Bedside Table #11. Janusz Drzewucki: I am glad that voracious reading still happens to me
Janusz Drzewucki, poet, literary critic, editor of the "Twórczość" monthly, talks about his complicated adventure with Borges, novels that recently delighted him, Wacław Berent, who deserved the Nobel Prize, and a book that he read in twenty-four hours with a break for sleep.
What have you read recently?
Wiesław Myśliwski's novel Ucho igielne (“Eye of the Needle”). I have already read it three times in total. For the first time, thanks to the courtesy of the author, on a computer printout with his handwritten corrections, then a pre-book that I received from the publisher, and, on the basis of these two readings, I wrote a review that appeared in "Rzeczpospolita" daily, probably the first one that appeared in the Polish press. The third time was a book. Just like the writer's two previous novels, Traktat o łuskaniu fasoli (“A Treatise on Shelling Beans”) and Ostatnie rozdanie (“The Last Deal”), Mr Myśliwski made them available to me in good time for early reading.
To be honest, I am still impressed with this book. Now, I have it in its final form, and I read it from time to time. Other readings after this novel...
Are not that impressive anymore?
They are overshadowed. However, in connection with my work for the National Library, I read many old things from Polish literature, which are added to Polona (Polish digital library). This is a treasure trove. I recommend visiting it to everyone, for there we can read books that we have only heard about. One can find there high quality scans. Recently, I have read a lot of poetry by poet-legionary Edward Słoński, who gained great popularity in 1910-1918. Interestingly, he was a dentist by profession. He treated, among others, Valery Bryusov, a Russian poet staying in Warsaw as a war correspondent. Słoński and Bryusov became friends and dedicated their poems to each other. At that time, Warsaw maliciously said about Słoński that he was the best poet among dentists and the best dentist among poets. But his texts are illuminating to me. Anyway, he was a Young Poland poet, but as a Young Poland poet he was completely underestimated. He had a moment of fame as a poet-legionary.
Recently, I have also read – I’m sticking to poetry - some poems, songs and limericks by General Wieniawa-Długoszowski, and these days, I started to read Sieroszewski and Strug, because what I had known were selected, individual works. We are now in Wiejska Street, I live in Wiejska Street. Sieroszewski lived in Górnośląska Street. Very often, when I pass by this large tenement house where he lived, I see his plaque. Now, I have the impression that I am reading the work of my neighbour, however that sounds.
You have been reading professionally for several decades. Do reading enlightenments still often happen to you?
They do, and they are very intense. For example, I was ravished by Andrzej Mencwel's book Toast na progu (“Toast on the Threshold”), published last year. The author, whom I know personally, whose acquaintance I value highly, and who is, mind you, a fantastic literary scholar, the author of excellent books about Stanisław Brzozowski, he surprised me with such a personal book, one could say: a fictional essay. I learned a lot about him as a human being from this book, but also about Poland and Mazovia. I found there things which I had no idea about. Thanks to him, I found out about the great interwar three. The name of Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski and his work were known to me; however, thanks to this book, I learnt about the life and work of Henryk Józewski and Juliusz Poniatowski, about whom, I will be honest with you, I had a nebulous idea.
Another great reading experience was also a collection of short novels by Paweł Sołtys, Mikrotyki (“Microtics”). I am a member of the jury of the Marek Nowakowski Award, which has been awarded only twice so far: to Paweł Sołtys and Wojciech Chmielewski. It’s a double satisfaction for me, because, when I was the editor-in-chief of the Czytelnik publishing house, I published two books by Chmielewski, and then, I was in the jury that awarded him the prize.
He is a natural successor of Marek Nowakowski.
In a way, although he does not imitate him at all. It's a student who learns from his master but doesn't want to be the same as the master, he knows that he must find his own style. Anyway, I met Chmielewski through Marek Nowakowski, and I met Marek when I was studying in Cracow, during a meeting with students. Nowakowski was one of those writers who were interested in young authors. But he was not interested in "whether you read me, young man, whether you imitate me, but what language you have, what you want, what you have to deal with this world".
And coming back to Sołtys, his stories are fantastic! The fact that Sołtys is also Pablopavo and has great songs can somehow help him, but it can also harm him. The most important thing is that he does not take advantage of it. I talked to him two or three times, he made a very good impression on me: an intelligent guy with a passion for literature. Besides, I was surprised that when I met him, we immediately started talking about Iwaszkiewicz.
I was strongly impressed by a book of a writer whom we have been printing recently in "Twórczość" - Stanisław Aleksander Nowak.
A beautiful novel. I knew that such a novel exists, I was put off by its thickness.
And there is a language which doesn’t exist.
True. I read Nowak under the influence of Leszek Bugajski, who reviewed this book with us and told me about it several times. I have known Leszek since forever; in fact, I made my debut in literary criticism thanks to him in the 1980s, in the " Życie Literackie" weekly. For many years, when Bugajski was a manager there, I wrote to him. An older friend, whom I trust, tells me that there is a good book, and, at first, I dismissed it with, "Well all right, it's probably good.” There are some texts by Leszek that grab me, there are some that grab me less, other ones - it seems to me - he wrote them, just because; but there are also texts that force me to read a book. And that was such a text, but I started reading Galicians only when it was nominated to the Literary Award of the Capital City of Warsaw, where I am the chairman of the jury. When I started reading, I read it in twelve hours.
I think it's too quick...
Sorry, it was the printout of The Eye of the Needle that I read in twelve hours. I read Galicians in twenty-four hours with a break for sleep and, actually, as my wife said, during this time, there was almost no contact with me, because I only took care of my immediate needs during this reading. I was completely switched off.
That is how you act when you are delighted by something?
It happens to me occasionally. This is voracious reading. I've just turned sixty, and I'm glad that something like this still happens to me, because it's rather the domain of childhood and youth, when you read something with a flashlight under a duvet.
I am a little surprised that this novel did not go down a bomb. I had the impression that as much as W.A.B. publishing house promotes its authors, it did not knuckle down to the promotion of this book. It was published just because. It is really good prose and a great linguistic work.
I have been reading and writing regularly about literature for thirty-three years, and it's not that you know everything, because you don’t really know anything… I have such naïvety in me, and I try to nurture it. I want literature to enchant me. Sometimes I read books despite myself. There are some authors I've never liked. But when everyone around me says that something is great, I read it.
And who belongs to this group?
Let’s take, for example, Manuela Gretkowska's Kosmitka (“Extraterrestial”). I am beginning to read, the first ten to fifteen pages - well, this is great. But then, it falls apart completely, it has no form, no ideas. And I had the best will.
A great disappointment for me were Król (“The King”) and Królestwo (“The Kingdom”). Jerzy Lisowski, the editor-in-chief of "Twórczość" for many years, said that in France, there is such a term as "swap". Publishing houses promote commercial literature, but its promotion includes the media, friendly journalists and critics, who start talking about it as if it was something from the top shelf. Commercial literature replaces genuine belles lettres. In my opinion, when we discuss literature and writers like Wiesław Myśliwski, we cannot include Szczepan Twardoch in this discussion, because it would be indecent towards Myśliwski.
And do you look at Twardoch's earlier novels in a similar way?
Drach (“The Kite”) was, I think, not too bad. There was a writer Jerzy Rawicz, actually Rabinowicz, an Auschwitz prisoner. Years ago, during my studies, I read his camp stories Dno (“The Bottom”), published at the end of the 1950s. It didn’t go down a bomb, but it’s not an easy thing to do after Borowski. Then Rawicz, a journalist of "Trybuna Ludu", wrote several thrillers. One of them was based on authentic events from interwar Warsaw, Doktor Łokietek i Tata Tasiemka. Dzieje gangu (“Doctor Łokietek and Dad Tasiemka. The History of the Gang”) It was published in 1968. It was resumed a few years ago... The King is imitative of it. All of this is imaginary, schematic. I'll probably say something terrible now, but why all of them, in this The King, have to pound each other with hammers and break their noses, and if a guy wants to have sexual intercourse with a woman, regardless of whether it's his wife or a woman for money, he first has to break her nose, knock out her teeth, tear her dress, tug her by her hair... It's so distasteful. Crypto-pornography, and it is considered to be God knows what.
You mentioned the naïvety of reading and childhood. What were your first important books?
It was nothing extraordinary, rather such obvious things as Sienkiewicz, Prus. In fact, I read what everyone else was reading. During my high school times, I passionately read Wańkowicz, which was then published in a joint series of PAX and Wydawnictwo Literackie. Wańkowicz was then considered a writer whom communist authorities tolerated, but only tolerated. As a young man, I was very much affected by all these Zupy na gwoździu – doprawione (“Nail Soup – Seasoned”), Tędy i owędy (“This Way and That Way”), Atlantyk – Pacyfik (“The Atlantic-The Pacific”), Na tropach Smętka (On Old Nick’s Trail”), a book about Monte Cassino, which could not be published in full for many years.
However, a great sensation that stays with me to this day was, I'll surprise you here, reading a novel by Wacław Berent during my studies. Sometimes I wonder how Polish literature, which is mostly post-Sienkiewicz's, would look like if Wacław Berent had received the Nobel Prize at the right time.
Did he have a chance at all? I don’t think he was ever mentioned in this context.
He probably had no chance, but I am thinking theoretically. If this difficult, formally and artistically sophisticated writer... And who is reading it today?
Students of Polish Philology.
Those who have to, and he is, in my opinion, an outstanding and unjustly forgotten writer.
There are readings to which you will find your way yourself, and there are those that someone suggests to us. Some thirty years ago, Henryk Bereza, who used to sit in this armchair, sometimes referred in his texts to the book Życiorys własny robotnika (“Workers' Own Biography”), the author of which was Jakub Wojciechowski, such an amateur. The book was written for a competition organised by the Polish Sociological Institute in Poznań. It was not available anywhere, and I finally borrowed it from Bereza. It was also an incredible reading for me. Later, when I read Galicians, I was thinking about this Biography. When Wojciechowski began to write this story, he was not illiterate, because he could read and write, but only so much. His first records from this diary are very primitive, even simple.
You can see how a style is born.
Yes! You can see how a writer is born within it, how his style is being shaped. You can see that a work of art is being created. I have read this book only once, also in some passionate frenzy in three to four days. I don't know would reading these texts would look like today, because sometimes readings you return to can be terrible.
And which such returns disappointed you?
I will gladly tell you that! When I was at the end of my studies, The Book of Sand by Borges was published in the Ibero-American series.
My first thought were Latin American writers, because they do often disappoint years later.
I started to read them in high school already. Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa. At that time, a person is quite stupid, so they do not understand everything, they read a bit out of snobbery, but they learnt to read other things, from a different culture, a different mentality.
I have never belonged to the Borges-lovers. Everyone admired his collection of short stories Fictions and The Aleph, and I, well, not too much. I liked the two-volume novel Raj by José Lezama Lima more, which came out in an excellent translation by Andrzej Nowak. It was then that The Book of Sand - a tiny volume with several short stories - was also published. I was already at the end of my studies, or maybe even after graduation. And after I read it, I was enchanted. I felt that the peak of the art of writing was to write one such book and to enter the history of world literature. And I kept reading this volume, it doesn't even have 100 pages, every few years, each time with the same admiration; then, I put it on the shelf and didn't go back to it for a long time.
I have such a habit that every year, for a two to three weeks’ holiday, I take one writer's works to read them chronologically, from beginning to end. I had such an adventure with Dostoyevsky, with Kafka, with Myśliwski, who was, by the way, very surprised by the fact that suddenly, after so many years, I read Nagi sad (“Naked Orchard”) and Pałac (“The Palace”) again. And I took Borges for one such holiday. I usually read with a pencil and mark fragments that delight me or make me wonder. When my wife reads something after me, she says, "Why did you mark this sentence, not the next one?” Each of us reads a little differently. And so I am reading this The Book of Sand, I see these marked things, some exclamation marks, question marks - and I completely cannot understand what I was so impressed with? Maybe in three or four years, I will read it again, and I will be delighted again. I hope so, because why not?
And do you happen to read non-fiction?
Of course, although I am surprised by its current popularity. What comes to my mind in the first place is Kapuściński, but, during my high school-university time, I read Hanna Krall, whose first books were published at that time. Zdążyć przed Panem Bogiem (“Shielding the Flame” and Na wschód od Arbatu (“Heading east from Arbat”) were simply extraordinary. I was also delighted with Kapuściński, but, in his case, I immediately had such a feeling I could not name, because I had neither reading experience nor adequate knowledge, that this is something on the verge of reality and fiction, and, what is more, that in literary terms, it is done in an unbelievable way. Years later, when I worked at Czytelnik, which was his publisher, I found out that Kapuściński has a huge collection of photographs from his expeditions. I asked him if he could see an opportunity for us to resume his books with these photographs, but he did not agree, and now I know that he was right.
This conversation took place in his flat, he invited me to his studio. I liked going to his very much, I also take pictures, amateurly, and I managed to photograph Różewicz several times, although he did not really want to do so. Kapuściński would always make me sit in such a bay window, and he himself sat opposite. When I was sitting like that, behind him was the whole library. There, it was a frame in which I could photograph him; at any rate, someone later took such a photograph. I always had a camera in my rucksack, and every time, I felt embarrassed to ask if I could photograph him. When Różewicz did not want to be photographed, he would cover his face. Actually, I took such a photograph of him as well and included it in my book about him. But once I didn't ask him if I could photograph him, I gave him his new book to write a dedication to me, I took the camera, I took one, two, three pictures when he was writing, and he said in a gloomy voice, without taking his eyes off the pen, "Mr. Janusz, and I thought we were friends.” It’s a difficult moment not to cross this line.
And how did it end with Kapuściński?
I went there one, two three times. The fourth time, six months before his death, I thought to myself, "Now I'll do it". It was a scorching August, he invited me to come at noon. We were to talk about Lapidarium VI, which we published after his death. "Now I have to take it,” I thought, I put my hand into the bag, I was already holding the camera, and he said, "Listen, we'll have some champagne.” I let go of the camera, and there was no taking pictures.
Going back to his photographs, he told me at the time that several western publishers had also offered him to do it. He told me, "You know, if we publish Cesarz (“The Emperor”) with my photographs from Abyssinia and Ethiopia, then it will only be a book about Haile Selassie, and what I hope for is that this book is not only about him". The moment it is illustrated, it would only be non-fiction, and in this way, it is something else.
All these discussions, whether he invented it or not – is it relevant at all? Either one reads it in admiration, feels a tingling and thinks how it is written, done, how poignant it is, or it’s just not there. And that's it.
Do you appreciate other things from non-fiction?
In those years, I was very moved by reportage by Janusz Roszka and Krzysztof Kąkolewski. I say this in all seriousness: it's simply the peaks of Polish reportage.
Today, reportage is so popular that it actually replaced fictional literature. Cezary Łazarewicz's excellent book about Grzegorz Przemyk's death receives a literary award, and the hostess of the gala makes a terrible gaffe and says that when she reads his reportage, she feels as if she was reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The author behaved fantastically, because he quickly cut himself off this nonsense and said that he is only a reporter. There is no doubt, though, that reportage is very strong today and slightly pushes fiction prose out of the market.
And your master? Różewicz?
I have been reading him since I learnt to read. And this is the writer I found on my own, albeit in a school textbook. When we finished the year and bought textbooks for the next one, I really liked to look at what writers we would read and learn about in the next school year. Between the second and third or third and fourth grade, I found Różewicz's poems in a textbook. These poems, such a stupid word, thrilled me incredibly. Touched, permeated. They were written so simply, so harshly, and, at the same time, so potently.
I was fascinated by Różewicz practically throughout my entire studies. However, I wrote my master’s thesis about Herbert, for I was suddenly delighted with him and with Miłosz. But Różewicz was with me all the time, and he returned to me very quickly. When he broke the silence - which was fantastically described by Tadeusz Drewnowski in Walka o oddech (“Fighting for Breath”) - and published Płaskorzeźba (“Bas-relief”), I was already a reviewer at "Twórczość", and it was offered to me to review this volume as a book of the month. And that's how it all started. Różewicz read the text, called Jerzy Lisowski to ask who the author was, and I was in Lisowski's apartment at that moment. Later, we got acquainted. I listened intently to him, but I do like different poets. I think, for example, that Wisława Szymborska is a fantastic poet. I derive a lot of pleasure from constantly looking into her poems.
But with Różewicz, it is a different thing.
Różewicz is a terrifying writer. It is difficult to fall asleep after Różewicz. One can do after Herbert, after Szymborska as well. Różewicz arouses anxiety. That is why I was so annoyed by the fact that the first volume of Herbert's biography is entitled Niepokój (“Anxiety”), especially since the second volume is Pan Cogito (“Mr Cogito”). I know that single word titles are not protected. But Anxiety is not only the title of Różewicz's collection of poems, it is in general the name of a certain attitude, an existential formula. Różewicz troubles us constantly, forces us to consider whether it is really the way we think it is, he does not give consolation. Once, Stanisław Gębala, an outstanding expert on Różewicz by the way, reviewed my book on poetry Smaki słowa ("Flavours of a Word") on the pages of "Twórczość". He wrote that the two most important sentences in this book appear in the texts about Herbert and Różewicz. He extracted such a sentence from the text about Herbert that in him, we find such a model of a man that we ourselves would like to be. We want to be great, noble, courageous. And in Różewicz – mind that when I wrote these sentences, I had no idea that I wrote them - the whole time, we meet a man who is within us and whom we do not like, we are a little afraid. We are worse than we think. Gębala wrote that it is a strong diagnosis of the condition of man at the end of the 20th century. When I read it in his text, I started to read Różewicz even more thoroughly. He is a writer who grows all the time, except that he really left a lot behind him. I read him regularly, I was returning to him all the time.
Professor Piotr Mitzner knew that I was writing a book about Różewicz, he encouraged me to write it. After Różewicz's death, I did not want to finish it. Mitzner said that it was stupid, and that I should stop sentimentalising. He told me to show what I had, and then to add what was needed. I added, among other things, a very large text about Różewicz's dramas, but also about his columns, and more personal texts. When I read once again the canonical edition of his works from Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, twelve volumes, I saw fragments of poems highlighted by me earlier, but I had this feeling as if I was reading some of them for the first time. There are poems by Różewicz that we actually know by heart, but there is a whole mass of works that simply surprise, as if they were a new Różewicz.
I wanted to return to Berent, or rather to the most underestimated Polish writers.
Apart from Berent?
Yes, who should be revived?
Not that they are underestimated authors, but I have three favourite books from old literature: Pamiętniki (“Memoirs”) by Jan Chryzostom Pasek, Pamiątki Soplicy („The Memoirs of Soplica”) by Henryk Rzewuski, and Trzy po trzy (“Topsy Turvy Talk”) by Aleksander Fredro.
Fredro’s Topsy Turvy Talk - what prose it is! Of course, I was also enchanted by The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, especially when Anna Wasilewska translated these two versions. The only question is to what extent it is Polish literature. But Potocki is probably recognised.
From the underestimated ones, perhaps Kaden-Bandrowski, but can he be read today? Let’s stick with Berent.
Finally, what are your plans as an author?
I have published a book about prose Obrona przypadku (“Defending a Case”), I have almost finished a book about poetry, a recapitulation in which I collected what I wrote about Szymborska, Julia Hartwig, Krystyna Miłobędzka, Urszula Kozioł, Ewa Lipska, but also about Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz and, somewhat underestimated, perhaps slightly forgotten poets like Kazimierz Hoffman, who printed a lot in "Twórczość" but lived in Bydgoszcz and did not want to be helped at all, did not take care of his promotion. There are also essays on Marian Grześczak and about poets of my generation.
But my long-standing fascination is Portugal, where I went in October, and in twenty years, I think we have travelled around it eleven times with my wife. I have had this dream forever to write an essayistic book about Portugal, but one that is more essayistic than in the field of non-fiction, because I am not a reporter. Therefore, I am fascinated by different kinds of books from Portuguese literature. I am, of course, influenced by Fernando Pessoa, but the great writer is José Saramago, whom I’ve been reading from the first book, Baltasar and Blimunda, published by Puls publishing house in London. Everything that he wrote and came out in Polish - I have it, and I read it many a time. But I have also read writers such as António Lobo Antunes, José Cardoso Pires, or those young ones who have surfaced in Poland in recent years, Gonçalo M. Tavares and José Luís Peixoto. Tavares, by the way, was the winner of the prize funded by Saramago. I have to say, though, that my reading of Portuguese writers was a bit chaotic, and now I think I would like to change something in my writing. A lot of my literary criticism came out, so it's time to give vent to this fascination with Portuguese culture, football, architecture, music, cuisine. That is why I want to return to these Portuguese books now, and, of course, to The Book of Disquiet. This is a difficult reading, very demanding. There are books that we want to read. We know that it is enough to read them once. And there are books that you are halfway through, and you know that you are losing, that a book is stronger than you, than your capabilities, imagination, knowledge, but it's fascinating. The Book of Disquiet is this kind of book. I will have to read it two more times in my life. Or three...
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe