Pointless and Essential: On Witold Gombrowicz’s “Cosmos”
By Sean HooksMarch 17, 2019
A good friend of mine from grad school, a lesbian poet and rare books expert who lives in Las Vegas, spent three months in Krakow, and I never fail to press her for stories from her time there, which she always enjoys sharing. I also very much like the look and sound of the word “Katowice.”
Growing up, I had an elderly neighbor named Sofie (she’s still alive and in her 90s) who left Poland, orphaned and alone, when she was eight. She is often described as a “tough lady” by my relatives. She’s a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t trust much of anything she hears or reads, and it’s not exactly easy to argue with her, this tiny woman, now blind, literally on her own since she was a child, a war refugee who had to bury her own parents.
During my grade school years back in working-class New Jersey, I had a Polish-American friend named Mark. In sixth and seventh grade, Monday through Friday, we played basketball together every afternoon. He was a big kid. He is now a big man. He is referred to, respectfully, as a “big, strong Polack.” He has an absolutely gigantic pair of hands. Even at the gym, where he spends a lot of time, he often impresses the other large men who spend a lot of time at gyms. He doesn’t so much shake your hand as try not to crush it.
All of this is to say: That’s about as close as I have gotten to Poland.
Witold Gombrowicz famously left his native Poland and wrote his best-known works in Argentina before eventually settling in Paris. He is often studied alongside well-known émigré writers like Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov (the latter was, like Gombrowicz, a big fan of parentheses, though Witold uses ellipses far more liberally than Nabokov, and unlike Conrad, Gombrowicz continued to write in Polish).
As far as my knowledge of Polish literature is concerned, I enjoyed Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1946), as well as what I’ve read of Czesław Miłosz. I have yet to dip into Wisława Szymborska and look forward to doing so. I read excerpts from Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1961) for a summer class in grad school and pieces of Marek Bieńczyk’s Tworki (1999) while researching narratives of imprisonment and confinement. Jerzy Kosinski’s portrait of World War II–era Poland in The Painted Bird (1965) is about as disturbing and unforgettable a series of images as I’ve encountered, a legitimate heir to Dante and Dostoyevsky, Bruegel and Bosch, in terms of sheer visceral impact. But I’m from northern New Jersey, just across the river from Newark, a post-DeLilloan from the land of Philip Roth, and while there is a very active Polish-American community in Newark (at St. Casimir’s you can even hear them say mass in Polish), I want to be as forthcoming as I can about my knowledge of the relevant literature before tackling Gombrowicz — in particular, his 1965 novel Cosmos, one of the great non-novels, or pseudo-novels, or reality-hungry books, or barely fictional narratives that we have.
A book that opens mid-story like Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler (1866), Cosmos is a first-person recounting of an infinitely precise — and infinitely extrapolative — period of time. Gombrowicz’s theme of entanglement is proto-Jaussian, anticipating late-20th-century chroniclers of anthropocenic time like David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, and Tom McCarthy. Cosmos, translated into English by Danuta Borchardt, is a novel about the accrued importance of moments — and the momentum of importance-accruing.
There is a poignant philosophical consciousness — almost Tolstoyan though more secular — undergirding this deceptively slim text. Cosmos is one of those thin books that is best read very slowly. Perhaps its closest Western-hemisphere equivalent is Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955), another text that privileges the ruminative, interrogates the reliability of memory, and delves into darker places than most literary fictions dare to explore.
Suffice it to say that Cosmos is about disorder, the out-of-place person or thing (“thing” as opposed to “object”) that strikes one as not quite right. Hanging things are the most frequently recurrent trope of that type, as Cosmos’s protagonist (named Witold) comes across a hanged sparrow, then hears of a hanged chicken, then finds what may or may not be an intentionally hung stick, then strangles and hangs a cat, then lastly finds a hanging suicide. If you are already put off by the subject matter of Cosmos, I would point out that the novel is also incredibly funny.
Witold, the character, shares the name of his author, in a way that Philip Roth would later lift as an explicit tribute. Indeed, in their mordant tone and embrace of self-lacerating immaturity, the Eastern European writer and the one from Newark, New Jersey, are quite clearly kin. In a 2012 essay in The New Yorker, Ruth Franklin dubbed Gombrowicz an “imp of the perverse,” a fitting title for Roth as well. Other contemporary successors to Gombrowicz include Geoff Dyer and Lars Iyer, while in Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel Zero K, the vagabond protagonist recalls himself as a teenager being fascinated by Gombrowicz, chanting the author’s name aloud until his mother told him, “Enough.”
Witold, the protagonist of Cosmos, has left his native Warsaw due to conflicts with his family, particularly his father, in search of a place where he can find peace and solitude. Also seeking sanctuary and trying to sate his wanderlust is Witold’s companion, the comically named Fuks, who leaves behind his job and his tyrannical boss. They are a pair of nomadic and dissatisfied young men. Most of the book’s action occurs at an inn in the resort town of Zakopane, located in the deep southern region of Poland and far from their homes in urban Warsaw.
Their story has an intriguing multi-genre appeal: the novel is at once a satiric send-up, a travelogue, and a work of noir. Witold and Fuks are adventuresome detectives, continuously obsessed with finding meaning — in hanging things and in the mystery of the opposite sex (perhaps the biggest biological disparity between male and female is that the former’s sex organs literally hang, externalized and unavoidable). The two young men constantly note — and hypothesize about — deep metaphysical questions. Gombrowicz himself has said of Cosmos, “I gladly call this work 'a novel about a reality that is creating itself.' And because a detective novel is precisely this — an attempt at organizing chaos — Cosmos has a little of the form of a detective romance.”
Early in the novel, after coming across the hanged sparrow, Witold can’t sleep because he wonders what his companion Fuks is up to,
Where did he go? To the bathroom? No, the hum of water from there was solitary. But in that case … what if he had gone to see the sparrow […] it was just like him … to ponder, to scheme, who hanged it, why did he hang it […] was he playing detective?
Later, as the two young men snoop around the bedroom of Katasia, the niece of their innkeeper’s wife, to see if she might be behind the hanged sparrow and other unexplained phenomena, they find no evidence of her involvement, but afterward Witold feels satisfied nonetheless. “And so, in spite of everything, I felt better — our return along the gravel path was like the return of two detectives — working on our detailed plans allowed me to survive with honor until the next day.” If there’s a better metaphor for the life of the writer, I haven’t found one.
In his 1990 essay “The Empty Plenum,” David Foster Wallace categorizes Cosmos as an “interpret-me novel,” a piece of great literature because it offers its readers, in a way that other media — such as movies — do not, an almost unlimited surfeit of opportunities. This is also the thrust of the oft-iterated piece of writing-workshop advice, “Trust your reader.” What writers do is to probe, to nose around, to search for meaning, and though they often find little or nothing, if they keep at it, day by day, their detailed plans give them purpose. As a result, they needn’t dwell too long on their own private miseries because there is always tomorrow’s work. As Gombrowicz’s novel continually teaches, there is no meaning, there is no reality, there are only interpretations, guesses and approximations, ephemeral perceptions.
Witold spends his days, he tells us, “configuring the configurations around me. […] When one considers what a great number of sounds, forms reach us at every moment of our existence … the swarm, the roar, the river … nothing is easier than to configure!” Along with configuring, he strives to “explain everything, clarify, get to the bottom of it,” but in the end, “the world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on — I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!” Neil Gordon titled his New York Times review of the 2005 Yale University Press translation of Cosmos, “The Plotlessness Thickens.”
Unable to consummate his affections for the innkeeper’s daughter, Witold’s unrequited love leads him to strangle Katasia’s cat — not just strangle but hang it because of all the other hanged items and objects that surround him, in which he searches obsessively for meaning. The dead feline is the result of misplaced passion, because other people, especially the ones we love, are so intrinsically unknowable,
Love, love — my foot, my passion, yes, but what sort? It all began because I didn’t know, just didn’t know who she was, what she was like, she was complex, blurry, inscrutable. […] I could imagine her this way or that, in a hundred thousand situations, consider her from one side or another, lose her, then find her again, turn her every which way […] but there could be no doubt that her emptiness was sucking me in, soaking me up, it was she and she alone, yes, yes, but, I wondered […] what did I want with her? To caress? To torture? To humiliate? To adore? Or did I want something swinish, or angelic, with her? What was important to me: to wallow in her, to embrace and cuddle her? I don’t know, don’t know, that’s just the point, that I don’t know …
This shrug of unknowability is inherited most directly from Gogol, and has been extended by writers as disparate as Milan Kundera and Walker Percy. In their works, these writers allow us access to a deep, disturbing, and existential truth. Their books are an antidote for boredom, for meaninglessness, for the big, random nothing that is life.
The journey in Cosmos follows the innkeeper, Leon, as he leads Witold, Fuks, Leon’s wife (dubbed “Roly-Poly” by Witold), and daughter Lena, along with a Chaucerian band of newlywed couples and a priest to a spot in the mountains that supposedly has, according to Leon, the “best view in the world.” But before they get there, Leon confides to Witold that his real reason for visiting is because, a quarter-century ago, it was the site of Leon’s one moment of infidelity to his wife, a sexual fling with a kitchen maid, and the whole trip is an excuse for Leon’s pilgrimage to a place of personal rapture. When he comes across Leon sitting on a tree stump in the forest, smoking a cigarette, Witold asks him, “What are you doing here?” and Leon replies, “‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing,’ […] and smiled blissfully.” Witold then asks, “What’s so amusing?” and Leon sums up the chasmic unknowability suffusing the novel by remarking,
“What? Nothing! Exactly that: nothing! Ha, that’s a language game, if you please, hm. … I’m amused by ‘nothing,’ mark you, Your Reverence, my venerable companion and merry-maker and horse-drawn carriage, because ‘nothing’ is exactly what we do all our lives. A fellow stands, sits, talks, writes and … nothing. A fellow buys, sells, marries, doesn’t marry and — nothing. A fellow sitzum on a stumpium and — nothing. Soda pop.”
Though Witold observes that Leon says these words in a nonchalant, condescending drawl, he soon finds himself in agreement.
Witold is something of an underground man, and in further Dostoyevskian echoes, uses the phrase “I was sick” several times late in the novel. He realizes with gleeful resignation that his first-person narrative is a compiled one, anticipating the clever mode that would be adopted a decade and a half later by Italo Calvino in If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979). Gombrowicz reconciles Witold’s fate in a final chapter that begins, “It will be difficult to continue this story of mine. I don’t even know if it is a story. It is difficult to call this a story, this constant … clustering and falling apart … of elements.” The novel then ends with a punch line (with “wit” that is “told”): after he cycles through his many obsessions (the hanged things and creatures and people, his lust/love for Lena), it begins raining, and Witold telescopes forward in time, running through what will happen after the rain stops. He’ll get a head cold and a fever, and they’ll have to order a taxi back to the inn, and his “sickness” (primarily eczema) will need to be treated by doctors, and he’ll return to Warsaw, and fight with his father again, and “various other things, problems, complications, difficulties. Today we had chicken fricassee for dinner.”
That doesn’t feel like a spoiler only because the journey that Gombrowicz takes to get to that utterly perfect mundane detail is so much the reason to read this fine little book. The “destination” is foretold so many times in this existential chronicle of the banal and the everyday, that to separate a journey from its conclusion is as pointless (and as essential) as life itself.
Sean Hooks is a writer living in Los Angeles.
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