Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz
An Alternate Translation by Danuta Borchardt
Yale University Press
From The History of Polish Literature by Czesław Miłosz
(434) For Gombrowicz, there is always both a striving toward liberation from “the form” and a necessary submission to it, since ever antiform freezes into a new form. Each book of his, however, is a renewed attempt to capture one variety of strivingand to smash one more sacrosanct rule of art.
(434) His novel Transatlantic (Transatlantyk, 1953), has an Argentinian setting but is written in a language that parodies Polish seneteenth-century memorialists. Many consider it his most accomplished work, as it brings into the open a theme underlying all he writings: how to transform one’s “Polishness,” which is felt as a wound, an affliction, into a source of strength. A Pole is an immature human being, an adolescent, and this saves him from settling into a “form.”
Preface to the 1957 Edition
Has any author explained his work as much as Gombrowicz?
“On this scale of things the best opinion I could hope for would be one that sees in this work “a national self-examination” as well as a “criticism of our national flaws.” (xvi)
“I do not deny: Trans-Atlantyk is, among other things, a satire. It is also, among other things, a rather intense reckoning…but, obviously, not with the Poland of our time, but with the Poland that has been reated by her historical existence and her location in the world (this means a w e a k Poland). And I concur that Trans-Atlantyk is a corsair ship that smuggles a lot of dynamite in order to explode our hitherto-felt national emotions. It even conceals within it a requirement of sorts with regard to certain emotions: to overcome Polishness. To loosen up our submission to Poland! To break away just a little! Rise from our knees! To reveal, legalize another dimension of feeling which orders a human being to defend himself against his nation as against any collective force. To obtain—this is most important—freedom from the Polish form, while being a Pole to be someone larger and higher than a Pole! Here it is—Trans-Atlanthk’s ideological contraband. This might mean a very far-reaching revision of our relationship to the nation—so far-reaching that it might totally transform our frame of mind and liberate energies that would, as the final outcome, be useful to the nation. A revision, nota benne, of a universal character—I might propose this to peoples of other nations, because the problem is not only the relationship of a Pole to Poland but that of any human being to his nation. And finally a revision as it most closely relates to all the contemporary problems, because I have my sights (as always) on strengthening, enriching, the life of the individual, making him more resistant to the oppressive superiority of the masses. This is the ideological mode in which Trans-Atlantyk is written. (xvi-xvii; ellipsis in original)
Gombrowicz doesn’t aim low, does he? But then, “I am one of those ambitious shooters who, if they botch things up, it’s because they take on bigger beasts.” (xvi)
Then again, he dismisses his own statement by saying “Trans-Atlantyk does not have a subject beyond the story that it is telling” (xvii) and that it has “a multitude of meanings.” (xviii) He declares he has only written about himself.
- Czesław Straszewicz—writer friend accompanying Gombrowicz on trip to Argentina
- Rembieliński—senator (trip companion)
- Mazurkiewicz—cabinet minister (trip companion)
- Minister Felix Kosiubidzki—Polish envoy (minister) to Argentina
- Mr. Cieciszowski—Polish ex-pat living in Buenos Area. G. turns to him for help.
- Councilor Podsrotski—works at Polish Legation as Councilor.
- Popatski—the old Accountant at the firm. A kind old man.
- Ficinati—Polish painter in Buenos Ares.
- Gonzalo—a puto, native of Buenos Ares.
- Pitskal, Baron, and Ciumkała. Partners (and rivals) in the firm.
- Thomas Kobrzycki—Retired Polish army major
- Ignatius (Iggy): Thomas’ son (who Gonzalo fancies)
- Dr. Garcia: Thomas’ second witness; a successful lawyer
- Colonel Fichcik: the military attaché at the embassy
- Horatio: employee of Gonzalo. Hired to stand near-by for show.
Gombrowicz feels out of place, lost among the official meetings. Strangeness, Unfamiliarity, Puzzle, nothingness, grayness, “calling out to my home, Friends, and Companions.” (3)
G. decides not to return on the ship (which would sail to England, not Poland). He feels he can’t reveal his true, “Blasphemous reason for his stay here” (7)
Mr. Cieciszowski finds it difficult to commit on any advice. Members of the LLC he recommends G. to: the Baron, Pitskal, Ciumkała.
G. rents a room. Next morning he hears an old man moaning “guerra, guerra, guerra” (war). The war was big news. G. keeps debating whether or not to go to the Polish Legation.
Starts to go to the Legation, but he hesitates for a little bit before going inside. “[W]hy go to a Bishop when I’m a heretic, an apostate from Faith, a blasphemer.” (11) Painting himself as a unbeliever in the “church” (Poland)
At the Legation: Minister Felix Kosiubidzki only gives G. a little money, although he offers travel money for him to go to Rio de Janeiro. “I want no literati here: they just milk you and crab at you.” G., realizing he’s being bought off, tells Kosiubidzki “I’m not only a literatus, I am Bombrowicz!” (14)
Kosiubidzki offers G a job “with writing articles for our newspapers here, praising, glorifying our Great Writers and Geniuses”. (16) He mentions historical figures only: Copernicus, Chopin, Mickiewicz. “For God’s sake we must praise what’s Ours or they’ll gobble us up!” G. confesses he would be embarrassed to do so. The Minister and the Councilor freak out at first, then treat G. with deference. It all feels like a joke.
“Because I knew of course that they’re shitheads and they’re taking me for a shithead, and this is shit, shit, and I’d sooner hit those shitheads on the head.” (19)
Propaganda requires that G. be treated as a genius. (19) Who is this for? The shitheads they are trying to convince? Or their own shithead selves?
G. goes back to Cieciszowski. While walking through town, the see the Baron (partner in the LLC) who is moved by G.’s story and hires him as his secretary in the company. The Baron’s exuberance is tempered when he sees his partner Pitskal, who begins to beat G. Pitskal stops when the other partner, Ciumkała, appears. All the partners begin to fight over who G. will be working for. They fight each other over G. until they arrive at their office: “Baron, Ciumkała, Pitskal, Horse and Dog Enterprise.” (27)
G. gets a peek in at the clerks. The order of things are fouled up: “but instead of the Bookkeeper crying first, and the Accountant then comforting him, they mixed up the sequence of moves, and what was the end came at the beginning!” (30)
History on the bad blood (despite profits) of the partnership. Even though supposedly in the same boat together there is so much history of bickering, lawsuits, and just making things difficult in general between them.
G.’s conditions and circumstances made things somber for him: unfamiliar place, strangeness all around, anxiety, the war (even though far away). G. wonders if the partners aren’t up to something with him—he can’t completely trust them.
Suddenly G. is being feted. Invited to a party. Sent letters and flowers. Moved out of his cubbyhole of a room to the best room. Treated with dignity at the office. Feels uncomfortable with it, especially with the “Murder, Slaughter” of the war. Feels trapped—wants to avoid this pomp, but feels if he does it will look worse. Besides, he’s quite enjoying the adulation on some level (no longer met with disdain). ‘Compromises—says he will go and judge those that salute him do so “with the best intentions and most righteously!” (36)
How G. feels about going to be honored:
Hence, you shitheads, go ahead and Connive and Ply the Wise, and go pecking for your own gain like hens. While I—whatever is born of your dumb and conniving Nature—will accept according to my Nature, and when you feed me shit, I will partake of it as Bread and Wine and I will be satiated. Thus, when like a true master I will wax brilliant at that reception, when by the foreigners I will be hailed and recognized as a Master, no longer will I be frightened by H.E. the Envoy’s fooliery, and he too will perforce respect me… Mount then, mount that horse that is being offered you, and you will go far! I’ll go, I’ll go then! (37; ellipsis in original)
G. shows he understands how everyone feels about everyone else: “Oh, why is this shithead, who takes me for a shithead, calling me Master?” (37) Honoring and disdaining each other at the same time, and each knowing it. And this is with men that are trying to support him! (men from the Legation)
At the event: everyone looks nice but they have no idea how to speak to each other. G. introduced “as the Master Great Polish Renowned Genius Gombrowicz.” (39) No one knows how to talk to anyone at these things—conversations, the few occurring, are hushed. The Councilor upset that G. isn’t wowing the attendees more: “Show those shitheads something, you shithead, or else it’ll be embarrassing for us!” (40)
People arrive that are “not near nobodies. Dressed to the nines, followed by sycophants, secretaries, scribes, and clowns. The man is “intelligently intelligent.” (41)
G.’s description of the Rabbi shows a unique use of language: “But how to bite him when the beast is marzipanning, marzipanning as if from a book ‘til it’s nauseating, and he’s becoming more and more intelligently intelligent, and more and more finely refined.” (42)
G., pressed by his ‘supporters’ to he must go “get him,” makes a loud, banal statement. Parrying of statements to each speakers’ ‘group,’ the Rabbi constantly scrutinizes his notes.
G.’s response to everyone else’s response at the so-called verbal sparring:
“Thus out of fear, that since these my shitheads who take me for a shithead, I’ll appear like a shithead in front of those other shitheads, and in my wish to ruin the other shitheads, I shouted: “Shit, shit, shit! …” (44-5)
G. turns to flee the room, but changes his mind. He changes his mind again, and again…and ends up walking back and forth. He feels the conversation in the room is mocking him as he gets worked up, then he notices someone else now matching his walk…a man with painted red lips. G. flees the room.
(48) Natives use a term for a man that “wheedles, sweet-talks and fawns over” other men: puto.
(49) Gombrowicz’s puto follows him and tells him the way he (Gonzalo) tries to attract other boys/youths. Gonzalo has plenty of lust but more fear.
(52) Gonzalo pretends “to be my own butler” in order not to appear rich. He’s afraid his tricks would ask for more money or try to rob him (even though he’s paying them). He seems to revel in his misery.
(53) Gombrowicz calls Gonzalo “she”
(54) Gonzalo pines for a fair-haired sailor, his favorite (at least from afar)
(55) An older man stops to talk with the sailor. Gonzalo, envious, asks Gombrowicz to listen in. Gombrowicz hears the pair speaking Polish. The old man is the sailor’s father. Gonzalo begs for an introduction.
(57) Gonzalo and Gombrowicz follw the pair into a dance hall
(58) Gombrowicz runs into Pitskal, Baron, and Ciumkała at the dancehall.
(59-60) The three argue over who is going to pay for drinks, shoving money under each others’ noses.
(61) Between visitors to the urinals in the bathroom PB&C beg Gombrowicz to take their money. They compete with each other *and* with Gonzalo.
(62) Gonzalo acting the fool. Gombrowicz pities him.
(64) Gonzalo shoves money in Gombrowicz’s hand to invite the father and son to their table.
(67) Gombrowicz tells Thomas about Gonzalo’s plans. Tells him to flee.
Gonzalo throws his glass at Thomas, hitting above the eye. Gonzalo leaves the dancehall.
(72) Thomas shows up at Gombrowicz’s flat and asks him to challenge Gonzalo to a duel in his name.
(73) Quote: His obstinacy astounded me, and one could see that this man would not rest ‘til he had forced Gonzalo to be a man; it seemed he couldn’t bear the idea of his son being exposed to ridicule; and thus in spite of the obvious, he throws himself into the obvious and wants to transform it!
Gombrowicz visits Gonzalo and tells him of the challenge. Gonzalo tries to get Gombrowicz to side with him and incite resistance against the father.
(77) Quote (from Iggy’s father):
“Has the fate of the Poles been so delightful up till now? Hasn’t your Polishness become repugnant to you? Haven’t you had enough of Suffering? Not enough eternal Torture and Torment? Forsooth, today they’re tanning your hides again! You’re thus sticking by your hide? Don’t you want to become something Else, become something New? Do you want all your Boys to repeat in circles everything in the manner of their Fathers? Or, let the Young Guys out of the paternal cage, let them run free across the wilderness, let them likewise glimpse the Unknown!”
(In reply to Gombrowicz’s complaint that he doesn’t want to “incite Son against the Father” and that “Poles are exceptionally respectful of our Fathers.”)
“The Land of the Sons” sticks in Gombrowicz’s mind. Gombrowicz sees Gonzalo’s request to drop the bullets into his sleeve (shooting with only powder, unknown to the father) as a request “to betray the Father and my Country.” (79)
Gombrowicz plans on getting the Baron and Pitskal in on the plan for a powder-only duel. The difficulty is figuring out how to help a countryman (Thomas) keep his honor and avoid jail. He has said he would murder Gonzalo if the challenge isn’t accepted.
(83) “[E]ven though I am on the Old Father’s side, the budding Land of the Sons knocks about in my head.” Gombrowicz on the appeal of the younger generation.
But…following an embarrassing and eventful night, Gombrowicz finds himself as party to a duel
(86) The envoy and others have heard of the duel and feel it an important matter. They want “to trumpet it to the four corners of the world to the greater glory of our name [Poland], and likewise at this moment when we’re marching on Berlin, on Berlin, to Berlin!”
They want to turn the duel into a political matter (and diversion?)
Gombrowicz repeatedly falls to his knees as the legation endorses the plan for a duel and tries to organize a hunt to highlight the duel taking place (in order for attendees to ‘accidentally’ see it).
They have entered their intention of attending the duel into the meeting mintues—they feel the minutes constrains them, and try to find a way out of it.
Thereupon, having shown the Duel to their Excellences the Ladies and to the invited Foreigners, they will thereby show their Manliness, Honor, Prowess, likewise their immeasurable Valor, Earnest Blood, their Steadfast Reverence, their Faith sacred and Invincible, their Power sacred and Highest, and the sacred Miracle of the entire Nation.
(91) In setting the terms with Baron and Piskal, even though they know it will be a duel without bullets, they insist on terms that include blood.
There’s always someone for them to fight—if not someone else, they will fight among themwelves and bring up ancient grudges.
(93) The beginning of the war is always in the back of Gombrowicz’s mind.
(95) Gombrowicz: “Yet I am Going, Going because the others are likewise Going and, like sheep, like calves, we are thus leading each other to that Duel, and useless are all plans, designs and decisions when man is forced by other people and among people lost as in a dark Forest.”
a) the power of the collective—everyone going because all others are going
b) a dark forest? Sounds like from Dante
The repeated shouts, in the streets and in the newspapers: “Polonia, Polonia.”
(96) [T]his sacred, oh Accursed Country of mine”
Gombrowicz is confused what exactly is the truth. “[H]ow can we be marching on Berlin when they’re fighting on the outskirts of Warsaw?”
(97) Envoy still planning a “calvacade” even though there is a war and there are no hares. Gombrowicz notices/believes the envoy is “Empty”. All actions, including Gombrowicz’s, become “Empty” (99) “All is Empty.”
(100-1) “Well, I came here because of uneasiness about the future of our Nation that’s been by the Enemy defeated, and we’re left with nothing but our Children. May the Sons be faithful to their Fathers and to the Land of the Fathers!” I’m saying this, but forthwith fear seizes me, what am I saying this for, and why am I saying this…Suddenly ‘tis Empty here! All at once ‘tis so Empty! All at once ‘tis as Empty as if Nothing to it…as if there’s nothing.” (ellipsis in original)
(101-7) The duel.
Everything is “Empty.” It’s theater, meant strictly for show. No bullets in the guns. No hares for the voyeuristic Calvacade. The dogs of the Calvacade begin attacking Iggy, so Gonzalo throws himself into the dogs and helps save Iggy. Thomas and Gonzalo make up since G. saved his son.
Iggy has been hiding in the bushes to watch the duel.
(106)”Oh, because ‘tis an assured, a most assured thing, that a Pole is beloved of God and Nature for his Virtues, but mainly for that Chivalry of his, for his Courage, Nobility, Piety and that Confidence of his! Look at these groves! Look at Nature entire! And look at us Poles, amen, amen, amen.” Thus they all exclaimed: “Viva Polonia Martir!”
(107-9) Gonzalo invites Thomas and Iggy to his hacienda. Gombrowicz encourages Thomas not to go, but his words have the opposite effect.
(109-13) Description of Gonzalo’s hacienda. So much stuff/treasures…they are at odds with each other. “Biting.” Commentary on Europe? (and to follow?)
Gonzalo pays readers to read his library.
Weird mixtures of dogs.
Horatio, the youth employed to stand near-by for show, makes movements in concert/copying Iggy.
(118-9) Gonzalo confesses to Thomas that the duel was without bullets.
(121) Thomas demands blood—his son’s.
Avenging his honor by sacrificing his son (Poland; any country; war)
He wants to fight his Country’s enemy! And when his advanced years to Impotence condemn him, he gives up his only Son to the army to die or to be maimed. Hence he throws on the scale not only his Dearest Son but also his own emotions, an Old Man’s Sacrifice, heavy and bloody! But worthless is his Sacrifice. Not frightening his gray hair. Futile are the Old Man’s emotions!
Does Thomas want to kill his impotence by killing his child?
Gonzalo is listening. He says Iggy will kill the father for him. Begins yelling “Land of the Sons!”
(124) The huge hall, filled with divers objects, one on top of the other, one with the other, here a Triptych under a Vase, there a Carpet over a Candelabrum, an Armchair on a small Chair, Madonna and the Ugly Thing…also a Brother, Brothel, Brothel, one and all coupling without shame with whoever turns up, a brothel. (ellipsis in original)
(125) And here before me Filicide on the one hand and Patricide on the other!
(133) Horatio and Gonzalo work together to seduce Iggy. He realizes it but can’t stop participating.
(134) Gombrowicz in the garden. Pitskal, Baron, and Ciumkała abduct him. Gombrowicz passes out after Pitskal sticks a spur in him.
(135-6) Gombrowifz wakes up in a cellar. Pitskal, Baron, and Ciumkała stick spurs in each other.
(137) Gombrowicz admitted to the Society of the Chevaliers of the Spur
(139-41) How the spur society started: they were acting “manly” and honorably. Challenge to a duel and insisting there are stallions, not mares…in other words, a pissing contest.
(141) “Accursed fate! Therefore I, the Accountant, when I saw Mr. Thomas firing an Empty Pistol, this I determined: Terrible I will become and Nature I will attack, violate and conquer it, Terrify it so that our Fate will alter…Oh, to violate Nature, violate Fate, violate ourselves and violate God the Highest! Since no one will fear our Kindness, Terrible we must be!”
(The firm’s accountant on his reaction to Poland’s impotence in the war. It is taken out on others. Ellipsis in original)
(145) The only way out of the cellar is to counsel greater stupidities.
(146) The crowd worked up into a fury to kill, finally settling on Ignation (the Son).
(151) Gonzalo’s plan to kill the Father that night.
(154) Thomas still intent on killing Iggy
(155) Gombrowicz’s terror at his lack of terror: his “Terrifying Lack of Terror”
(158-60) Party at Gonzalo’s house, including “the flower of our Émigré Colony!” Attendees have ridiculous names. Poland is being defeated and the Minister’s response was a “Carnival Cavalcade.” The Minister keeps shushing Gombrowic’s questions and comments about Poland’s defeat, telling him not “to brag about it!” Denial.
(162) People behind the trees in a Heap—similar to the end of each scene in Ferdydurke. They are there to watch the killing: “Smite and Kill,” they gobbled. “Smite and Kill!” (163)
(164-6) In the hall, people dance and everyone bangs into each other. Gombrowicz waiting to see who is killed when Thomas (the Father) is knocked to the ground, his son falling on him soon after. Ignatio begins to laugh, sparking laughter in everyone else.
And on from Laughter to Laughter, Ha-ha with Laughter, ha-ha with Laughter, they ha-ha, ha-ha, they Ha-ha-ha!...
(ellipsis in original) Yet the world is still falling apart.