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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Polish Memories

Witold Gombrowicz

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To purchase Polish Memories

Title: Polish Memories
Author: Witold Gombrowicz
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: (2002) (Eng. 2004)
Length: 191 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Polish Memories - US
Polish Memories - UK
Polish Memories - Canada
Souvenirs de Pologne - France
Polnische Erinnerungen - Deutschland
  • Polish title: Wspomnienia Polskie
  • Translated by Bill Johnston
  • Originally written for Radio Free Europe in the 1950s

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine if fragmentary memoir

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 24/1/2005 Benjamin Paloff
The Washington Post . 19/12/2004 Louis Begley
The Washington Times B+ 24/10/2004 Eric Wargo

  From the Reviews:
  • "Polish Memories is not as playful or provocative as the Diary. But what it lacks in linguistic invention it gains in a frankness that is almost disarming coming from this writer. Here more than anywhere else in his work, Gombrowicz lays his cards on the table, revealing his ordinariness, his apprehensiveness, his bashfulness as a young man. He also charts the gradual formation of the philosophical outlook -- his religion of the human -- that is so seductive and liberating when encountered, fully formed, in his Diary." - Eric Wargo, The Washington Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Polish Memories is described (on the book-jacket -- there are no editorial notes of any sort, or an introduction or afterword) as

a series of autobiographical sketches Gombrowicz wrote for Radio Free Europe during his years in Argentina in the late 1950s.
       (Oddly, then, one finds many of the entries are dated 1960 and 1961, which would seem to be in the very late 1950s .....)
       The pieces amount to chapters of a memoir, of Gombrowicz's youth and maturation as a writer, focussed on the interwar period, mainly in Poland. There is some overlap with his Diaries (indeed, he refers to and quotes from them), but this is more a volume of orderly reminiscences, along with a few general observations about many aspects of Poland (society, culture, its writers, etc.).
       Gombrowicz understands he's reaching an audience that might not be very familiar with Polish literature, much less his own works, and so he takes care to properly introduce many of the figures he discusses, as well as offering many more general observations. He complains about his schooling, for example, and about the hours wasted in school in general, especially the provincial focus that often leads to ignorance of the larger world, noting:
Fortunately, Argentinian literature leaves much to be desired, which forces them to read foreign books. We Poles suffer additionally from having a decent literature, one that is good enough to fill the hours we devote to reading, but not good enough to compensate for the resulting lack of familiarity with the great writers of the world, whom we no longer have time to study.
       He paints himself as a bright but anything but diligent student, choosing to believe -- or at least present himself -- as befits an artist:
I educated myself by reading books, especially those that were forbidden, and by doing nothing -- for the freely wandering mind of the loafer is that which best develops the intelligence.
       As he describes it, passing high school and university came down as much to luck as anything else He studied law, and discusses this and the jobs he took later befitting that training, affording him experience and a glimpse of much of Polish life, but all this was more or less incidental: what he wanted to do was write.
       Still, he wasn't a typical artist : he didn't see much of Paris when he visited there, for example, and couldn't stand the Louvre: "Art for me was the work of sickness, weakness, decadence." But eventually he succumbed to it, trying his hand at writing. Not that he imitated what was being done around him, instead "enthusiastically moving toward a kind of writing that was not merely fantastic but was removed from reality." As he explains:
     A writer can, if he wishes, describe reality as he sees it or as he imagines it to be; this produces realistic works such as the books of Sienkiewicz. But he can also apply a different method in which reality is reduced to its component parts, after which these parts are used like bricks to construct a new edifice, a new world or microcosm, which ought to be different from the regular world and yet correspond with it in some way ... different but, as the physicists say, adequate.
       Which is a fair description of Gombrowicz's method in his fiction.
       Gombrowicz didn't really fit in with (or feel particularly comfortable in) the local literary scene, making for some of the most interesting chapters in this memoir. Particularly interesting also are his descriptions of his encounters with Bruno Schulz, whom he admired greatly yet never felt entirely comfortable with -- much as they both also neither really got along with the third of the great Polish triumvirate, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy).
       It is almost reassuring how absurd Gombrowicz's musings on Jews and anti-Semitism sound to contemporary ears (not so much what he says, but even just that it is a topic he devotes such attention to), but in the Poland he grew up in -- and considering, among others, Schulz's fate -- it was inescapable, with many matters being seen in this particular light. So, for example, Gombrowicz admits:
     Yet my intellectual, even spiritual relations with Jews never once crossed over into personal friendship. Schulz was someone extraordinarily close to me -- we spent hours on end discussing matters of art we felt passionate about -- but I felt a hundred times more at home with any old relation of mine from the country. Schulz's private existence was of no interest to me, for he was a consciousness and a susceptibility in abstracto.
       Polish Memories is -- as a few missing lines remind the reader -- a fragmentary memoir, offering a relatively general overview of the author's interwar life, his literary endeavours, and the Polish cultural scene (with a bit of politics thrown in, especially as catastrophe closes in). It is a good introduction to the author; written for radio, there's more of an attempt to connect with the listener than there might be in a purely literary text. It is not a full life described here, but for those who want a good, quick, first impression it is certainly recommended.

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Polish Memories: Reviews: Witold Gombrowicz: Other books by Witold Gombrowicz under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1969) spent much of his life in exile in Argentina. One of the major writers of this century, he has not received the attention he deserves, due in large part to his difficult and bizarre publishing history, largely a result of his exile. His Polish books, written in Argentina, are first published in Paris ... and so on.

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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