Małgorzata Rejmer, a writer of prose and reporter, talks about readings that shaped her, 19th-century Gorky’s Russia, which reflects modern neoliberalism, the universality of reportage, a wall covered with quotations from Grochowiak, Ratoń, and Plath, the influence of Herta Müller, the technique of Svetlana Alexievich, as well as about her work on Błoto słodsze niż miód (“Mud Sweeter than Honey”), reading in the eternal state of a standby mode, and the benefits of silence.
What are you reading currently?
I've been in Tirana again for a few weeks now, and, in order to cool off after the promotion of Mud, I switched to brain silencing mode by reading. I have books divided into four groups: pure pleasures, sometimes even guilty pleasures, things indirectly related to my work, things that I have to read for my next book, and the so-called "fertilisers". Fertilisers are mainly poetry, volumes, which can be found in different areas of my flat, and I read piece by piece, in order to boost my mood. Right now, I have Grochowiak at my bedside table. My boyfriend, on the other hand, reads Ferdydurke in Albanian, and I sometimes look over his shoulder to check the translation. It has great rhythm.
Do you read differently abroad, do you read other things?
As soon as I returned, I read Trans-Atlantyk once again, just because my boyfriend started Ferdydurke, and I was terrified by how topical this book is, the conflict between the Fatherland and the Sonland, between the pathos of the spirit and the impulses of the body, between two Polands. The elevated, bloodied, engulfed in the hypocrisy of suffering and greatness and the second one which would simply want to live, to be itself without masks, birches, and chains. Soon afterwards, I read Narkotyk mitu (“A Drug of Myth”) by Maria Bobrownicka's and Janion's essays. When in Albania, I experience Poland differently, I live my own and others' ideas about Poland, I arrange it from scratch, which makes the relationship more intense. When I'm in Poland, it's easier for me to switch to desensitisation mode.
And what did it look like when you were writing Mud Sweeter than Honey?
For the last four years, my reading has been subordinated to writing. I have read things that directly influenced the book and things that inspired some chapters of Mud. For example, Barnes' The Noise of Time. These literary scenes of terror and constant fear could easily be translated into Albanian danger in communist times. Sometimes, books are theoretically unrelated to my work, yet they still prove to be important in terms of technique.
After finishing Mud, I went for Gorky's autobiography, because it seemed to me that this was a book completely unrelated to my work, a reading holiday. And after a hundred pages, the pages were already highlighted and marked, because I understood how the characterisation of protagonists and the structuring of Gorky's world could be useful to me in further writing. This shows that after so many years of work....
You are always at work.
Yes, I'm always in standby and collection mode. Even Gorky, who seemingly has little in common with the present day, can be useful. Descriptions of human superficiality, the theme of poverty, how the environment degrades you, the desperate struggle for survival, this is something I see every day. The expanse of nineteenth-century Russia becomes a strange reflection of the neoliberal world, which demands the impossible from people, without giving them any social background, no real chance to bounce back, which exploits and gives nothing in return, not even hope. There is no health service, there is no support in institutions, one is dependent on oneself. When I read about children who collect rubbish on Russian streets in the 19th century, before my eyes there are children from Albania. I know a boy who is an orphan and has spent many years on the streets. When I meet his friends, I see in their lives a repetition of Gorky's experience, I see a system that simulates some kind of activity, but, in reality, it is incompetent and indifferent and leaves these children to waste.
And what made the greatest impression on you from the things you read while working on Mud Sweeter than Honey?
While writing a book about communism, I also wondered how to describe contemporary Albania. I found the book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev very useful, showing the mechanisms of functioning of the new wonderful world: the attitude of power to the media, manipulation of people, using the patterns of communist propaganda in the capitalist reality.
Similarly, Delhi by Rana Dasgupta, who presents the social stratification in India, capitalist-systemic.
It is the kind of a book which is also very much reflected in Poland.
Yes, I have recently finished a great book about Uruguay by Szymon Opryszek and Maria Hawranek - Wyhoduj sobie wolność (“Grow Your Own Freedom”). There is a shocking chapter about a prostitute woman of the third generation, who describes various, very intimate experiences, for example how she performed her mother's abortion. This is an amazingly written thing, which, at the same time, shows me the universality of human experience. When I talked to prostitutes in Albania, I met people with distorted boundaries of shame, who experience various kinds of psychological and physical violence on a daily basis. The very fact that you sit with them having coffee and just want to listen to them, without judging, is for them an experience that strengthens them.
Let's go back a little bit in time now. Was there a book in your life that made you want to become a writer? Or any breakthrough reading at all?
I wanted to become a writer from a very young age. I wrote my first stories when I was seven years old. I was making books, about The Hemul, about snails. There was a lot of reading at home, books were important: Mrożek on Mum’s side, Russian literature and Grochowiak on my father's side. A lot of Polish prose and poetry: Bursa, Poświatowska, Ratoń...
Legendarni i tragiczni (”Legendary and Tragic”).
I read this book when I was thirteen years old. It made a gargantuan impression on me. I was at primary school, but I had a wall covered with quotations from Grochowiak, Ratoń, and Plath. I don't know how all these sentences could fit in such a small child.
Sounds like a dark childhood.
I will not dwell on this, but I think that my father never treated me like a child but like a conversation partner, and he introduced me to things that interested him literarily - without considering whether I was ready for it, whether a seven-year-old should know Grochowiak's erotic poems by heart. On the other hand, though, because he read Zoshchenko to me when I was a child, I instinctively caught this way of writing, which is known very well in Toximia. Even today, I still use quotations from Zoshchenko when I am in a good mood.
I read many important books early, such as Dostoevsky's The Idiot. It was just after eye surgery, when I was thirteen years old. I wasn't allowed to read, but I stayed alone in the hospital and read even though blood was flowing out of my eyes and I looked like an undergrown vampire.
There are also books that return at different stages of my life. For instance, I like Mazurka for Two Dead Men by Camilo José Cela, and I read it every few years, and each time I find something different there.
Now I have returned to Gorky's autobiography, because I remembered that I liked it very much when I was a teenager. Not much of it remained in my memory, but I had moments of enlightenment: I know it, I have seen it somewhere. And suddenly, I realise that there is a gravedigger's theme in Gorky’s, and I think: girl, you’ve nicked it for Toximia. Unconsciously, but still. In my first published story, Przemarsz łysych psów (“Bald Dogs’ March”) - because I am not counting literary exercises from Lampa – there is a story of a man who is obsessed with death and, looking at a given person, estimates how long it would take them to decompose.
I do remember it.
There is a similar thing in Gorky's: the figure of a malicious gravedigger who looks at people through the prism of the fact that they will soon be in a coffin anyway, and he will have an advantage and power over them.
What books were most important to you? Gorky, Dostoevsky...
In primary and secondary school, I read many Russian writers: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky. And then, when I went to college, I started to feel more like a woman and I read many female writers, mostly feminist ones. For example, Jelinek, because everyone read Jelinek at the time, it was just after she was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Even before the Nobel Prize, she was quite popular with us.
So Jelinek, her reflections on the body, social oppression, and the role of women. I also liked Herta Müller very much, she fascinated me linguistically.
Also popular in the local cultural milieu.
Yes, besides, I read a lot of Alexievich. I don't know if you remember that when she received the Nobel Prize, she was so well known to Polish intellectuals that everyone felt as if the prize was "ours".
I remember, she had previously been awarded by us. She received the Ryszard Kapuściński Prize.
She was the most popular in Poland before the Nobel Prize.
And when I think about technique-connected issues, I have a deep conviction that I was strongly influenced by the way Herta Müller's world was structured - on the borderline of prose and poetry. I was enchanted by this language, I saw it as a certain proposal to understand the world. This language is certainly escapist, it is oriented towards nature which is something ultimate, with which you negotiate, but which, in the end, consumes you. This nature is so sensual... In general, the world is incredibly sensual in her writing. The tension between the sensuality and oppressiveness of nature and the world we live in was very interesting for me. And, in general, Herta Müller was simply so important to me in human terms, especially Hunger and Silk. I started reading this recently entirely for pleasure.
In the case of Müller, "for pleasure" always sounds a bit perverse or at least out of place.
No, it is a pleasure that comes from enlightenment. She can describe an ordinary scene of a conversation with a woman who is a fanatic of Ceaușescu and the whole system in such a way that an incredible, universal, and deep literary metaphor emerges out of it. This universalism is important to me. Müller is interdisciplinary in the sense that even when she describes some political processes from the writer's perspective, she has the depths of an experienced reporter trying to understand the world and the processes taking place in it. Herta Müller is seen mainly through the prism of language, but her writing is both historical and political. And on the other side is Alexievich.
As the voice of others?
As a way to build a relationship with the protagonist, this is what I was fascinated by in her writing. On the one hand, this language is beautiful, rhythmic, various things are often repeated, you have the impression of an intimate relationship with the protagonist because the protagonists quote some sayings or songs. This is a kind of meeting like when you go to an older aunt or grandmother who wants to talk and talk. You may have the impression that people, when they speak, do it simply and harshly, and the characters in Alexievich's works speak a rich language. Paradoxically, this language is very literary.
The question is to what extent this is written by her.
I have just watched the documentary Love in Russian, which describes how Svetlana Alexievich speaks with the characters. These are not interviews, they are conversations in which there is a lot of silence.
Hence the ellipses.
Her strategy is not to ask a question, but to remain silent. If the interlocutor feels safe with you, they need silence to reflect on what they are saying. But silence also builds intimacy. She doesn't force the interlocutor with questions to something they don’t have the strength to do - that's how I explain it to myself. Moments of silence and reflection are important in the reporter's technique. I also somehow sensed this earlier, because I noticed that when I conducted conversations for Mud, I often did not feel strong enough to ask about various things, and I remained silent. But usually silence brought me more than even the best posed question.
Are there any genres you avoid?
For obvious reasons, I do not read crime stories.
Waste of time?
It's not so much a waste of time, because people read crime stories and enjoy it. It happens very often that the language in crime stories is transparent, and I need language, form. Probably, if I had made up my mind about writing a crime story, I would have written it, but I would have ended in writing a psychological thriller anyway, because it is always the protagonist that is more important than the crime itself, the tension, the riddle.
Writing is like being at work all the time: when you go by tram, you are at work, before falling asleep, you are at work, because you dwell on some problem in your mind, you go somewhere, and you are at work. Reading, everyone will confirm, is very important when writing, this is the best school of writing technique. At least for me, because I've never been associated with an editorial office, nobody taught me a profession, so I come to everything through trial and error and through reading. If I learn from others, it is mainly thanks to conversations with reporters, face to face, but their tips are useful only when I experience a similar problem to my cost. I read a lot of reportage, because I'm curious how other authors managed to deal with things that seem to me difficult to write, or with issues that outwardly seem non-reporterly and boring.
Do you sometimes give books as gifts?
Do you have any that you give regularly?
No, when giving a gift, I always think about what someone would like to read and not about what is important to me. I don't try to impose my taste, because I know that it is specific. And although I like books that are rather sinister, I won't torment anyone with them. I often read books that I bought for someone before I give them. My explanation is that if the book is below expectations, I’ll look for something else.
This is a very good explanation.
It would be a shame later if someone stopped reading it!
And where does the fascination with this "worse" Europe come from? Did it have any literary sources? Probably a bit of Herta Müller.
Certainly, my Romania came partly from Müller and her various fascinations. On top of this was my interest in Romanian cinema, or rather my absolute love for this cinema, for its ruthlessness, almost self-aggression. The social problems are shown in such an uncompromising way that I understand perfectly well why Romanians do not like it. Romania was intellectually dense for me from the beginning, it was always the country of Cioran, Eliade, and Ionesco for me.
Do you think that today, it is as interesting as well?
Are you asking me about this literature from the last decade?
About literature after '89 in general.
It is certainly interesting, but it is also very trapped in the language. It is slightly overshadowed by Mircea Cărtărescu and his Baroque, dense, pictorial way of building the world. And then, when you read Filip Florian, you can see that he is Mircea’s son. However, I don't follow this literature very thoroughly, and I certainly simplify the problem, but it seems to me that more interesting things happened there in film and documentary.
And what about Albania?
First of all, very many Albanian books have been translated into Polish, which not everyone is aware of. Fatos Kongoli, Gazmend Kapllani, Ornela Vorpsi, Ylljet Aliçka, Luljeta Lleshanaku, and, of course, Kadare. This literature came into being with us thanks to several albanologists, mainly thanks to Dorota Horodyjska. They brought us closer to this literature, especially in the early 1990s, when writers were finally able to take the floor and try to describe the new and old world.
I wanted to ask where Albania comes from. Romania is intellectually justified, I also understand a bent for the south-east of Europe, but why Albania?
The question of authoritarianism, the freedom of the individual, and the power that one person has over another have always been important to me. Albania was the next step in this direction. As far as I understood Romania instinctively, it was close to me, mine, with Albania, I strongly felt my alienation from the very beginning, and I still feel it even today, though in different situations than before. I knew that in order to write a book, I would have to assimilate completely new knowledge and read much more than in the case of Romania.
Which obviously is more appealing.
The issues of Islam, multi-denominationalism, Kosovo, and things which I had not much idea about emerged immediately. In addition, I was fascinated by Albanian Stalinism, the fact that Europe managed to introduce such a severe, extreme system that functioned in isolation. The power over a citizen was total, absurd. But if you were born here, you live, you have children, you go to a picnic, you look at the river, you are happy, you are unhappy, you are afraid... It is very interesting - the existential dimension of such power. A feeling of encroachment, confinement. The question of borders. The question of what percolates across borders. A sense of belonging to the system and a sense of alienation. Attempts to escape. The need for freedom.
And, in general, the fact that certain processes typical of the Balkans are being reflected in Albania has given me the opportunity to reflect upon them. I would like to stay in the Balkans, because I can still learn a lot here.
Before the end, I would return to the Polish writers who are important to you.
Polish poets are very important to me. Reading poetry can act as an energy boost for a frustrated writer.
Susan Sontag always makes me think. It's not about what she's pondering over, but about the fact that she's dropping a sentence that allows you to start thinking.
Yes, then you feel like you're bouncing off something.
Stanisław Grochowiak will be somewhere next to me all my life. Often, when I am stressed in some place, for example on a train, or waiting for something, I quote Grochowiak in my head, because it is like meditation for me. I imagine that when believers are stressed, they pray, and I recall these phrases in my head.
Certainly, Kapuściński had a very strong influence on my technique. However, I look at him as a writer, a reporter who had ambitions to show a very universal aspect of various phenomena. When you read Cesarz (“The Emperor”), for God’s sake, there is sometimes the Gombrowicz-like language there.
As I was writing Mud, I read The Emperor two or three times, halfway through the work and at the end. I was curious how he managed to show authoritarianism in terms of language. Of course, later, I also read articles in which foreign researchers said that these things were certainly partly made up; he had heard something and built these monologues himself. It is not my place to judge it, but even this dog that is so ingeniously described...
He kind of admitted to it a bit.
So, this is a literary work which, in a strange way, works brilliantly, raises the reportage to a new level, the universal level. Because a reportage itself is a genre that is terribly susceptible to aging. If there is a reporter who is so good that they can be read after 60 years, we are dealing with a phenomenon.
Literature ages terribly. Even such from the 1990s.
I think it would be impossible to read Manuela Gretkowska or Mariusz Sieniewicz today. But there are many such things. If you took the first Masłowska today, you would have a sense of the uncanny character of this language, the fact that it no longer exists.
But it’s elemental.
It is elemental! I do not want to detract from this book at all either!
But it is a testimony. The very fact that Masłowska had such an impact on many young writers, long after the publication of Wojna polsko–ruskiej (“Polish-Russian War”).
Everyone wanted to write their own Polish-Russian War.
One could say that it was she who showed the full literary potential of colloquial and vulgar language. Something seemingly obvious, but she did it with such force that she initiated a new way of understanding literature, which, for some time, blossomed into new forms, it renewed language. We relished the language.
Speaking of how literature is getting older. It is amazing that there are books that are unbearable now. And there are books that are still strangely topical, let me return to this Gorky again.
But it's probably not a question of language, maybe more of structuring a character.
Dostoevsky has not aged at all.
He has aged a little, because in retrospect, he is a little bit wordy. As I imagine Dostoevsky written today, it would often have to be halved. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but by about a third.
This is problematic for we now have a completely different approach to time and therefore to reading. When you take The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot in your hand and want to read these books meticulously, you need weeks to read them. Who can spare it? I will tell you something personal: if it wasn't for Dostoevsky, I don't know if I would be with my current partner.
The first months of our relationship was a great joint reading of Dostoevsky – Demons and The Brothers Karamazov, in the same rhythm, chapter by chapter. I think that thanks to this, we fell in love with each other, because we read this Dostoevsky and, at the same time, we quarrelled a lot, but we stayed together, probably also thanks to this sense of closeness. Our life together is essentially reading, and when someone asks me what I'm actually doing in this Albania, it is simplest to answer: I read, and this is a very beautiful dimension of life.
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe