Tuesday, August 16, 2016

CosmosCosmos by Witold Gombrowicz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"A sparrow hanged on a piece of wire, a woman's deformed lip, and the whole cosmos of connections between them, produced by human mind."
(Lukasz Pruski's entry in the contest "Summarize Gombrowicz's 'Cosmos' In Fewer Than 140 Characters.")

The vagaries of memory: I do not remember much from my first trip back to the Old Country a scant twenty-five years ago yet I clearly remember surreptitiously reading Witold Gombrowicz's Bacacay under the desk during my high-school history class exactly fifty years ago. I had cherished that collection of short stories, probably because of some sexual content and absurdist aura. Years later I was a little disappointed by universally celebrated Ferdydurke and Trans-Atlantyk was a major turnoff for me. After a 35-year hiatus it is time to return to my compatriot's prose. I have chosen Cosmos (1965), a novel which I have never read before. And Gombrowicz delivers a near masterpiece!

Witold, the narrator, and his acquaintance, Fuks, two young men from Warsaw, are on vacations in Zakopane, the popular Polish resort in the Tatra Mountains. When walking around looking for a room to rent they find a sparrow hanged in a tree on a piece of wire. They stay at a pension run by a corpulent lady ("Roly-Poly" in the English translation), where the other residents are her husband, Leon, who uses a sort of private language characterized by preponderance of diminutives, their daughter, Lena, with her husband, and the housekeeper Katasia, whose lip is deformed after an accident.

In the main thread of the novel Witold and his companion are trying to explain the mystery of the hanged sparrow. They notice an indistinct mark on the ceiling which resembles an arrow. The arrow seems to point outside the house, where - guided by an unusual configuration of stones - they find a piece of stick hanging on a thread. Hanged sparrow, the position of stones, arrow-shaped marks, and hanged piece of stick all seem to indicate intentionality; there must be a purpose of all that, perhaps even a conspiracy. By whom, though? And the gallery of strange goings-on keeps growing.

Another main theme is the narrator's interest in Lena. Stimulated by the brief glimpse of Lena's leg on a bed frame - this momentary yet powerful sighting stays with him for weeks - Witold creates an erotic image of the young woman, a mind construct that tends to conflict with Lena's actual physical being and her married status. What's more, Lena's mouth and Katasia's deformed lips seem to merge into one fascinating yet menacing image in the narrator's hyperactive mind.

The last part of the novel is an unforgettable account of a mountain excursion. Leon suggests taking the trip to show the company a secret point in the Kościeliska Valley, from where the view of the mountains is incomparably magnificent. All characters - the party also includes two newly married couples - embark on the trip in horse-driven carriages. The excursion culminates in Leon's amazing confession, and then only one major event remains in the plot.

Some loose and amateurish thoughts on the main motifs in the novella: Mr. Gombrowicz convincingly shows the enormously rich texture of everything that contributes to a single moment of human life: the totality, the cosmos of sensations experienced at each instance of time:
"Everything is equally important, everything that constitutes the current moment, a kind of consonance, the humming of a swarm." (My own translation)
Each thing, each feeling, each moment has its own universe of meanings and possible connections to all other things, feelings, and moments. The author offers an intricate psychological analysis of micro-behaviors, snippets of thoughts, sensations, and moods.

Another theme is quite awkward to describe (especially when the reviewer lacks literary talent). Consider the following quote:
"When she smells herself, it does not bother her" (my own translation)
Witold is acutely aware of the grossness of a person's physicality if that person is not him. The "physical I", the personal details of one's physical self, such as feeling one's teeth with the tongue, become alien and unpleasant when they are someone else's. On the other hand, the often repeated phrase "one's own to one's own for one's own" (again, my own translation) likely has some masturbatory connotations, but enough of amateur psychology.

Cosmos is open to a wide range of interpretations the reader may want to ascribe to it: the most obvious and simplistic one is that the author wants to highlight the human tendency to look for patterns and causation in completely random events. The novel may also be considered a classy suspense story. Or a sophisticated joke. In my view the most significant is the psychological analysis and what pushes this "borderline literary masterpiece" to the five-star territory is that the author examines the most private, secret, embarrassing layers of human psyche – the layers whose existence we are not often eager to acknowledge. Mr. Gombrowicz is at the top of his craft as an investigator of human psychology.

I do not particularly like the ending; not because I care whether it "explains" things or not; a literary work of art is obviously not required to explain anything; it is just required to dazzle the reader. Although the rather shocking ending cleverly ties the two main motifs, mouth and hanging, it also seems to trivialize the whole extraordinary setup.

I have read the novel twice, first the Polish original and then the English translation by Danuta Borchardt. I am impressed by the translator's skill: Gombrowicz's prose, especially Leon's private language, is virtually impossible to translate. Yet it is still obvious to me that the original reads much better and seems to exhibit way more depth while the English version feels somehow incomplete and superficial. (I tried a similar experiment two months ago when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold in two different translations, English and Polish. In that case the English version of the Spanish original seemed better than the Polish one.)

Finally, the last sentence of the novel is certainly one of the best last sentences I have ever read. Fantastic!

Four and a half stars, rounded up.

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