Piotr Zaremba, writer, historian, and columnist, talks about his fascination for Stephen King and history books, confesses why he sometimes reaches for youth fantasy, explains how he prepares to work on a historical novel, and why he finds a model of literature in family sagas.
What do you read for pleasure?
My answer to that could be ‘everything’, actually. In the last year, I took trains quite often, which is a horrible experience, especially those constant delays... Anyway, I had time to read, what can you do on a train instead? And I took with me, for example, history books.
Was there one that you particularly liked?
Dracula, for one. Matei Cazacu, Romanian historian, wrote a book about Prince Dracula, but about the authentic one, i.e. about Vlad the Impaler - the ruler of the Wallachia from the 15th century. Cazacu describes his life in great detail, but he also refers to the myths related to vampirism in this region.
Is it scientific work?
Yes, with footnotes and a decent bibliography, but well written - I definitely read it for pleasure. It happens sometimes that for pleasure – though connected with duty, which is my journalistic activity - I also read what is much talked about, and what is a part of public debate. Last year, it was Rafał Matyja's book Wyjście awaryjne (“Emergency Exit”) that was a good read, and it undoubtedly became a source of journalistic discussions. I disputed it myself, but I was curious. There are also less immediate titles, e.g. Marek Cichocki's Północ i Południe (“North and South”).
But also in 2018, Dziady (“Forefathers' Eve”) was widely talked about; after all, it was the 50th anniversary of the play by Kazimierz Dejmek ending its run. Janusz Majcherek and Tomasz Mościcki published Kryptonim „Dziady" (“Cryptonym: Forefathers' Eve”). A brilliant book: it describes the history of this performance from behind the curtains, Dejmek's run-ins with the authorities, various reports....
It was them who found an audio recording of a play that we had known so far only from the memories of the spectators of barely eleven performances?
Yes, they did a great job. And this book touched several areas of my interest, because I am passionate about theatre, but also about political history. These two things came together here in a brilliant way.
Do you happen to read something typically entertaining?
I have a passion for crime fiction, and I love horror stories. Recently though, I have been reaching for them less often. I have the impression that horrors were more interesting in the past. These are the typical lines of an old man - "In the past, it was..." - but what I can do?
From this passion, I believe, your Plama na suficie (“Stain on the Ceiling”) was born.
It has been a long time since its premiere, it’s a book from 2004; today, I would have written it differently. But I still choose horrors, for example those by Stephen King. To me, he is an exemplary writer, yet I've not finished a book of his twice recently. I took one on a train journey, and I later put it down somewhere, I guess I thought I'd come back to it, but this slightly undermines the sense of such a book, for a horror book should be read in one go with bated breath, fearing later at night...
Where does this passion for horror itself come from?
I’m not sure., it must be a result of some kind of personality need. I became interested in horror at the turn of the 80's and 90's, when such books appeared on the Polish book market. Previously, there were films of course, but we got to know King's prose in Poland around 1989 - 1990. It was then that the first heavily commercial publishing houses appeared - some of them no longer exist - which published his books in very eye-catching covers and in mass.
He is one of my favourite writers, but let's be honest, since he has published several dozen books, they cannot be all equally good. Nevertheless, a year or two ago, I read a relatively new Mr. Mercedes...
…which is the horror written in 2014.
And on the basis of which there was even a television series created. I must admit it was quite interesting - both the book and the series. In fact, this is not horror, but a novel about struggling with a psychopath, and there isn’t really any supernatural element.
Horrors do not always maintain literary standards.
Apart from King, it is difficult indeed to name many authors who have more serious literary ambitions. I think there are five or six writers, mainly Anglo-Saxon ones.
Yes, maybe Graham Masterton, too, although he is too simplistic fright-wise; but definitely there is Clive Barker, Peter James, and Joe Hill, the son of Stephen King. But it is King's books that are the most ambitious in terms of literature: replete with the image of life, psychological motifs, reflection.
When a writer successfully introduces the reader into the life of characters, allows them to grow accustomed to them, understand them, then naturally, he can also scare them more, because the reader experiences all these plights together with the characters; this fear somewhat enters into their life.
King usually has some philosophical or social thought. But he is strongly left-wing, which started to bother me. His novels from recent years are terribly stuffed with ideology, with various rancour towards conservatives. But as you can see, it doesn't bother me enough to stop reading it completely. And I really consider some of his oldest books to be outstanding works, such as Carrie.
This horror was adapted twice, I think.
Even thrice, last time in 2013. Brian De Palma's 1976 film adaptation is a classic of cinema. But I don't even think of the book itself as a horror, because it's a really wise novel. It goes a little beyond the simple category of horror literature. It is a story about human nature, about our cruelty, about the inability to repair harm. I wouldn't maybe put it in line with novels, say, by García Márquez, etc., but if someone shied away from it, because they are put off by a horror label, I think they miss out.
Apart from horror novels, is fiction often present on your bedside table?
It happens, but to be honest with you, my main feature as a reader is randomness. Unfortunately. I lack a systematic reading programme. I am not, like my friend Wojtek Stanisławski, a man who feels obliged to read a number of important books during the year. The reasons why I decide to read them vary. Some of them are simply sent to me by publishing houses - as to a man who "can write something about them". And I really do read them, not all of them, obviously, and I don’t always write about them either.
Or sometimes, someone whom I value writes something encouraging about some book. And at other times, a friend simply publishes something. And this is how, last year, I read Pogrom 1905 (“Massacre 1905”) by Wacław Holewiński. Not a close friend, as a matter of fact, but still a friend.
A historical novel…
Very well written, without any overly historiosophical ambitions though. It is rather a type of a popular novel. Holewiński reflects the atmosphere of the times truly efficiently. The reader does not have the feeling that irritates me a lot: that the action takes place in costume, but contradicts the reality. It is simply a good historical novel, also touching on Polish-Russian relations in an interesting way.
While preparing for writing Zgliszcza (“Ashes”), a novel set just after the Second World War, did you also read fiction from the period aside from history books?
Yes, there wasn't much of it, though. I read novels and stories from the 1940s, which I needed, for example, to grasp the language. But in Ashes, there is also a detailed description of what Saviour Square looked like in 1946. This is a description taken from a story I found in one of the newspapers. And I am proud that I managed to include such real details in the book.
These novels (one of them, Stolica (“The Capital”), written by Pola Gojawiczyńska) or stories that I had come across may not have had great literary value, but they allowed me to understand how people lived then, what they ate, what they dressed in. Fiction often touches such areas where official sources, followed by scientific books, do not reach. Descriptions of Warsaw's ruins are more faithful in stories or newspapers published at that time. Criminal stories from Ashes are taken directly from the court chronicles, which, as in the 1920s and 1930s, were still held.
I even referred to Jerzy Andrzejewski's novel Popiół i Diament (“Ashes and Diamonds”), the plot of which takes place in 1946 and which was written in 1949. But in this book it was mainly the language I studied, because I do not consider this novel to be honest, besides, it does not take place in Warsaw.
And what would we find on your bedside table today?
Żelazny Kruk (“Iron Raven”) by Rafał Dębski, whom I also know, but only through Facebook. This, in turn, is a fantasy novel, although Dębski also writes science fiction. You’ll laugh, but it's a novel for young people! But it is well written. A few years ago, I read Zmorojewo (“Nightmareville”) by Jakub Żulczyk. Supposedly for young people again, but, as you can see, people of my age can also be drawn in.
What is it that attracts you to youth fantasy areas at all?
I read a lot of books that are not fiction – historical or political journalism - so sometimes, I just look for something lighter, like an antidote, a little rest.
Do you have a weakness for any of the contemporary Polish writers?
There are authors with whom I am not on the same wavelength, but I enjoy reading them. The aforementioned Żulczyk is not only the youth fiction Nightmareville, but also Wzgórze psów (“Dogs’ Hill”). Certainly, however, I am most drawn to Wojciech Tomczyk, but he is an excellent playwright. It's a slightly different type of contact with creativity, because I perceive it more through what I see and not what I read. However, last year, a collection of his dramas came out. It was published by Teologia Polityczna publishing house. And one of these dramas, Bezkrólewie (“Interregnum”), has never been staged. It seemed fascinating to me.
I also like to read dramas by Jarosław Jakubowski, who, by the way, once wrote a very original historical novel entitled Rzeka zbrodni (“The River of Crime”). The plot takes place just after the First World War in Bydgoszcz.
Jakubowski interestingly conveys the reality of this city, where many Germans still lived. The subject of the book is as much a criminal intrigue as a political and cultural clash. And the phenomenon of the Polish state in its birth phase.
And the famous Marek Krajewski, who set his historical novels in Breslau?
I barely touched Krajewski.
Very good crime fiction.
But you can't read everything... You still have to go to the theatre, watch films. I saw Mock, which is Krajewski's adaptation in Television Theatre (theatrical plays broadcast on TV). It seemed quite suggestive to me. I started reading one of his novels, but I never finished. Not because I didn't like it, but sometimes, I just have to do something else.
Maybe if Krajewski wrote horror novels... Łukasz Orbitowski once caught me with his Święty Wrocław (“Saint Wrocław”), I am also passionate about Jarosław Grzędowicz's fascinating stories - it's horror literature, but, just like King, he sometimes tells something important about the world, about us.
But just like I was telling you before, it is often ruled by chance. Bob Woodward's Fear about Trump's presidency can be read as if it was the most captivating crime story, yet it is a kind of political reportage.
Do you sometimes read several books at once?
It does happen, that’s exactly what I do with Fear, I read it somehow on the fly. Sometimes I get bogged down, but basically, I read quickly. My first reading is usually very superficial: I flick through the book, curious about the action, and I miss various details. But when I like something, I come back to it and read it for the second time, I find new pleasures, observations, zest.
It is, for example, Zygmunt Miłoszewski’s books that I happen to read in such a way. I remember that I once took Uwikłanie (“Entanglement”) on a flight to Strasbourg, to the European Parliament, where I was invited together with a colleague, another journalist. And we obviously had various meetings planned there, my friend was seeing someone else in the evening, so I came back to the hotel, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what else Prosecutor Szacki would discover. Entanglement is really a very well written book, additionally important by its subject matter, the conviction that the remains of communism can still be important. I may have liked Miłoszewski's next novels a bit less, but I must admit that the language is beautiful. And this is an author who is able engage the reader. It's like hiking in the mountains: what's behind the next hill? You have to check it out.
Do you sometimes return to the classics?
Yes, on the occasion of the Conrad Year, I returned to Lord Jim. I took part in discussions about Conrad, I started to perceive Conrad's ethics, that is the philosophy of duty, in various works of art, for example in Christopher Nolan's film Dunkirk. Moreover, Jan Englert directed Spiskowcy (“The Conspirators”), a contemporary adaptation of Under Western Eyes. Therefore, I had several reasons to reach for the originals. And I must admit that Conrad reads very well after some decades, probably his next works should come after Lord Jim.
And what books carried you away in your youth?
These are terrible banalities. I will honestly say that the novel that made an electrifying impression on me was The Master and Margarita, but it seems embarrassing to be excited about it. Even Leszek Miller mentions The Master and Margarita...
When did you read it?
Late, only in the first year of university. I remember that we were on a trip with some friends, we climbed a mountain, we lied down in a youth hostel, and I keep reading The Master and Margarita. It is a novel that teaches sensitivity and imagination, but, with time, I began to have various doubts about it. There are controversial motifs that I have not seen before. It is about some specific cruelty. The role of Woland as a demiurge is hidden somewhere in the meanders of Bulgakov's own biography. Some claim that Woland is Stalin, because just as Stalin rescued Bulgakov several times, Woland arranges the Master’s life. This man makes the thrill pass by. Such a country, such a system.
And what book would you consider to be the one that shaped you?
I could list many, Kamienie na szaniec (“Stones for the Rampart”), even romantic poetry, I mean it. But there would definitely be the novel Noce i Dnie (“Nights and Days”) by Maria Dąbrowska, which was already considered boring in my youth. I started with a film that was launched when I was still in primary school. But then, I read the book.
It met some of my needs. First of all, I really like family sagas, I think they contain the whole universe, I love this network of relationships between people, the passage of time, bonds and, at the same time, wars between generations. In the relations between Bogumił and Barbara, I saw the dilemmas of my own parents. On the other hand, this novel perfectly shows the changes in customs prior to World War I, it is a source of knowledge about old Poland and Poles.
The book, or rather a group of books to which I am still returning today is the multi-volume The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. These volumes stand on my shelf, and sometimes, I take one for dinner.
The same reason: the family saga, but also, these are excellent books about England at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. And to me, this is a model of literature. What I mean is that if I wanted to talk about the world in a systematic way - which I never did, because I had fun with literature randomly- it would be The Forsyte Saga that would be a model for me to follow.
Interviewer: Michał Płociński
Translated by Justyna Lowe