Olga Drenda, author of books, journalist, translator, and ethnologist, talks about knight chess-piece movement way of reading, love for the literary scrapyard, learning to read story lines, being a capitalist fox, a hauntological asylum, as well as she reveals what her favourite novel is.
What are you currently reading?
Oh my, old issues of "Polish Folk Art". I am not reading any book right now.
And has anything delighted you recently?
Two very good comic books: Weź się w garść (“Buck Up!”) by Anna Krztoń and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, i.e. a coming of age comic story. Both of them are somehow in this spirit. They bring to my mind Douglas Coupland's Generation X. It is a kind of narrative that I miss a bit - kind of blasé, but with good intentions. It makes me think of a non-existent band “Wyjebani W Dobrej Wierze”(Polish alternative music band - translator’s note). Besides, I recently revisited Polaroids from the Dead by Coupland.
It is curious that despite the popularity of grunge, Coupland himself never really caught on with us.
He started down a slippery slope. He later wrote such speculative prose, and it wasn't my thing anymore. I tried to approach these books, but in my opinion, they were quite banal, while, as the author of miniature reportage, Coupland defends himself, especially as these are images from pre-crisis America, joyful consumption, and continuous growth, so it's like a trip to the land of dinosaurs. It is worth reading about what was happening when the United States was absolutely the most important country in the world.
How do you choose your reading?
I scavenge, and I do it in a rather random way. When I read new stuff, I also do it in a knight chess-piece movement kind of way, not in some linear way. So, I definitely am a little scavenger, and also a regular visitor of stands of cheap books in Katowice, where I dig things up without a specific intention. Sometimes, I also get obsessed with a particular topic.
Your last obsession?
Recently, it has been Polish folk art - oleographs and religious painting. But because I'm an ethnologist, it's also a part of my work and such "wares-related" topics naturally fall under my radar. When I write books though, I read a lot about totalitarianism.
Probably because it has nothing to do with my writing. It seems to me that I have to read about something terrible to counterbalance. As I wrote Duchologia (“Hauntology”), I read a lot about the Khmer Rouge.
And with Wyroby (“Wares”)?
In the case of Wares a little less, but, from time to time, some reportage. Or historical books that somehow fall into my hands. Certainly, Marcin Zaremba's Wielka trwoga (“Great Fear”).
It wasn’t rather useful for your book, although communism is somehow present there as well.
But I learned from it that the chronology of Great Fear coincided with the time when in Poland, there could operate private companies which published, for example, the last ephemera found by Janusz Dunin. I also read his texts on this subject and learned a little about concentration camps from itinerant beggars’ songs or post-war prophecies. There are very few remaining ephemera, most of them have not survived the war, many of them were thrown out as publications worth nothing, and, with the liquidation of private enterprise, everything ended in a flash. I have one such prophecy.
As a reader, are you somehow always at work?
I try not to be, but I think my curse is that I try to turn into work and monetise everything that comes to my mind. Unfortunately, I'm just a terrible capitalist fox. I would like the world to look different for most people and for them to have peaceful, decent jobs and stable wages, but I got used to working like in Super Mario: I see an object, I jump up, and there is a coin.
Typical freelancer stuff.
The Facebook page Hauntology is such a peaceful, non-commercial haven for me. On the basis of the page, there are ideas and texts created, but I have established only one commercial cooperation there, I don't want to change it. I only did it because I had known the screenplay for Rojst (Polish TV series - translator’s note) before, and I agreed to cooperate in the promotion of this series.
So you keep something of your own for yourself.
Yes, a real hobby.
Have you had any books that shaped you?
Yes, there were quite a few. Definitely Antropologia codzienności (“Anthropology of the Commonplace”) by Roch Sulima. The absolutely most important book for me was Papierowy bandyta (“Paper Bandit”) by Janusz Dunin. It is a book that has perhaps collected, for the first time, all the literary scrap, that is, dime novels, crime stories, itinerant beggars’ songs, fortune-telling, and so on. First of all, these were things from before the war and a handful of the post-war ones. But in fact, it was the first trip to such a complete pop culture gutter, and I discovered that this is something that interests me the most, especially since these prints had a particular ‘crafted’ character – they were very amateurish in terms of production, for example, printing technology or copying graphics, so this incredible thing that interested me so much was present in them from the very beginning.
And in your childhood?
Great PWN Encyclopaedia. And books about mythology, but specific ones. Not Parandowski or Graves, but this black series about religions. I have been a nonfiction reader since I was a child.
And nothing has changed.
No, I try to learn how to read story lines, but I have a big problem with them, for my perception is rather detailed, that is, I understand a particular scene, but it's hard for me to relate the scenes into a sequence. For a long time, I had this problem with films - I didn't watch them, even though one of my favourite books was The Guinness Book of Film. I knew a lot about cinema without watching films. So, when I finally decided that it would be worth watching some feature films, my notes and a book about writing scripts came in handy. I learned how to construct a typical screenplay, what typical narrative solutions are, that there must be two turning points. That's how I started to understand feature films, but, to be honest, there's nothing worse for me than a fast-paced film. Anyway, I read slowly, I digest everything quite slowly.
So, In Search of Lost Time would be the biggest nightmare for you.
I read My Struggle, all 6 volumes, though. It took me a long time, but I succeeded. The most interesting themes for me were the musical ones that appeared there, but I still cannot decide whether it's a good or a bad novel. I think many readers may feel that way.
Yes, I think it had really interesting moments, but there were terribly kitschy things especially in the last volume.
I was not very convinced by these essayist interjections.
Yes, that’s the weakest bit. The most interesting thing is when he actually writes about himself.
For example, these descriptions of teenage life - very accurate.
It was really interesting, as was the episode involving music bands. I also liked his sincerity. After all, he was terrible to his loved ones, especially to his female partners. There was such a feature of self-destruction in him: whatever positive happened to him, he had to spoil it. The fact that he wrote about it on an ongoing basis impressed me somehow, because people often come to such conclusions on their death beds or after a long period of therapy.
Since we are talking about novels, do you have a favourite one at all?
I have to seriously think about it, but for sure... Yes, of course, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman.
It's an amazing novel, probably the best about the Second World War that I have read.
It is probably thanks to the fact that Grossman was a reporter. It's such a half-journalistic fresco, and I think that's why I caught myself on a common frequency with him. It is definitely my favourite novel, probably also because there is such a rough humanism in it, which I appreciate very much. It is a very serious novel about things that could sound kitschy in another register, but in this context and with this author, they are not.
Do you avoid any genres?
Fantasy. Yes, I really don't like fantasy. I used to read science fiction from time to time. When I was little, I used to read the magazine "Fantastyka" and later "Nowa Fantastyka". There were miniatures by Grzegorz Janusz, which I liked very much - such absurd sci-fi. But as far as fantasy is concerned, I just can’t. I was getting ready to read Ursula Le Guin, whom many people recommended to me after they had found out that I was an enemy of fantasy. I know that people read it because they suspend disbelief and that it's a convention. My husband can do it - he reads a lot of weird fiction, Schnitzler, Grabiński for pleasure, and I slightly envy him for this natural switching to the pure joy of the reader or viewer. I watch horrors in the same way - the worse, the better. But I simply can’t stand anything with spells, dragons, and so on. It's too childish for me.
Le Guin could somehow convince you, there is a lot of depth psychology in her books.
That's what I think actually, that it's a kind of weird fiction rather than fantasy. Besides, this archetype style of fantasy... I can’t stand Jung. Fantasy is Jungian because it is based on archetypical characters, topoi, it is too simple, too predictable. There is always a chief, a page, a travel metaphor.
Don't read Le Guin then.
No? All right, we'll see, but if there's a journey metaphor and so on, I have the impression that it's a bang on the head. I can't. I can't.
So you haven’t tried Tolkien?
When I was little, but I didn't get into the swing of it either. Grimms’ Fairy Tales, myths - yes, contemporary fairy tales - no. I think that my adventure with this kind of stuff ends for me with folklore, the source material is more interesting to me. And in Tolkien, I'm terribly annoyed by the fact that this book is treated by some readers so seriously - as, I don't know, some ideological manifesto. They empathise too much with it, and yet it's just a fairy tale.
You are irritated by the fan base, in a word.
Yes, fan base, I think it's a bit the same with some music genres. Of course, I don't want to offend anyone, because I have fans of fantasy among my friends, but this genre is simply not fabricated for my brain. Maybe I don't have a need for a great adventure.
You probably have a need for small adventures.
Yes, I definitely prefer small adventures, but I also like to be frightened by facts, that's why I read about great totalitarian crimes and so on.
Is any Polish book or novel, apart from the aforementioned Paper Bandit, important for you today?
Yes, Czarny potok (“Black Torrent”) by Buczkowski. It's a little underestimated novel, maybe because it's quite difficult.
Yes, in the sense of this non-linear, polyphonic narrative. I think that maybe this non-linearity somehow found its way to me. First of all, I was very impressed by the severity of this prose.
It's a very merciless prose, and I have the impression that all Houellebecqs, those people who wished it was worse than it is, simply fatalists, they pale in comparison to it, like some children playing with matches. I really don't like fatalism, because we have Grossman or Buczkowski, and we know that certain things really happen, that the truth is mud and dirty bandages, so there's no need to speculate about them. "A fatalist bored with the emptiness of middle-class life" type of writer evokes a knee jerk reflex in me, I think to myself: it's bad fun.
And what are your reading plans?
There are quite a few, I would certainly like to read more comic books.
Is this your latest discovery?
I always liked comics, but I wasn't a regular reader.
I guess it’s something that is neglected in Poland.
Also, comics were very expensive for a long time, because they had to be imported and there were not so many of them in our market. At the moment, there are many interesting graphic novels. Ja, Nina Szubur (“I, Nina Szubur”) by Daniel Chmielewski, for instance.
The term "graphic novel" is somehow ennobling.
I think that graphic novels are actually a bit different from comics. More is expressed through drawing, and sometimes they do not have any dialogues at all, which is why it is difficult to classify it as a comic book. But I would really like to delve more into it. This is my biggest thing right now.
We were talking mostly about non-fiction. Do you have any favourite Polish reporters? Or is reportage not entirely something that absorbs you?
I like reportage very much. From the current stuff, we inevitably reach a colleague's territory. One of my favourite authors is Małgosia Rejmer, whom I still know from "Lampa", so it is difficult for me to talk about reportage without this social key. But I need to remind myself of something that I would like your audience to read... It's called Śpiew czarnego koguta (“The Singing of a Black Cockerel”). Its author is a reporter from Kielce, Bogusław Rajchert.
I haven't heard about it. Where did you dig it up?
I dug it up because I followed the story of a piece of reportage based on his reportage. It concerned people who did not say a single word after the Second World War, that is to say a certain family who decided to remain silent and forced their neighbours to do the same. It was never explained why (although maybe later historians came to these events and explained it - I wish I knew), but the terror that they applied to their loved ones and neighbours, forcing this omertà, it had something in common with Wiesław Łuka's Nie oświadczam się (“I am not proposing”). On the basis of these reports, a film by Antoni Halor Opis obyczajów (“Description of Customs”) was made, in which this theme is partially present.
Of course, these are all things from their times - the protagonists are often militiamen from the MO (Milicja obywatelska - the national police organisation of the Polish People's Republic – translator’s note) or overangeled people from the PZPR (The Polish United Workers' Party), so you have to read it in perspective. They appeared in the local press, which was probably party-dependant to some extent, and there is this ideological element in them. But the subject matter itself is very interesting. Besides, the old "Reporters' Express" provides quite a lot of interesting material, I bought myself thirty issues in Lodz some time ago. They are terribly uneven, and sometimes there can be such militia propaganda that gives you the chills, but from time to time, you get something really interesting, for example all the topics about healers in the 1980s.
Katarzyna Janiszewska's new book Ja nie leczę, ja uzdrawiam (“I don't cure, I heal”) about bioenergotherapists has just been published.
Yes, and I know that a book about Stanisław Nardelli is being written in Dowody na istnienie publishing house. In "Reporters’ Express”, there is the whole colour of the era, i.e. nudists, thefts (for example, sheepskins were stolen in order to sell them privately), costermonger, hippies, Krishnas, and so on. Social reportage is the most interesting.
Since we are talking about bioenergy therapists and charlatans, is there any deceased author with whom you would like to go, say, for coffee?
Definitely... Oh, my! Emily Dickinson, I guess. I recently read a very interesting essay about her in "Konteksty", and I was reminded that I really like her poems. She must have been a bit of a daguerreotype character, she awakens a pious fear in me because of the whole puritan context and this amputated hand of God. She is a kind of figure I would be a little afraid to meet, but I would certainly like to.
Krzysztof Kąkolewski is also such a figure, but Kąkolewski from his youth. I think his story is tragic, a bit like the one of Walerian Borowczyk, or, in general, artists who were somehow rejected after a great success, fell into some conspiratorial thinking, and started to delve into gloomy areas, from which their talent suffered. A later Kąkolewski wrote in order to express his own sense of harm, but these books were no longer good.
You mentioned Dickinson. Do you read poetry at all?
Rarely, but I happen to. Unfortunately, I am not up to date. I read little and very selectively.
Who do you like to return to?
To Białoszewski. This is, of course, such a banal choice. I also like his prose and diaries. I think that he was a much more vigilant writer than it is usually believed. Some excerpts of the records of his conversations are very topical today. I like it very much when he writes about hippies and cannot help but marvel at them, or when he is such a man taken out of modernity and learns that there is something like a remote control for TV, or he goes to America and there, he walks through some total backstreets. He calls a remote control “a clicker”, and he clicks it so joyfully, or writes that the street layout in New York is just like in Grodzisk or Garwolin.
So probably you also value Barańczak.
Yes, but I do not follow contemporary Polish poetry. Maybe I should, considering that the temperature of inba (internet brawl – translator’s note), which takes place in this environment and sometimes reaches me with Facebook circles, is amazing.
But these inbas do not usually concern literature. I can’t remember any real quarrels about literature in recent years. When something appears in the mainstream media, it is more of a little scandal.
Oh no, sometimes it happens! And the Nike Award for Bronka Nowicka? Then, there was an inba there.
I’m not sure about inba, but there were certainly many voices that it was a bad book.
I only read excerpts and I didn't like them. I couldn't somehow get through this text. I don't even remember them too well, but I think there was an inba, though.
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe