from & about cosmos, by the great witold gombrowicz


‘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 . . .


Witold Gombrowicz
chapter 1


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.


“Let’s rest.”


“How far is it?”


“Not far.”


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.


“A sparrow.”




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

this nook.


“Who could have hanged it?”


“Some kid.”


“No. It’s too high up.”


“Let’s go.”


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

everything ready.”


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 . . . ”


“Thank you.”


“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





I hovered over it, I, who after leaving the other, there, in Warsaw,

now became stuck in this, here, and I was beginning to . . . I

hovered for one brief moment, but then Katasia left, Lena moved

the ashtray to the center of the table—I lit a cigarette—someone

turned on the radio—Mr.Wojtys drummed on the table with his

fingertips and hummed a little tune, something like ti-ri-ri, but

then broke off—drummed again, hummed again and broke off. It

was cramped. The room was too small. Lena’s mouth closing and

parting, its shyness . . . and that’s it, goodnight, we’re on our way



We were undressing, and Fuks, shirt in hand, resumed his complaints

about his boss, Drozdowski, he moaned whitely and wanly,

carrot-like, that Drozdowski, that at first they got along famously,

then something or other went sour, one way or another, I began to

get on his nerves, can you imagine, I get on his nerves, let me move

a finger and I get on his nerves, do you understand that, to get on

your boss’s nerves, seven hours a day, he can’t stand me, he obviously

tries not to look at me for seven hours straight, and if he

happens to look at me his eyeballs skip away as if he’d been

scalded, for seven hours! I don’t know—Fuks went on, his eyes

fixed on his shoes—sometimes I feel like falling on my knees and

crying out: Forgive me, Mr. Drozdowski, forgive me! But forgive

me for what? And it’s not even his fault, I really do irritate him,my

friends at work tell me shush, stay out of his sight, but—Fuks

ogled me sadly, fish-like,with melancholy—but how can I keep in

or out of his sight when we’re together in the same room seven

hours a day, if I clear my throat, move my hand, he breaks out in

a rash. Maybe I stink? And in my mind I associated the lamentations

of the rejected Fuks with my departure from Warsaw,

resentful, disdaining, both of us, he and I, dispossessed . . . the resentment

. . . and so we went on undressing in this rented, unfamiliar

room, in a house found by a fluke, by accident, like two

castaways, spurned.We talked some more about the Wojtyses, the

family atmosphere, I fell asleep. I awoke. It was night. Dark. Buried

under my sheets, a few minutes passed before I found myself again

in the room with the wardrobe, the night table, the water pitcher,

until I found my bearings in relation to the windows and the

door—which I managed to do thanks to a persistent though silent

cerebral effort. I vacillated for a long time, what should I do, go

back to sleep or not . . . I didn’t feel like sleeping, I didn’t feel like

getting up either, so I mulled it over: should I get up, or sleep, or

lie here, finally I stuck out my leg and sat up on the bed, and when

I sat up the white blotch of the curtained window loomed before

my eyes and, stepping up to it barefoot, I drew the curtain aside:

there, beyond the little garden, beyond the fence, beyond the road

was the spot where the sparrow was hanging, hanged among the

tangled branches, the black soil below it, where the bit of cardboard,

the piece of sheet metal, the strips of lath, were lying about,

where the tips of spruce were basking in the starlit night. I pulled

the curtain back but I didn’t move away because it occurred to me

that Fuks might be watching me.


In fact, I couldn’t hear him breathing . . . and if he wasn’t asleep

he must have seen that I was looking out the window, which in itself

wouldn’t be anything perverse were it not for the night and

the bird, the bird in the night, the bird with the night. Because my

looking out the window must have had something to do with the

bird . . . and this was embarrassing . . . but the silence had lasted

far too long and was too absolute, bringing me to the certainty

that he was not there, that he had not been there all along, that no

one lay on his bed. I drew the curtain back again, and by the glow

of the starry swarms I saw a vacant space where Fuks should have

been. Where did he go?


To the bathroom? No, the hum of water from there was solitary.


But in that case . . . what if he had gone to see the sparrow? I don’t

know why I thought of it, but I knew right away that this was quite

possible, he could have gone, he had been interested in the sparrow,

he was in the bushes looking for an explanation, his carroty,

phlegmatic mug was just the thing for such a search, it was just

like him . . . to ponder, to scheme, who hanged it, why did he hang

it . . . and, maybe he chose this house, among other things, because

of the sparrow (this would be stretching it a bit, but the

thought was there, additionally, in the background), anyway, he

had awakened, or maybe he hadn’t gone to sleep at all, and, his

curiosity piqued, he got up, maybe he went to check some detail

and to look around in the night? . . . was he playing detective? . . .


I was inclined to believe it. More and more I was inclined to believe

it. His doing this did me no harm, on balance, but I would

have preferred not to begin our stay at the Wojtyses’ with such

nocturnal escapades and, furthermore, I was a bit irritated that

the sparrow was emerging again, bothering us, and it seemed to

fluff its feathers, put on airs and pretend to be more important

than it really was—and if this moron had actually gone to it, the

sparrow would become a personage accepting visitors! I smiled.

What next? I didn’t know what to do, yet I didn’t feel like going

back to bed, I put on my pants, opened the door to the hallway,

stuck out my head. There was no one, it was cooler, in the wan

darkness I was aware of a little window to the left at the top of the

stairs, I listened but heard nothing . . . I went out into the hallway,

but somehow I didn’t relish the idea that a short while ago he had

silently gone out, and now I’m silently going out . . . in sum, our

two exits were not quite so innocent . . . And when I left the room

I re-created in my mind the floor plan of the house, the branching

of the rooms, the arrangement of walls, alcoves, passages, furniture,

and even people . . . all unfamiliar, I was barely becoming acquainted

with it.


But here I was in the hallway of a strange house, in the dead of

night, in just my pants and shirt—this peeked at sensuality, it was

like slithering toward Katasia with the same slipperiness as her

lip . . . where was she sleeping? Sleeping? As soon as I asked myself

that, I became someone walking toward her in the night, down the

hallway, barefoot, in just my shirt and pants, the tiny, just-a-tad

twirl-up of her lip, slippery and reptilian, together with my cold

and disagreeable rejection and estrangement from those I had left

behind in Warsaw, drove me coldly toward her swinish lust which,

somewhere here, in this sleeping house . . .Where was she sleeping?

I took a few steps, reached the stairs and looked out the little

window, the only one in the hallway, it looked out from the other

side of the house, the one opposite the road and the sparrow, onto

a wide space surrounded by a wall and lit by swarms and multitudes

of stars; here was a similar little garden with gravel footpaths

and frail little trees, passing farther on into a vacant lot with a pile

of bricks and a small shed . . . To the left, next to the house, was an

addition, probably the kitchen, the laundry, maybe it was there

that Katasia rocked to sleep the frolic of her little mouth . . .

Moonless star-filled sky—stupendous—constellations emerged

out of the swarms of stars, some I knew, the Big Dipper, the Great

Bear, I was identifying them, but others, unfamiliar to me, were

also lurking there, as if inscribed into the distribution of the major

stars, I tried to fill in lines that might bind them into forms . . . and

this deciphering, this charting, suddenly wearied me, I switched to

the little garden, but here too the multiplicity of objects such as a

chimney, a pipe, the angle of a gutter, the cornice of a wall, a small

tree, as well as their more involved combinations like the turn and

disappearance of the path, the rhythm of shadows, soon wearied

me . . . yet I would begin anew, though reluctantly, to look for

forms, patterns, I no longer felt like it, I was bored and impatient

and cranky, until I realized that what riveted me to these objects,

how shall I put it, what attracted me to the “behind,” the “beyond,”

was the way that one object was “behind” the other, that the pipe

was behind the chimney, the wall was behind the corner of the

kitchen, just like . . . like . . . like . . . at supper when Katasia’s lips

were behind Lena’s little mouth when Katasia moved the ashtray

with the wire mesh while leaning over Lena, lowering her slithering

lips close to . . . I was more surprised than I should have been,

at this point I was inclined to exaggerate everything, and besides,

the constellations, the Big Dipper, etc., amounted to something

cerebral, exhausting, and I thought “what? mouths, together?” I

was particularly astonished by the fact that both their mouths

were now, in my imagination, in my memory, more closely linked

together than then, at the table, I tried to clear my head by shaking

it, but that made the connection of Lena’s lips with Katasia’s

lips even more clear-cut, so I smirked, because truly, Katasia’s

twirled-up lasciviousness, her slipping into swinish lust had nothing,

absolutely nothing in common with the fresh parting and innocent

closing of Lena’s lips, it’s just that one was “in relation to

the other”—as on a map, where one city is in relation to another

city—anyway, the idea of maps had entered my head, a map of the

sky, or an ordinary map with cities, etc. The entire “connection”

was not really a connection, merely one mouth considered in relation

to another mouth, in the sense of distance, for example, of

direction and position . . . nothing more . . . but, while I now estimated

that Katasia’s mouth was most likely somewhere in the

vicinity of the kitchen (she slept thereabouts), in fact I wondered

where, in what direction, and at what distance was it from Lena’s

little mouth. And my coldly-lustful striving in the hallway toward

Katasia underwent a dislocation because of Lena’s incidental intrusion.


And this was accompanied by increasing distraction. Not surprisingly,

because too much attention to one object leads to distraction,

this one object conceals everything else, and when we

focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are

eluding us. And I, gazing at the little garden, at the sky, at the “beyond”

duality of the two mouths, I knew, I knew that something

was eluding me . . . something important . . . Fuks! Where was

Fuks? Was he “playing detective”? I hoped this wouldn’t end in a

big mess! I was disgruntled about having rented a room with this

fish-like Fuks whom I hardly knew . . . but there, ahead of me was

the little garden, the trees, the footpaths passing into a field with a

pile of bricks and all the way on to a wall that was incredibly white,

but this time it all appeared as a visible sign of something that I

could not see, namely the other side of the house, where there also

was a bit of a garden, then the fence, the road, and beyond it the

thicket . . . and within me the tension of starlight merged with the

tension of the hanged bird.Was Fuks there, by the sparrow?


The sparrow! The sparrow! Actually neither Fuks nor the sparrow

was of much interest to me, it was the mouth, quite plainly,

that really intrigued me . . . or so I thought in my distraction . . .

and as I let go of the sparrow to concentrate on the mouth, 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,

and, as soon as I caught up with the mouth, eagerly, as if I had lost

it, I already knew that beyond this side of the house was the other

side, that beyond the mouth was the sparrow hanging all alone . . .


But worst of all, the sparrow could not be placed on the same map

as the mouth, it was totally beyond, in another realm, it was here

quite by chance, ridiculous actually, so why was it cropping up, it

had no right! . . . Oh, oh, it had no right! Had no right? The less

justification it had the more strongly it inflicted itself upon me

and became more intrusive and more difficult for me to shake

off—if it had no right, then the fact that it was pestering me was

all the more significant!


I stood a while longer in the hallway, between the sparrow and

the mouth. I returned to my room, lay down, and fell asleep faster

than one would have expected.


The next day we took out our books and papers and went to

work—I didn’t ask him what he had done during the night—I felt

reluctant to recall my own adventures in the hallway, I was like

someone who had succumbed to fanciful extravagances and now

feels awkward, yes, I felt awkward, but Fuks looked sheepish too

and mutely turned to his calculations, which were laborious, on

numerous scraps of paper, he even used logarithms, his goal being

to develop a method at roulette, a method that would be, without

the slightest doubt—and he knew it—humbug, tommyrot, but

on which he focused all his energies because he had nothing better

to do, nothing to keep him busy, his situation was hopeless, his

vacation would be over in two weeks, he would then return to his

office and to Drozdowski who would make superhuman efforts

not to look at him, but there was no way around it because, even

if he were to carry out his duties diligently, this too would be unbearable

to Drozdowski . . . Exuding yawns, his eyes turned into

tiny slits, he even stopped complaining, he was the way he was,

who cares, all he could do now was to taunt me about myaggravation

with my family, that’s it, see, everyone’s got his troubles,

they’re bugging you too, shit, I tell you, it’s horrible, it’s all a sham!


In the afternoon we went by bus to Krupowki, did some shopping.

Suppertime came, I had been waiting for it impatiently because

I wanted to see Lena and Katasia, Katasia with Lena, after

last night. In the meantime, I restrained myself from thinking

about them, first, let me see them again, then think.


But what an unexpected upset of the apple cart!


She was a married woman! Her husband showed up after we

had started eating, and now he was bringing his longish nose to

his plate, while I watched this erotic mate of hers with a distasteful

curiosity.What confusion—not that I was jealous, it’s just that

now she seemed different, totally changed by this man who was so

alien to me, yet privy to the most secret closings of her little

mouth—it was obvious that they were only married recently, he

covered her hand with his hand and looked into her eyes. What

was he like? Quite a big man, well built, on the heavy side, intelligent

enough, an architect working on the construction of a hotel.

He spoke little, reached for a radish now and then—but what was

he like? What was he like? And how were they with each other

when alone, how was he with her, she with him, the two of them

together? . . . ugh, to bump into a man at the side of a woman

who turns us on, that’s no fun . . . worse still, such a man, a total

stranger, suddenly becomes the object of our—compulsory—

curiosity, and we have to keep guessing his personal likes and dislikes

. . . even though it disgusts us . . . we have to experience him

through the woman. I don’t know which I would prefer: alluring

as she is, that she should now turn out to be repulsive because of

him, or that she also become enticing because of the man she has

chosen—awful possibilities either way!


Were they in love? Passionate love? Sensible? Romantic? Easy?

Difficult? Not in love at all? Here, at the table, in the presence of

her family, it was just the casual tenderness of a young couple that

one could not, after all, watch at will, but only by stealing glances,

by applying a whole system of maneuvers “on the border,” that

would not transgress the demarcation line . . . I couldn’t very well

stare him in the face,my inquiry, ardent yet somewhat disgusting,

had to be limited to his hand as it lay on the table in front of me,

near her palm, I looked at this hand, big, clean, fingers not unpleasant,

nails clipped . . . I continued watching it, and I became

more and more infuriated that I had to penetrate the erotic possibilities

of this hand (as if I were her, Lena). I found out nothing.


Actually, the hand looked decent enough, but what of it, everything

depends on the touch (I thought), on how he touches her,

and I could perfectly well imagine their touching each other to be

decent, or indecent, or dissolute, wild, mad, or simply conjugal—

and nothing, nothing is known, nothing, because why couldn’t

shapely hands touch each other grotesquely, even astraddle, what

assurance was there? Yet it was hard to imagine that a hand, so

healthy and decent, would indulge in such excesses. Really, but

suppose that it “nevertheless” did, then this “nevertheless” would

become yet one more depravity. And if I could not have any certainty

about their hands, what about their persons, in the background,

where I hardly dared to look? And I knew that a single, clandestine,

barely visible hooking of his finger round her finger

would be enough for their persons to become infinitely licentious,

even though he, Ludwik, was just at that moment saying that he

had brought the photos, and that they had come out very well,

he’ll show them after supper . . .


Translated from the Polish by Danuta Borchardt


—from Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos

1 Comment

  1. […] po angielsku – about Cosmos Katalogi, serwisy […]

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