First published in 1957 in Poland, Bacacay is a collection of twelve short stories by Witold Gombrowicz (1904-1968), one of the major European literary figures of the 20th century.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”
— from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
Impulses drive the stories of Witold Gombrowicz’s Bacacay, where characters abandon themselves wholly to their temptations like children who can’t stop acting up, even after getting into trouble, pushing their parents’ limits while surely knowing their punishment will worsen. In “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer” a brief incident (where the lawyer K humiliates our protagonist) becomes the impetus for obsessive stalking, growing in intensity and inevitability of conflict, until at one point the lawyer confronts his nameless haunter with frustrated threats of a beating, only to be met with:
“I was unable to speak. I was happy. I received it into myself like a communion, and I closed my eyes. In silence I merely bent over and offered my back. I waited – and experienced some of those perfect moments known only to one who truly has but few days ahead of him.”
That last sentence vaguely reminds me of the kind of statement you might find Marcel Proust having made, and while their writing is entirely dissimilar, I think both Proust’s and Gombrowicz’s willingness to penetrate the psyche farther than most puts these writers in a shared light, as well does the centrality of details in their work. The most subtle story in Bacacay is “A Premeditated Crime.” Here a lawyer travels to visit a man on business, only to find that he has just died. The lawyer becomes suspicious of the family and grows paranoid with every new piece of evidence, facts folding in on themselves until there is no logical conclusion other than murder. He finally pushes the dead man’s son to confess, only to realize at that moment there was no crime:
“I realized that I gone too far, that I had gotten up to a little too much mischief – and, in deep waters, tired, exhausted by so much effort, so many faces made, I suddenly became a child, a helpless little boy, and I had a wish to confess to my big brother my mistake and the trouble I had caused.”
“‘You see,’ I said, and my lips were a little out of control, ‘there’s a certain stumbling block here…a certain obstacle – of a purely formal character, as it happens – nothing of significance. The things is’ – I already had my hand on the door handle – ‘that actually the body shows no signs of asphyxiation. Physically speaking – he wasn’t asphyxiated at all, but rather died of an ordinary heart attack. The neck, you know, the neck!…The neck was untouched!’”
(Gombrowicz’s writing speaks so well for itself, doesn’t it) Here, the dead man’s neck becomes a central point of the story, and it is that treatment which is part of Gombrowicz’s art, dwelling on a detail about which our perception changes later in the story. In “A Premeditated Crime” as often happens in his stories, even the minor characters are maddened to the point of absurdity; so much so that you feel closed in, surrounded and helpless in this world Gombrowicz created, grotesque but actually very representative too of real life.
In “Dinner at Countess Pavahoke’s” a fashionable “meatless” dinner becomes orgiastic while the narrator, an outsider grateful at first to be there, is quietly appalled as the others get carried away with the cauliflower soup:
“The baron accompanied her gallantly, bent over his plate, slurping and smacking his lips with all his might – and the old marchioness did her best to keep up, chewing and swallowing huge mouthfuls, evidently worried they would take her plate away before she had eaten the best morsels!
This extraordinary, sudden image of guzzling – I cannot put it otherwise – of such guzzling, in such a house, this awful transition, this diminished seventh chord, shook the foundations of my being to such an extent I was unable to restrain myself and I sneezed.”
There’s humor in the sneeze, but also pretext for discoveries important to the story. As pretext, it’s weak, but easily written off to the quirky nature of Gombrowicz’s writing. Here again, the cauliflower soup becomes central (in ways I won’t reveal) and the tale becomes wildly symbolic of the brutality of privilege and class differences, and perhaps how stifling privilege can be, without ever sacrificing the story to be told – or the opportunity to take things a bit too far – as when in “The Events on the Banbury” the ship’s captain says: “Don’t forget, Mr. Smith, that independent of the punishment the guilty party should eat the eye that was poked out. Nautical customs require it.”
While nearly all of Gombrowicz’s stories are suffused with sensuality, many carry their character’s sexuality and sexual tension close to the surface, often uncomfortably so (remember too that most of these stories were written around the 1930’s). On the Banbury, a ship doomed to mutiny, the stormy force of open seas grow more fierce along with the crew’s sexual tension until, inevitably, release comes at the end. Earlier, while the seas are calm, boredom reigns but madness is never far from the surface. The protagonist, Mr. Zantman (a name that may carry connotations of a fish, appropriate here, since he never intended to be on the Banbury in the first place, but swam out to the ship looking for his intended ship) alternates between observation, insinuation and repulsion.
“Recently I had noticed that the sailors were performing bizarre movements with their torsos; specifically, as they bent over their rags they would suddenly lean on their hands, stiffen their legs and arch their backs, just like certain earthworms do.
I did not ask anyone for an explanation. I put it down as a ‘novel way to pass the time.’”
Later, in reporting what he sees as a “conspiracy” on board, Zantman says:
“‘You’re all thinking about the same thing. You have a yen for goodness knows what, and I’m in the way – I’m a hindrance, isn’t that the case? – my modesty is a hindrance. That’s why everything around here either fawns or threatens, peeps or mocks; that’s the reason for the constant importunings and the fact that there’s only one unchangin thought – oh, one unchanging thought!’”
In his book A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, Gombrowicz writes “Philosophy begins to deal with consciousness as something fundamental. Imagine an absolute night, with a single object. If this object does not encounter a consciousness capable of sensing its existence, then it does not exist.”
In the story “Adventures” our protagonist falls into the ocean from his ship and is picked up – and held captive in what becomes more submission than imprisonment – by a “white black man” on a yacht. He is put into a “glass bubble the shape of an egg” and is tossed to drift in the sea. The second time this black man captures him, he is put into a steel sphere to be plunged to the bottom of the ocean. “And so I was to be the only living creature who would experience the gentle thud of the sphere against the ocean bed…The only one who would know absolute darkness, deadness, despair.” In the pitch blackness of his “tomb” his “individuality peeped out from that awful underwater abyss so differently from what it had been like in the light of day.” “Adventures” my favorite story in Bacacay grows more outrageous, yet inevitably ends up every bit as circular as the protagonist’s initial driftings.
There is much made of Gombrowicz’s use of the grotesque, potentially alienating readers who would find upon reading him a master of psychological drama, humor and pathos. I have no idea what sort of literature Gombrowicz had exposure to in his young years while writing these stories, but there’s so much here that is reminiscent of Wilde, Poe, Wells and others. I bet that if Gombrowicz were American (or English, and so on) rather than Polish his name would be every bit as famous as those authors.