A fresh English version of the great Polish writer’s 1960 novel about middle-aged dreams and youthful obliviousness, one of his best-known works.
Poland, 1943. Neither nature nor religion offers surcease from the Third Reich’s grinding occupation. Intellectuals huddling together for warmth run through topics of conversation—“God, art, nation, proletariat”—as if counting down the last grains of sand in an hourglass. The narrator, Witold Gombrowicz, resolves to leave Warsaw to visit Hipolit, a landowner who’s invited him and Fryderyk, another poseur who’s attached himself to Witold, to his home in the countryside. No sooner have they arrived than the unlikely pair are smitten by Hipolit’s teenaged daughter Henia and her childhood friend Karol. Or rather, they’re smitten by the idea that these two young people belong together, even though Henia, who likes Karol perfectly well but has never thought of him as a potential lover, is about to announce her engagement to Vaclav Paszkowski, a rising attorney from nearby Ruda. In cryptic conversations and memorably febrile internal monologues, the two men share their fantasies about the young people and scheme to make them a couple. But nothing comes of this folie à quatre until Vaclav’s mother is suddenly stabbed to death, and a resistance fighter who’s come to the end of his courage announces his intention of abandoning the cause and going back home. Goaded by a series of unsigned notes that play on their already considerable paranoia, Witold and Fryderyk hatch a monstrous new plan to bring Henia and Karol together. Aiming for greater fidelity to Gombrowicz’s original than the 1966 translation done from a French version, Borchardt, who won a prize for her English rendering of Ferdydurk (2000), spins out a web of words that vibrate with unholy energy.
Les liaisons dangereuses updated by Kafka. A remarkably ugly, even repellent little tale—but in a good way.