Bedside table #18. Karol Maliszewski: To preserve joy and the freedom of reading

Karol Maliszewski, a poet and literary critic, reveals his recent readings, talks about the joy of reading, reading shivers, about books from his childhood and youth, and about the library as a temple.

What have you been reading lately? What books do you keep on your bedside table?

Our bedroom upstairs is not very big, bedside tables cannot fit there. Books are waiting for me downstairs, in the kitchen. I reach for them when I wake up at night, unable to sleep. But most often, I read them first thing in the morning, sometimes I get up at six, sometimes at five. I have an hour or two of reading in complete silence. Then, I look at bits and pieces during the day, and these are usually poetry volumes. Those morning things are arranged according to the following key: a little bit of prose, philosophy, essay, history or theory of literature, literary criticism. I read a few things at the same time, and these excerpts somehow get along with each other, they overlap. It just so happens that right now, I have there: Fragmenty (“Fragments”) by Wiesław Juszczak, Anioł historii (“The Angel of History”) by Walter Benjamin, Scenariusze końca (“Scenarios of the End”) edited by Dariusz Czaja, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Additionally, I returned to the anthology Nowa Krytyka (“New Criticism”), and this is only because of Ezra Pound and his ABC of Reading. There is no prose there for the moment, but it will soon return, the stories by Łuczeńczyk are waiting in line. I often intertwine my daily reading with non-fiction (especially when I'm supposed to have a meeting with a representative of thereof) and crime stories. Here, most often Krajewski.

I'm glad you mentioned Pound's ABC of Reading. I recall from this text an anecdote about Professor Agassiz and the fish. Instead of writing detailed treatises on fish anatomy, the scientist was to recommend that his protégé look closely at the animal. Eventually, “at the end of the three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.” Have you ever changed your mind or learnt something new about a creator, spending a long time with them, "looking at" them? I know that was the case with Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki at first. What are the advantages of long, often arduous reading?

Mistakes happen, wrong moments, that is the wrong time for a given book, poor mood, unfulfilled expectations, etc. Therefore, it is worth returning to things that were once ignored or underestimated. One probably grows into everything. It is difficult to give precise examples at the moment, but this was the case with Konwicki, who seemed artificial and boring to me in my early youth, and then, at a more mature age, I liked and understood the message of his works, I especially appreciated Wniebowstąpienie (“The Ascension”). For a long time, I couldn't convince myself of Faulkner, and finally, between the ages of thirty and forty, something changed during another attempt at reading (probably because of The Sanctuary) - he became a mentor for me, I wrote many excerpts of my prose scrutinising the spirit and style of what he had created.

At what times and in what places, in what poses and circumstances do you read most often?

A place in the kitchen, in silence, in the morning – this is where the best reading and writing takes place. Then I get weaker, discouraged, I succumb to the violence of the daily treadmill. And sometimes at night, long hours of reading. I sit on a rather firm chair. Like in a monastery. Reading conditions do not have to be friendly. If they are like that, they make you lazy, routine sets in.

Walter Benjamin wrote about the "archaic silence of the book", which he contrasted with modern hustle and bustle, when it is more and more difficult to focus on the text one is reading. How do you find space and time to read?

It's true, I feel bombarded with stimuli, information, alleged sensations. It causes irritation, frisson, and the book calls out in its own way, demands elementary concentration. In this sense, it is completely out of our times, demanding from a person a slightly old-fashioned attitude and behaviour. I do not tear my clothes, I face it. We have to live in it. This determines one of the parameters of the spirituality of our times.

Do you see any differences between the reading of a critic and the reading of a so-called "ordinary" reader? Or are you of the opinion that a critic in contact with a work should remain first and foremost a reader?

Joy and freedom of reading – this is a demand or maybe a priority. If we manage to keep it in force for as long as possible, that is a very good thing. Then begins galloping through, professional and solid, but probably without the initial spark of a child. If what I read about fills me up (occupies me?), it touches me, it means that I can write about it. Fortunately, life hasn't forced me to gallop through, to work full-time on a book. And may I remain in this state of celebrated wildness until the end. With this beautiful illusion of mine.

In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov argued, "Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder-blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science.” Do you ever get such shivers? What kind of readings may cause them in you?

It's rather rare for an elderly man. You should have asked thirty or forty years ago. There would have been a whole list of shivers. Now, there are only signs of pleasure. With a poem, with an essay, with dense prose. With something that combines the energy of language, the intensity of form with wisdom, with opening one's eyes to the mystery of consciousness, fate, history.

Let's talk about those shivers from youth, then. Those most intensive readings, did they happen to you in your high school age, during your studies? Which books were they?

I'm not going to be original here, and I’ll say that I've followed the typical path of a kid who was read to and who started to read himself. I tortured the household members with requests to read, so they quickly taught me how to read and showed me the way to the children's library, so that I wouldn't bother them anymore. At the beginning, they were poems by Brzechwa, Tuwim, Konopnicka, and thin rhymed books, e.g. Przygody Koziołka Matołka  (“Adventures of Koziołek Matołek”) or Awantury i wybryki małpki Fiki-Miki (“The Rows and Pranks of the Little Monkey Fiki-Miki”), then things more complicated, fairy tales by the Grimm brothers, because Andersen seemed to me too dreamy and bland, I appreciated him only later.

Finally, the time has come for the literary world of roaming, a great journey, a typically boyish longing to set out into the world. These dreams were helped by books by Jules Verne, Alfred Szklarski (his series about Tomek's adventures), Arkady Fiedler, Centkiewiczs, Jacek London. They satisfied the child's natural desire to search for something exciting, going beyond "here" and "now". At that time, I valued realism, but such a schoolyard, backyard one - the master of such novels was for me Edmund Niziurski, especially his Księga urwisów (“The Book of the Brats”), Niewiarygodne przygody Marka Piegusa (“Unbelievable Adventures of Marek Piegus”), and Awantura w Niekłaju (“A Row in Niekłaj”).

And later?

High school days constitute a distinctive breakthrough between childhood and youth for me. I got to know the texts of poètes maudits: Andrzej Bursa, Rafał Wojaczek, and Edward Stachura and understood that somewhere ends a certain world, a certain naïvety. I saw what rebellion, protest, despair, suicide are, and I realised that literature could be used to deal with the world in some way, to describe a fundamental metaphysical dilemma. It was then that I started to write myself, and this was somehow connected with it. A very important author for me was Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose work shaped me for life. The same applies to Hermann Hesse and his works, for instance Steppenwolf, Demian, The Glass Bead Game. Then, there was Knut Hamsun's Hunger. I read many Polish prose writers, I was always interested in it, I often followed the lead of Henryk Bereza and what he recommended in the monthly magazine "Twórczość".

What role did libraries play in your getting acquainted with literature? Which of these was the most important for you: the parents' library, the school library, the university library, or perhaps the private one?

My father didn't read at all, he just listened. The radio in the tailor's workshop was on all the time. Mother was a reading fanatic. I owe everything to her. And to my older brothers. It was them who gathered the book collection, then I started buying books for every penny I got. I had to own them, they had to be next to me. But of course, the real temple was the library, more precisely the Municipal Public Library in Nowa Ruda. I am still a reader there. Of course, there were other libraries in my life. I immediately enrolled in them when I started living somewhere. It was a consistent ritual, taming the place by examining its book collection. I could tell a lot of stories here. I will mention just one episode. When I lived in a workers' hotel in Bródno, I immediately enrolled in the local or district library. Oh, there, I was really happy. For the first time in my life, I experienced a blessing in the form of free access to shelves. I stayed there for hours. 

Do you have any reading plans? Maybe you'd like to go back to some classic literature, read it again? Or catch up?

There's a feverish race going on, life is too short to catch up. I am curious about new stuff, but at the same time, I return to the history of literature, so many things to discover there. After a long period of reconnaissance of interwar prose (I was particularly absorbed here by Choromański), now I am returning to Rilke and other poets of the early twentieth century. At the same time, I look again at Wittgenstein and, following his example, I return to the philosophy emphasising the links with poetry or literature in general. I am curious about Derrida, whom I did not understand many years ago, and now he seems more legible to me.

A lot of things happen at the same time. And this is because of the curiosity about what I find in the bibliography or footnotes. One can travel from one book to another, taking up a similar trail, but in a different way. And just for entertainment, I would like to read The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, as I haven't read it in its entirety yet.

In your work as a critic, editor, so-called "professional reader", there are probably moments of exhaustion with reading. How do you rest from reading?

Apart from the eyes and the spine, sometimes what also refuses to obey is the soul, which we could call the decision-making body of a human being who reads and feels. I recover with short trips anywhere or in a stationary way - in the garden, at the swimming pool, on the pitch (still playing football a little bit), or just walking, hiking in the mountains. And I often fall into a healing stupor with adventure and sensational films. By the way, don't you know when the new Bond will finally be on?

Interviewer: Jakub Nowacki

Translated by Justyna Lowe