Pornografia Paperback – 28 Oct 2010
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"Danuta Borchardt... is faithful to the substance of the original and gives the reader a good, zesty flavor of Gombrowicz's inspired idiosyncrasy." -- Eva Hoffman
"Probably the most important twentieth-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of." -- Benjamin Paloff
About the Author
Born in Poland in 1904, Witold Gombrowicz moved to Argentina just before the outbreak of the Second World War and lived there, virtually unknown, writing novels, short stories, and plays before taking up residence in France. His death in 1969 was a great loss not only for Polish literature but for the world of letters. Writer, translator, and retired psychiatrist Danuta Borchardt has also translated Witold Gombrowicz's novels Ferdydurke and Cosmos. Her short stories have been published in Exquisite Corpse.
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Top Customer Reviews
It hardly needs stating but this is not a top-shelf adult book; there are no seedy sex scenes in the story. The title is the original Polish and rather reflects the vicarious voyeurism people undertake when they look upon other’s relationships –– in this case two guys become meddlingly titillated by a boy-girl, each 16 years old, relationship. The back drop is in a remote village during the German occupation of Poland.
Frederyk and Witold are middle aged new friends and travel to a village to get away from Warsaw. They meet a landowner’s family and his young daughter Henia, who we later discover is betrothed to the balding lawyer Vaclav. The farm-hand lad Karol is a life long friend of Henia and outwardly why don’t people see that Karol and Henia are destined, unknowingly to be in-love (or are they already?) and together – Fred and Wit are infatuated with this youthful virginal love and connive to play them. It later transpires the landowner and others are linked to the Resistance and a soldier-leader, Siemian, arrives to direct some actions. The pivotal dynamic of the story, and I won’t go into too much detail, is that there’s a murder and need for two unconnected killings – how will Fred and Wit react to engineer Vaclav, Karol and Henia to more emotive stirrings.
This is a very remarkable shortish story.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As has already been noted by other reviewers, the title is appropriate, but the novel is not "pornographic" in the sense that we usually use the word. Perhaps that's why "Seduction" has often been used as a translation in the past. Instead the pornography here is a perversely pathological inspection of its central characters. While the novel is set only in Poland, Gombrowicz actually fled Poland shortly before the outbreak of World War II, thinking that he would wait it out; he would remain there for almost twenty-five years.
The two main characters in the novel, Fryderyk and Witold (again, like Coetzee, Gombrowicz tempts the reader with autobiography by using his name), conspire to get Henia and Karol romantically interested in one another, even though they hardly notice each other, and Henia is already engaged to a young attorney. Witold initially is the one who shows an interest in the young couple, however Fryderyk's interest soon comes to border on the obsessive, conniving to have Henia's fiancée catch them in a romantic tryst. Meanwhile, a Polish soldier fighting in the resistance movement heightens the tension of the story as several plots to kill him are eventually hatched within the household.
A fascination with youth apparently imbues much of Gombrowicz's work (the effort to realize the romantic connection consumes an inordinate amount of time), including 1937's "Ferdydurke," which I look forward to reading. He views youth as a kind of purity, physical and perhaps ideological. He says in his play "The Marriage," "Each person deforms the other person, while being at the same time deformed by them." I find it interesting and telling how he chose to define the interaction between two people here as a kind of destruction instead of construction. It definitely sums up the bleak undertones of the novel, while also showing what a relentless psychologist Gombrowicz is.
A few words in closing: I have heard that Danuta Borchardt's translation is the best one, so opt for this one, assuming you cannot read the original Polish. Also, do not approach it with some preconceived notion that it should be a philosophical meditation on war simply because World War II is its setting. I think this was one of the things that vitiated my reading pleasure the most. This novel certainly is not for everyone, but for those that love a thoughtful author - a real writer's writer - I would recommend this.
With the basic story revolving around a gentleman, his strange traveling companion and their acquaintances, all trying to avoid wartime out on the country, this is not your typical story where something builds to a dramatic conclusion. It is more an account of events as they were perceived and actions that were carried out as a result. Even if I hadn't experienced anything of the sort before and found the book somewhat unusual, it was enjoyable to experience.
If you, your spouse, and your teenage farmhand ever find yourself tending a tract of land in the country, beware of old dudes from the city. A brief stay at your farmhouse may be OK, but if those fellows start to linger, expect mischief. Expect creepy machinations. If you find that someone's been leaving strange letters under rocks, suspect the old men! If you see the old timers tiptoeing about the garden with wide eyes, lock them up! At the very least, don't let them near your farmhand or daughter. Old people are wacky and diabolical!
That's what I learned from PORNOGRAFIA, a stylistically unique novel--it jumps and repeats and skitters and pauses and races and questions, all as if we were really hearing the narrator's thoughts--about obsession, about idolizing and scandalizing youth, and about reimagining the role of matchmaker. The main characters of the novel, two older fellows from Warsaw, are entranced by the prospect of secretly setting their host's teenage daughter up with their host's teenage farmhand. The two youngsters show no obvious desire for one another, and the the girl is already engaged, yet the men are persistent. It almost seems like the plot of a Shakespearean play, except these dudes are truly messed up. They aren't acting out of familial angst or greed or even beneficence--they're simply fascinated by the thought of young bodies and minds writhing together, becoming adult. And that's where we get our title--PORNOGRAFIA in some way refers to the merriment and anxiety these two gentlemen get by watching the not-yet-couple and scheming.
Now, I appreciated the explicit psychological and thematic underpinnings to these interactions, and I found the narrator's style awkward yet interesting, but as a plot, it's not much, and it sometimes felt a bit dull. In fact, what kept me intrigued about the book, at least at first, was more a lack than anything specifically alluded to in its pages.
I'm currently reading THE ARTFUL EDIT by Susan Bell, in which she walks her readers through the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Maxwell Perkins. To anyone with a hankering for learning about author-editor relationships, the Fitzgerald-Perkins connection is one of the more well-known collaborations of all time, partially because we're lucky to have inherited their letters and partially because they happen to be two greats in their fields. In any case, in the chapter I'm currently reading, Bell shows several examples of Fitzgerald omitting character details as a way of making Jay Gatsby shine more mysteriously. Bell argues (in concurrence with Fitzgerald and Perkins, I suppose) that by not sharing with us particularities about Gatsby's past and present, the novel--and Gatsby's character--becomes much more riveting.
It's possible that PORNOGRAFHIA uses a similar tactic. The novel takes place in Poland in 1943. For those of you who know your history, you know that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and that the Final Solution was already in full swing there by 1943. And yet, with the exception of a few references to the German army or to some characters' participation in the Polish Underground or a lone mention of a town that seems to be missing Jews, there are few textual signs that these characters are up to their devious designs at ground zero of the worst genocide in modern history, that they even know what's befalling the world beyond their silly (though significant) antics. It's as if Gombrowicz wrote a novel about a known historical figure and then left that historical figure out. WOLF HALL without King Henry VIII. LAMB, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO BIFF, CHRIST'S CHILDHOOD PAL without Christ. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER without the Civil War.
And this is what kept my interest perked: looking for clues concerning the characters' insight into the Holocaust or into how their own actions might serve as symbols to the vast morality questions circling around them.
Somehow I think there's something brilliant about writing a book like this, a book that picks a setting and then steadfastly undermines or ignores everything we might think about that setting, a book that puts what we know in the shadows.