How I met Ferdydurke

I ordered The Worst Book I Ever Read by The Unbearables because it was the least expensive item to appear on Amazon when I performed a search on the name of a writer with whom I’d become intrigued after reading a feature in Sensitive Skin. With a cover featuring lurid garish bright red pulp comics art and comprised of a hundred little articles and essays and, in at least one case, excerpts (from Arthur Nersesian’s THE FUCK-UP) from a hundred disparate voices on the subject theme or angle of the Worst Book each has Ever Read. As might be expected when asking inherently creative types to make absolute judgements about creative quality, the responses are extremely widely ranging. In at lest three cases, participants have chosen their own writing as representing the worst of themselves, or opted to name categories or types of books, or determine quality from their experience at the time of reading a particular work. I was pleased to see John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction included here (which I never read for its authors smugly smirking pipe-faced photo on the jacket), and an added bonus was Gerald Nicosia’s article on Jim Jones’s book about Jan Kerouac Use My Name, which made no mention of the Sampas’ family’s unfair administration of Jack Kerouac’s will and estate and the monies which continue to be accumulated from his published writings and those posthumously published, such as The Sea is My Brother .

Besides recognizing books I, too, disdained for various reasons among those reviewed in this anthology, I came upon a few I hadn’t read, which sounded good to me, like Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz, described thusly by Jim Feast in Worst Book’s Afterword: “the story of a man who, due to a beuracratic foul-up, is forced to go back to the second grade class he graduated from 23 years previously,” dismissing the plotline as “backward intransigence” which had a corrupting effect on his day to day reality. “I began chiming in on observations with phrases I had read in Gombrowicz and fighting to mold scenes I was moving through into some equivalence of the Ferdydurke plot line.” 

This sounded like just the book for me, and I promptly ordered a copy. The first thing that struck me was this passage, near the beginning: “I felt that my body was not homogenous . . . that my head was laughing at my leg and ridiculing it, that my leg was laughing at my head, that my finger was poking fun at my heart, my heart at my brain, that my nose was thumbing itself at my eye, my eye chuckling and bellowing at my nose—and all my parts were wildly raping each other in an all-encompassing and piercing state of pan-mockery.” Thirty or more pages in and the reader will find him- or herself embroiled in a schoolyard argument between different conceptions of morality, with one side vying to be called “guys and gals,” and the other preferring the terminology “lads and lasses” for themselves, their unending contest overseen by a schoolmaster on the sidelines reclining who is heard to purr, “Hey, the pupa, the pupa,” common Polish expression for backside or ass, which serves, in this context, as translator Danuta Borchardt informs us is Gombrowicz’s “metaphor for the gentle, insidious, but definite infantilizing and humiliation that we inflict on one another.” 

by Zack kopp


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