. For reasons of censorship in communist Poland, France had long served as the seat of Gombrowicz's literary career, thanks initially to the Polish Literary Institute in Paris and its journal Kultura.
During two research trips to Argentina, in April 1973 and for six months between 1978 and 1979, Rita Gombrowicz found that her husband's friends and contacts neither lauded nor diminished the writer in interviews, but "made him come alive again in his games, his idiosyncrasies, his peculiarities all while preserving his human dimension." Her Gombrowicz in Argentina also provides a rare picture of the Argentinean and Polish expatriate literary communities of the period—including first-hand accounts of the unusual, collaborative translations the writer completed of several of his works with South and Latin American friends in Buenos Aires cafés. Gombrowicz at first spoke little Spanish, and his Argentinean collaborators did not speak Polish.
In her introduction to the text, conscious of the frequent misunderstanding to which he was subject during his lifetime, Rita Gombrowicz writes: "If it is impossible to reconstruct Gombrowicz as he truly was, this book is at least a sketch, whose accounts have allowed a partial recovery of the tone of his conversations and the impressions of Gombrowicz's presence, sometimes to the level of discomfort. And perhaps he will feel a bit more free among all these little 'mugs,' as each witness creates him, rather than being frozen in the definitive 'mug’ of a biography."
Her father, Arturo Capdevilà, born in Córdoba in 1889, was a poet, novelist, dramatist, historian, essayist, and professor. Showered with honors and titles, he welcomed Argentinean as well as foreign artists and writers into his home. He died in Buenos Aires in 1966.
His daughter, Chinchina, and her mother still live in the beautiful villa at Palermo where Gombrowicz would give his talks.
It was Witold’s idea to give these conferences. We agreed to gather a dozen of my female friends that understood French fairly well, for Witold still didn’t speak Spanish yet. In short, he had some financial problems, and I had to help him get out of them. I was the one who collected the money, and I would give it to him discreetly.
These talks were to be real classes, like at school. My friends and I, we wanted to hear about the great authors of Paris, but Witold was contemptuous of them. He systematically demolished the writers we loved, like Huxley or Duhamel. “But these are not writers!” he would say. He plunged his knife into all of my enthusiasms, which discouraged me. His favorite topic was “The style of the Argentinean woman.” She must, according to him, conquer her own style, as the European women had. He compared the different ways of being of English women, French women, etc. with that of Argentinean women. This went on for about a month, once a week. My father was delighted by these meetings, but deplored his inability to attend because of his work.
My father had wanted to introduce him to the different cultural milieus, but Witold gave him the impression of being a muchacho. His adolescent air seemed bizarre to him, and this is probably what soured their relationship. On top of that, Witold was very timid and nervous. He was an individualist, an unclassifiable personality. But my father was open and understanding, and he took care of him all the same. He recommended him to certain literary reviews, including Acqui Esta, for which he wrote a few articles.
I remember that Witold was always dressed in gray and would wear hats. He had a very long coat, all the way down to his ankles. To us it was strange, but not ridiculous. It was a coat with a ripped-up cape, but it kept him warm. In the end, he threw it away. I remember his dirty raincoat. Witold would say that a raincoat, in order to be elegant, must be very well-worn.
Interview conducted in French. Buenos Aires, February 1979.
An Argentinean writer born in Buenos Aires, Silvina Ocampo is married to the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, both of them belonging to the intelligentsia assembled around the literary review Sur. Founded in 1931 by Victoria Ocampo, Silvina’s older sister, Sur rapidly became—and remained for fifty years—the highest place for Argentinean culture. Sur ceased publication at the end of 1978, and Victoria Ocampo died in February 1979.
R.G.: Tell me about this famous meal Gombrowicz wrote about in his Diary.
S.O.: Why famous? There were seven people: Gombrowicz, Borges, Bioy Casares, Mastronardi, Bianco, Manuel Peyrou, and me. I still lived on CalleAlvear. Everyone was listening to tangos before the meal; Mastronardi adored them. A plate slipped from my hands on the way to the dining room from the kitchen. Only Gombrowicz heard the sound. He came to see what had happened. When he saw me, my head in my hands, staring at the plate on the floor, he said to me: "Don't cry!" He thought I was crying! He suggested that we put everything back and serve it as if nothing had happened. And everyone was on the same level. I had asked Witold to keep the secret and, over the course of the meal, he gave me little winks whenever my friends said that it was good.
R.G.: You once said: "I received a 'famous' writer who smokes backwards."
S.O.: Witold was a glutton; he loved to eat and he even ate his cigarettes! I was afraid that he would burn his hand, but he never did!
R.G.: How did Gombrowicz behave as this evening went on?
S.O.: Witold dissimulated his shyness with abruptness. He uttered a few sentences, in French, as if he were angry. I’m sure it was because of his pride.
R.G.: And with Borges?
S.O.: It was difficult to talk with Borges; he didn't like talking in groups. Like Gombrowicz, he preferred to speak one-on-one. They never got around to it.
R.G.: Why did Sur ignore Ferdydurke in 1947?
S.O.: We didn’t like the book. We discovered it later.
R.G.: Mastronardi spoke to you about it?
S.O.: Mastronardi defended the book; he presented it to Sur, but we didn’t like it.
R.G.: What do you know of the friendship between Mastronardi and Gombrowicz?
S.O.: Mastronardi and Gombrowicz were night-owls. They would walk around a lot at night. They went into cafés; they talked. Mastronardi was fascinated by Gombrowicz: He was always speaking of him, he would imitate him, he would smoke like him. It was Gombrowicz’s originality that attracted him, though he was quite original himself, even eccentric. For example, Mastronardi would never arrive on time for dinner. The dishes would spoil, or burn. Finally, someone found out that it was that he was walking around the block in order to arrive late, on purpose. He had his phobias. For example, he never wanted to go into the ocean, saying that he always asked himself what he would do if a wave came. Was he to sit down, or not? And when a wave finally came, he would let it go by! I remember a very funny story. Mastronardi and Gombrowicz had a habit of eating dinner together in a bar. It was always very hot, and Gombrowicz would unbutton the collar of his shirt, which irritated Mastronardi enormously. One day, Mastronardi was taking his knife to his mouth, and Gombrowicz said: “If you eat with your knife, I will unbutton my shirt.” But he said it: “If eat with knife, me unbutton shirt.” That’s why it was funny.
R.G.: Did you have other contact with Gombrowicz?
S.O.: I proposed that he give lessons to a group of people, not very intelligent people, though. We never did agree on a topic. He would propose very strange things, and get angry when I didn’t accept his subjects.
He didn’t understand us, and we didn’t understand him. We should have gotten to know him better. He was full of pride: This is what explains his behavior. He was more antisocial, wild (like me, really) than aggressive. It seems that he wrote some less-than-nice things about Bioy and myself.
Interview conducted in French. Buenos Aires, March 1979.
Adolfo di Obieta
An Argentinean writer born in Buenos Aires in 1912, Adolfo di Obieta is the author of books and articles on metaphysics and Esotericism. A lawyer, he served at the Ministry of the Economy for many years. He directed the literary review Los Papeles de Buenos Aires, which published a story of Gombrowicz’s for the first time in 1944. He is the son of Macedonio Fernandez, whose work and personality would influence Borges.
The translation of Ferdydurke is one of the most curious and amusing that I know, transposing from Polish to Spanish the book of a Pole who barely knew Spanish, helped by six or seven Latino-Americans who barely knew two words of Polish. And all of it at café tables, and in an atmosphere frequently worthy of the Ferdydurkian absurd. Sometimes, Gombrowicz would be taken by a particular affection for a Spanish word, the sense of which he did not understand, and he would require its use because its sound or its physiognomy seemed evocative to him. . . .
I would like to mention another fact on the topic of this translation. I found a letter not long ago, dated 1945, in which I had proposed to a group of friends a means of financing this translation. It was necessary to assure its subsistence such that Gombrowicz could live while working exclusively on the translation. Rather than passing around a notice in search of a patron, we had the idea to assemble twelve friends of good will who would contribute 100 pesos each, which would allow us to put together 1,200 pesos, so, a stipend of 300 pesos per month. It was specified that this was not a gift, but a loan, for the 100 pesos would be reimbursed as soon as the author’s rights were secured. It was a sort of national fund for the arts avant la letter . . . . But once again, as in other difficult times, the solution came from Cecilia Benedit de Debenedetti, to whom Gombrowicz dedicated the Argentinean edition of Ferdydurke.
We met with a certain diligence and intimacy from 1940 to 1950. My memory is not one of a mutual sympathy, for, basically, you had a distant being floating in a rather tenuous atmosphere. Besides the fact that he turned on his own individual orbit, he could, during his appearances, display a unique talent for causing offense. He could have written a book on the art of falling into disgrace. I believe that it was González Lanuza who catalogued a hundred ways to be appreciated; Gombrowicz could have described two hundred ways to be disagreeable. He did not practice, as some aristocrats do, those two minutes of coarseness that serve to rid oneself of a troublesome person once and for all. But from time to time, he would show enthusiasm for these tactics of self-preservation, and could sometimes alienate himself from people who would have been capable of admiring and appreciating him. This demon never left him.
The man was brilliant, and, without a doubt, profound. But his lifestyle and his work, perhaps, did not allow him to display all of the depth he was capable of at this particular moment. When he was not seeking at all costs to be witty, he was bursting with talent and intellect. To us, his friends, it seemed that he did not have the right to squander his talent—which sometimes bordered on genius—in cafés. It seemed to us that our task was to oblige him to express himself in books and in reviews. Nevertheless, his literary activity in Argentina amounted to almost nothing. The most important event was the translation of Ferdydurke, a truly Gombrowiczian experience.
I would like to say again, in order to bring him honor—a word that would surely challenge him—that I never saw him complain. This man who wrote Ferdydurke, who lost everything, found assuredly more grace, more logic, than we did in his own life. This aristocrat could be caustic, excessive, antipathetic, but he could never be bitter. His response was neither discontent, nor irritation, nor resignation; his response was Gombrowicz.
Translation of a excerpt from Gombrowicz en Argentine by Rita Gombrowicz. Copyright Rita Gombrowicz. Translated into English with the permission of the Wylie Agency. Translation copyright 2010 by Lauren Dubowski. All rights reserved.