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Cosmos (Anglais) Relié – 31 août 2006
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A comprehensive synopsis of Gombrowicz's masterpiece.
If one of the spirits of literary Modernism was the search for meaning in an increasingly anomic world, Cosmos answers the call and then some: anything suggests everything else. The resulting order of things is as comically absurd as it is horrific. The all too real world of Cosmos and its all too human instigator/victim/protagonist, the eponymous Witold Gombrowicz, confound any attempt at discerning whether these esoteric associations are being assigned by the latter or afforded by the former. Is the Cosmos a piecemeal construction of a meandering mind, or is it always lurking in the background, in all its terrible totality, whimsically suggesting? Cosmos is a philosophical novel, yet it never preaches.
Cosmos also represents a culmination of themes Gombrowicz had been wrestling with since Ferdyduke: the corruption of innocence by an irresistible depravity, maturity vs. immaturity, aporia brought on by a plenum of capricious mereological and analogical relations. Because of this, I wouldn't recommend Cosmos as an introduction to Gombrowicz; its literary accomplishments are all the more easily recognized and better appreciated if one has previously tackled Ferdyduke and Pornografia (both of which I also highly recommend).
Gombrowicz's prose is admittedly an acquired taste, and Cosmos is as fine example of an avante-garde novel you're likely to find (yet another reason I recommend beginning with his earlier novels: easier reads that should assist in acclimating to Gombrowicz's unique style). Though I have nothing to compare it to, Borchardt's translation is taken from the original Polish and appears committed to preserving as many of Gombrowicz's eccentricities as possible.
"Literary criticism is not judging of one man by another (who gave you this right?) but the meeting of two personalities on absolutely equal terms. Therefore: do not judge. Simply describe your reactions. Never write about the author or the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author. You are allowed to write about yourself." [Paragraphs combined.](Quoted in Ruth Franklin's July 30, 2012, New Yorker article about Gombrowicz's work, "Imp of the Perverse", which I heartily recommend and without which I would not have read "Cosmos" or "Diary" which is next up.
My undertaking here is to follow Gombrowicz's stricture and engage him mano a mano. Franklin (see above) wrote that "Cosmos" (1965) "arises from the same existential absurdity that animates" his earlier novel, "Ferdydurke." My taste does not run to surrealism or existentialism. Handicapped by my preference for more conventional work, I had to work to read "Cosmos". I did so mainly to see what I could find in it for me. Quite a bit. I enjoyed the humor I found in the absurd. Take this passage where one of the characters puts the best face he can on his masturbatory practices:
" `[M]y dear sir, for thirty-seven years of conjugal life I haven't been, not even once . . . hm, hm . . . to my better half, with any other. I haven't been unfaithful. Not even once. Thirty-seven. Not even once! So there! I am a good husband, tender, tolerant, polite, cheerful, the best father, tenderly loving, pleasant to people, eager, kind, helpful, tell me, if you please, sir, what is it in my life that entitles you to say that I, on the side, something or other, taking chances, as if I'd been acting altogether illicitly, drunkenness, cabaret-life, orgy, debauchery, roguery, and whoring with various hussies, perhaps bacchanalia by Chinese lanterns with odalisques, but you can see for yourself, I sit quietly, I chat, and -` he triumphantly shouted in my face, `I'm correct and tutti frutti.'"
What else? I admired the author's independence, his willingness to ditch convention, to thumb his nose at the powers that seek to keep us treading the straight and narrow. It's not absurd to say that there's a wake-up call here.
What helped to keep me reading, chapter after chapter, is Danuta Borchardt's translation (the first directly from the Polish). Time and time again I marveled at her ability to make me think this is exactly how the author would have written it in English had that been possible.
End note. I have read the other five and four star reviews of "Cosmos" and find them all useful. I particularly liked Roger Brunyate's posted on December 11, 2011.
Read it for a different look at life, but don't read it if you want "high adventure" or "action."