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Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke (Ferdydurke)

There is no obvious reason for the title Ferdyduke. It does not appear in the text and was not a Polish word. Gombrowicz later claimed it came from an H G Wells story (where the character is named Ferdy Duke). It was first published in Poland in 1937 to critical acclaim but then, when the war came, it disappeared. The Nazis banned it and then the Communists banned it. It was translated into Spanish and published in Buenos Areas in 1947. Finally, it was published in Poland in 1957, when the situation was more relaxed. It sold out immediately and others works of Gombrowicz were published. The Communist authorities did not like this and again it disappeared. It was picked up in France and published in a French translation in 1959 before finally being published in English in 1961. The story is narrated by Johnnie, who has just turned thirty. According to my papers and my appearance, I was grownup. But I was not mature… I did not know myself whether I was a man or an adolescent. He was just beginning to realise that this was, in fact, an ideal situation when Dr T Pimko, a distinguished Cracow philologist, appears at his door and proceeds to take him back to school (the chapter is called Abduction).

At Mr. Piorkowski’s school, he becomes, once again, a schoolboy, doing what schoolboys do, fighting, teasing, using schoolboy slang (based on Latin) as well as learning poetry and Latin verbs. Gombrowicz takes advantage of this scenario to make fun of traditional learning, such as the uselessness of learning Latin verbs and high-flown rhetoric. The boys, of course, do not take kindly to the school and Johnnie finds that it does not help him reach maturity. He then goes as a boarder to the family of the Youthfuls – mother, father and daughter, Zuta – a family intent on being modern and progressive. Of course, he falls in love with Zuta but is firmly rejected. When this family doesn’t work, he is off to his uncle and aunt, inveterate snobs but, as with the school and the Youthfuls, Johnnie does not feel himself part of this society, cannot identify with it.

Gombrowicz is, of course, telling a story about identity and identification,. Johnnie is looking for his own identity but has to go through the conventions of the society in which he lives and have the identity they want for him thrust upon him. But this he cannot accept. That he ends up escaping from these different approaches to living is no surprise. There are two small tales about Philifor and Philimor, which confirm that Gombrowicz is concerned with convention and how it governs us. It is no surprise that this book had considerable success in Poland, when it was released in 1957 but it still has a message for us.

Publishing history

First published 1937 by Rój
First English translation 1961 by MacGibbon & Kee