Diary by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Lillian Vallee, preface by Rita Gombrowicz; Yale University Press, 800 pages ($20 paper). Here is a one-volume edition of a masterwork by the writer often called "the most unknown of all celebrated writers." In Poland between the wars, wrote Clive James in "Cultural Amnesia," Gombrowicz became successful "because of his surrealist novel 'Ferdydurke' (1938). After he went into exile in Argentina, however, he gradually transmuted into a type of writer that we are only now starting to recognize: the writer who doesn't write in established forms but just writes and who, not belonging anywhere, makes everywhere belong to him."
He was in South America when World War II trapped him there as a Pole in exile. So he stayed, worked for a bank and, though never wealthy, watched as a Spanish translation of "Ferdydurke" became influential among Argentine writers. And then later in Europe, writes James, the Polish exile "might possibly have gone back to Communist Poland if its literary authorities had not been so stupid as to attack him before he got there instead of afterwards."
The result, then, was an entire literary life spent in exile from everything but literature, where he was one of the leading aristocrats of his age, with this book as permanent proof. You'll find almost everything in it – essays, criticism, portraits and meditations, as well as autobiography. His native Poland – its writers, life and politics – figure prominently, but so does the Argentina of his self-exile including Borges, "this pathetic hermit blind man" wandering the world with his mother and politicking for a Nobel Prize. "I don't doubt that he will get the Nobel. [He didn't.] Unfortunately, yes unfortunately, … it's as if he had come into existence expressly for this purpose."
The history of Gombrowicz's diary in English is even now elusive – serial publication by Northwestern University Press in the 1980s, decades after his 1969 death, and only now available in a one-volume condensation of one of the 20th century's great books.
– Jeff Simon