Diary: Volume One: 1953-56, by Witold Gombrowicz. Translated by Lillian Vallee. Introduction by Wojciech Karpinski. General editor: Jan Kott. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. 243 pp. $42.95 cloth; $14.95 paper. Still another important Polish writer to take account of? Witold Gombrowicz knows the feeling. Addressing his fellow 'emigr'es, he writes: ``You prance out your polonaises under the noses of a bored foreign audience just so you can strengthen the impaired sense of your own worth ... like the poor wretch who claims that his grandmother had a large estate and traveled to Paris.''
Gombrowicz (1904-69) left Poland in 1939 and settled in Argentina, if such a word as settled can be applied to an existence so unsettled and unsettling. He had already written his best-known work, ``Ferdydurke.'' In one fell swoop, he was cut off from his cultural background and set adrift, alone and poor, in an alien land with an alien language. The ``Diary'' he began in 1953 was published in 1986 in Poland, where it won great acclaim. The English translation will run to three volumes.
Gombrowicz's ``Diary'' is the testament of a man who valued individualism and independence above nationality, ideology, perhaps even culture itself. It is full of the unexpected, the irritating, and the thought-provoking. He advises his fellow Poles to develop a new literature ``exactly the opposite'' of the past. He bemoans the fact that the need to be ``original'' impedes him when he wants to express a sincere emotion that happens to seem ``unoriginal.'' He attacks poetry as an overrated art form. He defends his egotism on the grounds that he is his own best subject, yet warns that even his candid self-revelation may be ``calculated.''
He accuses anticommunist writers he otherwise admires of exaggerating the horrors of communism. In his view, to embrace anticommunism is to be obsessed with communism, while the best way for an artist to affirm the sovereignty of free thought is to hold fast to his personal vision; this viewpoint has some affinity with that of Czech writer Milan Kundera in his recent collection of essays, ``The Art of the Novel'' (Grove Press, New York). Certainly, no reader of this ``Diary'' will doubt Gombrowicz's dedication to maintaining his artistic and personal ``authenticity.'' --------------------------------------------------------------------------------The Pigeon, by Patrick S"uskind. Translated from the German by John E. Woods. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 128 pp. $14.95.
Once again, German writer Patrick S"uskind demonstrates his predilection - and his gift - for writing about obsession. His first novel, ``Perfume,'' unfurled a shocking tale, set in 18th-century France, of an odorless man obsessed with odor who stops at nothing - including murder - in his quest to create a perfume that no one will be able to resist.
``The Pigeon,'' set in contemporary Paris, details a single day in the life of an unremarkable, middle-aged bank guard. It is, if anything, more of a tour de force than ``Perfume,'' because it does not rely on luridly sensational material, but distills its emotional power entirely from the smallest, most ordinary of incidents.
Jonathan Noel's problems begin when he opens the door of his room one August morning and finds a pigeon on the landing, staring back at him, as bold and immovable as death. His normal equanimity somehow shattered, Noel goes about his workday, increasingly off balance. He is tormented by an inconvenient itch, haunted by a sudden fear that things are not what they seem, and terrified of the ocean of uncertainty and insecurity that surrounds the little world he has made for himself. Before the day is over, this stolid man undergoes a barrage of emotions ranging from stark terror through misery, anger, and despair, back up to the heights of relief and joy, all without doing anything that would attract more than the passing glance of a passer-by, yet, at one point, his hate is so ``titanic ... that he would have liked to reduce the world to rubble and ashes, because he had a hole in his trousers.''
By making this absurdity eminently believable, S"uskind reminds us very vividly of the immensities concealed in the most infinitesimal things. By holding up a mirror to some common fears and anxieties that most of us find too silly to confess, yet too disturbing to ignore, this harrowing, gently comic novella exemplifies what Aristotle may have had in mind when describing the phenomenon of aesthetic catharsis. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------The Death of Methuselah and Other Stories, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 256 pp. $17.95.
Isaac Singer remains undiminished as a master storyteller. He is able to take the most colloquial forms, the ones most directly drawn from ordinary speech, and demonstrate how they still have the power to keep us listening. Many stories in this collection are introduced as stories other people have told Singer the storyteller. Some, like the title story, are quasi-biblical or drawn from Jewish legends and folklore. Others are inspired by memories of - and fantasies about - the extinguished world of East European Jewry. Still others are about Jews who have come to the New World: New York, Miami, Argentina, Brazil.
Singer is often praised for his craftsmanship, his imagination, and his commitment to keeping alive the dying Yiddish language. Few, if any, critics have seriously tackled the question of his moral vision. Although Singer is now the most famous of Yiddish writers, in the days when Yiddish culture still flourished, many were shocked by his interest in magic and miracles, by his portrayal of sexual passion, and other idiosyncrasies. Certainly, the reader of this volume is likely to come away from it with an almost Manichean after-image of the world depicted in its pages: a place filled with sin and evil in constant rebellion against a grimly rigid deity.
On those rare occasions when he is asked about his world view (this reviewer once broached the topic at a lecture of his), Singer tends to be evasive. Indeed, there is a line in one of these stories, ``Gifts,'' in which his attitude is made clear: ``Nothing can be explained ... when literature goes too far into explanations and commentaries, it becomes tedious and false.'' Literature, it seems, defies explanation for the same reason people do. As another character remarks in another story: ``What people really are they don't know themselves.'' Is this a revelation or another evasion? Readers of this compelling collection can judge for themselves.