(WARNING: The following book review has no academic value. I would say it tries its hardest to rape and butcher the literature of everything important or meaningful, but it really doesn’t try too hard.)
It’s not often I read a story that makes me as uncomfortable as Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia (1960) has. When I flipped over the last page, I felt strangely violated… somewhat unclean. I wanted to talk to someone about it, perhaps to share counsel or uplifting wisdom. Alas, few have read its pages; thus, I am alone in my discomfort without so much as a jury to testify where the book touched me inappropriately. No, I am trapped within the four walls of my room with my predator lying closed on my bed, having no escape but the internet.
And so I write this with the faint hope that it will inspire you to read this unsettling story, so together we can share in our sufferings and misgivings, for I am weak. Or maybe, some other poor soul alone in the world will search the internet and come across this fringe review, and together as strangers may we find solace.
Pretending you might read this book, behold the Teaser:
In the midst of WWII, two Varsovians are invited to spend an indefinite amount of time at a friend’s manor in the Polish countryside. Their mutual boredom drives them to conspire to hook up the friend’s daughter with the farmhand. Hilarity ensues.
Assuming you won’t actually read this book, behold the (not very) Brief Summary (with spoilers):
Fryderyk and Witold are two (adult) Varsovians who are invited by their fat friend, Hipolit, to spend time at his manor during World War II. The two Varsovians, in their idle boredom, become amused by the prospect of matchmaking Hipolit’s flirty teen daughter, Henia, with the succulent teen farmhand, Karol. Unfortunately, Henia is already engaged to a morally upstanding figure of wealth and dignity (also twice her age), Vaclav. Upon meeting Vaclav at his mother’s house (because he lives with his mother), a random intruder boy, Jozek, accidentally murders Vaclav’s mother in a bizarre and unexplained struggle. They lock Jozek in the pantry and he hardly comes up again for the rest of the story (seriously).
The two schemers, Witold and Fryderyk, continue to connive at just how to get Karol and Henia together over Vaclav (in spite of his mother’s death) when an officer of the Underground Army, Siemian, suddenly arrives at the manor and requests to stay for a while. As it turns out, Siemian is running away from his duties as an officer, and the Underground Army informs Hipolit that they will be coming to kill Siemian before Siemian runs away and foolishly spills all of the UA’s secrets. They lock the paranoid Siemian in a bedroom and wait for the UA to come, but they never do and the folks at the manor are instead instructed to kill Siemian themselves. The adults, struggling with the idea of committing murder, decide to pass it on to Henia and Karol, who are instructed by the adults to walk into Siemian’s room at night and stab him to death (it’s erotic). Vaclav (who grows evermore paranoid at the nagging feeling that Karol and Henia are fooling around), in an effort to regain his masculinity and moral decency (yes, really), secretly takes the initiative first and kills Siemian himself, and then chills in Siemian’s room (with his corpse) waiting for the two teens. Thus, instead of Karol and Henia stabbing Siemian to death at night, they accidentally butcher Vaclav. Oops. Everyone smiles sheepishly. THE END
Style: The style of the book is mostly Witold’s internal monologue and his dialogues with the surrounding characters. Rather than being an omnipresent narrator who is clear of mind, Witold is clearly a little crazy, although he is surrounded by people crazier than he is. The sequence of events takes up very little space in the novel; most of the writing is action invented in Witold’s head as he imagines metaphysical connections between things and characters and extrapolates mood and spirit far beyond their realities. A fairly large amount of the story is dedicated to Witold’s senseless ramblings. Literally – there is a scene where he talks about his reaction to Vaclav’s body, and it reads as follows:
“Body! He sat directly across from me. Body! He was in his bathrobe–Body!–He sat with his body as if it were a suitcase, or a toiletry case. Body! I was furious at the body and, for that reason, carnal myself, I watched him mockingly, I was mocking for all I was worth, almost whistling. Not one iota of compassion. Body!”
…and for the next four pages or so, “Body!” is randomly placed within the prose and dialogue, like a nervous tick, or some literary Tourrette’s.
Analysis: I see the story being focused in two themes: 1) the contrast between youth and agedness, and 2) the complexity of erotic morality and its connection with death.
As the story goes on, Witold sees his generation of men as more and more putrid, and the beauty and innocence of youth being elevated to near sublime immortality. In this sense, Witold and Fryderyk are trying so hard to match up Henia and Karol not necessarily for their own perverted amusement, but because they’re trying to live vicariously through their youth and somehow force it to replace the foulness of their age.
The pornography implied by the title refers to the imagined connection between Henia and Karol that is conjured up by the two Varsovians. The whole novel focuses on the efforts of the Varsovians to bring their pornographic fantasy into a reality. At the end of the novel, this reality is achieved, not through sex, but rather through a murder in joint-effort. The implication here is that two teens joined together in crime, regardless of being a crime of sex or a crime of violence, is all the same. The murder is presented by Witold as being a success as much as it would’ve been had they simply hooked up.
On a moral level, the innocence of youth triumphs over the despicability of both adultery and murder. At once when both Siemian and Vaclav are murdered, everyone in the story is connected by some sort of metaphysical orgy. Henia and Karol become unified as an erotic singularity, while Fryderyk and Witold become one with their youth. But alas, even then, there is some doubt as to whether the erotic potential has been sufficiently fulfilled.
Read this book if: 1) you like to have your sense of reality stretched by an absurd world of metaphysics, 2) you want to be able to tell people you read a book entitled “Pornography.”
Do not read this book if: 1) you enjoy your sanity, 2) subtle hints of homoeroticism make you uncomfortable, 3) you have a solid sense of absolute morality, 4) you’re used to American plot arcs, 5) you enjoy tween romance literature, 6) you think the title implies there will be boobies.