Friday, June 22, 2012

Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz: Freddy Durkee?

I run the risk of posting too much on this novel since I thoroughly enjoyed it. As I sit down to write I’m starting to understand more of what’s going on in the book, causing me to appreciate it even more. I don’t plan on covering the entire novel in detail but there are parts I want to highlight—hopefully it will help anyone else that ends up reading it.

So why the title Ferdydurke? The word never appears in the novel. Translator Danuta Borchardt relays one speculation:
The title itself, Ferdydurke, has no meaning in Polish, although there is some conjecture that the word was a contraction and alteration of the name Freddy Durkee, the chief character in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which was widely read in Poland in the early 1930s. Gombrowicz himself never explained the title.

“Chief character” can’t be right—Freddy shows up only briefly as part of an advertisement for home study courses that Babbitt’s son had cut out from a newspaper or magazine. Freddy represents a rise in society: from “Mr. Mouse-Man” to being “right on the High Road to Prosperity and Domination, and I look forward with confidence to a twelve-cylinder car, and the wife is making things hum in the best society and the kiddies getting a first-class education." (See Pages 78 and 79 for the ad)

The choice fits in several ways with Ferdydurke. There is the joke of naming a novel not after a character in a novel but for a fictional character in an ad from a novel, something meshing with the silliness and irony of Ferdydurke. The ad's cited importance of education and self-improvement echoes with Gombrowicz’s plot. Both Freddy Durkee and George Babbitt try to get ahead and become a “master man!”, something Joey Kowalski (the narrator of Ferdydurke) tries to do in his limited striving for maturity. That something is lacking or isn’t whole is a central point of both novels. While Gombrowicz may have had something else in mind, I'd like to believe Freddy was the inspiration for the title since I love the relation between the ad and the book.

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