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Pornografia: A Novel

Pornografia: A Novel

5.0 1
by Witold Gombrowicz, Danuta Borchardt

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The place is Poland, in the early years of the German occupation. Pornografia's narrator, an author named Witold Gombrowicz, meets a swarthy and overly formal man named Fyderyk at a Warsaw house party, and the two soon become engaged in a business of a dubious (if not downright criminal) nature. When an acquaintance of theirs, a corpulent provincial landowner named


The place is Poland, in the early years of the German occupation. Pornografia's narrator, an author named Witold Gombrowicz, meets a swarthy and overly formal man named Fyderyk at a Warsaw house party, and the two soon become engaged in a business of a dubious (if not downright criminal) nature. When an acquaintance of theirs, a corpulent provincial landowner named Hipolit, requests that they come stay with him to discuss some of his city affairs, it is not hard to convince them to leave the claustrophobic city for the fresh air of the countryside.

Once in the country, however, Fryderyk and Witold quickly bore of their surroundings -- all of their surroundings, that is, but the two teenagers who are staying on Hipolit's farm: Henia, Hipolit's daughter; and Karol, the son of one of the farmhands, who has just returned from a stint in the Polish resistance movement. Both sixteen years old, they have known each other all their lives, and interact as naturally and indifferently as siblings. Witold, however, begins to obsess over their budding sexuality, and imposes on their every interaction an erotic twist that leaves him half-crazed with voyeuristic lust. He is convinced that Karol and Henia must go to bed with each other, and it soon becomes apparent that Fryderyk has the same idea; as their time at the farm progresses, both men turn seemingly innocent interactions with the two teenagers into a sort of erotic chess game. Small pretenses for contact between the young folks -- pointing out that Karol's pant cuffs are dragging in the dirt, for instance, and asking Henia to roll them up for him -- become fantastic acts pregnant with innuendo and possibility. The fact that Henia is engaged to a respectable (if dandyish) older man only makes the game more interesting. Communicating his intentions to Witold through a series of letters left under a brick near the farm's edge, Fryderyk begins to slowly undermine Henia's engagement. He tells the teenagers that he is directing a play, and asks them to mimic a slightly suggestive scene for him -- and then arranges for Witold to bring Henia's fiance, Vaclav, nearby at the most provocative moment. Vaclav of course misinterprets what he sees, and begins to sink into paranoia and suspicion of his young bride-to-be.

Two incidents of violence temporarily disrupt Witold and Fryderyk's games. First, Vaclav's mother is stabbed to death by a young thief in front of all the farm's residents. The tragedy leaves Vaclav even more unstable, and everyone involved shaken.

The second situation arises when a senior commander in the resistance named Siemian comes to stay at the farm for a few days. Karol has served with him, and snaps to attention immediately. Not long after Siemian arrives, Hipolit receives a distressing order from the local underground authorities; Siemian has lost his nerve and wants to leave the resistance. His high position makes this simply too compromising, and Hipolit has been commanded to murder his houseguest.

Hipolit enlists the help of his other male guests, but none of them -- Witold, Fryderyk, or Vaclav -- can bring themselves to kill the man. Then Fryderyk stumbles upon an outrageous idea: he will manipulate Karol and Henia, and get them to perform the murder themselves. Sure enough, the two teens are obedient, just as they have been when Henia rolled up Karol's pant cuffs or when they performed a scene from a nonexistent play. The men give the teens a knife (much like the one which killed Vaclav's mother), and instruct them to enter Siemian's room and finish him off.

But something goes very wrong. Vaclav, who has been growing more and more unstable and disconsolate over what he thinks is a love affair between Henia and Karol, has entered Siemian's room before the two teenagers, and murdered the commander himself. He then darkened the room and waited. When the teens knock, Vaclav opens the door -- and Karol, mistaking Vaclav for Siemien, murders him. The narrator's frivolous mind games are suddenly made very real, and as the book ends they are, for the first time, and in their moment of catastrophe, brought closer than ever before to their young pawns.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
In some ways, [Pornografia] resembles a rather more polymorphously perverse version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses or one of those disturbing fictions by European intellectuals that blend the philosophical with the erotic…Gombrowicz did believe that "the primary task of creative literature is to rejuvenate our problems." That seems absolutely right. Whether you like his work or not, you can still understand why Milan Kundera called him "one of the great novelists of our century." Pornografia…compels its reader to recognize the complexities of human psychology and the darkness at the heart of sexual desire.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Gombrowicz's strange, bracing final novel probes the divide between young and old while providing a grotesque evocation of obsession. While recuperating from wartime Warsaw in the Polish countryside, the unnamed narrator and his friend, Fryderyk, attempt to force amour between two local youths, Karol and Henia, as a kind of a lewd entertainment. They become increasingly frustrated as they discover that the two have no interest in one another, and the games are momentarily stopped by a local murder and a directive to assassinate a rogue member of the Polish resistance. Gombrowicz connects these threads magnificently in a tense climax that imbues his novel with a deep sense of the absurd and multiplies its complexity. Gombrowicz is a relentless psychoanalyzer and a consummate stylist; his prose is precise and forceful, and the narrator's strained attempts to elucidate why he takes such pleasure at soiling youth creepily evoke authentic pride and disgust. Borchardt's translation (the first into English from the original Polish) is a model of consistency, maintaining a manic tone as it navigates between lengthy, comma-spliced sentences and sharp, declarative thrusts. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Originally published in 1966 and previously translated into English in 1978, this existential novel is set in occupied Poland during World War II. Narrator Witold and his enigmatic companion, Fryderyk, two intellectuals with ties to the underground resistance, find themselves holed up at a friend's farm. The two men quickly become obsessed with the farmer's teenage daughter and a young farmhand with whom she has been friends since childhood and attempt, for their own voyeuristic amusement, to entice the two into beginning a sexual relationship. Eventually, their games are derailed by, and possibly contribute to, a series of bizarre and disastrous incidents. Each event is overanalyzed by the narrator, allowing Gombrowicz to reveal his underlying concern with the "blind elemental forces" that determine human events: war, love, religion, sin, and desire. VERDICT Philosophical, sensual, and occasionally jarring, Gombrowicz's writing swirls with strange meanings. His singular style may deter casual readers, but those who brave a few chapters will find themselves hypnotized. Borchardt's translation, from the original Polish, returns a clarity and impact to the text that had been lost in the earlier two-step translation from the French. Especially recommended for fans of Sartre, Camus, and similar authors.—Forest Turner, Suffolk Cty. House of Correction Lib., Boston
Kirkus Reviews
A fresh English version of the great Polish writer's 1960 novel about middle-aged dreams and youthful obliviousness, one of his best-known works. Poland, 1943. Neither nature nor religion offers surcease from the Third Reich's grinding occupation. Intellectuals huddling together for warmth run through topics of conversation-"God, art, nation, proletariat"-as if counting down the last grains of sand in an hourglass. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, resolves to leave Warsaw to visit Hipolit, a landowner who's invited him and Fryderyk, another poseur who's attached himself to Witold, to his home in the countryside. No sooner have they arrived than the unlikely pair are smitten by Hipolit's teenaged daughter Henia and her childhood friend Karol. Or rather, they're smitten by the idea that these two young people belong together, even though Henia, who likes Karol perfectly well but has never thought of him as a potential lover, is about to announce her engagement to Vaclav Paszkowski, a rising attorney from nearby Ruda. In cryptic conversations and memorably febrile internal monologues, the two men share their fantasies about the young people and scheme to make them a couple. But nothing comes of this folie a quatre until Vaclav's mother is suddenly stabbed to death, and a resistance fighter who's come to the end of his courage announces his intention of abandoning the cause and going back home. Goaded by a series of unsigned notes that play on their already considerable paranoia, Witold and Fryderyk hatch a monstrous new plan to bring Henia and Karol together. Aiming for greater fidelity to Gombrowicz's original than the 1966 translation done from a French version, Borchardt, who won a prizefor her English rendering of Ferdydurk (2000), spins out a web of words that vibrate with unholy energy. Les liaisons dangereuses updated by Kafka. A remarkably ugly, even repellent little tale-but in a good way.

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Pornografia 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago