Witold Gombrowicz in his apartment in Venice, 1965. Photo credit: B. Paczowski
Born in 1904 into a landowning aristocractic family, Witold Gombrowicz studied law in Warsaw in the 1920s before he turned his full attention towards literature. While his initial forays into writing and publication earned him almost immediate recognition, he was also an exceedingly controversial figure on the cultural scene, consistently choosing to be what he regarded as a productive antagonist of Polish society, rather than using his writing and social visibility to court approval and popularity. The accusation that he was an immature writer had been leveled at him after he titled his first publication of stories Memoirs in a Time of Immaturity. As a result of these accusations, he chose to embrace themes and perspectives of immaturity in his writing, often exploring the more absurd aspects of the relationship between adolescence and maturity in his work.
In 1939, Gombrowicz traveled to Argentina on the ocean liner Chrobry. He arrived in Buenos Aires shortly before Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II. Gombrowicz boarded the ship to return to Europe, but changed his mind: he returned to land and remained in Argentina, where he lived and continued to write, in Polish, until 1963.
Though he never achieved great material success, his reputation as a writer grew constantly over his lifetime, particularly in Europe, so that by the time of his death in 1969 his novels, plays, and memoirs were translated into many languages, he had won the prestigious International Publishers’ Formentor Prize, and he had been a finalist for the Nobel Prize for literature. He is perhaps best known for his Diary, which he wrote and published regularly from 1953-1966 in the Polish émigré journal Kultura. (The Diary has just been republished in a beautiful edition by Yale University Press. Excerpts can be found here.)