On Joey Kowalski

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In 2007, I wrote four entries for The Little Black Book of Books (Cassell Illustrated) edited by Lucy Daniel.

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Here is my entry on Joey Kowalski, the protagonist of Witold Gombrowicz‘s Ferdydurke (p. 270):

Key character: Joey Kowalski
Title: Ferdydurke
Date: 1937
Author: Witold Gombrowicz (1904 – 1969)
Nationality: Polish
Impact: Gombrowicz’s most famous character embodies the prescient idea that modernity is immaturity.

Joey Kowalski provides us with a thinly-disguised portrait of the author as a young man. In the opening pages, we are even told that he has written an unsuccessful book bearing the very same title as Gombrowicz’s 1933 debut. Although he is clearly the (anti-) hero and first-person narrator, one is reluctant to describe Kowalski as the protagonist because he is constantly acted upon. In the most famous passage, this amorphous thirty-year-old is visited by an eminent old professor who treats him like a kid before marching him off to school where — curiouser and curiouser — he fits in as naturally as a pupil half his age. Ferdydurke (1937) could be defined as a deformation, rather than a formation, novel.

If Kowalski embodies the notion (later popularised by Sartre) that identity is in the eye of the beholder, his own sense of immaturity reflects Poland’s cultural inferiority complex which itself symbolises the growing infantilism of society. Gombrowicz’s first novel is not only an existentialist masterpiece, it also chronicles the emergence of the “new Hedonism” Lord Henry had called for in Dorian Gray as well as the shifting human relations Virginia Woolf had observed in the early years of the twentieth century. Outwardly, we strive for completion, perfection and maturity; inwardly, we crave incompletion, imperfection and immaturity. The natural progression from immaturity to maturity (and death) is paralleled by a corresponding covert regression from maturity to immaturity. Mankind is suspended between divinity and puerility, torn between transcendence and pubescence. Through Joey Kowalski — as well as the schoolgirl and the farmhand — Gombrowicz was able to diagnose this tantalizing tryst with trivia which characterises the modern world.

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