Bedside table #13. Stanisław Łubieński: I don’t cope very well with literature that resists
Stanisław Łubieński, an essayist and nature lover, talks about the books he has never touched, about the ones that should not be published, about his adventures with Orwell and adventure literature, as well as his simple taste and books he despised.
Bedside table – do you have one?
I have an old empire-style cabinet - it's one of the family heirlooms. It has had ups and downs this last half century. After thirty years in a block of flats, it got upgraded and now lives in a tenement house. I have a lot of books on it that I don't read, and, from time to time, I move them back to the shelves.
Do you put them back there hoping you’ll read them one day?
I would at least like to flick through them. Maybe I will wake up at night sometime and feel like reading? But, unfortunately, I sleep well... I have things there that it behoves one to read so as to be at least up to date, things that I always wanted to read, and useful things. For a year, I had there The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Insects. It's too big to read in bed, but it works great as a base for a laptop. Or maybe it's the fault of the piece of furniture? It's not a real bedside table, it was something to put stuff on - maybe busts. It's too high, I can't see what's on it from the bed.
Do you have a habit of reading in bed?
I had, but my reading has deteriorated dramatically over the last four years.
Why is it so?
You have no time or do you prefer to do other things?
I always have something more interesting to do. I read a lot of books out of duty, mainly nature books. Fiction has been almost completely abandoned.
So when you read, it’s for practical reasons, not because of the escapist need to cut yourself off from the so-called everyday life?
I solve the escapist need by getting on the bus, going to the Vistula bank, and walking there for five hours, and, after that, all I can do is sleep because I am so tired. I can see that when I don't read, I stultify, I lose the sharpness of formulating my thoughts, some precision of a word.
I don't know if there are such raw writers who feed on their own literature only, but it's good to see how others deal with words. In total, I mostly weekly magazines and scientific articles on the Internet.
Do you read from the screen or do you print them?
I'm trying to read from the screen, which results from my obsession with not using too much paper.
No. It is not the case that it is 100% ecological. After all, it consumes energy, and all these components are, of course, made of some rare minerals and there is the traditional question of where and how long from now it will end up as rubbish. I'm also physically used to having a book, I can't archive things on my computer, I can't imagine that it would be different on a Kindle and that I would be able to find something there.
Do you leave notes in the books themselves, do you have your copies marked and full of Post-its?
No, Post-its are not manly. And besides - of course, I leave notes. I'm always surprised when people have such a pious attitude towards books. When I wrote reviews, I marked excerpts, and, on the last page, I wrote the numbers of pages to which I should go back. I have many books scruffy like that. But actually, I did it with a pencil. It does feel strange to write with a pen in a book. There is something unpleasant about it.
What do you do with books after reading?
I have a lot of books inherited from my family home, and therefore, a lot of books that I will probably never read, the titles don’t sound familiar at all. For example, a book by Ambroziewicz, Reporter.
Right, probably Zaraza (“Plague”)’s Jerzy Ambroziewicz.
This is a book that travels, travels with me, I always see its cover, I have never touched it. There is another one, by Stanisław Brejdygant. We used to use it to foretell the future with my friends. When we were already in a good mood, we used to say, for example, 'Mr Brejdygant, Mr Brejdygant, will I kiss Ala one day?” and then page and line number. Mr Brejdygant would respond quite ambiguously. Sometimes it was somewhat humorous, sometimes it was nonsense. This book still circulates in my book collection. Some of the books are sent to the basement, yet it feels weird to simply throw them away.
Does it happen that something comes back from the basement?
Rarely. Marcin Wicha described this long, second, third life of other people's objects wonderfully. For example, I have book collections from auntie Irena. She died in the 80's, my parents intercepted some of her books and they were all here getting dusty. Many editions from the 1950s, which looked very nice but were very badly glued, they are falling to pieces.
Didn’t your parents have a book collection filing system?
There were some books arranged by subject, for example, Decembrists had a special corner, somewhere next to it, there were the Crimean wars, and besides that – an absolute cluster. So no, I am not attached to any system. When I moved, I unpacked books from a cardboard box as it was, and to this day, I still have no idea how to arrange them. I usually find the ones I need on the top shelves, and I have to climb onto a chair to get them. However, I do have a separate bookcase by my desk for books about birds and the ones I like. For example, Made in Poland by Shuty, I like to look at it when I am exceptionally struggling with some work, then I laugh at those embarrassing, filthy jokes.
As a person from a home in which there were a lot of books, did you feel "wowed" working in a publishing house and having access to a large inventory?
No, I was always surprised when people were compulsively snapping up cheap books, because I was so convinced that there were too many books anyway, and one has to be careful with taking new ones. I don't think I realised how privileged I was, nor did I understand how it is to grow up in a home without books. Of course, I have a lot of things that came along for some reason, though. For example, I think everything by Orwell, whom I loved very much for his idealism.
Have you tried to read him again, or you don’t agree with your memory but don't want to check it out?
In his, more or less, reportage books, Down and Out in Paris and London or Homage to Catalonia, I was impressed that he was so honest, crystalline, he did not conceal or justify anything, but his novels were poor. Nineteen Eighty-Four is, of course, excellent, but Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a literary misery.
I also have an entire shelf by Orwell and Orwellians, for example, eighty collections of reportage, because somewhere, there is an additional, unpublished one.
A few years ago, there was a book published with some stuff that was not published in other collections, it was called Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. There are things like a pudding recipe, or a novel that Orwell wrote six pages of. Such things should not be published.
Do you buy books as gifts?
Yes, I recently bought someone Rejwach by Mikołaj Grynberg, not a very cheerful gift, but it made some sense. For my friend, I want to buy Hunger by Caparros, because it made a thumping great impression on me. Do gifts have to be cheerful at all? We regularly give Waldemar Bawolek and Michał Cichy to our friends. I think that a book is a gift that still makes sense in all this excess.
Do you have a favourite book that has stayed with you for years? What did you read as a young person?
I liked adventure books. All these Karl Mays, Curwoods, Londons. I liked it when there was nature and cool protagonists. That's why I also liked Sienkiewicz very much. A friend once lent me a cult, within his home, book by Karol Bunsch, Dzikowy skarb (“The Wild Boar’s Treasure”), a Piast adventure novel. I still have it to this day. I was obviously very much into America and American Indians, even if it was written by Poles or Germans. However, it is incredible in American culture that it disseminated its mythology to the world. Everyone knows that the Comanche are this and the Apache are that. Besides, there are the Sioux, the Blackfoot, the Pawnee, the Mahican, the Navajos, and I could list these names for a long time, although I don't know anything about these tribes, of course. A very small part of the private history of one country, and it radiates all over the world through pop culture and films. Did the Americans hear about the Lendians?
Was there any American series about Indians? Or is it a mythology from Europe?
No, they had a lot of literature on the subject. The father is probably James Fenimore Cooper. From American writers, I think that this Curwood was the one that I was into the most. I like it when animals have a personality. I read him obsessively, and I remember how on a school trip in Puławy, I bought The Golden Snare in a kiosk, in which there were two books, Colodent toothpaste, candles, and such things. It must have been some kind of rubbish, for sure.
And a book that shaped you when you were a teenager? Have you read Hopscotch? Ulysses?
No, Hopschotch was read by all the girls, so I thought it wasn’t for me. As far as Ulysses is concerned, I gave it a wide berth. I guess it was at the beginning of my studies that I read Kerouac’s On the Road, it made a big impression on me, though it was very tiring. I don't cope well with literature that resists, I have simple tastes, a book must have something that really seduces me, or it must be smoothly written. In high school, I read, as many of my peers, Marquez, Vargas Llosa, and a lot of random books, i.e. what was at home. Things like Chinghiz Aitmatov’s Spotted Dog Running On Seashore, The House on the Embankment by Trifonov. I don't really know if I understood anything from this Trifonov.
Were you not a nerd, a fan of The Lord of the Rings?
Nah, I read two such books in my life. I despised it a bit. Fantasy, science fiction, alternative worlds were somewhat alien.
Do you have a favourite writer?
That’s a tough question. I like Gogol very much. In general, I take Russian novels from the 19th century blindly. From poetic nature literature, I like Michał Książek a lot, and I look forward to Urszula Zajączkowska's book. It is said that Robert McFarlane is good from the West, so far, I have not read him in Polish. But from whom to learn to write about nature if not from the English?
How do you look for book recommendations?
Someone has to really persuade me to read something. Only a persistent recommendation from many mouths works on me. I don't have a habit of tracking review websites, I used to read some reviews in Dwutygodnik.
You don't need to be up to date and keeping track of new works?
No, totally not. I am up to date with segments of the market. Obviously, I am interested in what is being published in the field of nature.
What would you recommend from this sector?
Marginesy publishing house publishes a lot of books in the EKO series and these are good books, I think they will soon publish a book by Marek Pióro, who runs Poland's most popular blog about birds, Plamka mazurka (“Eurasian tree sparrow’s patch”). Of course, the Menażeria (“Menagerie”) series by Wydawnictwo Czarne publishing house, to which I made my contribution. A lot is published by Wydawnictwo Poznanskie publishing house. I am astonished by the boom in nature books that has been going on for several years. Their quality is, of course, very different, but you can see that there is a demand, and this is cool.
Do you have the impression that this reading, writing, and publishing boom has translated into people's attitude towards the environment?
It certainly does, I am convinced of it. Many books are published, which means that many people buy them, and if they buy, it means that people are interested in it and have a lively attitude towards nature. No one seems to have time for anything, but people want to read books about the secret life of a meadow! In Warsaw, the attitude of civil servants towards nature has improved considerably, competent people have been hired, and I can see a willingness to look for solutions that have not been obvious for years - for example, the fact that the meadows are left unmown or raking leaves is not so intensively crazy.
And the need to discuss literature? Are you a member of a discussion club, do you post opinions on Facebook?
No. Noooooo. I associate it with school classes, discussion clubs are completely not my world.
And what about audiobooks?
I don't like audiobooks. Actors annoy me. They interpret terribly, those stresses, pauses, over-egging, some meanings where they do not exist. I often think that they don't really understand what they're reading about. I recently heard some Conrad on the radio, God, what shit was that, I immediately switched to RMF Max. But there are exceptions, I really liked Maciej Stuhr reading Ferdydurke.
Many writers have a need for self-promotion, participation.
I don't know, I probably don't really feel like a writer. I find self-promotion rather embarrassing. And as far as participation is concerned, of course, I am a bit impressed by writers who can talk about literature, have everything read, list names, quote from memory. Although I always suspect that they are cheating.
Let literary scholars discuss literature. I prefer to go for a walk with my dog in the meantime.
I've recently seen you in the hunting blockade pictures.
Ah right, it was quite a successful blockade, because the hunters didn't kill anything there. By the way, that reminds me of Zenon Kuczyński and his Farba znaczy krew (“Paint Means Blood”). A great thing, although I think it would have been even better without the second part with the interviews. I was touched and pierced by the excerpts in which he described his experience and trauma of participating in hunting parties. I think that was the real strength of this book.
Have you ever thought about writing a novel one day?
I have never had anything in my head, not even a novella. Even for Janko Muzykant (“Yanko the Musician”, a Polish short story). I can't do fiction apparently, I wouldn’t know how to get down to it. Besides, I have never even written a poem.
Interviewer: Olga Wróbel
(The interview was conducted in the already non-existent Azalia café on Filtrowa Street)
Translated by Justyna Lowe