[a Novel]

Book - 2009
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One of the indisputable totems of twentieth-century world literature, Witold Gombrowicz wrote Pornografia after leaving his native Poland for Argentina in 1939 and then watching from afar as the German invasion destroyed his country. Translated for the first time into English from the original Polish by award-winning translator Danuta Borchardt, Pornografia is one of Gombrowicz's highest regarded works--a richly imagined tale of violence and carnality set in wartime Poland. In the midst of the German occupation, two aging intellectuals travel to a farm in the countryside, looking for a respite from the hellish scene in Warsaw. They quickly grow bored of their bucolic surroundings--that is, until they are hypnotized by a pair of country youths who have grown up alongside each other at the farm. The older men are determined to orchestrate a tryst between the two teenagers, but they are soon distracted by a string of violent developments, including an order from the underground movement for the men to assassinate a rogue resistance captain who has sought refuge with them. The erotic games are put on hold--until the two dissolute intellectuals find a way to involve their pawns in the murderous plot.
Publisher: New York : Grove Press : Grove/Atlantic, Inc. ; [Berkeley, Calif.] : Distributed by Publishers Group West, c2009.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780802119254
Characteristics: xviii, 225 p. ; 22 cm.
Additional Contributors: Borchardt, Danuta 1930-
Lipsyte, Sam 1968-


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Jul 18, 2013

Let me give some advice:

If you, your spouse, and your teenage farmhand ever find yourself tending a tract of land in the country, beware of lodging old dudes from the city in your farmhouse. 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's like the plot of a Shakespearean play, except these dudes 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 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--we're lucky enough to have their letters and they happen to be two greats in their fields. 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 that by not sharing with us particularities about Gatsby's past and present, the novel--and Gatsby's character--becomes much more riveting.

Perhaps PORNOGRAFHIA uses a similar tactic. The novel takes place in Poland in 1943. Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and 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.


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