Sunday, October 28, 2007

Witold Gombrowicz : Possessed

To the haunting pantheon of Gothic fiction, of this tradition, one must surely add this wonderfully well written novel by Witold Gombrowicz, a writer who is generally regarded as one of the best writers never read. But surely that is changing. Sontag's well written essay on Ferdydurke spurred me last year to read it and I thought it was one of its kind, a novel that stands on its own, really unrivaled. But Possessed is a totally different experience, a different novel altogether.

Gothic fiction has its high and low points. I am slightly sympathetic to this genre. For a long time I believed that only Edgar Allan Poe could write it well. I have read Hawthorne too and think that H.P Lovecraft occupies a niche in this genre, but Poe is really a master. There is a definite religious element to this genre, sin and redemption, mostly christian concepts. But if one steps away from the glaring mundane novels and movies that are called Gothic, one realizes that some of this fiction is really readable and actually quite artistic.

Possessed was serialized in 1939 in a Polish newspaper and was largely ignored by Gombrowicz till after he returned back to France. This English translation is based on the French one, and while not really brilliant, serves the purpose of this story, which is in a vein that is neither excessively sloppy nor unduly ghostly. It is Rita Gombrowicz, his widow who helped in reclaiming this novel, which is surely a great addition to this kind of fiction.

We have the usual elements that characterize such stories........a young man called Walchak, beginning his employment in the remote countryside with Maya, an aspiring tennis player. Nearby is the 170 roomed castle, haunted naturally, belonging to a mad prince, a faithful servant and a devilish secretary. Naturally Maya and Walchak fall in love, discovering how like each other they are and how they repel each other too, because of class differences. The haunted room in the castle, wherein a towel keeps trembling and moving, discovered by Walchak, holds the key to the prince's madness and Walchak discovers the plot that the secretary is hatching to take over the castle, just in time. We have tribulations and separations, a brief period in Warsaw, a friendly clairvoyant who unriddles the mystery and in the end, the solution but not before a murder.

The usual gore and bloodbaths of a Gothic tale are not found here. Here there are no overactive graveyards, stunning but sexually frustrated witches, baying wolves, talking skulls and so on. The explanation of these mysterious events must come from certain psychological angles. As we are told,............"The trembling of this towel is enigmatic to say the least. Anyone who has ever attended a spiritualist seance is aware that unknown forces are capable of lifting objects, moving furniture about, and even striking the participants. These phenomena are not necessarily supernatural in character. Certainly the forces are unknown, but they depend upon our psychological make-up".

I liked this novel and not just because I wanted to read something different. There is an inherent tone inside this novel which actually mocks the way these stories are usually told. Certain basic themes that Gombrowicz excels in, familiar to readers of Ferydurke, like childhood fears, immaturity, the understanding of evil and innocence, one's responsibility and understanding of the daily actions that we undertake are the themes of this novel. The plot is gripping, the style brilliant, the pace fast and while one has suspicions of what is actually going on, one likes the suspense too. The beginning of this novel is true to tradition and I felt it is quite well written and the transitions from darkness to a more urbane understanding of such phenomena is well handled.
A passage in the beginning that I liked, reflective of the atmosphere.

The train sped on, swaying monotonously. The bleak green countryside stretched away on either side, lit by the last rays of the setting sun..........soon they were bowling along a dirt road through sparse woodland that every now and then opened out to afford views of the surrounding countryside- a flat and cheerless prospect.
The sun had just set. They drove in silence, overawed by the silence all around them. Forests still ringed the horizon, but now their way lay across open meadowland with only the occasional stunted tree to relieve the monotony. Dusk had cast its veil over the land, and now a huge moon emerged from the clouds hanging low on the horizon. Dogs barked in the distance, and Walchak, peering into the gathering darkness, was unable to shake off a strange feeling of unease. Looming abruptly out of this enigmatic landscape was a large mound topped by a building of quite breathtaking proportions.

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