Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Witold Gombrowicz, _Ferdydurke_

MY EDITION OF this is the the one that appeared in the "Writers from the Other Europe" series edited by Philip Roth. I remember seeing these show up in bookstores (late 1970s? early 1980s?) and thinking it seemed like a deeply quixotic project, which tells you how out of synch with the zeitgeist I was (am, for all I know). Within a decade, several novels in the series were canonical: The Joke, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Street of Crocodiles, and this one.

Ferdydurke--if I may so designate the narrator even though in the text he is only called "John," and "Ferdydurke"does not look like a Polish name--Ferdydurke, I was saying, is a thirty-year-old man of unspecified circumstances who finds himself suddenly forced back to school. Biologically an adult, he finds himself beset by the frustrations, incomprehensions, and mortifications of a schoolboy--and if that does not describe you and most people you know at ages 27-32, you most not be a liberally-educated middle class American. It's a brilliant conceit.

A professor I knew back in grad school used to think about writing a book to be called "Rameau's Nephews"--he never got around to it, apparently, but he had the terrific idea of analyzing the literary progeny of the compellingly cranky, frenetically articulate failure in Diderot's dialogue, Le Neveu de Rameau. Dostoevsky's Underground Man, the narrator of Hamsun's Hunger, Beckett's Murphy, Nicolai Kavalerov in Olesha's Envy, the narrator of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, Holden Caulfield, and a few Paul Auster characters could all be called Rameau's nephews.  They are intelligent, educated to a fare-thee-well (though perhaps lacking in formal credentials), talented, but somehow just jarringly enough out of key with the world they inhabit to keep themselves forever adrift at its margins--or perhaps it is all their own choice, perhaps they are withholding some final consent out of some scruple only they understand. If you stand still on a corner in Chicago's Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, for a quarter of an hour, you will likely see about a dozen Rameau's nephews.

Ferdydurke is a Rameau's nephew, one of the unassimilables, and Gombrowicz seems to be his character's match in that department from what I read--the Polish Wyndham Lewis.

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