Cosmos is the final book by Polish Modernist Witold Gombrowicz. Written in 1968, it arrives now for the first time in English, as nasty as the day it was born. Cosmos is a vicious and uncompromised little gem of the obscene.
A summary of this oddly plotted book might go like this: a desperate man named Witold—the narrator— meets another unhappy man named Fuks in the woods, where they find a dead bird hanging from a string. Later, they share a room at a family-run hotel, whose owners are as indolent as anyone in Chekhov, and who include a sexy maid named Katasia, and another sexy woman named Lena, though Witold either can’t or won’t distinguish them. At one point, Fuks and Witold break into Katasia’s room, and, on finding it empty, they accidentally leave behind a boxed frog. Soon, Witold kills the family cat and hangs it from a tree. Everyone seems headed toward a giant, if oblique, domestic showdown—and yet, somehow, nothing happens.
Like so much in the Modernist canon, the way the story is told is just as important as the story. Witold seems exhausted and hassled by description. “Everything is black in the sunlight, cottages, fences, fields, woods, the road, this march, from where, what for, a lot could be said, actually I was worn out by my father and mother.” It is as if he sees the world of Baudelaire’s Correspondences, where “man wanders through forests of symbols / Which seem to observe him with familiar eyes” as a kind of prison, lamenting that “for every sign deciphered by accident how many might go unnoticed, buried in the natural order of things.”
Witold’s crisis extends to his perceptions of other people. Katasia, the maid, has a badly scarred lip, and Witold can’t decide if she titillates or disgusts him. Indeed, he finds it hard to make any distinctions at all, and enacts a kind of late-Modern protest against coherence, blurting such things as “He masturbated by eating.” Existence becomes totally and mysteriously incomprehensible and unsatisfying—think Beckett—and reality deteriorates into formalism. Witold and the others are reduced to speaking gibberish, as in ‘“Bemberging with bemberg into berg!’ he exclaimed, and I exclaimed:‘Bemberging with bemberg into berg!’” The book employs the nonsense word “berg” as a kind of flexible signifier that points to eating, masturbation, defecation, throwing up, and every other unmentionable thing. Because this occurs near the end of the book, we can read it as the climax.
As Cosmos slips deeper into doubt about standard fictional representation, we can almost sense the dawn of the postmodern, of Donald Barthleme’s parallel universe of irony, of Thomas Pynchon’s massive world of paranoid incoherence, of Thomas Bernhard’s exasperation with every human need, of Diane Williams’s digressive lyric trilling. Cosmos springs from the moment at which Modernist techniques like stream-of-consciousness became inadequate, when reality itself became ironic, and mimesis, in order to exist, had to blend with the surreal. Philip Roth once said of this time that “reality had become stranger than fiction.” But Cosmos is more than a glass-bottomed boat for viewing fifty years of fiction’s history; it’s a vicious, funny, existential comedy of manners and probably the nastiest vacation novel ever written; it’s a book of failed solace, where no one is consoled by its geysers of ill will, except for, paradoxically, the reader.