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France: Royaumont and Vence (1964-1969)

After arriving in France, Witold Gombrowicz spends several days with Kultura in Maisons-Laffitte, just outside of Paris.
Next, accompanied by his nephew Józef, he leaves for Royat, in Auvergne, with the intention of taking a course of treatment at a spa. He lives at the Hotel Terminus in Clermont-Ferrand, searching for a room in Royat—but, after no luck on this front, he returns to Paris.

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The Royaumont Abbey on postcards sent by Witold Gombrowicz to friends in Buenos Aires.

At the end of May, following the advice of Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński and Maurice Nadeau, Witold Gombrowicz leaves for the Abbey of Royaumont, a cultural center near Paris, where he will spend the next three months.

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Witold Gombrowicz in Royaumont. Photo : Janusz Odrowąż-Pieniążek.
“It’s a very distinguished and very beautiful place. The countryside all around is an enchantment, valleys and forests, it is 30 kilometers from Paris so that people are always coming (there are about 50 rooms in the old monks’ dormitory) and, when they found out I was here, admirers came.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to J. C. Gómez [Trans. Dubowski]
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Royaumont Park, Gombrowicz’s favorite walking spot.

In Royaumont, Witold Gombrowicz suffers from his asthma and from nervous depression, but still participates in colloquia, notably on the subjects of psycho-sociology and Nietzsche. He provokes heated debates with other residents of the abbey.

“He was a persecutor at the table and a victim in private.”
— Alain Crespelle, then-director of the Cultural Circle in Royaumont, Gombrowicz en Europe (Gombrowicz in Europe) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

Witold Gombrowicz reads voraciously—among other works, the Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon—and lectures on Sartre’sBeing and Nothingness to young ladies in the park. 

« “One morning at breakfast, Gombrowicz turned to me and asked, in front of the four or five other people present, if I wanted to leave with him.”
— Marie-Rita Labrosse-Gombrowicz, French Canadian, who at the time had come to Royaumont to write a dissertation on the French author Colette, in her book Gombrowicz en Europe (Gombrowicz in Europe) [Trans. Dubowski]
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The Mediterranean: Cannes and its surroundings represented a chosen land for Gombrowicz. Here, he meets the beautiful Southern landscapes he discovered thirty-five years before once again.

In September, Witold Gombrowicz leaves with Rita Labrosse for the Côte d’Azur, where he will live until his death.

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Witold Gombrowicz at La Messuguière in Cabris.

The pair settles temporarily in Cabris, near Grasse, in the cultural center that was André Gide’s pre-war residence.

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On October 25, they move into the Villa Alexandrine at 36 Place du Grand-Jardin, Vence, where they will stay until March 28, 1969.

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The Villa Alexandrine. Photo by Christian Leprince and drawing by Kazimierz Głaz.

Witold Gombrowicz has in his possession four books: an Argentinian philosophy manual, Lecciones preliminares de filosofia, by Manuel García Morente; a Spanish edition of Heidegger’s Being and Time; and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Saint Genêt.

“As soon as we arrived, he declared that the apartment posed problems to him from a formal point of view.”
— Rita Gombrowicz, Gombrowicz en Europe (Gombrowicz in Europe) [Trans. Dubowski]

Witold Gombrowicz hangs paintings on the wall, dresses in the “Old English” style.

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The appartement in the villa Alexandrine. Photos : Bohdan Paczowski.

He completes his Paris-Berlin Diary, begun at Royaumont, as well as Cosmos, which he sends to Jerzy Giedroyc at Kultura.

“I have received Cosmos, which enthused me […] Cosmos, for me, is one of the most sensational and deepest contemporary books. It is a novel that is truly on a ‘cosmic’ scale—the macrophysics of the constellations and the microphysics of the grass and scraps opposed by an analogous cosmos in the human being, on the base of correspondences, of reference points.”
—Letter from Kot Jeleński to Witold Gombrowicz, June 19, 1965 [Trans. Dubowski]
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First Italian edition of Operetta.

Witold Gombrowicz begins work again on Operetta. This time, it will become a finished version, published in Polish in 1966.
From September on, Witold suffers from a stomach ulcer. He consults Dr. Yvan Marniov, who will serve as his physician until his death.

First visit to Vence of Maria and Bohdan Paczowski, who will become Witold Gombrowicz’s great friends.

Other Polish artists visit him, too: Writer Sławomir Mrożek and graphic artist Jan Lenica.
Witold and Rita become close with three Poles from Nice: Maria Sperling, Józef Jarema, and Iza de Neyman.

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At left, Witold between Maria and Bohdan Paczowski. Drawing on the wall by Teresa Stankiewicz. At right: Witold Gombrowicz, Paria Paczowska, the writer Sławomir Mrożek (standing), and the painter Jan Lenica. Photos by Bohdan Paczowski.

“Witold Gombrowicz is my nightmare. But I would be very sad if this nightmare did not exist.”
—Sławomir Mrożek, Cahier de l’Herne Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

In March, Witold Gombrowicz recovers from his stomach ulcer. His overall health improves considerably. A woman brings him a little dog, which he keeps and names “Psina” (“poor little dog” in Polish).

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Psina at the Gombrowicz residence. At left, Bohdan Paczowski. At right, Jean Kalman.
“A nice walk with my Psina. In the café on the square, painters (Vence is full of them). Beer, whiskey . . . They say, ‘Oh, that one is now his girlfriend…’ Chagall, Dubuffet, and Papzoff. Mistral. My table has one leg that is too short. I have to buy matches. A hat.”
—Diary, 1966 [Trans. Vallee]
«“A nice walk with my Psina. In the café on the square, painters (Vence is full of them). Beer, whiskey . . . They say, ‘Oh, that one is now his girlfriend…’ Chagall, Dubuffet, and Papzoff. Mistral. My table has one leg that is too short. I have to buy matches. A hat.”
—Diary, 1966 [Trans. V allee]
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In Chiavari, Italy, at the home of Maria and Bohdan Paczowski. Photos by Bohdan Paczowski.

Witold and Rita spend the month of June in Chiavari, Italy with the Paczowskis.

In September, the couple buys a Citroën 2CV. This marks the beginning of their adventures in the region. Witold Gombrowicz writes, in a letter to his Argentinian friend Mariano Betelú: “There is nothing to say, it is the throne of the world."

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Photo en haut : Hanne Garthe, en bas : Bohdan Paczowski.

“The most beautiful trips are little excursions around Vence, just like Pickwick in the suburbs of London.”
Journal, 1968—Diary, 1968 [Trans. Vallee]

Witold listens to music often—in particular, Beethoven’s quartets.
Witold Gombrowicz’s lectures become historically oriented: the Second World War, Nazism, Stalinism, naval battles. He also becomes interested in science. He loves Einstein.

With Rita, he re-reads Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mass, Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, and Agatha Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd. “He drew me the plan of the apartment crime scene from memory,” remembers Rita Gombrowicz.

Witold Gombrowicz works on the final version of Operetta.

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Witold Gomnrowicz at the Café La Regence in Vence with François Bondy and Rita Labrosse in March 1965. Photo by Lillianne Bondy.

“Vence is a very distinguished place, there are sometimes five or six Rolls-Royces, I see them out the window from the dining room that looks over the square, their drivers come to buy milk and other things for breakfast. The Rothschilds, the Karolyi Countesses, Safary, Dubuffet, Chagall, sometimes Picasso, the wife of Johnson, stars, rear-admiral Yankees, etc. They all come by here. As for me, I get a lot of visits, for, unfortunately, numerous are those who run towards he who offers himself each morning by the light of two lit candles for the Holy Spirit.”
—Letter from Witold Gombrowicz to Jorge Di Paola August 6, 1965 [Trans. Dubowski]
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In September, the Literary Institute (Kultura) publishes Cosmos in Polish.
In France, his two dramas are published: Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (trans. Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński and Geneviève Serreau) and The Marriage (trans. Koukou Chanska and Georges Sédir).

Gombrowicz’s Paris-Berlin Diary is published in Germany. Ferdydurke is published in Yugoslavia.

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Four 1960s paintings by Józef Jarema.

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Vier Gemälde aus den 1970er Jahren von Maria Sperling: Mai, Août (August), Juin (Juni) und Sérénité (Heiterkeit).

In October, Jorge Lavelli mounts his production of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia at the Théâtre de France in Paris. In December, the play is directed by Alf Sjöberg at the Royal Dramatic Theater, Stockholm.

“‘The premiere of Ivona,’ writes the Wiadomości Polskie of Stockholm, transformed itself into a hymn to the glory of Polish dramatic creation.’ Hum. Cuckoo!”
—Diary, 1966 [Trans. Vallee]
Journal, 1966


“In the sixty-first year of my life I have attained what a man usually acquires around thirty: a family life, apartment, dog, cat, comforts. . . . And I have undoubtedly also become (everything testifies to this) a ‘writer.’ This silly story, lagging along strangely and sluggishly from early youth through my entire life has somehow taken on color; lo and behold, I am a ‘writer.’”
—Diary, 1966 [Trans. Vallee] 1966
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From 1965 on, Witold Gombrowicz’s work will see an international career: Translations appear in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and English..

Pornografia is published in English and in Norwegian. Cosmos is published in French (trans. Georges Sédir), Ed. Denoël.

In September, Witold Gombrowicz completes Operetta and sends it to Jerzy Giedroyc, who is at this time in the process of publishing his Diary 1957-1961 as a book.
The translators of Ivona, Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński and Geneviève Serreau, prepare the French version of Operetta, which Gombrowicz himself will revise. Witold Gombrowicz also continues to work on his Diary for Kultura.

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Witold Gombrowicz with Kot Jeleński in Vence. Photo by Bohdan Paczowski.

“Witold was the same in Argentina, when he slept on the ground in Morón, where he lived at brave Frau Elsa’s, on Venezuela Street, as in Vence in the Place du Grand-Jardin. The snail was so much stronger than its shell. I think Witold was indifferent to objects. The setup of his apartment was the imaginary. Here, a notice: the forest, there: the castle, a bit like scenes in Shakespeare. I have many memories of Vence: Witold in his chair, sleeping. Witold going to eat. Witold on the balcony. The spyglass.”
—Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński, in Gombrowicz en Europe (Gombrowicz in Europe) by Rita Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

On December 10, French television dedicates the program "Lire n°25" (Costelle and Lajournade) to Witold Gombrowicz, with contributions by François Bondy, Lucien Goldmann, Konstanty “Kot” Jeleński, Allan Kosko, and Jorge Lavelli.

Alf Sjöberg mounts The Marriage at the Royal Dramatic Theater, Stockholm.

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Alf Sjöberg’s production of The Marriage, Stockholm, 1966.


“Rita and I stepped into 1967 yesterday. The two of us, without champagne, looking out our window at the silence, emptiness, our beautiful Place du Grand-Jardin, the steep roofs of old Vence, the cathedral tower, with the stony walls of the mountain far away, which the moon floods with a mystical light. The moon was so strong that one could see a sheet of water beyond Cap d’Antibes on the other side.”
—Diary, 1967 [Trans. Vallee] 1967

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Gombrowicz and Miłosz in Vence. Photo at center: Józef Jarema making faces. At right: Gombrowicz at left, Jarema with the pipe, Miłosz in the middle and, at right, English translator Alastair Hamilton.

In January, Witold Gombrowicz’s asthma worsens. He takes his first oxygen treatment.

The writer Czesław Miłosz, the future Nobel-prize winner, spends a month in Vence. A great friendship is born between the two Polish writers in exile.

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Witold Gombrowicz at his desk. Photo by Bohdan Paczowski.

“I admired him. With him, you went into an architectural building that was clear and precise. In writing against the rigid, stagnant Form, he had formed himself, he was a work that he had constructed himself, different than all other men of letters, those believing that their literary work could buy out their disorder and their obscurity."
—Czesław Miłosz, Cahier de l’Herne Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski] 
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Witold Gombrowicz bought this decorative clock with money from the Formentor Prize. At center, Witold photographed by Hanne Garthe.

On May 8, Witold Gombrowicz is officially notified that he has become a laureate of the International Editors’ Formentor Prize. The Prize’s former winners include: Samuel Beckett and Jorge Luis Borges (1961), Uwe Johnson (1962), Carlo Gadda (1963), Nathalie Sarraute (1964), and Saul Bellow (1965).

“I bought a period wardrobe as well as a period table and High Renaissance chairs. […] Immediately upon receiving the award I made myself a list of all my literary enemies (the majority, unfortunately, were Polish names) and picking out this or that name at random, I drank deeply in my imagination of that desperate acid, that sort of gray bitterness.”
—Diary, 1967 [Trans. Vallee] 1967

A week later, Maurice Nadeau’s Quinzaine Littéraire publishes the self-interview “I Was a Structuralist Before Anyone Else,” which Gombrowicz created especially for the journal.

Today, the text can be found in the Varia.

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With Dominique de Roux at the Villa Alexandrine, preparing the book of interviews that later, in 1977, will be titled A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux. Photo by Christian Leprince.

In June, Dominique de Roux begins work on the Interviews (which, after his death, will be re-titled A Kind of Testament), which he is creating at the request of the editors Pierre Belfond and Christian Bourgois. Dominique de Roux visits Vence regularly. Witold Gombrowicz begins editing his work in Polish.

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Quebecois poets Claude Haeffely (at left) and Gaston Miron, Carré Saint-Louis in Montréal circa 1990. Photo by Georges Dutil; rights: Pierre Filion.

In September the Quebecois poet Gaston Miron, a devoted reader of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, visits him. The Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato also comes to Vence in November.

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Ernesto Sabato reading Ferdydurke.

“It is high time that the superior cultures stopped turning up their noses. Instead of ‘Poland’ put the Argentine, Canada, Romania, and so on, and you’ll see that my allusions (and my sufferings) can be applied to most of the globe. […] Look at them still closer: you’ll see that they constitute a position which may affect you too.”
—A Kind of Testament: Interviews with Dominique de Roux [Trans. Hamilton]
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Photomontage by Maria Paczowska in celebration of Operetta: At left, Maria and Bohdan Paczowski; at right, Rita and Witold Gombrowicz, with Psina at their feet.

The diffusion of Gombrowicz’s work continues: Kultura publishes the Polish original version of Operetta. Bacacay is translated into French, Ferdydurke into Danish, Pornografia into Swedish and Japanese, and Cosmos into Norwegian and Japanese.

In January, Witold’s older brother Janusz Gombrowicz dies in Warsaw.
Gombrowicz’s Diary reveals the true-false anguish of having a biological son in Argentina.
Witold writes to Ingmar Bergman of his desire to see a film adaptation of Pornografia.
He has borscht (barszcz), a traditional Polish soup, sent to him from Poland.

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With the new “Peugeotte”, a nickname for Witold’s Peugeot 204, October 1968. Photo by Bohdan Paczowski.

In April, the Interviews are finished. Witold Gombrowicz revises them, and announces to Dominique de Roux: “If I win the Nobel, I’m going to buy myself a Mercedes-Benz convertible!” In the end, Kawabata wins, over Beckett and Gombrowicz.

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Genealogical sketches, 1968.

During his last vacation, Witold Gombrowicz studies geography and genealogy.
He becomes close with the painter Jean Dubuffet, who also lives in Vence. They take up a correspondence.

“You asked me in one of your letters what I have against painting. Well, my dear, my unique weapon against painting is the CIGARETTE and it is the CIGARETTE by which I suggest its destruction.”
—Letter from Gombrowicz to the painter Jean Dubuffet [Trans. Dubowski]
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Jean Dubuffet and his “Cow with the Subtile Nose.”

J“Thursday. Cows. When I pass a herd of cows, they turn their heads toward me and their eyes do not leave me until I pass. Just like at the Rússoviches’ in Corrientes. But then I paid no attention, whereas now, after the matter of ‘the cow who saw me,’ these looks seem like seeing to me. Grass and herbs! Trees and fields! The green nature of the world! I immerse myself in this expanse as if I were pushing off from shore and a presence consisting of a billion beings overwhelms me.
O pulsating, living matter! Resplendent sunsets; today two white-and-coffee-brown islands—mountains and towers of glowing stalactites—rose before me in a crown of rubies. […] The cow. How am I supposed to act toward a cow? Nature. How am I supposed to behave toward nature?”
Diary, 1958 [Trans. Vallee]

In autumn, Witold Gombrowicz begins work on the Cahier de l’Herne that Dominique de Roux wants to dedicate to him. On November 18, Gombrowicz suffers a heart attack.

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Rita and Witold Gombrowicz. Photo by B. Paczowski. “Les amants terribles” (a play on words of the French expression “enfant terrible”, which Cocteau used as a title for one of his novels and film), photomontage by Rita on the artist’s card of Kazimierz Głaz.

After four years of living together, Witold Gombrowicz marries Rita Labrosse at their home in Vence on December 28. She will speak of “paternal love” and of the “Eden of an endless childhood.”
An extract published in French in his Diary, “On Dante,” provokes the ire of Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti:

“’The book on Dante by this Pole is vile. It is insensitive and imbecilic to have published such slander. I tore it to pieces and sent it to the devil, this monstrosity produced by a cretin. Ungaretti.’ This is the telegram Ungaretti sent to Dominique de Roux after having read my Dante in French.”
Diary, 1969 [Trans. Vallee]
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Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970).

Translations of Witold Gombrowicz’s works multiply: Paris-Berlin Diary (France), Diario Argentino (Argentina), Ivona, Princess of Burgundia (Sweden and Spain), The Marriage and Operetta (Sweden and Italy), Bacacay (Italy and Brazil), Cosmos (The Netherlands), Pornografia (Spain).

Interviews with Dominique de Roux is published by Belfond. They will be published in Polish by Kultura the following year. In November, the French newspaper Le Monde dedicates a special supplement to Witold Gombrowicz, and Italian television films interviews of Gombrowicz with Dominique de Roux and Piero Sanavio (directed by Grytzko Mascioni).

In February, Witold Gombrowicz sends his Diary and Cosmos to General de Gaulle through Dominique de Roux as intermediary.

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Witold Gombrowicz thoroughly enjoyed signing his works. Dedications to Paul Beers, his Dutch translator, and to James Ritchie in the Japanese edition of Pornografia.

At the end of March, Witold and Rita Gombrowicz move to Val-Clair, on the road from Vence to Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

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Witold at Val-Clair, preparing for philosophy courses. Photo by Hanne Garthe.

Solicited by Dominique de Roux, who wishes to help him out of his depressed state caused by his worsening health, Witold Gombrowicz gives philosophy lectures for Dominique and Rita, which will be published after the writer’s death as Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes.

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Frames from Michel Polac’s documentary. At right, Witold Gombrowicz with Dominique de Roux.

“In March, he was perturbed once again. Cortisone made his ankles swell and deformed his legs. He had episodes of asphyxiation and got around his apartment with a cane. Rita, his young wife, was admirable in her devotion, and you could sense in Gombrowicz these serious collapses, which he was exasperated with, having to coexist like this in the pitiable state of a body reconstituted by medicine.
Also, I said to Rita that should we let Witold’s will and mind engage as well in this kind of stagnation, his discouragement would only be augmented by the imagination. As a last resort, I suggested to Gombrowicz that he teach me philosophy.”
Dominique de Roux, Cahier de l’Herne Gombrowicz [Trans. Dubowski]

In May, Michel Polac realizes his television program Bibliothèque de Poche (“Pocket Library”) with Dominique de Roux and Michel Vianey in Vence.
Watch this program (in French) on the website of the French National Audiovisual Institute

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Witold Gombrowicz im Val-Clair. Foto von Bohdan Paczowski.
“There is an art for which you get paid, and another one for which you have to pay. And you pay with health, with commodity, etc. Naturally, I don’t know if I’m an important artist or not, but anyway, my life, in this sense, has been as ascetic one.
Witold Gombrowicz in the TV program “La Bibliothèque de Poche” [Trans. Dubowski]

Witold Gombrowicz continues to work on the Cahier de l’Herne that is to be dedicated to him.
He receives a visit by Jacques Rosner, who will direct Operetta at the National Popular Theater at the Palais de Chaillot in January 1970. Gombrowicz will never see the production.

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Operetta in Paris. Staging by Jacques Rosner, music by Karel Trow, and sets by Max Schoendorff, the author of this drawing.

Witold Gombrowicz continues to write his Diary for Kultura. The last paragraph is consecrated to the protests of Polish writers to the invasion of Czechoslovakia: “Has Poland not for years now been an occupied country, exactly like Czechoslovakia today? […] Shattered by the fate of Czechoslovakia, they forgot to consider their own destiny.”

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Neil Armstrong on the moon.

During the night of July 21-22, Gombrowicz watches the arrival of Neil Armstrong on the moon live on television. He is fascinated.
He dies July 24 of respiratory failure.

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The last photo of Witold Gombrowicz, by Bohdan Paczowski.

“He seemed to be in motion, as if he was making an immense effort to leap over an obstacle.”
Rita Gombrowicz, Gombrowicz en Europe (Gombrowicz in Europe) [Trans. Dubowski]

Final interview, final questions: “What are your plans for the future? — The tomb.” His is in the cemetery in Vence.
Final project: A text for “two characters, a man, and a suffering fly,” inspired by Beethoven’s quartets, which Witold appreciated very much.

The opening of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 op. 130, played by the Busch Quartet.

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The Cahier de l’Herne “Gombrowicz” was published in 1971, after Witold’s death.

In the Cahier de l’Herne, in response to Dominique de Roux: “I think the Gombrowicz-Goethe theme is well-chosen, for it brings together two geniuses—one oriented toward the high, the other toward the low.”