Klementyna Suchanow’s biography of Witold Gombrowicz, one of Poland’s leading twentieth-century writers, is about to appear with the independent publishing house Czarne. Having translated a 20-page sample, I now cannot wait to get my hands on the finished book – not only because I’ve been obsessed with Gombrowicz for years, but also because Suchanow’s writing is addictive.
Gombrowicz: I, the Genius is a two-volume behemoth of a biography. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s also going to be a deliciously readable masterpiece of contemporary biographical writing: comprehensive, polyphonic and filled with fascinating details about the different places and cultures in which the great writer lived and worked. At the same time, Suchanow has a keen sense of Gombrowicz’s personality, and the extracts I have been allowed to see so far suggest that she has painted a coherent and deeply moving portrait of a man who has become notorious as an elusive provocateur.
Suchanow’s unique and personal approach allows her to tell a gripping story even where hard facts are difficult to work out. First, her book is based on meticulous research: weeks and months spent in archives large and small; hour-long interviews with the writer’s widow, Rita Gombrowicz, and many other of his friends and acquaintances; as well as countless journeys in his footsteps to get a sense of the places he visited. Suchanow blends this research with a writing style that is so playful as to be almost impressionistic, allowing the complexity and wonder of Gombrowicz’s life to speak for themselves. She plunges readers right into the writer’s world, throwing us in at the deep end, where we almost drown in tiny details. But then, before we know it, we’re being carried on a wave that feels very lifelike indeed.
But that isn’t all: examining Gombrowicz’s story from a distance, Suchanow is able to see connections that he himself might not have been aware of. For instance, Witold, as she calls him throughout the book, was not only the youngest child in his family, he was also a sickly boy, just like Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich. Suchanow plays with the parallel dynamics in these two families, shedding light on both. She brings out many such apparently random connections between people, places, and even works of art. Did you know that the beautiful Tadzio from Mann’s Death in Venice was based on a boy who went to school with Witold? That’s a fact. And a strange one. Can we ever now read Gombrowicz’s novels in the same way? Can we ever read Death in Venice in the same way?
Suchanow weaves these stories out of the chaos of life. What we get in the end is a whole network of meanings, which range from the specific to the universal. We learn about Gombrowicz; about Warsaw, Poland, Europe and Argentina. After all, the writer left Poland in 1939, then spent the rest of his life in exile in Buenos Aires, West Berlin, Paris and the South of France.
If there are moments in Gombrowicz’s fiction that make us think of South-American magic realism, Klementyna Suchanow’s achievement is entirely original: she has produced what is to my knowledge the first magic-realist biography; one more reason why English-language readers are bound to find this book as fascinating as their counterparts in Poland. They’ll just have to wait a little longer to read it.
Reviewed by Tul’si Bhambry
Gombrowicz: Ja, geniusz
By Klementyna Suchanow
Published by Czarne (2017)
Tul’si (aka Tuesday) Bhambry translates from Polish and German. She won the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize in 2015, and has published her work in Asymptote, The Paris Review and Words Without Borders. She also holds a PhD in Literature (University College London, 2013) and translates academic books and articles. She lives in Berlin.