In 1998, the year of birth of this journal, I met Natacha Guthmann and Juan Carlos Gómez: both performed, in a sense, as midwives, although one could not imagine two more different personalities, and for all I know they never saw each other. The particulars of the story are as follows. Knowing that I was travelling to Buenos Aires, Monique Jutrin, the moving soul of the Société d’Études Benjamin Fondane, asked me to call Natacha, the widow of Fredi Guthmann, and solicit from her certain manuscripts of poems by Fondane known to be in her hands. Accordingly, once installed in Buenos Aires I phoned Natacha and explained the gist of my mission. She was unwelcoming and suspicious at first and wanted to know if I spoke French. As soon as we switched to that tongue her tone became softer and she ended up inviting me to her apartment on Avenida Santa Fe.
Fredi Guthmann had died three years before. The little I knew of this francophone Alsatian Jew transplanted to Argentina was what I had read in Julio Cortázar’s La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos, where Fredi was dubbed “el shaman de la Avenida Santa Fe”. Natacha, I soon found out, was not much interested in talking about Benjamin Fondane; she had never met the prolific Romanian-Jewish-French poet, who had become Fredi’s friend during a 1936 visit to Buenos Aires; she had not read his poetry, nor any of his critical and philosophical essays: her opinion of Fondane was based entirely on one booklet by him, Au seuil de l’Inde, which she judged inept. What Natacha really wanted to talk about was Fredi’s poems.
After I had read twenty or so fading typed pages of Fredi’s unpublished French poems, which Natacha retrieved from an old bureau, and expressed my admiration, her face brightened and she opened for me the floodgates of reminiscence. Soon after their wedding, she and Fredi had travelled to India; there, in 1950, Fredi had attained illumination. This had happened silently, while standing before the radiant Swami Ramana Maharshi on the eve of his death. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer, was probably with Fredi in the same devoted crowd. Thus began for Natacha the difficult, unending task of keeping up with her husband, for, unless you are enlightened, it is awkward to share the bed of an enlightened one. In due course Natacha found her guru, and attained light. Her Sanskrit was extremely sketchy; English remained, for her, the sacred language of Vedanta and mystic communication. With me she always spoke French.
Russian or Ukrainian must have been her first language, though, since Natacha Guthmann, née Natalia Czernichowska, was born in Odessa, Ukraine, the 15th of November 1919. My grandparents too were born in the Ukraine, but how differently! All of them were dirt poor and lived in shtetlach, either near Kiev or further East, toward Kharkov. They viewed Odessa as a city exclusively for wealthy Jews, no less distant and fantastic than Paris or London. Which brings me to my theory about my attachment to Natacha, which, I am convinced, was not solely due to her having been a beautiful woman who could still display abundant and well-directed charm. My mother had died five years before, in 1993; she had completed Argentine grammar school, no more; she spoke only Spanish and very imperfect Yiddish (mostly curses); she was always ill at ease in the presence of wealth, luxury or culture.
My theory is that Natacha, herself childless, provided me, a late orphan, with the opportunity to try again and, this time, furnish myself a mother more comme il faut. Sometimes, in my dreams, I find myself in a lavish, elegant apartment, and I know that, even if she may not be present, the place belongs to Natacha.
My attachment to Natacha made me her ally in a grand endeavor to make Fredi famous. A year on she confessed to me her dearest fantasy. She is riding a taxicab in Paris; the driver turns on the radio: an actor is reciting one of Fredi’s poems. Natacha’s single-minded raison d’être had become her husband’s legacy, centered on the poems typed on those fading sheets of paper, written in the thirties and forties, before Fredi’s enlightenment, after which he, like Rimbaud, renounced poetry and its many vanities. Yet, didn’t Rimbaud achieve posthumous fame? That thought maintained Natacha’s hopes alive, even though such worldly hopes, such holding on to Samsara, really do not square well with enlightenment.
On that first visit to Natacha, not only did she agree to give me the Fondane manuscript requested by Mme. Jutrin, but also gave me the documents that enabled me to write the piece titled “River, Sea, Mother and Prostitute” in the inaugural issue of Offcourse. As if that were not enough, she gave me Fredi’s copy of a book of Rilke’s poems. Nor was that all. Since I had told her that I was interested in the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, she phoned her friend Alicia Giangrande, who had been an old friend of Gombrowicz, and that Polish lady invited me to her place right away.
It was but a short walk. Alicia’s apartment was on Calle Arenales, parallel to Santa Fe, one block to the North. Alicia and Natacha were both Eastern European Jews; they spoke French with each other; both were painters. [A sample of their work here.] Both had exquisite art on their walls: chez Natacha one could admire a magnificent Figari, several Torres-García and at least a couple of Zoran Mušič, all acquired by Fredi over the years, and I especially remember, in Alicia’s dining room, a large, impressive oil by Demetrio Urruchúa. Alicia had escaped Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939; after many perils she had arrived in Brazil, and then, after five years, had moved to Buenos Aires, where she married a retired captain of the Italian navy, Silvio Giangrande. I never found out Alicia’s maiden name. In Gombrowicz’s Diaries she always appears as Alicia Giangrande, and she signed her artwork Yadgiwa or Jadwiga; I also found in Internet the artistic signature Yadgiwa Alicia Delande Giangrande. Finally, in a June 8 2009 New Yorker article by David Grossman, “The Age of Genius,” about the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, I find Alicia under the name Jakarda Goldblum. In any case, when I arrived at her apartment on Calle Arenales, I found she had also invited Juan Carlos Gómez, another old friend of Gombrowicz.
After the introductions and the tea with scones, Alicia proposed that I read aloud a document in French. It was by or about Gombrowicz, of course; if I remember right it had to do either with his Against the Poets or with his Against the Painters. Why Alicia asked me to read it aloud, given that her French was better than mine, I cannot now recall: perhaps her lungs or her throat were out of kilter, a disease that steadily worsened and killed her a year and a half later. As for Gómez, he was monolingual and neither read nor understood French. Whatever Alicia’s reason was, I didn’t question, but obeyed and read.
Later, out on the street, Gómez asked me to call him Goma, just as Gombrowicz used to. I tried to please him, but found it hard: each time I said “Goma” it left a demeaning taste in my mouth. While we walked we summarized our curricula for each other: as a young man Gómez had studied for a short time at the same Facultad de Ciencias Exactas where I graduated, but had switched to business administration and had worked in that field until retirement. There was no doubt that the most important event in Gómez’s life was his friendship with Gombrowicz, for he would speak of little else. “Wouldn’t you like to have been one of Gombrowicz’s friends?” he asked. I answered that I very much enjoyed reading his works, but was not sure that I would have enjoyed a face-to-face acquaintance with the master. The reason for that – which I did not say – was that I consider myself too proud, or too thin-skinned, to bear the spiritual sodomy the said master perpetrated on his acolytes. Then, to my surprise, Gómez asked me if I would like to have a copy of all the letters exchanged between him and Gombrowicz after the latter’s departure to Europe in 1963.
My reply was enthusiastic, as one can easily imagine, and Gómez told me to accompany him to his place, some fifteen city-blocks from Alicia’s, where he would give me the package, no conditions attached. The result was the piece I wrote for the second issue of Offcourse, “Gombrowicz, or the Sadness of Form.” As Gómez added to the letters a short essay by him, “Gombrowicz está en nosotros”, I asked whether he was a writer. He denied this rather vehemently. Other than letters, he said, that essay was the only thing he had ever written. Besides, his only theme was Gombrowicz. Fortunately, he concluded, through the crystal of Witold Gombrowicz and his work one could inspect the whole world.
Even before that second issue of Offcourse, the troubles started. Gómez decided to publish the letters he had received from Gombrowicz. Emecé, an important Argentine publishing house, had agreed to do it, though they refused to include the letters from Gómez to his master. The book appeared in June 1999, with the title “Cartas a un amigo argentino” by Witold Gombrowicz, with a photo of the Polish writer on the cover, with a prologue by the Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato (not, mark it, Sábato – that accent on the ‘a’ was for Gómez the surest sign of imbecility), with a presentation by me, and, as epilogue, the aforementioned essay by Gómez, “Gombrowicz está en nosotros”.
The problem was the writer’s widow, Rita Gombrowicz (née Labrosse, a French Canadian). The possessive, paranoid behavior of widows and widowers of writers and artists in general is a worthwhile subject, but here I will limit myself to Rita, who threatened Gómez and Emecé with a lawsuit, before the book saw the light of day. Since she is, as was Gómez, monolingual, the person who acted as translator and go-between was Louis Soler, a big-hearted French intellectual, the child of Catalan anarchists, who knew and loved all those widows – Rita, Natacha, Alicia – and who later became my close friend. Rita through Soler, and Soler himself, tried to convince Gómez not to publish the letters from Gombrowicz, arguing that, first, the rights to those letters belonged to their author, hence to Rita, the author’s heir, and secondly, that she, Rita, together with Soler, would do a better job of editing them (and no doubt of editing out certain passages not flattering to her). Such arguments seemed calculated to ensure that Gómez would dismiss them; Rita’s attitude was offensively condescending. In fairness to Rita it should be recalled that Gómez and Gombrowicz had cut off all communication early in 1965, when the master, exhausted by his disciple’s insistent display of Sartrean nothingness, had called him stupid and destroyed his letters (of course, Gómez had carbon copies). Rita could not but be influenced by her husband’s anger and disappointment.
As a result of those legal and editorial disputes, two opposing camps were formed. Alicia Giangrande was friendly to Rita and opposed to Gómez’s project; I was witness to an upsetting shouting match between Alicia and Gómez at a Buenos Aires café. Natacha, who never met Gómez, was in the same camp as Alicia, out of widow solidarity. Soler was adamantly on Rita’s camp. On the other hand, partly because I thought that whatever the law said, Gómez had divine justice on his side, and partly because I wanted to have my presentation published, I was favorable to Gómez and his project. By that time, however, I had a nagging impression that, granted his talents and intellectual virtues, not all of Gómez’s screws were tight. The impression was created, above all, by his habit of sharing any communication directed to him with everybody else; you wrote a letter to Gómez (no e-mails yet) and he would make copies, or extract paragraphs, and send them to friends and foes. If he caught you misspelling a word, he would beseech you to mend your ways and keep posterity and future scholars in mind.
Having published “Cartas a un amigo argentino”, now Gómez began the struggle to publish “Cartas a un amigo polaco”, his letters to Gombrowicz. Emecé was not interested, nor were the other Argentine publishers he approached. He asked me to write a presentation for this too, and I did. In it I mentioned how I met Gómez, and how he had insisted, from the beginning, that he was not a writer. At this point a new person enters the stage: Henryk Bereza, cultural theorist, literary critic, and editor of the Warsaw literary journal Twórczość. Gómez announces to me that Bereza, having read the letters (translated into Polish by Rajmund Kalicki, who had lived for some years in Argentina and now, back in Poland, worked for Twórczość), decided to publish them in that journal. In Bereza’s opinion, I learn further, while Gombrowicz could hardly and stiffly manage to write the letters he wrote, Gómez wrote his with such ease and brilliancy that it was rather like a dance. Gómez, dubbed by Bereza “the spiritual son of Gombrowicz,” was a better letter writer, and even a better writer tout court, than his spiritual dad.
I have no idea what fury or what infernal currents in Polish cultural life led Bereza, the cultural theorist, to his preposterous judgment; all I can say is that I was astonished. Gómez, “moved to tears,” as he wrote me, by Bereza’s eulogy (translated by Kalicki, interpreter between his boss and Gómez), pointed out that while I had denied he was a writer, the Old Bard (“el Viejo Vate”, as he dubbed Bereza) considered him a writer – and of what distinction, at what height! I read the text Bereza had written about Goma and his letters for Twórczość, and could not refrain from writing back to Gómez that in my opinion the Polish critic was either joking, or else he was an impostor, a panegyric-scribbling buffoon.
I have not modified that opinion, but I consider myself a fool for having told it to Gómez. I should have known better. Having grown up on a steady diet of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I ought to have been aware that it is silly to try to separate a madman from his madness. For by then there remained no doubt in my mind that Gómez was mad. And not only in my mind. In those days Alicia was in a hospital, about to die; I phoned her from the U.S. and one of the last things she said to me was, “Did you know it, Ricardo, that Gómez is mad?” Meanwhile, Gómez had sent copies of my comments to Bereza and Kalicki, who proceeded to translate and publish them in Twórczość. Bereza added his own comments to mine: I was motivated by envy, my mind was flat and dull, he had written no panegyric, the panegyric was a genre appropriate to petty spirits and he, Bereza, was not of those.
After that, and after Gómez insisted that I take out all mention of Alicia in my presentation of his letters, I put a stop to our correspondence. Time passed, months or perhaps years. In 2003 Louis Soler died, having told me in several occasions his sadness that Rita refused to reply to his letters and phone calls. Then, one day, I started receiving electronic mass mailings from Gómez with alarming frequency. He had placed me in his list of “Gombrowiczidas”, by which he meant fans of Gombrowicz, but it could also be interpreted as killers of Gombrowicz; the text of those messages he called either “Gombrowiczidas”, or “Gombrowicziadas”, their titles eventually settling on the form, “Witold Gombrowicz y --- ”. For example, he would send something titled, “Witold Gombrowicz y Carlos Dickens”, in which the only mention of the British author was that Gombrowicz had once said that the literary work that had most influenced him was Pickwick Papers. Tedious repetition of phrases and events became the norm, and this was made more aggravating by the fact that every person, with the exception of Goma and Gombrowicz, was referred to by opaque, mostly demeaning nicknames, so the reader had to consult a list, separately provided, to find out who that person was. After a dozen or so of those messages, I stopped opening them, but there must have been hundreds.
Juan Carlos Gómez and Natacha Guthmann, in their different ways, were possessed by obsessive agendas. Yet, were their ways really so different? Were not their agendas essentially the same? Both were intent on retrieving a loved one from the land of the dead. Natacha wanted to take her Fredi up into the Olympus of Parisian fame; Gómez wanted to resurrect his master so they could continue to discuss publicly about philosophy and stuff, thereby acquiring shares in the master’s celebrity. But, while alive, Fredi had turned his back on fame, and Gombrowicz had refused any further philosophical discussion with “poor Goma.” Neither Fredi nor Gombrowicz had consented to retrieval: it was being forced on them. What is more, both Natacha and Gómez acted effectively against their manifest aim. For instance, when after much effort a book with Fredi’s poems and photos was published in Paris chez Somogy – Éditions d’art, in October 2004, under the direction of Thierry Plantegenet, who had been Director of the Alliance Française of Buenos Aires and who Natacha had brought into her project, she threatened to sue both the publisher and Plantegenet because she thought that not enough attention had been paid to her own role and contribution. In Goma’s case, the appalling superfluity and the willful repetitiveness Gombrowicz had often warned him against, prevented him from going deeper into the master’s work and from eliciting more interest from the master’s admirers.
Let’s call it, if you wish, a paradox of the will – “vorrei e non vorrei”, as Zerlina sings when she is courted by Don Giovanni – under one condition: that we remember that it is not a paradox when we are dealing with love and the land of the dead. Orpheus in Hades is perhaps the best-known example, but it is neither the first nor the last. If intent on retrieving a loved soul from the Underworld, remember to turn down your will to a minimum and to leave all possessiveness behind.
Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.