The Possessed

Witold Gombrowicz

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, with an introduction by Adam Thirlwell

Fitzcarraldo Classic No.3 | French paperback with flaps, 416 pages
Published 18 October 2023

Read preview

In The Possessed, Witold Gombrowicz, considered by many to be Poland’s greatest modernist, draws together the familiar tropes of the Gothic novel to produce a darkly funny and playful subversion of the form. With dreams of escaping his small-town existence and the limitations of his status, a young tennis coach travels to the heart of the Polish countryside where he is to train Maja Ochołowska, a beautiful and promising player whose bourgeois family has fallen upon difficult circumstances. But no sooner has he arrived than the relationship with his pupil develops into one of twisted love and hate, and he becomes embroiled in the fantastic happenings taking place at the dilapidated castle nearby. Haunted kitchens, bewitched towels, conniving secretaries and famous clairvoyants all conspire to determine the fate of the young lovers and the mad prince residing in the castle. Translated directly into English for the first time by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, The Possessed is a comic masterpiece that, despite being a literary pastiche, has all the hallmarks of Gombrowicz’s typically provocative style.

‘Brimming with unruly, high-octane prose, the book has the hallmarks of a classic gothic story: a haunted castle, a mad prince and his conniving secretary — and, of course, treasure. At first glance, this surface is rather depthless, but look closer and you’ll see the philosophically minded Gombrowicz getting on with what he described as the central aim of his writing: “to forge a path through the Unreal to Reality”.’
Matt Janney, Financial Times

‘[T]he ultimate tennis match is between the creaking horror of the gothic novel and the other book that haunts The Possessed: a delightfully slippery, devious work of modernism.’
Francesca Peacock, Spectator

‘By hewing closer to the Polish without sacrificing readability, Lloyd-Jones reproduces the uncanny effect of the original, evident even in small touches…. Like the peasant left alone in the room after Maja and Marian make their escape, we cannot help but feel that we “have been here before” with Witold Gombrowicz, but never quite like this. The journey is worth taking.’
— Boris Drayluk, Times Literary Supplement

‘[T]he book has been translated for the first time directly, and sonorously, into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, one of the foremost interpreters of Polish literature. The “good bad book” which Gombrowicz, who was exiled from Poland after 1939, later felt ashamed of, takes comic flight, less a curio, more a complex stunner which bears comparison not only with Poe and Dostoevsky but also Gombrowicz’s Hungarian contemporary Antal Szerb. And, as Adam Thirlwell notes in a sparkling introduction: “it also has a strange layer of ultra-modernity: the dance halls and tennis courts of 1930s Warsaw.”’
Catherine Taylor, Irish Times

‘[A] crafty and sharp exploration of the greed, lust, and vanity that spin people out of control. Gombrowicz’s gleeful misanthropy and sense of the absurd shine through the genre trappings to create a potboiler that’s enjoyable on multiple levels. This works perfectly both as a straightforward gothic akin to Du Marier’s Rebecca and as a knowing parody.’
Publishers Weekly, starred review

‘Lloyd-Jones’ translation crackles with choice phrases, deftly capturing Gombrowicz’s gorgeous scenic descriptions, mordant sense of humor, and evocations of lurking horror. A delightful revelation of an interbellum novel from one of the great Polish modernists.’
Kirkus starred review

‘One of the great novelists of our century.’ 
— Milan Kundera

‘A master of verbal burlesque, a connoisseur of psychological blackmail, Gombrowicz is one of the profoundest of late moderns, with one of the lightest touches.’
— John Updike

‘Gombrowicz is one of the super-arguers of the twentieth century…. The relentless intelligence and energy of his observations on cultural and artistic matters, the pertinence of his challenge to Polish pieties, his bravura contentiousness, ended by making him the most influential prose writer of the past half century in his native country.’
— Susan Sontag

‘There are also novels of another genre, false novels like Gombrowicz’s, that are kinds of infernal machines.’
— Jean-Paul Sartre

‘What we have here is an unusual manifestation of a writing talent.’
— Bruno Schulz

‘Gombrowicz’s art cannot be measured with the passing of decades. It is a monument of Polish prose.’
— Czeslaw Milosz

‘Despite his anxiety about genre fiction, Gombrowicz acquits himself masterfully, moving deftly between horror, romance and crime. The web of dark motivations and interdependencies that links the characters is intricately and compellingly drawn, and the plot moves at an impressive speed…. The novel’s shifts in tone and texture are handled expertly by translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who shows a keen sensitively not only to the language of the period but also to the genres being parodied, the translation interlaces passages of prose worthy of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and P. G. Wodehouse, expertly re-creating the original’s tonal palette for the anglophone reader.’
Uilleam Blacker, Literary Review

‘This novel abounds with surreal juxtapositions: personalities blurring into one another, high-stakes games of tennis, mysterious castles….  [Its] energy and irreverence are contagious.’
Tobias Carroll, Words Without Borders

‘This campy Gothic novel begins with a young tennis coach arriving at a rural manor to train the family’s headstrong and talented daughter. The two quickly discover that they share not only an uncanny likeness but also a deep, destructive, infuriating bond. From there, Gombrowicz unveils a plethora of genre tropes – a spooky castle, a haunted chamber, a sickly old prince with a terrible secret – while also exploring class, modernity and youth. Highly recommended post-Halloween reading.’
— Alexander Wells, Exberliner

‘In a first direct and complete translation into English, Antonia Lloyd-Jones renders the lively, humorous and enticing tone of Gombrowicz’s 1939 novel, The Possessed. The tone immerses the reader in the atmosphere of the novel, which amuses yet has a latent power to haunt.’
Gertrude Gibbons, Review31

Witold Gombrowicz (1904–69) is one of the twentieth century’s most enduring avant-garde writers. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and his remarkable Diary; and – after returning to Europe from Argentina in 1963 – was awarded the 1967 Prix Formentor International for Cosmos.

Antonia Lloyd-Jones has translated works by many of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and reportage authors, as well as crime fiction, poetry and children’s books. Her translation of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize.

Adam Thirlwell is the author of four novels. His work has been translated into thirty languages, while his awards include a Somerset Maugham Award and the EM Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in 2018 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.