Justyna Bargielska, poet and prose writer, talks about her fascination with the universe of Lovecraft and RPGs, her problems with fiction, the difficult art of searching for books in her own home, poetry that makes us cry, the book of her life, as well as about reading in terms of raising children.
Usually, writers recall titles from memory, Justyna Bargielska came well-prepared, with a bag full of books.
What have you been reading recently?
Walk Through Walls: A Memoir by Marina Abramović. It wasn't my idea at all. One of my friends said that because I am an artist, I should read about what other artists lives look like. Since I don't think of myself as an artist, at least not too often, it was very ennobling for me, and I decided that I would order it, especially that on Aros (online discount bookshop – translator’s note) everything is half the price, and you can even buy the latest books at a price that doesn't ruin your budget.
Have you been interested in Abramović before?
No, not at all.
Not a fan of performative art?
No, but if I walk down the street, and I am accosted by performative art, I don't turn around. Besides, I recently noticed a kind of rule that if I am in a museum of contemporary art, and I can choose between painting, installation, or film, video art, I choose the latter.
I always have a problem with video art, when I enter the gallery, it's already in progress, and I have to wait 20 minutes until it's over and they start again...
That doesn't bother me to be honest. What attracts me the most in video art is the space in which they are shown. There is usually a little booth, a little tent, something that allows you to isolate yourself. I enter and watch the half I stumble on, and then I start from the beginning until the moment I started with. I think there is no reason why I should start at the beginning and finish at the end. But when it comes to Marina, I started reading, and I was pleasantly disappointed because this is very much of an adventure book. It was translated by Anna Bernarczyk and Magdalena Hermanowska, maybe it is thanks to their translation that it reads so well. The title may be a bit gushing, I was afraid that it would all be too narcissistic. There is a limit to narcissism that I can swallow when it comes to artists, while outside of that limit, it’s quite difficult. Yet here, a woman tells funny and important situations from her life, which is very engaging. The adventures of a cool person, and I always like the adventures of a cool person, real or unreal.
In this case, it is difficult to say.
I think that the memories of the performer are also a performance.
This surprised me, because as far as I know Abramović, it always seemed to me that she is devoted to art, and what she writes is a tribute to a normal life.
It does not sound like her at all.
Exactly, hence it's worth reading. I also had an interesting private situation with this book. I went on a holiday to Poznań, a friend gave me the keys to their flat. I like to cooperate in such a way with my friends, who give me access to their flat, sometimes I go downstairs with my children to do some sightseeing, and then I sit there, and I don't pay, and they are happy that someone cool came to visit. This time, it was a flat of a deceased mother-in-law of a friend, already cleaned up, but there were still many old documents, photos, papers, and weird things lying there. I started reading the book, reached the hundredth page, went to make tea in the kitchen, happy days, and when I was coming back, I saw that there was a coin on the corner of a wardrobe. I am a person who, when let in to a flat, looks carefully at everything. I am sorry, that’s what I am. I was just reading then about how Abramović talked about Tito, about her life in Yugoslavia. I picked this coin, and it was a Yugoslavian dinar from 1983.
And everything started to form a whole!
It’s on! There is a performance around the performer.
What else are you reading now?
These kind of books are a very important part of what I am now reading: Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Dan Kindlon, Michael Thompson, translated by Anna Skucińska). I read this as a mother because my son will turn 11 very soon. It probably applies to all books on the verge of psychoanalysis, psychology in everyday use, that by talking about things which are absolutely obvious, when you ponder over them, they also provide you with some kind of revelations. I have read this book up to page 79...
But with a pencil as a bookmark, which means careful reading.
I was browsing through the topics in order to know more or less what to expect, what to be ready for.
Have you come across this book yourself or has someone recommended it to you?
On one of my friend’s Facebook wall, I saw a picture of this book with the question whether you have read it and whether you have something to say. Nobody read or recommended it. The first thing I did was to check how many pages the book has. Since it had 400 pages, I decided to give it a chance. If it was a book like the ones by Juul, 200 pages about how to bring up a happy child, well, no then. Indeed, I read just under 100 pages and a few things became clear to me. I am raising a son and a daughter.
Is the daughter older?
Yes, the daughter is a woman. I, too, am a woman and it makes it all easier. As far as my son is concerned, I always had cognitive doubts, I wondered what would be the worst thing I could do. These books tend to confirm your intuition in a wonderful way. I take the task of raising children seriously, and therefore this book is very useful for me.
Are books about boys' upbringing important? A friend of mine says that by reinforcing girls, however rightly, we forgot the other side of the coin and threw the boys out with the bathwater.
That's true, girls have received a lot of reinforcements in the last decade, and I'm not sure whether all of them make them happy. Boys have been left alone; on the other hand, though, boys, according to this book and my intuition, have been left alone for the last two thousand years. Raising boys consisted of the fact that sooner or later, they were left so that they solve everything on their own. This spartan idea that a boy at the age of seven should be taken care of by his father meant, as a matter of fact, leaving the boy and his emotionality to his own choices, intuition, his own work on this emotionality. It seems to me that it would be good to look carefully at boys now for a change.
All right, what else do we have here?
A book I have been reading recently. It fits very nicely with this boy and his emotions.
About the Man: An Interview with Lew-Starowicz by Krystyna Romanowska.
Yes, there is also the same book, although it is completely different, namely Lew-Starowicz’s About the Woman.
Are these new interviews?
Yes, this book seems to be long, but it is simply a very extensive interview that could just as well be placed in a thicker psychological journal. I read it only because the therapist told me to. She told my husband to read the one about a woman. Kind of homework. We read it, it was actually during holidays then, we were in the mountains, and it took us one afternoon. The plan was to exchange, but after reading Lew-Starowicz’s About the Man, I say I don't know if I have that much time. I don't think that I’d read there something that I haven't known so far.
Lew-Starowicz is a sexologist, and here, what exactly does he talk about?
Mostly about sex, but fortunately, I didn't follow his work before. But finally, I think he's starting to think that sex is first and foremost a brain issue. Thinking, planning, making decisions. This is not pure biology. In this book about a man, there is this wind of renewal, which says that a man can think about sex in a different, not so stereotypical way.
Starowicz is interesting in the way that he has retained a certain flexibility and, once in a while, he verifies his views.
He evolves! Which, in the case of a recognised authority, I value greatly. My daughter is thirteen now, when she wants to read a book about men, I will give this one to her. This will be the equivalent of O dziewczętach dla dziewcząt (“About Girls for Girls”) and O chłopcach dla chłopców (“About Boys for Boys”). This is more or less the same genre weight, the same approach to masculinity. But it can be useful as a starting point.
In the book about boys, there was a pencil, here, the book is full of sticky notes. Do you mark important excerpts in the books you read?
In the book about boys, I am marking a lot of things, because I'm going to return to it. I'm going to read it once for the adventures that it contains, there are very cool case studies, a lot happens in a pleasant storyline style, and then I'll want to focus on the more important issues, therefore I mark them. Here, the therapist simply suggested that we talk about things that interest us. When my husband saw that everything was full of notes, he was furious.
Because we went for this therapy after having done our homework, and my husband said: "Come on, this book is stupid," and I took out my own and had millions of notes in it. Then I understood what the main difference between a man and a woman is, if we want to find differences at all. My husband's book, which was not even taken for therapy, and my book, carefully marked with green notes.
What is your attitude towards the book-object, do you nurture your home library?
No. No, sorry. It’s terrible chaos. I wanted to bring another book I read recently, Italo Calvino. Like everyone else, I read Calvino at the age of 20-25. Recently, however, someone gave me some short stories Marcovaldo (translated by Alina Kreisberg). It was a very pleasant return to my youth, to the times when I read small texts that ended stupidly, started stupidly, nothing happened in them, they were about nothing, and you’d read them with flushed cheeks. So, I wanted to bring it, but it didn't work - that's my attitude towards my books. I have no idea where they lie. I have this method of searching with my head. I never go and look, I just sit down and think: where can it be, where have I seen it recently?
Do you happen to read not on paper?
No, because my eyes hurt.
Nooo, no. No. I think it's a matter of having to feel the book a little bit to read it. I'm from this generation which leaves different stains, notes, pencils. An undamaged book is not a book that has been read. I even read while eating. Now, as I am thinking about this, it could be something to work on. There are people who buy books - books are expensive. I receive a lot of books, fortunately. If I didn't smudge them so much, maybe I could sell them later or give them as a gift? But that's life, if a book is to be alive, it has to take part in it.
I brought Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror and other stories. A terribly thick volume, translated by Maciej Płaza. I read this book and return to it for two reasons. First of all, because I love this universe. Secondly, because I play, and many games are based on this universe. These are board games that are actually RPGs: you get a character, and then you play it. Because I play with children and my husband, I realised that the more I read it, the more often I win. This is a kind of a bible and, in a way, a game manual. I don't think Maciej Płaza would be happy with this utilitarian treatment of his excellent translation. When I read this book for the first time, I saved a draft copy of a letter to Maciej Płaza on the computer, with millions of questions about why he translated something this way, why it was so. I never sent it.
Did you read Lovecraft in the original?
No, but the games were in the original, so I know the key concepts in both languages. And hence the questions, which did not refer to the art of translation whatsoever, it was only the curiosity of someone from the fandom. Now I'm trying to push Lovecraft on my daughter, who is looking for something to read and was very disappointed with all the last books I gave her: about horses, about horse riding academies.
Why about horses?
Because she rides a horse. However, the image of a teenage girl who rides a horse in books I have given her, such as the Akademia Canterwood (“The Canterwood Academy”) series, is incompatible with what my daughter does. These are books focused on glamour horse riding, and she is focused on THE HORSE. She communicates with the horse through her brain, she is not able to pat it to ride faster, she sits on it and says "Sułek, faster". Fortunately, it works.
Do your children like reading?
No, my children don't like reading. Maybe my daughter, a little bit.
Do you like it? In fact, it is not said that if you are a writer and poet, then you have to love reading.
It is complicated. I recently read The First Bad Man by Miranda July (translated by Łukasz Buchalski). I had read this novel before in English, I watched Me and You and Everyone We Know, I followed July in social media and I loved her terribly! I read The First Bad Man and, on the one hand, I was excited - wow, cool, Miranda's first book on the Polish market, amazingly translated - but I didn’t feel at all what I felt when I read the individual stories, when I watched the film. I missed something. What am I aiming for? Fiction may not be my main point of interest.
Have you grown out of it?
Yes, novels bore me. Up to the age of 27, I was able to absorb the novel and be delighted that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now it's different, you can see from the set of books I brought with me. There is one period of the year when it changes: when I go on holiday. As a rule, I don't take books on holiday. Usually, we do not book hotels. Agritourism, cottages, rooms are more suitable for us. And there are usually some books - crime stories, romances. I've never been disappointed, there's always something there, and you can always read it. I know that I am doomed to a particular title, I read from beginning to end on the beach, on a deckchair, and it's cool. However, when I have to start reading a novel myself, it's hard for me. I treat it more as a challenge rather than a pleasure.
All right, let’s continue.
The weirdest stuff now.
Yes, this dictionary is completely hermetic for me, but I read it quite often, you can see how tattered it is. I learn languages very badly, it is a magical field to which I do not have access. If I had started at the age of three, maybe I would have succeeded. However, I have a weakness for dictionaries, and when I see an interesting dictionary, I buy it. It started with a Latin-Polish dictionary when I was in high school and learned Latin. I'm very embedded in words, visual signs don't work on me like text signs. When I have an internal conflict, I sit down, I open the dictionary, and this dictionary, for example, says... [Justyna Bargielska flicks through the dictionary]. No, I don't want it to talk about it. It doesn't matter, it says something, and then I wonder what it might mean, why I opened it at this word, what stems from it, what I associate it with, what symbol is it of, and so on. So, I have quite a magical approach to dictionaries. And here is another, which I recommend to you if you have the opportunity to buy it. This is for people who completely don't have a social life, the 2014 Savoir-vivre language dictionary, which has nothing to do with savoir-vivre. Małgorzata Marcjanik, a Polish philologist from the University of Warsaw, wrote various phrases. Check it out.
Hm, it’s for people who don’t understand...
Don’t understand what you want to say to them.
Then you go to your den and check it.
I usually find it the most useful in Internet communication, for example on messenger. I don't know what someone wrote to me, they didn't give me an emoticon, scoundrel.
"I’m so glad - a thank you form, used especially by women”.
Right? It's so great, you can read it for hours.
"It was nice - a form of thanks among young people, announcing the end of an encounter.”
Would you know? I wouldn’t!
I wonder if young people know.
This is something that this lady had to put a lot of research into. Although there could be more new slang here, because I slowly begin to get lost in it. On the other hand, I know that this is something I should work on myself, because I have small children, I should benefit from what they bring home.
Are children willing to explain reality to you?
Sometimes yes, yet I can see that such overly obvious questions make them uneasy. Then I let go and look for it on the Internet. Today, I had an unpleasant experience, because I didn't know what łycha (hootch – translator’s note) was. Do you know what łycha is?
I don’t think so.
It's whisky, but I couldn't guess it at all. I didn't know what this friend wanted to tell me, maybe he needed help? Then I started typing "łycha", "łycha slang" on the Internet, and somehow, I figured it out.
Okay, there is another book that intrigues me. It looks like a school notebook.
I'm sorry, but it has a pad as a bookmark. This is a book of poems, because I sometimes read poems. It’s a new thing, it came out literally in the last days of last year. There is neither the title nor the author on the cover.
It has a stain though.
It's tears, because when I read this book, I'm moved terribly. I just happened to open it on the page with the poem Ściskająca serce rozmowa (“A Heart Gripping Conversation”). This book is a trick. Everything is so cheerful, and then suddenly, there are excerpts that make me cry. The author is the poet Piotr Janicki. Some people think he is an absolute genius, I don't like such formulations. Genius or not, I just like to read him. This is the best thing as far as poems are concerned since… I don't even know when, since I published my last book.
How do you read poetry? From cover to cover or do you randomly look for something that will suit your mood?
I had a double experience with this: I got Janicki first as a typescript, which I read from cover to cover, because I was asked to write something like a blurb. Now, when it has a form, and it's pretty, I open and read it. Even my husband said that it is at least half as boring as other books with poems. From his mouth, it is a great compliment.
Do you read a lot of poetry?
No. I’ll be honest, I don’t, although I get a lot of poetry, different publishers send it to me. Maybe it is easier to send such a thin book, or even three at once. Usually I open it, look at it, check it: it gets me, it doesn’t get me. And I put it away. Maybe this interview is a good opportunity to say: don't send me books with poems anymore, it's a waste of a stamp. Someone else will make better use of them.
What do you do with books you don't need?
I keep them. Even recently, we had a discussion at home that we could get rid of about half of them. There are people who come, and for 200 zlotys (£50), they take a thousand books. That would be the best solution, but my husband did not agree, he is very attached to books, even to those he did not read. There can be no home without books, I think he visualised the breakup of our family. We have a lady who comes once every two weeks, she vacuums them, whatever. And here is the book of my life. Emily of New Moon (translated by Maria Rafałowicz-Radwanowa). Have you read it?
Only two hundred times.
Exactly. I always read it when I have serious writer’s block. It may be about a novel that I have to finish and turn in, but also a column of 4,000 characters. If I know for sure that there is no chance that I can write this column, I take the first, second, third Emily, they are not long, you read them quickly.
Especially when you know them by heart.
I've never been disappointed! I always feel like this after reading Emilies: YES! I'm an artist, I can do anything, I can write something wonderful, I'm not so old, it's great to be a woman! Emily is, in a sense, my role model. I recently watched the series Russian Doll, the protagonist has the same hair as I did in my youth, I even showed my children pictures as proof. This is the first culture-based text text of culture in which I came across the fact that Emily is mentioned. In Russian Doll, she is an important symbolic element of the script. It made me feel so familiar and nice...
Emily wins with Anne of Green Gables?
I love Anne, I read Anne first. Probably I love her even more after what Netflix did. I finally felt that someone pulled out of the story things that were there, but they had not been acknowledged. I appreciate the therapeutic role of Anne as a book, I had a friend who now has four or five children, we lost contact. Every time she went to hospital, because something was wrong with her pregnancy, she called one of us, that is me or another friend from the circle that we had at the time, to order Anne of Green Gables, one of the volumes of the series or preferably all of them at once. Anne is very useful, and when it comes to books for girls, I would suggest Emily.
Other beloved readings from childhood?
During my childhood I was reading a lot. And this will certainly not be anything new, you've certainly heard it a million times, I had a PWN Encyclopaedia (Polish universal encyclopaedia – translator’s note), in which there was a chart, "Works of World Literature". I chose from it books that had a convincing title for me. I was 11 or 12 years old and I was looking everywhere for a classic work, Golestan: The Rose Garden. I didn't manage to find it, but it occupied my imagination greatly.
And do you have a book that you liked, and years after, it turned out that it wasn't all that?
All my youth, I read Dostoevsky. From the age of 15 to 25, I read everything I could, I even started reading him in Russian. I'm afraid I would have trouble in finding my way in it now. But maybe that's the reason for having a look and checking it.
Do you like to talk about books, do you participate in discussion clubs?
I like to talk about other people's books at my author’s meetings with readers. I often manage to direct them in such a way that we seemed to talk for a moment about me and my book, about my life and about how to live, and then people begin to talk about what they have read, what conclusions and emotions accompanied it. I like it when the discussion goes in this direction. I have a library three kilometres from home, I know it's brilliant, because I've appeared there a few times. The ladies there are very nice, yet I am terribly glad that they didn't realise that the Bargielska whom they invited to the meeting is the same woman who hasn't returned The Great Railway Bazaar by Theroux for five years. They have not yet connected the nice Mrs Justyna with the bad one.
Interviewer: Olga Wróbel
Translated by Justyna Lowe