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A dark, quasi-detective novel, Cosmos follows the classic noir motif to explore the arbitrariness of language, the joke of human freedom, and man’s attempt to bring order out of chaos in his psychological life.
Published in 1965, Cosmos is the last novel by Witold Gombrowicz (19041969) and his most somber and multifaceted work. Two young men meet by chance in a Polish resort town in the Carpathian Mountains. Intending to spend their vacation relaxing, they find a secluded family-run pension. But the two become embroiled first in a macabre event on the way to the pension, then in the peculiar activities and psychological travails of the family running it. Gombrowicz offers no solution to their predicament.
Cosmos is translated here for the first time directly from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt, translator of Ferdydurke.
Sweat, Fuks is walking, I'm behind him, pant legs, heels, sand, we're plodding on, plodding on, ruts, clods of dirt, glassy pebbles flashing, the glare, the heat humming, quivering, everything is black in the sunlight, cottages, fences, fields, woods, the road, this march, from where, what for, a lot could be said, actually I was worn out by my father and mother, by my family in general, I wanted to prepare for at least one of my exams and also to breathe in change, break loose, spend time someplace far away. I went to Zakopane, I'm walking along the Krupowki, thinking about finding a cheap little boarding house, when I run into Fuks, his faded-blond, carroty mug, bug-eyed, his gaze smeared with apathy, but he's glad, and I'm glad, how are you, what are you doing here, I'm looking for a room, me too, I have an address-he says-of a small country place where it's cheaper because it's far away, out in the sticks somewhere. So we go on, pant legs, heels in the sand, the road and the heat, I look down, the earth and the sand, pebbles sparkling, one two, one two, pant legs, heels, sweat, eyelids heavy from a sleepless night on the train, nothing but a rank-and-file trudging along. He stopped.
"How far is it?"
I looked around and saw whatever there was to see, and it was precisely what I didn't want to see because I had seen it so many times before: pines and fences, firs and cottages, weeds and grass, a ditch, footpaths and cabbage patches, fields and a chimney ... the air ... all glistening in the sun, yet black, the blackness of trees, the grayness of the soil, the earthy green of plants, everything rather black. A dog barked, Fuks turned into a thicket.
"It's cooler here."
"Let's go on."
"Wait a minute. Let's sit down a while."
He ventured deeper into the bushes where recesses and hollows were opening up, darkened from above by a canopy of intertwining hazel branches and boughs of spruce, I ventured with my gaze into the disarray of leaves, twigs, blotches of light, thickets, recesses, thrusts, slants, bends, curves, devil knows what, into a mottled space that was charging and receding, first growing quiet, then, I don't know, swelling, displacing everything, opening wide ... lost and drenched in sweat, I felt the ground below, black and bare. There was something stuck between the trees-something was protruding that was different and strange, though indistinct ... and this is what my companion was also watching.
It was a sparrow. A sparrow hanging on a piece of wire. Hanged. Its little head to one side, its beak wide open. It was hanging on a thin wire hooked over a branch.
Remarkable. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow. The eccentricity of it clamored with a loud voice and pointed to a human hand that had torn into the thicket-but who?
Who hanged it, why, for what reason? ... my thoughts were entangled in this overgrowth abounding in a million combinations, the jolting train ride, the night filled with the rumble of the train, lack of sleep, the air, the sun, the march here with this Fuks, there was Jasia and my mother, the mess with the letter, the way I had "cold-shouldered" my father, there was Roman, and also Fuks's problem with his boss in the office (that he's been telling me about), ruts, clods of dirt, heels, pant legs, pebbles, leaves, all of it suddenly fell down before the bird, like a crowd on its knees, and the bird, the eccentric, seized the reign ... and reigned in this nook.
"Who could have hanged it?"
"No. It's too high up."
But he didn't stir. The sparrow was hanging. The ground was bare but in some places short, sparse grass was encroaching on it, many things lay about, a piece of bent sheet metal, a stick, another stick, some torn cardboard, a smaller stick, there was also a beetle, an ant, another ant, some unfamiliar bug, a wood chip, and so on and on, all the way to the scrub at the roots of the bushes-he watched as I did. "Let's go." But he went on standing, looking, the sparrow was hanging, I was standing, looking. "Let's go" "Let's go." But we didn't budge, perhaps because we had already stood here too long and the right moment for departure had passed ... and now it was all becoming heavier, more awkward ... the two of us with the hanging sparrow in the bushes ... and something like a violation of balance, or tactlessness, an impropriety on our part loomed in my mind ... I was sleepy.
"Well, let's get going!" I said, and we left ... leaving the sparrow in the bushes, all alone.
Further march down the road in the sun scorched and wearied us, so we stopped, disgruntled, and again I asked "is it far?" Fuks answered by pointing to a notice posted on a fence: "They've got rooms for rent here too." I looked. A little garden. In the garden there was a house behind a hedge, no ornaments or balconies, boring and shabby, low budget, with a skimpy porch sticking out, wooden, Zakopane-style, with two rows of windows, five each on the first and second floors, while in the little garden-a few stunted trees, pansies withering in the flower beds, a couple of gravel footpaths. But he thought we should check it out, why not, sometimes in a dingy place like this the food could be finger-licking good, cheap too. I was ready to walk in and look, though we had passed a few similar notices and hadn't paid any attention, and besides, I was dripping with sweat. He opened the gate, and we walked along the gravel path toward the glittering windowpanes. He rang the bell, we stood a while on the porch until the door opened and a woman, no longer young, about forty, came out, maybe a housekeeper, bosomy and slightly plump.
"We'd like to see the rooms."
"One moment please, I'll get the lady of the house."
We waited on the porch, the din of the train still in my head, the journey, the previous day's events, the swarm, the haze, the roar. Cascading, overwhelming roar. What intrigued me in this woman was a strange deformity of the mouth in the face of a bright-eyed, decent little housekeeper-her mouth was as if incised on one side, and its lengthening, just by a bit, by a fraction of an inch, made her upper lip curl upward, leap aside, or slither away, almost like a reptile, and that sideways slipperiness slipping away repelled me by its reptilian, frog-like coldness, and, like a dark passage, it instantly warmed and aroused me, leading me to a sin with her, sexual, slippery, and lubricious. And her voice came as a surprise-I don't know what kind of voice I had expected from such a mouth-but she sounded like an ordinary housekeeper, middle-aged and corpulent. I now heard her call from inside the house: "Auntie! A couple of gentlemen are here about the room!"
After a few moments the aunt trundled out on her short little legs as if on a rolling pin, she was rotund-we exchanged a few remarks, yes indeed, there is a room for two, with board, please come this way! A whiff of ground coffee, a narrow hallway, a small alcove, wooden stairs, you're here for a while, ah, yes, studying, it's peaceful here, quiet ... at the top there was another hallway and several doors, the house was cramped. She opened the door to the last room off the hallway, I only glanced at it, because it was like all rooms for rent, dark, shades drawn, two beds and a wardrobe, one clothes hanger, a water pitcher on a saucer, two small lamps by the beds, no bulbs, a mirror in a grimy frame, ugly. From under the window shade a little sunlight settled in a spot on the floor, the scent of ivy floated in and with it the buzzing of a gadfly. And yet ... and yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not quite as she should have been, though I don't know what gave me the sense of this being, let's say, so out of place-whether it was that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress-or that her leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day. Was she asleep? When she saw us she sat up and tidied her hair.
"Lena, what are you doing, honey? Really! Gentlemen-my daughter."
In response to our bows she nodded her head, rose, and left silently-her silence put to rest the thought of anything out of the ordinary.
We were shown another room next door, exactly the same but slightly cheaper because it wasn't connected directly to a bathroom. Fuks sat on the bed, Mrs. Wojtys, a bank manager's wife, sat on a little chair, and the final upshot was that we rented the cheaper room, with board, of which she said: "You'll see for yourselves."
We were to have breakfast and lunch in our room and supper downstairs with the family.
"Go back for your luggage, gentlemen, Katasia and I will get everything ready."
We returned to town for our luggage.
We came back with our luggage.
We unpacked while Fuks was explaining how lucky we were, the room was inexpensive, the other one, the one that had been recommended to him would surely have been more expensive ... and also farther away ... "The grub will be good, you'll see!" I grew more and more weary of his fish-face, and ... to sleep ... sleep ... I went to the window, looked out, that wretched little garden was scorching in the sun, farther on there was the fence and the road, and beyond that two spruce trees marked the spot in the thicket where the sparrow was hanging. I threw myself on the bed, spun around, felt asleep, mouth slipping from mouth, lips more like lips because they were less like lips ... but I was no longer asleep. Something had awakened me. The housekeeper was standing over me. It was morning, yet dark, like night. Because it wasn't morning. She was waking me: "The Mr. and Mrs. Wojtys would like you to come down for supper." I got up. Fuks was already putting on his shoes. Supper. In the dining room, a tight cubbyhole, a sideboard with a mirror, yogurt, radishes, and the eloquence of Mr. Wojtys, the ex-bank manager, who wore a signet ring and gold cufflinks:
"Mark you, dear fellow, I have now designated myself to be at the beck and call of my better half, and I am to render specific services, namely, when the faucet goes on the fritz, or the radio ... I would recommend more sweetie butter with the radishes, the butter is tip-top ..."
"This heat, there's bound to be a thunderstorm, I swear on the holiest of holies, bless me and my grenadiers!"
"Did you hear the thunder, Daddy, beyond the forest, far away?" (This was Lena, I hadn't seen much of her yet, I hadn't seen much of anything, in any case the ex-manager or the ex-director was expressing himself with a flourish.) "May I suggest a teensy-weensy helping of curdled milk, my wife is a very special specialist when it comes to curdled milkie, and what is it that makes hers the creme de la creme, my dear fellow? It's the pot! The quality of milk fermentation depends on the lactic attributes of the pot." "What do you know, Leon!" (The ex-manager's wife interjected this.) "I'm a bridge player, my dears, an ex-banker, now a bridge player in the afternoons as well as Sunday nights, by special wifely dispensation! So, gentlemen, you are here to study? Quite so, perfect, peace and quiet, the intellect can wallow like fruit in a compote ..." But I wasn't really listening, Mr. Leon's head was like a dome, elf-like, its baldness riding over the table, accentuated by the sarcastic flashing of his pince-nez, next to him Lena, a lake, and the polite Mrs. Leon sitting on her rotundity and rising from it to preside over supper with self-sacrifice, the nature of which I had not yet grasped, Fuks saying something pallid, white, phlegmatic-I ate a piece of meat pie, still feeling sleepy, they talked about the dust in the air, that the season had not yet begun, I asked if it was cool at night, we finished the meat pie, then the fruit compote made its appearance, and, after the compote, Katasia pushed an ashtray toward Lena, the ashtray had a wire mesh-as if an echo, a faint echo of the other net (on the bed), on which a leg, a foot, a calf lay on the wire netting of the bed when I had walked into the room etc., etc. Katasia's lip, slithering, found itself near Lena's little mouth.
I hovered over it, I, who after leaving the other, there, in Warsaw, now became stuck in this, here, and I was beginning to ... I hovered for one brief moment, but then Katasia left, Lena moved the ashtray to the center of the table-I lit a cigarette-someone turned on the radio-Mr. Wojtys drummed on the table with his fingertips and hummed a little tune, something like ti-ri-ri, but then broke off-drummed again, hummed again and broke off. It was cramped. The room was too small. Lena's mouth closing and parting, its shyness ... and that's it, goodnight, we're on our way upstairs.
We were undressing, and Fuks, shirt in hand, resumed his complaints about his boss, Drozdowski, he moaned whitely and wanly, carrot-like, that Drozdowski, that at first they got along famously, then something or other went sour, one way or another, I began to get on his nerves, can you imagine, I get on his nerves, let me move a finger and I get on his nerves, do you understand that, to get on your boss's nerves, seven hours a day, he can't stand me, he obviously tries not to look at me for seven hours straight, and if he happens to look at me his eyeballs skip away as if he'd been scalded, for seven hours! I don't know-Fuks went on, his eyes fixed on his shoes-sometimes I feel like falling on my knees and crying out: Forgive me, Mr. Drozdowski, forgive me! But forgive me for what? And it's not even his fault, I really do irritate him, my friends at work tell me shush, stay out of his sight, but-Fuks ogled me sadly, fish-like, with melancholy-but how can I keep in or out of his sight when we're together in the same room seven hours a day, if I clear my throat, move my hand, he breaks out in a rash. Maybe I stink? And in my mind I associated the lamentations of the rejected Fuks with my departure from Warsaw, resentful, disdaining, both of us, he and I, dispossessed ... the resentment ... and so we went on undressing in this rented, unfamiliar room, in a house found by a fluke, by accident, like two castaways, spurned. We talked some more about the Wojtyses, the family atmosphere, I fell asleep. I awoke. It was night. Dark. Buried under my sheets, a few minutes passed before I found myself again in the room with the wardrobe, the night table, the water pitcher, until I found my bearings in relation to the windows and the door-which I managed to do thanks to a persistent though silent cerebral effort. I vacillated for a long time, what should I do, go back to sleep or not ... I didn't feel like sleeping, I didn't feel like getting up either, so I mulled it over: should I get up, or sleep, or lie here, finally I stuck out my leg and sat up on the bed, and when I sat up the white blotch of the curtained window loomed before my eyes and, stepping up to it barefoot, I drew the curtain aside: there, beyond the little garden, beyond the fence, beyond the road was the spot where the sparrow was hanging, hanged among the tangled branches, the black soil below it, where the bit of cardboard, the piece of sheet metal, the strips of lath, were lying about, where the tips of spruce were basking in the starlit night. I pulled the curtain back but I didn't move away because it occurred to me that Fuks might be watching me.
Excerpted from Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz Copyright © 2005 by Rita Gombrowicz. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 7, 2011
No text was provided for this review.