The Power of Suggestion

Witold Gombrowicz, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, The Possessed

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 416pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781804270615

reviewed by Gertrude Gibbons

Witold Gombrowicz, Polish novelist, essayist and playwright, observed, commented and critiqued contemporary society and the human condition. His writings are eccentric, unique, and though they are rooted in Poland they extend beyond these borders, held in high esteem by writers such as Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre and Milan Kundera. His first novel, Ferdydurke, published in Warsaw in 1937, caused a stir for its controversial depiction of Polish society. His international recognition grew in the 1960s when his novels, Pornography and Cosmos, and his journal, Diary, were published in Paris.

In a first direct and complete translation into English, Antonia Lloyd-Jones renders the lively, humorous and enticing tone of Gombrowicz's 1939 novel, The Possessed. The tone immerses the reader in the atmosphere of the novel, which amuses yet has a latent power to haunt. It is the third title in the new Fitzcarraldo Classics series, following Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, translated by Katrina Dodson, and Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, translated by Patrick O’Brian. The series was announced early this year as a ‘classics list [that] mirrors our contemporary publishing, going back in time through the influences and affinities of the authors we already publish.’ One can see the affinity The Possessed has with other works published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, in its confident experimentalism with genre and form.

Gombrowicz originally published the novel in instalments in two Polish newspapers, under the pseudonym Zdzisław Niewieski, and only claimed authorship of it shortly before his death in 1969. Before Antonia Lloyd-Jones's translation, the only edition available in English was J. A. Underwood's 1980 translation from the 1977 French translation, titled Possessed, Or, The Secret of Myslotch: A Gothic Novel. This version had missed the ending discovered in 1986 by Ludwik B. Grzeniewski, who found the final three instalments of the novel in surviving copies of Kurier Czerwony from September 1939. The full Polish version was actually only published in 1990, and, having read the previous English version, I was excited to be surprised by the new ending, which is here available for the very first time in English.

The Possessed revolves around the love affair between a young woman from a bourgeois family, Maja Ochołowska, and a tennis coach, Marian Walczak. The plot follows them and the story of a haunted castle, in which an insane prince lives, surrounded by an art collection that his devious secretary, Cholawicki (who wishes to marry Maja), is trying to appropriate. The haunting of the castle — most memorably manifest in the recurring movements of a quivering towel in the kitchen — appears so powerful that it is contagious, and takes a hold, or possesses, whoever is left alone in it. The nature of Maja and Marian's love is interrogated throughout the novel, presenting itself at times as sweet and romantic, and at other times dark and disturbing. Indeed, their unfulfilled romance becomes a thing of nightmares.

Leszczuk's apparent possession (the nature of which remains intentionally ambiguous) is noted in a a disturbing yet absurdly humorous scene, which depicts his killing of flies stuck to flypaper as evidence of something demonic. Ridiculously, the characters witnessing the scene speculate that, had he committed more serious or gruesome crimes, they would understand and empathise with him more — but killing flies in such a hysterical way marks him out as fundamentally evil. Gombrowicz would later write, in his Diary, about killing a suffering fly on flypaper and his fear of how that reflected on him as well as his 'entire generation, his 'evolution' from youth and his relationship toward life: 'Today I am afraid — this is the right word — of the suffering of a fly. And this fear, in turn, terrifies me, as if some awful weakness toward life were contained in it.'

In The Possessed, Gombrowicz explores the power of imagination forced to spiral out of control as a result of powerful emotions — doubt, fear and love. Within the novel, the characters do not know what is real or a dream, true or imaginary. Doubt here succeeds as a narrative device in that it does not obscure information and make for a confusing plot, but instead carries the reader along with the doubting and uncertain characters. The language and tone used through the third-person narrator is satirical, detached, while also prone to engaging directly with the psychological states of the central protagonists; be it their drunkenness, fear, inherent romanticism, anxiety, authority. In this, the text reads as though the narrator himself becomes possessed by the company he observes.

It is worth mentioning the presence of a humorous editorial note early in the book, in which Walczak's name is changed to Leszczuk, explaining that, by ‘strange coincidence’, there is a real tennis coach named Walczak. The note, also expanded by Lloyd-Jones, not only picks up on the satirical tone of the novel, but blurs the lines between the real and fictitious.

The subtle shift in the title for this translation transforms 'possessed' into a noun and directs attention to the specificity of people or things 'possessed'. The omission of the subtitle, 'The Secret of Myslotch: A Gothic Novel’, allows the reader to decide how — or whether — it ought to be categorised as a text. After all, it is not just a gothic novel — not even just the ‘first Polish gothic novel’, in the words of the Polish literary scholar, Maria Janion — but defies categorisation, incorporating aspects of the romance novel, thriller, and crime fiction. In his Situations, vol. IX, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of Gombrowicz's fiction works that they were ‘false novels’ to which Gombrowicz himself ‘maintains a sceptical attitude’, such that he ‘constructs objects which destroy themselves in the very act of their construction — creating in this way the model for that which could be a novel at once analytical and materialist.'In The Possessed, the third-person narration enables this detachment and creates a sceptical, self-reflexive mode that can analyses itself as it goes along.

Key images repeatedly point towards the book itself as a text. For example, ‘the pencil would prove the key to the enigma.' The painting of lips with ink, and the sudden darkening of lips connected with possession, reminds one of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, in which the monster's lips are described as black, while his hair flows black like ink, which, in contrast to his yellow parchment-like skin, connect the monster with the book itself. In The Possessed, it is the biting of the pencil, and the darkening of blueish lips, that prompts possession: the passing of thoughts, ghosts, memories into another body. As the reader holds the book, they become a vehicle for these ideas, a temporary host.

As a child, I used to intentionally leave books outside my bedroom at night if I believed they contained anything ghostly. I suddenly remembered this sensation upon reading The Possessed. Though it contains cartoonish pastiches of the gothic novel, it simultaneously manages to get under the reader’s skin, and make them look again at the object of the book, and the nature of books as vessels, able to contain something mysterious. Finishing the book, I wonder if I have also been possessed by the power of suggestion, left with dreams of quivering towels holding unnatural forces.

Trapped in a haunted room, the suggestion is that even the most rational people within the novel turn mad through the force of their own imagination and fearfulness. As Leszczuk reflects early in the novel: ‘What he feared most was being afraid’. The possession comes at the force of the imagination, and power of suggestion. Left to oneself in a space said to be haunted, with an object containing and radiating this supernatural force, one cannot help losing their sense of solid ground and becoming a victim to paranoia. Without interruption, this becomes insanity.

Gertrude Gibbons is a writer based in London.