Gombrowicz and the Giant Rat of Rome

29th August 2015 4109 views

One of the authors I tackled in my long-ago, maybe misconceived book of literary criticism entitled The Modern Fantasy, never published as a whole—see “A Book That Made Me, and an odd bull” elsewhere in this blog—was Poland’s Witold Gombrowicz, mainly on the basis of his novel Ferdydurke.

Near Rome‘s Castel Sant’Angelo, on the promenade overlooking the Tiber, are a few secondhand book stalls, just a tiny bit as in Paris. Passing by with Cristina this August of 2015, my eye was caught by the dust-jacketed Grove Press edition of Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, which I felt compelled to buy for 3 Euros.


Nearby, a bride and groom were posing for inventive pictures of their wedding day:


Earlier, from one of the bridges out of Trastevere, Laura had spotted what she declared to be a beaver swimming complacently in the Tiber. Of course the creature couldn’t possibly be a beaver—dam, no!—but its tail remained ambiguous due to ripples of water—until it revealed itself as a rat the size of a beaver. Queen Rat.


Gombrowicz’s most famous short story is entitledThe Rat. In Gombrowicz’s phantasmagorical world chance juxtapositions, such as a hanged sparrow coupled with other hangings, convey sinister significance amidst mundanity, questioning the way reality is constructed. So of course I had to buy Cosmos. Or buy it once again.

For an international capital, Rome seems to contain very few restaurants offering the cuisines of any other nations. Might it be naughty to call Rome the city of ten thousand restaurants with the same menu?   (Unfair!—but who wants to waste a good joke?)

It was distinctly hot. A Roman aired his back for a long while:


A painting of the triumph of Christianity over the old gods struck me as economically metaphorical instead of triumphalist. How soon until the vast army of Saints come tumbling down? Inevitably they will, some day.


On a previous visit I’d been enchanted by the cemetery for non-Catholic foreigners near the pyramid of Cestius. Back then I spent so much time amongst the slim towering cypress trees fascinated by the umpteen tombs of writers, artists, scholars and diplomats, that the closing bell tolled before I could arrive at Keats. This time, to frustrate us, the cemetery keepers buzzed off for a week’s Ferragosto holiday.

As Yeats wrote of Keats (the two don’t rhyme)—

I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window…

Me too.  At last I saw Keats’ grave through a solitary slit in the wall:


Who put the slit there, I wonder, and when?

STOP PRESS:  Paolo Cingolani points out that “the rat” is something else:

“Laura was right. The Gombrowiczian Giant Rat in Rome, similar to a beaver, but with a thinner tail, is a nutria, or coypu: there are many colonies along the Tiber. There is a friendly one, downstream, where people feed nutrias by  hand”




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