The initial target of Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 black comedy, Ferdydurke, was the group of Polish critics who panned his earlier Memoirs of a Time of Immaturity for its lack of (duh!) maturity. The author set out to satirize the pretense of levelheaded adult behavior by drawing out the puerility and potty humor festering underneath. But what started as a literary practical joke turned into a kind of lunatic attack on conventional form and style in pre-WW II Europe. As history would soon tragically demonstrate, there was an awful lot of dangerous inanity in the conformist adult tendencies of the time.
The surreal adventure begins with the abduction of Joey Kowalski, a 30-year-old author whose attempt at writing a devastatingly original new book is interrupted by his tut-tutting old schoolteacher, Professor Pimko. Unimpressed by what he reads, Pimko orders his pupil back to school, determined to tame the would-be enfant terrible. Strangely, none of the other students recognize that Joey is in fact an adult. After officiating at a schoolyard brawl of lethal grimaces, he is sent to live with a self-consciously modern family, where he falls in love with an indifferent nymphet, whose supple calves shake the foundation of even Pimko’s pedantic nature.
Postmodern intrusions into the rowdily disparate narrative include allegorical stories involving warring professors and a tennis match that turns into a bloody free-for-all. Escaping finally to the countryside with a horny chum, Joey confronts the eroticized master-slave dynamic of the landed gentry and their servants (more proof of the immaturity of contemporary civilization), before making an ambivalent return to his adult life.
Though Ferdydurke provoked an immediate sensation in Warsaw, its future was subsequently blocked by war and censorship, not to mention the marginalization of Polish literature. Incredibly, the only previous English version was translated from the French. One should perhaps then be grateful for Danuta Borchardt’s more definitive edition, allowing that the book, with its obscure literary in-jokes and Joycean coinages, represents a major translating challenge. Unfortunately, what’s gained in accuracy is lost in poetic fluency (Borchardt, for example, leaves Gombrowicz’s ubiquitous “pupa,” the Polish word for “bum” or “buttocks,” untranslated—a choice that fails to accrue the necessary resonance). Yet in the serpentine path of this greatest of scatological satires, it’s important to acknowledge that being half-mooned is better than not being mooned at all.