How hard is it to write a trashy novel? This was a question that occupied Witold Gombrowicz as a young writer in Warsaw in the 1930s. ‘My old school friend Tadeusz Kępiński and I decided to write a sensational novel and earn lots of cash,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘We had no doubt that with our superior intellect it would be easy to come up with such nonsense – something easy and exciting. But soon we threw everything in the bin, horrified by the clumsiness of our efforts. Writing a bad novel is certainly no easier than writing a good one, I told Kępiński. And the problem started to interest me.’
The Possessed, a pastiche of the Gothic novel, modern romance and detective story, is the outcome of that fascination. It was serialised in the summer of 1939, under the pseudonym Zdzisław Niewieski, in the popular Polish press, appearing alongside headlines about the onset of the Second World War. These circumstances are at least part of the reason why the novel has been neglected: Poland and Europe were becoming engulfed in the chaos of war and on 29 July 1939, only weeks after the publication of the first part of the novel, Gombrowicz took a ship to Buenos Aires, leaving his career and many of his papers behind. He would never return to Poland and, in truth, he didn’t hurry to return to the last novel he wrote there. Possibly concerned about its potential effect on his reputation, he publicly admitted to its authorship only shortly before his death in 1969. The novel was first published as a book in 1973 in Paris and the full version, including previously missing concluding chapters, was not published until 1990. The novel is far from an aberration or an embarrassment, however. It may stand out among Gombrowicz’s works for its generic peculiarities, but it still showcases his brilliance and wit as a prose writer and presents many of the key themes of his work, from human psychology and perceptions of reality to social conventions and the Polish class system.
The Possessed is built around the relationship between a young aristocratic woman, Maja Ochołowska, and her working-class tennis coach, Leszczuk, who is invited to stay on Maja’s family estate. At their first meeting, and in their first match, something strange happens: it is clear to the pair, and