Bedside Table #1. Paweł Sołtys: If I wasn't outside playing, I was reading books

Paweł Sołtys, a singer, musician  and writer, talks about his greatest literary fascinations, the books that influenced him, the ones he most often gives as gifts to his friends, what he pays the most attention to when reading, and what he reads to his daughter.

What books are on your night table?

That's a difficult question, because I basically don't have a night table, but I have various current books that I read close at hand. I also keep close the stuff I already know, but that I like to return to, though it's a shame to admit, for pleasure.

Why is it a shame?

Because nothing will surprise me there anymore… But sometimes something still surprises. I have Ota Pavel there, some Hrabal, probably Babel, some Amos Oz. I have this cabinet by the bed – they lay there and wait.

And the current books?

I'm currently reading Márai's Diary. It's not a first choice book, you can put it down and return to it. Somebody said that it's a bit like Marcus Aurelius.


Yes, there's a story, of course, but you don't really read it for the story, but rather for the beauty of these sentences and for the insight.

It's not that I agree with Márai on everything, because he sometimes writes strange things, but there's no doubt that through these years, decades he very incisively looks at himself, Europe, the USA, Hungary. He looks with – that's an oxymoron – pitiless tenderness. It's very inspiring.

To be honest, I haven't read many of his novels before. He wasn't a writer that I knew well, but he is now on my shelf of overlooked geniuses, so I'm buying these novels and I'm going to catch up.

There was a film adaptation of Esther's Inheritance with Sean Connery. I haven't seen it, but the novel is excellent, a bit like Dostoevsky.

Apart from Márai I also have the conversation between Werblan and Modzelewski, which is interesting, because it's a look at the entire Polish People's Republic from, in a certain sense, outside, particularly when it comes to Werblan, from the highest positions of authority. This book explains many, maybe at times even too many motivations behind these people's actions, which, I think, were completely undecipherable for someone who wasn't on the inside. Of course, probably there's some whitewashing there, because it's hard to expect Werblan to denigrate himself. But even

after taking this into consideration, their paths are interesting. Both Werblan and Modzelewski moved diagonally. Werblan's roots were in the Polish Socialist Party, a democratic community, and he came to Poland from the USSR with the army and became a hard-headed communist. On the other hand, Modzelewski had a father who was a hard-headed communist even before the war, for which he went to prison in the USSR, because – as is well-known – many true communists went to prison during Stalin's reign, but later became a big establishment shot, while his son went the other, revisionist way. It was an interesting intersection.

I always have some light page-turner in case I can't fall asleep at night, which sometimes happens. Now it's probably Wegner, a Polish fantasy writer, a very good one in my opinion. In the field of popular literature it's really very decent writing.

He's popular in Russia if I'm correct.

It's this kind of dark fantasy, without elves and dwarves. The guy's smart. But won't lie and say that it's something great and intellectual. I'm also reading The Noise of Time, the one by Mandelstam, not by Barnes. A reissue published by Renata Lis's Sic!. As an ex-student of Russian studies I should know this book, but – surprisingly – I don't. They didn't tell us about it at the university, and I somehow missed it in my own research. I wasn't a big fan of Acmeists, when I was a student anyway. Other things interested me. I was young...

What interested you the most in Russian literature then?

When I was at the university, I was mostly interested in two things. One was ornamental prose – Babel, Zamyatin, writers of short stories, which explains a lot about my attitude to writing. The other thing was the Moscow Concretists, that is the Lianozovo group, on which I wanted to write my thesis. It was this group formed in the 1950s, led by Kropivnitsky. But this Kropivnitsky was rather a teacher, who told this group of young people about, for example, Mandelstam, about things nobody was talking about in the 40s or 50s. Igor Kholin, Genrikh Sapgir and Yan Satunovsky – these were the three most important names. The chose this very interesting direction, this concretism, the literature very deeply rooted in colloquial language, practically the language of the streets. In a way, their writing was hip-hop, but also often ironic. Białoszewski started very differently, from an intellectual side, and achieved very simple effects. They couldn't have known each other, because Białoszewski wasn't then published in Russia and, obviously, the Concretists weren't published here, because most of them died before being published. Sapgir got his first publications in the 90s and was a bit of an early underground legend. The Concretists were not part of this wave with Prigov and better-known poets. I actually found them partially by accident, because I was regularly buying “Literatura na Świecie” since late high school. In these times it was a window on the world that was full of things not available anywhere else. There was this issue about Soviet literary underground, probably translated by the great Jerzy Czech. I was absolutely fascinated by it, I took it to my thesis advisor, Professor Alicja Wołodźko-Butkiewicz, and she was slightly shocked, because she knew them personally. She studied in Moscow in the 1960s...

And she didn't know their writing?

No, she did, but she didn't expect that... You know how it is at the university.

Everybody's doing the same thing.

Yes, everybody takes the easiest way, so she was curious that I was fascinated by it. And I was, because it was absolutely separate, different from everything else. Of course, the Concretists knew the Silver Age very well, they knew Mayakovsky very well – they obviously had to know all this, but they took a completely different direction. I was also very interested in the Oberiu, mostly Kharms. It was funny, surrealistic, but at the same time there was great philosophical thinking behind it. These weren't games. Kharms himself was an amazing person, he died from hunger during the siege of Leningrad, which, of course, added to his legend in the eyes of a young reader But I could talk all day about the Russians. Encountering Shalamov was also important to me. I thought that after Solzhenitsyn or Herling-Grudziński, we know everything about Gulags.

But you need to read Shalamov to really enter this world.

First of all, he was a different kind of a writer, more ecstatic, less level-headed in this European sense.

Yes. Solzhenitsyn in The Archipelago is very distant and ironic.

Solzhenitsyn came from this tradition of great Russian literature, there are echoes of Turgenev there.  Herling-Grudziński was, of course, an intellectual. Now, Shalamov is pure meat. Which doesn't mean that it's not poetic. I remember that I fell ill after reading this book.

Do you mean The Procurator of Judea or The Kolyma Tales?

The Kolyma Tales and Vishera. Only books about the Holocaust made a similar impression on me, because it is a similar subject in a way. The advantage of Russian studies is that you have to read all these classics, an intelligent person should know them anyway. Of course, everybody who wants to be considered an educated person  knows some Dostoevsky, Tolstoy as well. But they probably read Anna Karenina or War and Peace, but it is his short stories that definitely should be read, because they're unbelievable. I also liked Leskov very, very much – seemingly a a comic writer, but also a one without whom there would be no Babel, this peculiar lightness, which Russians call skaz – that is this narration, let's say first-person, in which the hero often uses the common language of the people. It is obviously stylised, but I remember that it made a great impression on me. And then you can find it everywhere, in Babel, in Hrabal. It's coming down from this Thomas Mann pedestal. If a worker or a Cossack is speaking, they need to speak in their language. But let's try and put literature in there, so it's not only a language imitation. Someone who reads my book carefully, should find echoes of such writing, which is interesting, because Leskov is a bit anachronistic. I recommend him, because it's not a well-known writer in Poland. Of course, he has been published, particularly in the 1960s.

Was there a book that was formative for you? Something that actually changed you?

Yes, and today I think that it's not a good book. Kerouac's On the Road. I was fifteen and I found it in a roundabout way – through music. I was fascinated by American hippie rock, The Doors and so on. I started reading books about them that were published, like No One Here Gets out Alive. There were full of beatniks and hipsters, books that were important to Morrison. There were Burroughs, Walt Whitman, but mostly Kerouac, Ginsberg. I said: OK, I should read that. I read this not very good translation of On the Road... Maybe it even wasn't that bad, but it had very many factual errors, like translating hipsters, jazz fans from the 1940s and 1950s, as “hipisi”, hippies. There were many things like that in it.

I read this book like fifteen times, I was fifteen, it's this moment when nothing seems better than two or three guys driving through the USA, picking up girls, taking drugs, listening to jazz. Actually, it was because of this book that I listened to Charlie Parker for the first time. In this sense it also was formative. And on the other hand Kerouac pointed me towards many writers better than him: to Corso, Ginsberg and, most importantly, Burroughs, because it's all in there, they were disguised as characters. Afterwards I was checking who was who – that Old Bull Lee was Burroughs. And who was Burroughs? Who was that guy?

On the Road was undoubtedly formative for me. About five years ago I decided to check what captivated me about this novel. And even if understand what it was, it wouldn't captivate me today. There's this famous interview in which Kerouac boasts that he wrote it in three days and nights on Benzedrine, without correcting anything. Some critic replied: it shows. And it really shows. But in a culture or pop culture sense it's one of the most important books of the 20th century that had a great influence, not only on literature, but also on music, counterculture movements.

Which book do you most often buy for friends?

Most often I buy Smrt krásných srnců by Ota Pavel, so I'm not original. A famous Polish journalist does the same. There was a time when I was buying Babel's Red Army for everyone, because I thought that somebody who doesn't know is an incomplete human. I also buy a lot of poetry. People have a fear of poetry. There's very few people outside of the literary circles who read poetry. Usually people are afraid that it's too difficult and so on. Then you need to buy them, for example, a tome of Jaworski, so they can see that it's not like that at all – that if you start somewhere, you can continue this adventure. I think some of these people hate me for this, because now they have books on their shelves that they won't reach for, but they got their chance. I got a chance like this with Miłosz, for example, because through my rebellious youth I thought that it’s some boring baloney for old people.

Too monumental.

Monumental and written by some elderly man that was worshipped here.

Not very counterculture.

Not at all. But it just turned out that’s not even entirely true. My writer friend gave me his collected poems. When I got this book, I thought – OK, I’m going to take a look. Of course, some of my fears proved to be justified… But maybe I needed to get old. There are fantastic, very beautiful things there. It was a late reading shock. I didn’t expect to be telling people that Miłosz was actually a great guy.

The problem might be his moralising, and there’s little of it in the later writing.

Yes, the problem was that I had some natural reservations against being told how to live. I have a punk spirit.

And was there a writer who was a signpost to you?

Fortunately, probably no. I mean, there was a couple of them who suggested it to me. Kerouac or Kesey. Actually, I read more of Kerouac than On the Road, which was unfortunate. I remember that I really liked his The Dharma Bums, which is probably unreadable.

I’ve read something by Kerouac in the recent years, because his books get published all the time. It was awful.

But these are probably even worse ones. I remember that I liked the book The Subterraneans. And it may have stood the test of time the best, because it’s simply a counterculture love story.

There’s this book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s about the Merry Pranksters, Kesye’s hippie group. For me, as a man involved in Polish independent scene, it was inspiring.

Do you avoid certain genres or particular things?

Probably no. I even read essays sometimes. As Stasiuk wrote once – it turns out that you can even enjoy reading it. I probably don’t avoid any genres. I read relatively little of classic hard science fiction. Naturally, I read Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, Zajdel, but this is not my territory. I read a lot of historical things.

Did it come with age?

No, if it wasn’t for my stupid history teacher from high school, I would probably be a historian, because it was my childhood dream. I was good at history in primary school, but I had this terrible teacher who discouraged me. In the end, I got a C on my high school final exam, but it always fascinated me and for a long time I dreamed about studying history or archaeology. And this history is still present in my reading life.

Would you like to meet a dead writer?

This is a very difficult question, because even the experience of meeting the living writers…

…is bound to be disappointing?

It’s sometimes better not to. Of course, sometimes it’s wonderful. I’m friends with a few writers who were my, let’s say, idols earlier. Or maybe: I held them in high esteem, because “idol” is a big word for me. But there are some who turn out to be jerks. Gałczyński’s wife told Kira: never meet your favourite poets. Still, I would definitely like to meet Buczkowski, I would definitely like to meet Schulz and Babel. I would definitely like to have a beer with Hrabal. Who wouldn’t? Only some moron. But apparently Hrabal had his worse days too. He was distrustful of strangers. Some considered him a very unkind alcoholic, so it could go a couple of different ways. But to have a beer with Hrabal… I’m only afraid the language barrier could be a problem, because apparently Hrabal – like me – wasn’t too good at English, and I don’t know Czech. I had an idea to learn it, because I like the literature so much, but when I got around to it, my daughter was born and it turned out that some things are more important than others.

Do you read books about music? And on the other hand: do you pay attention to musical elements in literature, in style?

I don’t read many such books these days, it’s not my passion or anything. But when I wasn’t a musician, at least not a professional musician, but a rookie one, I’ve obviously read everything that fell into my hands – from books about the Stones and Dylan to a very interesting biography of Shostakovich written by Krzysztof Meyer. 

And about the second question – I think the elusive category of melody is probably crucial in prose. Whether I like something or not depends on it. Whether I’m enchanted. We talked once about this sentence from Bulgakov… (“In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great the procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate”; translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – ed.) This is it. Either you fall in love with it or you don’t. The most surprising thing for me was the discovery that not everyone has this ear. That you can talk to people, try to explain to them why it is beautiful, or why Hrabal’s short story Want to See Golden Prague? is one of the most beautiful things in the world, and some of them are not able to understand it. It must be a brain capability.

Literature sometimes works on the idea level, on the story level, but as you get older, the story probably becomes less interesting.

One of the post-modernists listed six or seven variants of stories that can be told. I keep repeating that in literature how is more important than what. Of course, there are exceptions. We talked about Shalamov. I’m not a literary critic or theoretician, but the most interesting thing is this combination of an interesting subject and fascinating writing. Achieving this is mastery. It makes you a great writer.

What was the best book you've ever received as a gift? Do you remember anything like that?

This conversation is getting a bit monotonous, but I got Babel's The Odessa Tales from my father. A Książka i Wiedza edition.

And after that you decided to study Russian literature?

I wouldn't say so. But there's something in it. It wasn't like a simple turn of a switch, but it surely was one of the seeds that got planted “in my soul.”

What kind of a reader where you in your childhood and what books from this time stayed with you?

Probably everyone says so, but I wasn't a typical case. I was athletic and street-smart, I played football well, I played basketball, I didn't really have problems, I wasn't a geek or the fat goalkeeper type. But on the other hand, if I wasn't outside, I was reading books. And I was reading, I think so today, maniacally. Very often books that we wouldn't consider appropriate for my age. To my first summer camp, when I was seven, I took The Knights of the Cross by Sienkiewicz. The ladies that were taking care of us were kind of suspicious about it. They thought that maybe it was a joke. And this story actually captivated me.

Obviously, I read a lot of Polish children's or young adult literature which was – it should be said – very good. We had many excellent writers: Bahdaj, Niziurski, Szklarski, Wiktor Woroszylski.

On the other hand, because I have an older sister, and I used to read everything that I put my hands on, I read the entire so-called girls' literature – Musierowicz, Siesicka, Hanna Snopkiewicz – quite early. I remember Zawsze jakieś jutro [Always Some Tomorrow] by Janina Wieczerska, a book about a girl going to high school in Wrocław, having troubles at the Socialist Youth Union... Brilliantly written, I've read it several times too. I've read Anne of Green Gables. I would read anything my sister had. Apart from that, there were plenty of classics at home, my parents collected them. Also classic poetry. I started reading poetry quite early. Not, like, relentlessly, let's not exaggerate, I wasn't some great aficionado, but it didn't seem lame to me.

There was also the book collection of my grandparents, I spent a lot of time at their house in Grochów. My grandfather collected historical stuff, particularly on World War II and related subjects. He was interested in it, because of his own experiences. And my grandma collected memoirs that were being published then. All sorts of them. I remember there was this Srumph Wojtkiewicz, who came back with Ander's Army. It was actually a very popular book back then. But I also read memoirs of pre-war actors. I remember that I knew who the old Leszczyński and who the young Leszczyński were, who the Kamiński family were. It kind of distinguished me from the kids my age. It was slightly frustrating that I didn't have anyone to talk to about many of these things. I could talk with my parents or grandparents, but for other kids the stuff I was talking about was indecipherable.

I remember that when we were teenagers and had this informal group, from which Antikonsjum emerged, I had this beautiful revelation that I have colleagues and friends with whom I can talk about literature. It was a feeling of relief that I don't have to keep it inside anymore. When you're fifteen, you don't often go to your old folks to talk. Of course you go sometimes, but it's not the most natural way. And if you have a buddy and you tell him: “Listen, I discovered this guy Trešnak, a Czech rock musician, he's here in »Literatura na Świecie«. Do you know him?” And he says: “Of course I don't know him, but I'd be happy to tell you about this Argentinian guy I'm reading now, Borges.” And something starts happening.

What do you read to your daughter? Are there any books that you would like to introduce her to.

It's this constant frustration, because I would like to recommend her something already, but my wife often scolds me and says that it's too early for many things. Children can't focus for very long. Of course, we read all the classic children's poetry by Tuwim or Brzechwa. This is genius stuff, it works for every generation.

We read many new books in which the text is practically as important as the illustrations. Little children are interested in all these books about trees and birds. Natalka is interested in beautiful illustrations. We also bought the Poczytaj mi mamo [Read to Me, Mom] series to try it out. When I was young these were tiny books, now they are these big volumes. I started reading it to Natalka with some insecurity, but it turns out that it still works. Not all of it, of course, these short stories and rhymes are for many age groups: some of them are understandable to a three or four year old, others to a nine year old. There's, for example, this absolutely beautiful, slightly rhyming short story about a painted blue girl. My daughter adores it. It's subtly poetic. “And how much do you weigh? I don't weigh much, sir, because I'm painted.”

I also have to give in to my daughter's peer pressure and read books that are, for example, tied in with animated films. Now we're really into Cars – that is Rusty and Lightning. My daughter wants to be Lightning or Maui from the film Moana, based on Polynesian mythology. Very interesting! I kind of like it. Of course, it's a Disney film, but it's cool that they reached for something which was also exotic to me. I recently tried to read Academy of Mr. Kleks to my daughter, but it's absolutely not an appropriate level. Natalka starts fidgeting after, like, two pages. She just doesn't understand it. Academy made a great impression on me when I was a child. It's quite dark, mysterious. But it was this absolutely pointless attempt by a parent who would like to transfer their emotions to a child.

What are your reading plans?

I have a so called pile of shame. You surely have one too.

A library of shame.

I'm behind on plenty of stuff. But what's in there? I have to read the Gombrowicz biography. I keep finding excuses.

It's very readable.

Yeah, probably when I'll get to it, I'll read it. I promised myself that I will return to reading in Russian, because an unused language deteriorates. I notice that when I'm watching news or reading something on the Internet, I understand less than five years ago. So I decided to go back to the literary Russian language and bought everything by Chekhov. And he is also waiting and shaking his finger at me, because I promised. I have a lot of unread poetry that I got as a gift, like Sobol. And I'm ashamed, because I don't know this poet. I'm also in the middle... because I read a couple of books at the same time – I don't know if you're like that as well.

Usually yes, I can't read just one book.

So I'm in the middle of Rzeczy, których nie wyrzuciłem [The Things that I Didn't Throw Away] by Marcin Wicha. This book is strange so far. I was expecting something else from the reviews. But I've met Mr. Marcin Wicha recently, so I owe him reading it.

interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Łukasz Konatowicz