Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

Witold Gombrowicz
Yale University Press


TOO BAD FERDYDURKE, which was first published in Poland in 1937, hasn't been translated directly into English before now (a 1961 English edition seems to have been made from other Romance-language translations). Gombrowicz's experimental tale of age and identity seems a little less fresh in the wake of a dozen or so Hollywood adult-kid mixups, and Donald Barthelme's wonderful classroom absurdity, "Me and Miss Mandible."

In Gombrowicz's world, the physical age of the body is irrelevant. His narrator Joey's age is determined solely by the perceptions of the people around him, who are all somehow convinced he is an irritating schoolboy, although he is actually 30 years old. Joey retains his adult memories, self-awareness, and body, but when his old philosophy professor appears one day to take him back to school, he becomes helpless in the thrall of perception. Since everyone, including other schoolboys, thinks he's a lad, he becomes powerless to assert his adulthood, and is thus imprisoned in the world of youth.

Here kids are cruel, adults have all the physical power, urges must be satisfied, and psychological games are the order of the playground. The minutiae of a day ruled by these forces add up to a garishly exaggerated comedy of manipulations and misunderstandings. Among the drollest moments are the small indignities of adult authority: "[The teacher] took out the grade book, and a deathly silence fell in the classroom--he beamed as he looked to the top of the list, and everyone whose name started with 'A' trembled--he looked to the bottom of the list, and everyone whose named started with 'Z' froze in fear." Joey understands at once that this will be a forgettable moment when he gets back to his real life, but until that happens, he's cowering too.

Gombrowicz, in his early 30s at the time he wrote this, seems to be wrestling with some perception issues himself. The author breaks away from his narrative repeatedly to include tangential stories and to rant about the terrific weight of great, misunderstood genius (a role that would deepen during a long exile spent in Argentina). He's especially vexed that sometimes readers label work "immature." Joey, too, is a writer whose creations are met with less awe than he would like. Occasionally Joey rails against a society that fails to see his glory--and, even worse, allows women to read and think about books. A steady stream of venom against these "cultural aunts" who have dared to trivialize his great art (by, of all things, being kindly about it) runs throughout the book.

As if being forced back to school weren't bad enough: Just as Joey becomes what others see him to be, Joey's art--and Gombrowicz's too--must endure the reader's uncharitable eye.

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