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Witold Gombrowicz: Pornografia (Pornografia)

The novel is set in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943 and tells the story of two men – Frederick and Witold – who go to a country manor to help a friend, Hippolytus, in a”business” deal, the business being the black market. In the introduction to the book, Gombrowicz states that the philosophical meaning of the book is about man’s illegal need for the unfinished, imperfection, inferiority, youth, though he adds that philosophy has, for him, no meaning and that it is none of his business. As well as being about the unfinished and youth, it is, on the surface, a crime novel but also it tells of the effect of the war on everyone. Frederick and Witold, for reasons that are never clear, except for Gombrowicz’s stated intent, namely vicarious re-enactment of their youth, are fascinated by two sixteen-year olds, Henia (Hippolytus’ daughter) and Karol, and determine to bring them together sexually, though Henia is already engaged to someone else. As this is war, and Gombrowicz is making the point that war makes monsters of us all, releasing inhibitions that would be normally suppressed in peacetime, it all goes horribly wrong. Lying and deceit and unsavoury games lead to brutality and death and it is all the fault of war or, rather, war and the need for the old to imitate the young and unfinished.

This novel is told in a more realistic manner than some of his other novels and, for that reason, it might be deemed more accessible but it is still trademark Gombrowicz. He himself said that it is the offspring of Ferdydurke, which also deals with the age/youth issue. Its casual brutality, its avoidance of easily moralising and the somewhat (to us) illogical behaviour of its main characters make it typical Gombrowicz and, as such, well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Instytut Literacki,
First English translation 1966 by Calder & Boyars/Grove Press
Translated by Alastair Hamilton (from the French) (Calder & Boyars/Grove Press); Danuta Borchardt (Grove Press)