‘Cosmos,’ by Witold Gombrowicz
The Plotlessness Thickens
By Neil Gordon
November 20, 2005
A Polish student, seeking peace and quiet to study for his exams, and his friend, desperately needing a vacation from his oppressive office job, leave the city to board for a time with a rural family. Afflicted with anomie and a strange laziness, Witold and Fuks don’t suspect what’s ahead. Little by little, they find themselves drawn into a mystery hidden deep in the boarding house and the pretty summer countryside. But it is a mystery – and they are detectives – unlike any others.
The first sign of trouble is real enough: a sparrow is found hanging by the neck on a wire in a tree, "its little head to one side, its beak wide open." The second, while more troubling, is less clearly the work of a malefactor: wandering alone in the garden that evening, Witold begins to think there’s a troubling connection between the sparrow and the "slithering," "slippery" lips of two of the women in the house. "A tiresome game of tennis evolved, for the sparrow sent me to the mouth, the mouth back to the sparrow, and I found myself between the sparrow and the mouth, one hiding behind the other." The third sign is even more tenuous: there is a line on the ceiling of Witold and Fuks’s room that may or may not resemble an arrow, pointing at something. Who put it there? What might it mean? The two young men, increasingly worried, venture outside to confer. "Did one of the windowpanes look at me with a human eye?" Witold wonders. "It was conceivable that the one watching us was the same person who sneaked into our room, most likely during the morning hours, and gouged the line that created the arrow."
Lips, lines, arrows, sparrows. With the addition of these elements, the plot – although it may be about absolutely nothing – seems to thicken. There is a broken farm tool lying on a pile of rubbish in the door of the garden shed. Is it pointing somewhere deliberately, like the arrow? Fuks finds the evidence overwhelming: "There is a track where the wood scraps have been moved, as if the whiffletree lay in a different position before."
So progresses the investigation in Witold Gombrowicz’s sly, funny, absorbing fourth novel, published in Polish in 1965 and lovingly translated by Danuta Borchardt. The two neurotic detectives single-mindedly interrogate the meaning of their surroundings, seeking in the most mundane objects and events the solution to a mystery only they can see, their suspicions growing and growing until we begin to fear for their sanity – or ours.
Writing in the online magazine Words Without Borders, Benjamin Paloff calls Gombrowicz "probably the most important 20th-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of." Praised by Sontag, Updike, Kundera, Sartre and Milosz, he is the underdog in late modernism’s literary competition – perhaps, in part, because he left Poland in 1939, just before the German invasion, and remained in exile in Argentina for the next 25 years. He died in France in 1969, but since then his fiction and plays and his renowned three-volume diary have stubbornly refused to be forgotten, not only in Poland but throughout the world.
Critics have tended to treat "Cosmos" as a fictional reflection on the nature of meaning: a novel that asks whether we impose meaning on reality or discover it there. Is something truly amiss in the lips, the tree, the sparrow? Or is their portentous symbolism just a product of the nervous, erotic imagination of the characters? But if Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel, "Ferdydurke," can be called a philosophical novel, then "Cosmos," published roughly 30 years later, strikes me as a novel about language . . .
I’ll tell you about another adventure that’s even more strange . . .
Sweat, Fuks is walking, I’m behind him, pant legs, heels,
sand, we’re plodding on, plodding on, ruts, clods of dirt,
glassy pebbles flashing, the glare, the heat humming, quivering,
everything is black in the sunlight, cottages, fences, fields, woods,
the road, this march, from where, what for, a lot could be said, actually
I was worn out by my father and mother, by my family in
general, I wanted to prepare for at least one of my exams and also
to breathe in change, break loose, spend time someplace far away.
I went to Zakopane, I’m walking along the Krupowki, thinking
about finding a cheap little boarding house, when I run into Fuks,
his faded-blond, carroty mug, bug-eyed, his gaze smeared with
apathy, but he’s glad, and I’m glad, how are you, what are you
doing here, I’m looking for a room, me too, I have an address—
he says—of a small country place where it’s cheaper because it’s
far away, out in the sticks somewhere. So we go on, pant legs, heels
in the sand, the road and the heat, I look down, the earth and the
sand, pebbles sparkling, one two, one two, pant legs, heels, sweat,
eyelids heavy from a sleepless night on the train, nothing but a
rank-and-file trudging along. He stopped.
“How far is it?”
I looked around and saw whatever there was to see, and it was
precisely what I didn’t want to see because I had seen it so many
times before: pines and fences, firs and cottages, weeds and grass,
a ditch, footpaths and cabbage patches, fields and a chimney . . .
the air . . . all glistening in the sun, yet black, the blackness of trees,
the grayness of the soil, the earthy green of plants, everything
rather black. A dog barked, Fuks turned into a thicket.
“It’s cooler here.”
“Let’s go on.”
“Wait a minute. Let’s sit down a while.”
He ventured deeper into the bushes where recesses and hollows
were opening up, darkened from above by a canopy of intertwining
hazel branches and boughs of spruce, I ventured with
my gaze into the disarray of leaves, twigs, blotches of light, thickets,
recesses, thrusts, slants, bends, curves, devil knows what, into
a mottled space that was charging and receding, first growing
quiet, then, I don’t know, swelling, displacing everything, opening
wide . . . lost and drenched in sweat, I felt the ground below,
black and bare. There was something stuck between the trees—
something was protruding that was different and strange, though
indistinct . . . and this is what my companion was also watching.
It was a sparrow. A sparrow hanging on a piece of wire. Hanged.
Its little head to one side, its beak wide open. It was hanging on a
thin wire hooked over a branch.
Remarkable. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow. The eccentricity
of it clamored with a loud voice and pointed to a human hand
that had torn into the thicket—but who?
Who hanged it, why, for what reason? . . . my thoughts were
entangled in this overgrowth abounding in a million combinations,
the jolting train ride, the night filled with the rumble of the
train, lack of sleep, the air, the sun, the march here with this Fuks,
there was Jasia and my mother, the mess with the letter, the way
I had “cold-shouldered” my father, there was Roman, and also
Fuks’s problem with his boss in the office (that he’s been telling
me about), ruts, clods of dirt, heels, pant legs, pebbles, leaves, all
of it suddenly fell down before the bird, like a crowd on its knees,
and the bird, the eccentric, seized the reign . . . and reigned in
“Who could have hanged it?”
“No. It’s too high up.”
But he didn’t stir. The sparrow was hanging. The ground was
bare but in some places short, sparse grass was encroaching on it,
many things lay about, a piece of bent sheet metal, a stick, another
stick, some torn cardboard, a smaller stick, there was also a beetle,
an ant, another ant, some unfamiliar bug, a wood chip, and so on
and on, all the way to the scrub at the roots of the bushes—he
watched as I did. “Let’s go.” But he went on standing, looking, the
sparrow was hanging, I was standing, looking. “Let’s go.” “Let’s
go.” But we didn’t budge, perhaps because we had already stood
here too long and the right moment for departure had passed . . .
and now it was all becoming heavier, more awkward . . . the two
of us with the hanging sparrow in the bushes . . . and something
like a violation of balance, or tactlessness, an impropriety on our
part loomed in my mind . . . I was sleepy.
“Well, let’s get going!” I said, and we left . . . leaving the sparrow
in the bushes, all alone.
Further march down the road in the sun scorched and wearied
us, so we stopped, disgruntled, and again I asked “is it far?” Fuks
answered by pointing to a notice posted on a fence: “They’ve got
rooms for rent here too.” I looked. A little garden. In the garden
there was a house behind a hedge, no ornaments or balconies,
boring and shabby, low budget, with a skimpy porch sticking
out, wooden, Zakopane-style, with two rows of windows, five
each on the first and second floors, while in the little garden—a
few stunted trees, pansies withering in the flower beds, a couple
of gravel footpaths. But he thought we should check it out, why
not, sometimes in a dingy place like this the food could be finger-licking
good, cheap too. I was ready to walk in and look, though
we had passed a few similar notices and hadn’t paid any attention,
and besides, I was dripping with sweat. He opened the gate, and
we walked along the gravel path toward the glittering windowpanes.
He rang the bell, we stood a while on the porch until the
door opened and a woman, no longer young, about forty, came
out, maybe a housekeeper, bosomy and slightly plump.
“We’d like to see the rooms.”
“One moment please, I’ll get the lady of the house.”
We waited on the porch, the din of the train still in my head, the
journey, the previous day’s events, the swarm, the haze, the roar.
Cascading, overwhelming roar.What intrigued me in this woman
was a strange deformity of the mouth in the face of a bright-eyed,
decent little housekeeper—her mouth was as if incised on one
side, and its lengthening, just by a bit, by a fraction of an inch,
made her upper lip curl upward, leap aside, or slither away, almost
like a reptile, and that sideways slipperiness slipping away repelled
me by its reptilian, frog-like coldness, and, like a dark passage, it
instantly warmed and aroused me, leading me to a sin with her,
sexual, slippery, and lubricious. And her voice came as a surprise—
I don’t know what kind of voice I had expected from such a
mouth—but she sounded like an ordinary housekeeper, middleaged
and corpulent. I now heard her call from inside the house:
“Auntie! A couple of gentlemen are here about the room!”
After a few moments the aunt trundled out on her short little
legs as if on a rolling pin, she was rotund—we exchanged a few remarks,
yes indeed, there is a room for two, with board, please
come this way! A whiff of ground coffee, a narrow hallway, a small
alcove, wooden stairs, you’re here for a while, ah, yes, studying, it’s
peaceful here, quiet . . . at the top there was another hallway and
several doors, the house was cramped. She opened the door to the
last room off the hallway, I only glanced at it, because it was like
all rooms for rent, dark, shades drawn, two beds and a wardrobe,
one clothes hanger, a water pitcher on a saucer, two small lamps
by the beds, no bulbs, a mirror in a grimy frame, ugly. From under
the window shade a little sunlight settled in a spot on the floor, the
scent of ivy floated in and with it the buzzing of a gadfly. And
yet . . . and yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was
occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not
quite as she should have been, though I don’t know what gave me
the sense of this being, let’s say, so out of place—whether it was
that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress—or that her
leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress
had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and
the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day.
Was she asleep? When she saw us she sat up and tidied her hair.
“Lena, what are you doing, honey? Really! Gentlemen—my
In response to our bows she nodded her head, rose, and left
silently—her silence put to rest the thought of anything out of the
We were shown another room next door, exactly the same but
slightly cheaper because it wasn’t connected directly to a bathroom.
Fuks sat on the bed, Mrs.Wojtys, a bank manager’s wife, sat
on a little chair, and the final upshot was that we rented the
cheaper room, with board, of which she said: “You’ll see for yourselves.”
We were to have breakfast and lunch in our room and supper
downstairs with the family.
“Go back for your luggage, gentlemen, Katasia and I will get
We returned to town for our luggage.
We came back with our luggage.
We unpacked while Fuks was explaining how lucky we were, the
room was inexpensive, the other one, the one that had been recommended
to him would surely have been more expensive . . .
and also farther away . . . “The grub will be good, you’ll see!” I
grew more and more weary of his fish-face, and . . . to sleep . . .
sleep . . . I went to the window, looked out, that wretched little
garden was scorching in the sun, farther on there was the fence
and the road, and beyond that two spruce trees marked the spot
in the thicket where the sparrow was hanging. I threw myself on
the bed, spun around, fell asleep, mouth slipping from mouth, lips
more like lips because they were less like lips . . . but I was no
longer asleep. Something had awakened me. The housekeeper was
standing over me. It was morning, yet dark, like night. Because it
wasn’t morning. She was waking me: “The Mr. and Mrs. Wojtys
would like you to come down for supper.” I got up. Fuks was already
putting on his shoes. Supper. In the dining room, a tight
cubbyhole, a sideboard with a mirror, yogurt, radishes, and the
eloquence of Mr.Wojtys, the ex–bank manager,who wore a signet
ring and gold cufflinks:
“Mark you, dear fellow, I have now designated myself to be at
the beck and call of my better half, and I am to render specific services,
namely, when the faucet goes on the fritz, or the radio . . .
I would recommend more sweetie butter with the radishes, the
butter is tip-top . . . ”
“This heat, there’s bound to be a thunderstorm, I swear on the
holiest of holies, bless me and my grenadiers!”
“Did you hear the thunder, Daddy, beyond the forest, far
away?” (This was Lena, I hadn’t seen much of her yet, I hadn’t seen
much of anything, in any case the ex-manager or the ex-director
was expressing himself with a flourish.) “May I suggest a teensy-weensy
helping of curdled milk, my wife is a very special specialist
when it comes to curdled milkie, and what is it that makes hers
the crème de la crème, my dear fellow? It’s the pot! The quality of
milk fermentation depends on the lactic attributes of the pot.”
“What do you know, Leon!” (The ex-manager’s wife interjected
this.) “I’m a bridge player, my dears, an ex-banker, now a bridge
player in the afternoons as well as Sunday nights, by special wifely
dispensation! So, gentlemen, you are here to study? Quite so, perfect,
peace and quiet, the intellect can wallow like fruit in a compote
. . . ” But I wasn’t really listening, Mr. Leon’s head was like a
dome, elf-like, its baldness riding over the table, accentuated by the
sarcastic flashing of his pince-nez, next to him Lena, a lake, and the
polite Mrs. Leon sitting on her rotundity and rising from it to preside
over supper with self-sacrifice, the nature of which I had not
yet grasped, Fuks saying something pallid, white, phlegmatic—I
ate a piece of meat pie, still feeling sleepy, they talked about the
dust in the air, that the season had not yet begun, I asked if it was
cool at night, we finished the meat pie, then the fruit compote
made its appearance, and, after the compote, Katasia pushed an
ashtray toward Lena, the ashtray had a wire mesh—as if an echo,
a faint echo of the other net (on the bed), on which a leg, a foot, a
calf lay on the wire netting of the bed when I had walked into the
room etc., etc. Katasia’s lip, slithering, found itself near Lena’s little