15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a review by Jennifer Marquart of Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia in Danuta Borchardt’s new translation, which is available from Grove Press.

Jennifer Marquart has contributed to Three Percent in the past and is an aspiring German translator and recent University of Rochester graduate.

Witold Gombrowicz is one of the best writers of the twentieth century, and is most well known for Ferdydurke. One of my favorite (apocryphal) anecdotes about Gombrowicz is about how one day in Buenos Aires he was ranting about Borges to his friends (the two authors didn’t really get along), and one of them interrupted to ask if he had ever even read Borges. “Pfft. Why would I waste my time reading that crap?”

On a more serious note, a number of Gombrowicz books have been either retranslated or reissued over the past few years, including: Ferdydurke, Cosmos (hardcover from Yale is OP, paperback from Grove due out in September), Polish Memories, Bacacay, and A Kind of Testament. All are worth reading . . .

Here’s the opening of Jennifer’s review:

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside.

Click here to read the full review.

15 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Darkly humorous, witty and terrifying, Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornographia translated for the first time into English out of the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, captures the tense and surreal lives of two men looking for an escape from city life in 1943 Warsaw. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, and his companion, Fryderyk, leave the city and stay with Hipolit, his wife Maria and their daughter Henia and the farmhand Karol. It doesn’t take long for the men to grow bored of the quiet country life, causing them to devise intricate plans to get Karol and Henia to sleep together. They set up meetings and prod the teenagers with questions of sexual attraction to one another. These simple games escalate to a masterfully choreographed play, aimed at breaking-up Henia and her fiancé. Part joke and part perverse desire, Gombrowicz and Fryderyk’s plans take a bizarre turn following the murder of Henia’s future mother-in-law. Hidden notes, hostages, murder-conspiracies and the ultimate manipulation of youth, love and a detached thirst for power are now in play.

The immediate reaction to the title of this novel conjures images of sex, however the book deals with sexual desire in a round about way. It isn’t the actual act of sex that is pornographic, but its entanglement with power, domination, desire and obsession. Fryderyk and Gombrowicz believe themselves to be in control, but there are a few moments where the reader catches a glimpse of shifts in power, such as the scene where Karol, Henia and the two men are conversing outside:

Karol kept rocking, his legs spread apart, she raised her leg to scratch her calf—but his shoe, resting just on the heel, rose, made a half-turn, and squashed the earthworm…just at one end, just as much as the reach of his foot allowed, because he didn’t feel like lifting his heel from the ground, the rest of the worm’s thorax began to stiffen and squirm, which he watched with interest. This would not have been any more important than a fly’s throes of death on a flytrap or a moth’s within the glass of a lamp—if Fryderyk’s gaze, glassy, had not sucked itself onto that earthworm, extracting its suffering to the full. One could imagine that he would be indignant, but in truth there was nothing within him but penetration into torture, draining the chalice to the last drop. He hunted it, sucked it, caught it, took it in and—numb and mute, caught in the claws of pain—he was unable to move. Karol looked at him out of the corner of his eye but did not finish off the earthworm, he saw Fryderyk’s horror as sheer hysterics . . .

Henia’s shoe moved forward and she crushed the worm.
But only from the opposite end, with great precision, saving the central part so that it could continue to squirm and twist.

All of it—was insignificant . . . as far as the crushing of a worm can be trivial and insignificant.

The memory of the worm-crushing resurfaces later in the narrative as Fryderyk’s obsession with his own perverse games intensifies. This excerpt exemplifies the delicate balance between controllers and controlled, through the narrative and Gombrowicz’s language constructions. Just as mundane events can represent something greater, so can the linguistic construction of the text. In trying to preserve the dream-like and often stilted world Gombrowicz narrates, Borchardt makes very liberal use of ellipses. In this scene, Gombrowicz has grown anxious over the trip he is going to take with Fryderyk:

Travel there? The two of us? I was beset by misgivings, difficult to express, about the two of us traveling . . . because to take him there with me, to the countryside, so that he could continue his game, well . . . And his body, that body so…”peculiar”? . . . To travel with him and ignore his untiring “silently-shouting impropriety”? . . . To burden myself with someone so ” compromised and, as a result, so compromising”? . . .

In the previous English translation (from the French) the ellipses are present, but the word choice in Borchardt’s translation accentuates the text’s repetitiveness bringing the sense of anxiety to a new level of confusion and internal anguish. In the Alastair Hamilton translation this excerpt reads:

Should we go? Both of us? I had fearful doubts about the journey . . . What take him so that he could continue his game don there, in the country? . . . And his body which was so…so specific? Travel with him regardless of his “obvious but hidden indecency?” . . . Look after somebody so “compromised” and therefore so “compromising” . . .

Borchardt’s disturbances in the flow of the work may seem off-setting in the context of this review, but coupled with the rhythmic repetition of words and phrases throughout the text she brings forward the nuances of Gombrowicz’s masterful prose. In this isolated psycho-thriller, where anxiety runs high within a small group of people cut off from the terrors around them, obsession and terror still rule.

11 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sticking with PW for another post, Lynn Andriani has a great piece about three “iconic 20th-century novels being released in new translations” this fall: Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle (translated by Harry T. Willetts, and which restores nine chapters missing from the “lightened version” that’s currently available), Gombrowicz’s Pornografia (translated by Danuta Borchardt—the first version to be translated directly from the Polish), and Grass’s The Tin Drum (translated by Breon Mitchell, and which also restores a lot of missing material—here’s more complete info on Breon’s new translation).

All three of these are excellent novels, all deserving of retranslation and a featuring in PW, but here are three more books from 2009 worthy of mention:

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson): NYRB brought out this retranslation in April—the only version of The Foundation Pit to be based on the definitive edition that was published by Pushkin House in Moscow.

A true classic, here’s the description of the book from NYRB’s website:

In Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, a team of workers has been given the job of digging the foundation of an immense edifice, a palatial home for the perfect future that, they are convinced, is at hand. But the harder the team works, the deeper they dig, the more things go wrong, and it becomes clear that what is being dug is not a foundation but an immense grave.

The Foundation Pit is Platonov’s most overtly political book, written in direct response to the staggering brutalities of Stalin’s collectivization of Russian agriculture. It is also a literary masterpiece. Seeking to evoke unspeakable realities, Platonov deforms and transforms language in pages that echo both with the alienating doublespeak of power and the stark simplicity of prayer.

For more information, I highly recommend reading Bill Marx’s article on this book and listening to his interview with Robert Chandler.

The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov (translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson): We’re bringing this book out in December. By far one of the funniest Russian works of the twentieth century—even funnier than The Twelve Chairs. The Golden Calf has been translated a few times in the past (but poorly! Just check this chapter title from a previous translation: “Permit a Hireling of Capital to Enter,” which becomes “May a Capitalist Lackey Come In?” in ours), but never in full. Not only did the other translators work off the censored version, they dropped tons of sections, jokes, etc.

The Golden Calf relates the adventures of Ostap Bender and his merry crew of two-bit thieves as they try and out con a more successful con—one who has managed to become an “undercover millionaire” during the New Economic Period of the Soviet Union, when no citizen was allowed to accumulate so much wealth, and inflation devalued everything anyway.

The book is truly, gut-bustingly funny, as can be gleaned from this opening (or from this note “From the Authors”):

You have to be nice to pedestrians.

Pedestrians comprise the greater part of humanity. Moreover, its better part. Pedestrians created the world. They build cities, erected tall buildings, laid out sewers and waterlines, paved the streets and lit them with electricity. They spread civilization throughout the world, invented the printing press and gunpowder, flung bridges across rivers, deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, introduced the safety razor, abolished the slave trade and established that no less than 114 tasty, nutritious dishes can be made from soybeans.

And just when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.

It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, the motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets—laid out by pedestrians—were taken over by the motorists. The roads became twice as wide, while the sidewalks shrunk to the size of a postage stamp. The frightened pedestrians were pushed up against the walls of the buildings.

Amerika: The Missing Person by Franz Kafka (translated by Mark Harman): This has been translated several times in the past as well, most recently by Michael Hofmann.

The story of seventeen-year-old Karl Rossman’s misadventures in America was left unfinished at the time of Kafka’s death, which is one reason for the various versions. Here’s a bit of background info from the Publisher’s Note:

Along with the growing international recognition of Franz Kafka as one of the great modern writers, scholars began to raise doubts about the editorial decisions made by Max Brod. Although the manuscript of Der Verschollene (The Missing Person) lacks chapter headings and often even chapter breaks, Kafka did jot down on a sheet of paper headings for the first six chapters (complete with page numbers). He left no such instructions for the remainder of the text. After Kafka’s premature death in 1924 of tuberculosis, Brod did everything he could to achieve for his friend the recognition that had largely eluded him during his lifetime. As a result, in editing the manuscript of this novel for its original German publication in 1927, Brod was, as he explained in his afterword, “primarily concerned with the broad line of the story, not with philological work.” [. . .]

Since 1978 an international team of Kafka experts ahs been working on German critical editions of all of Kafka’s writings, which are being published by S. Fischer Verlag with financial support from German government. [. . .] Harman’s translation is based on the restored text in the first volume, which corrected numerous transcription errors in the earlier editions and removed Brod’s editorial and stylistic interventions. In the restored text, for example, Schillemeit employs only the chapter headings mentioned by Kafka and inserts chapter or section breaks based on evidence gleaned from the manuscript.

Not sure how I feel about these sorts of “restorations” that eliminate an editor’s work, but I’m still interested in reading this new translation and comparing it to Hofmann’s.

Actually, to be honest, I’m interested in reading all six of these books . . .

24 June 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The past few years has seen a bit of a Witold Gombrowicz renaissance. Yale University Press has published Danuta Borchardt’s retranslations1 of Cosmos and Ferdydurke, Archipelago published Bill Johnston’s translation of Bacacay, and Dalkey Archive reissued A Kind of Testament. And coming in November from Grove is Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Pornografia, a Gombrowicz novel I haven’t read, but that sounds pretty damn good:

In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the claustrophobic scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings—that is, until they become hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, culminating in an order from the Polish underground movement: the men at the farm must assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge there. The erotic games are put on hold—until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.

Gombrowicz was one of the best (Ferdydurke is an absolute must read), and it’s great to see so many of his books available again, especially now that they’re translated from the original Polish . . . Here’s the opening paragraph of Pornografia to get a taste of his style:

I’ll tell you about yet another adventure of mine, probably one of the most disastrous. At the time—the year was 1943—I was living in what was once Poland and what was once Warsaw, at the rock-bottom of an accomplished fact. Silence. The thinned-out bunch of companions and friends from the former cafes—the Zodiac, the Ziemianska, the Ipsu—would gather in an apartment on Krucza Street and there, drinking, we tried hard to go on as artists, writers, and thinkers . . . picking up our old, earlier conversations and disputes about art. . . . Hey, hey, hey, to this day I see us sitting or lying around in thick cigarette smoke, this one somewhat skeleton-like, that one scarred, and all shouting, screaming. So this one was shouting: God, another: art, a third: the nation, a fourth: the proletariat, and so we debated furiously, and it went on and on—God, art, nation, proletariat—but one day a middle-aged guy turned up, dark and lean, with an aquiline nose and, observing all due formality, he introduced himself to everyone individually. After which he hardly spoke.

If you’re intrigued, you can preorder the book from Booksmith by clicking here.

And now I’ll sit back and watch people searching for “polish porno” flock to our site for some serious disappointment . . .

1 Actually, Danuta Borchardt’s translations are the first from the original Polish edition—earlier editions were translated from the French versions.

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