cover image Insatiability


Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. Northwestern University Press, $46 (534pp) ISBN 978-0-8101-1133-2

It seems like the punch line to a joke: a 500-page futurist novel written in 1927 by a Polish borderline schizophrenic. And for long stretches, Insatiability reads like some kind of joke. (""Fat was a seedy gent wearing a jockey's cap and a crimson scarf barely covering a bland and sinewy Adam's apple with huge welts along the throat glands."") Sometime in the late 20th century, while neo-Bolshevist Western Europe and ""fascist-Fordian"" America decay, a ""yellow wall"" of Communist Chinese threatens to overrun Europe. Only Poland--lone bastion of syndicalism and aristocracy--stands in their way. Baron Genezip Kapen de Vahaz, or ""Zip,"" comes of age in this tremulous, dangerous time. Those around him--a deformed musical genius; a coldhearted logician; a devout recluse; a politicized writer; the enigmatic commander-in-chief of Poland and his jejune mistress; and the sexually rapacious Princess di Ticonderoga--try to impress their own philosophies on him. He joins the Army, and his military indoctrination along with the not-so-subtle ministrations of the women in his life help shatter Zip's self-identity. By the time the Chinese begin preparations to invade Poland, he displays various different personalities, each more terrifying than the previous. Witkiewicz was a photographer, artist and playwright, as well as a novelist; in each field, his work was greeted by unflagging disinterest. In the case of his writing, this was by no means because he lacked talent--Insatiability is filled with clever (often multilingual) wordplay, febrile humor and rollicking sex scenes. (The translation is brilliant, smoothly finding perfect phrases and puns.) But Witkiewicz has a deadly tendency to refine his metaphors within an inch of their lives. Insatiability is an extreme novel, coupling a thorough knowledge of philosophy with a monumental lack of perspective (the principal character stands in for no less than all of Western Civilization). For any but the staunchest of readers, it will prove tough slogging, indeed. (May) FYI: An ardent nationalist, Witkiewicz killed himself in 1939 upon hearing that the Soviet Army had invaded Poland. In a twist sure to have appealed to his bizarre sense of humor, in 1994 it was discovered that a woman's body occupied his coffin.