Ferdydurky (notes)

by Witold Gombrowicz
1937 / Poland / 281 pages
Rating –

This is one strange little book. The title is a meaningless bunch of  pronounceable letters possibly meaning that the book may be meaningless nonsense.   It’s major theme is maturity or immaturity and its relationship to “mugs” (the face we show people),  and captivity.  The book touches on literature,  politics,  conformity, identity,  etc.   It’s a bizarre Kafkaesque bildungsroman, if you will,  dealing with change and entrapment via philosophy and a bit of psychology among other things.

Chapter 1 – Abduction

The narrator  as an adult remembering youth – what will you be when you grow up?  Memories  of  wanting to be mature and landing with the ignorant – “Do you know what it feels like to be diminished by someone else?”  p. 16 He has a bad dreams about his youth and wakes feeling just as bad.

Then Pimko,  an old professor type, very mysteriously shows up and reveals to our hero that he really doesn’t know anything but rather confuses him hopelessly and  abducts him – Pimko grows or the narrator shrinks.

Chapter 2 –  Imprisonment and Further Belittlement

So it’s off to his teen years in public school (boarding, I presume but …).  Pimko shows our narrator around .  The boys are  proving to each other how “mature” (adult, I guess) they are by way of dirty words and ideas.  Pimko writes a note to our narrator that they’re all innocent.  (they haven’t known pain?)  This gets back to the students and they try harder to be mature.  The boys think that innocence is a bad thing so they’re trying to act “mature” or grow up.  –  Kneadus and Syphon are the antagonists of each other –  Pimko tries to act as teacher or referee but only stirs things up.

Kneadus – like kneading dough – a puncher,  ignorant – thinks innocence is bad and wants to prove they’re not. –  seems to favor the proletariat (I think.) Leader of the “guys.”
Syphon – the intellectual – syphons the knowledge – thinks innocence is a virtue and points to the phrase “youthful faith” and sings.   Leader of the “lads.” Rather elitist – (I think.)

The word “pupa” which the professor uses refers the middle stage  (teenage years?)  in the lives of some insects –

PUPA Word Origin:  1350-1400: Middle English pupil; Middle French (Latin Pupillus / masculine puilla / feminine orphan, ward, diminutives of pupus boy, pupa girl

The lads and guys fight and the lads lose but the “guys” really want the “lads” to stop singing.  So Kneadus’ idea is to “initiate” Syphus with ropes. (?)  Meanwhile one of the “guys” has poked a mother in the eye through a hole in the fence. I don’t know what that means except a contempt for authority and/or maturity ?  A desire to break their watching?

Pimko reappears and takes the narrator to the principal’s office and introduces him as Joey –  (probably not the baby kangaroo specifically but with similar derivation).  They are in the teacher’s lounge and  it appears the teachers are all pretty gross in various ways.  The principal talks proudly about the teachers and how they were chosen for having at least one disgusting trait and being conformist to the core – no original thinking.   Pimko agrees and places Joey in the school.

Joey finds the continuation of the fight – intellects vs fighters and the ridiculous professor is trying to establish some order.  He fears the “school inspector” (Pimko).  He calls on Syphon to reveal what he knows about certain literary things but the “lad” refuses on the basis it would compromise his principles to reveal this.   The teacher (named Ashface) admires this and goes for his worksheet instead.
reading – Polish poet and philosopher  Juliusz Slowacki  (1809-1849) 

The class is bored to tears and spitballs – “What happened to the ferver, to the disputes and discussions of just a few moments ago?”  (p. 42) Only Syphon and a few others manage to stay engaged.  Ashface gives an assignment and one student, Galkiewicz, complains and questions the rationale – He’s faced with flunking and told what to say and why in the assignment. They argue – the professor talks in circles and G. gets more adamant.  Finally Ashface asks Syphon to recite it and Syphon complies – for half an hour!  – beautifully.  The students are convinced but start covering each other with ink until there is no difference between them and they are all deteriorating,  thinking about something else – even the teacher is thinking of his family.  Only Syphon thrives  because “the greater the general misery the better he felt because he had  that special inner mechanism for turning poverty into riches.”   Even Joey “the words entered my ears and tortured my mind,”  while the faces contorted in front of him.  –

“… all that had been real slowly, imperceptibly turned into a world of ideals, oh let my dream now,  let me.”   (italics in the book along with a footnote – * from a poem by Zygmunt Krasinski –   Ashface has the class repeat ” ‘  we admire him because he was a great poet and we revere him because he was a bard.”

Joey wants to run away but he can’t because he’s wiggling his toe and has no will to do it.  He is trapped by his face.  And all the others have individually grimaced faces – none natural.  Running away would be trying to run away from self.  Joey argues with himself and then sees Kopyrda, a student who does not wear a grotesque grimace.  Maybe Kopyrada is the key …

** ME:   Face means self-identity in this book – either inner or outer.  When the word “mug” is used it’s more the physical self when the word  “face” is used it’s more about the inner – I think!)

I think the grimace is essentially a grotesque.

Chapter 3 Caught with His Pants Down and Further Kneading

The bell rings and the student fight goes on as before – lads against guys – who is innocent – ideas from the newspapers are flung back and forth.  The name they call each other is “naive.”   Kneadus and the guys  ready the ropes to “initiate” Syphon through the ears.  Joey talks to Kopyrda but he walks away.  Joey pleads with Kneadus to run away – Kneadus looks interested,  some of his grimaced “face” slips away as he thinks about running away to the farmers – then his face goes into a different grimace and he sings.  And Joey joins him but they’re observed by the “lads” who accuse them of sentimentalism in their realism. – They are “caught with their pants down.”  Swear words fly.

Kneadus says Syphon has his own faces.  Syphon denies it but Kneadus rants and raves until he’s challenging Syphon to a face-making duel.  They two select “seconds” and pronounce Joey (the new kid in school) the umpire.

The bell rings and the Latin  teacher walks in.  Again fear reigns and only Syphon is prepared. But the new teacher calls on the others and gives “F”s.  Finally Galkiewicz (again) challenges the teacher about Latin about suffixes saying they don’t “enrich” anything.   The whole class and even the teacher are becoming frozen until the teacher calls on Syphon who translates the entire passage perfectly.  The bell rings,  the teacher exits,  the fight continues and Joey wants to dream (again).  Kopydra leaves.   The verbal abuse escalates to a duel- laden with rules –  between Kneadus and Syphon who are to make faces.   Syphon wins with his finger in the air but Kneadus grabs the finger and then goes for Syphon’s ears.  Syphon roars and Kneadus requests a gag but no one can move.  Pimko appears.

Chapter 4 – Preface to “The Child Runs Deep in Filidor”

Reviewing the previous chapters Gombrowicz says,  “It is in the prime of youth that man sinks into empty phrases and grimaces. It’s in this smithy that our maturity is forged.”  (p 68)

Gombrowicz then goes into a spiel about critics – Pimkos adept at fabricating the pupa out of texts by pointing to the faulty construction of a work of art.”   Gombrowics compares the face to a tree –  discusses repetition in writing – and then accidental insight vs intention.

Chapter 5  The Child Runs Deep in Filidor

Synthesis Filador vs Analyst Anti-Filador –  putting knowledge together vs taking it apart. They have an argument and anti-Filador goes for the fat wife of Synthesis.  He gets her ear and then her nose and then her the fingers while Filador threatens to call the police.  Anti-Filador leaves with his paramour.

There’s a questionable 1st person here but that may be Joey as an adult.

The doctors decide to slap mrs Filador to re-synthasize her.  Before she desynthasized Filador had decorated her cheeks hoping to use them for the slap but it won’t work.  So the Docent declares her beyond re-synthasis but Filador is horrified.  Anti-Filador is now supposed to be slapped by  Anti-Filador because Anti-Filador has a mistress with cheeks which can be slapped and reverse (or double) the process – this is by analogy.
The doctor and the docent can’t see it happening.

They suggest money.  Synthesize her with money.  Money is a number – no unity.  But after quite a lot of money is put on the table Mrs. S starts to come together  (in the hospital) while Anti-Filador’s girlfriend wants to come apart.  They decide on a duel with guns.  The Synthesis misses the Analyst but the Analyst hits the little finger of Mrs. Filador/ Mrs. Professor and it goes flying off.  He does it again and again shooting pieces of her off. Finally Anti-Filador wins but it’s not decisive because Filador could have won.  They go through life aiming and hitting.

Chapter 6 Seduction and Further Driving Me Into Youth

Back to Joey – Pimko takes him to a boarding house for students and he meets the a school girl, the daughter of the landlady who gets the attention of both Joey and Pimko who says he’s doing in her presence for Joey’s sake.  Joey sees Pimko as old but Pimko starts singing to the schoolgirl (age 16).  Joey can’t believe his ears.

Joey reviews his day. His face is finally returning to normal and he feels 30 years old again.   Pimko warns Joey against “modern” girls.  Joey figures Pimko wants him to fall in love, immaturely,  infatuatedly,  with the schoolgirl.  Figures it’s Pimko’s way to trap him in his youth.  Generations –  schoolgirl age 16,  Joey age 30 and Pimko about  50.  Pimko says he knows about the “Americanized generation” and athletics and thighs.


The landlady,  Mrs. Youngblood, comes in and is introduced to Joey – Pimko says Joey is posturing and that he’s only 17.   Joey realizes that Pimko is uniting them (see prior chapter).  Mrs. Y feels sorry for Joey – the girl doesn’t like Joey – not “modern.”

**ME **  The term modern is used quite a lot –  I wonder what it means to the author?

The girl accuses Joey of posturing so he can’t change his position. Mrs.  Y tries to question but says it all comes down to the generations – “That’s the new generation. The morality of the Great War. We’re all children of the Great War, we and our children.”   page 114 –  She and Pimko argue – she sees a new start – demolishing Krakow.
The girl kicks Joey and acts superior to her mother because she’s younger.  Girl is Zuta.  Mom and Pimko argue a bit more and Pimko takes his leave.

Chapter 7  Love

Joey goes to Zuta’s room and the story turns rather wild.   I’m not going to take any more notes about this –  The family and Pimko and Kopydra all get involved with the girl and her family for a couple chapters .  Even Kneadus gets into the act.

Finally at some point Kneadus and Joey run away – land at Joey’s aunt who knows full well he’s 30 years old.  Joey tells Kneadus that she’s old and forgetful.

Then there are several chapters about what happens at the aunt’s with Kneadus “fra….ternizing” with the valet who is a perfect example of the proletariat peasant with a natural mug.

The book finally gets back on track for me with Zosia and the mugs and the final ending.  I’m really glad I read this but I’m very confused about the last part of the middle section – the “school girl” and her family in a pile part just before Joey runs away.  Is it about bourgeois family life and sex?


The Great Wiki:

Really long analysis: 

Bookgeeks review

A Gombrowitcz site

The Liber Review

A Review of Ewa Plonowska Ziarek (editor),Gombrowicz’s Grimaces


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