Bedside table #21. Rafał Wojasiński: Authenticity in literature is a type of demagogy
Prose writer and playwright Rafał Wojasiński, this year's winner of the Marek Nowakowski Award, talks about reading Gombrowicz sat on a sheaf, his fascination with Kafka's Diaries, the work of Różewicz and Miłosz, as well as the artificiality of the world and language detaching from man.
Were I to name one author whose influence is most visible in your prose and dramatic work it would be Tadeusz Różewicz.
One of the greatest reformers of Polish drama, except for Gombrowicz. Brecht and Beckett's influence did not spoil him in any way, and thanks to them, I have the impression that he found his own language. Drama, in general, gives the possibility to create reality so artificial that it becomes credible. Just as mythical stories or stories about miracles can be credible. The artificiality of language in drama, in my opinion, works very well. And besides, I don't trust authenticity, it deludes the human being.
What do you mean?
Just like nature, which can delude people with the fact that it gives them, for example, consciousness ("reality illness" - as Zagajewski writes in his wonderful poem). Authenticity is for me a type of demagogy in literature. Life is unbelievable, it is amazing, and incredible in all its multiplicity and form. It oversteps us, so it's not familiar. It is not daily. Even in eating a pork chop. All the time, it is constantly above our capabilities. We still haven't tamed the "fantastic" state of existence and its consciousness.
Is it also connected with distrust towards realistic prose, e.g. 19th-century realistic novel, psychologising?
It bored me a lot.
Reymont? Prus? Żeromski? Do they bore you?
Prus actually does not bore me, because I have the impression that he has an excellent linguistic creation. Reality almost enters into the parable. Especially in the novels, I do not treat them as realistic prose. What is rather done there is the elevation of the banality to a higher level. It’s like with Bruno Schulz: we see the banality of the image, yet at the same time, there is a great eminence of meaning. Only in places where we can see banality, it is where we have access to life. Where there isn’t too much ideology, theories added to life. However, in order to convey it in language, it has to be elevated to an artificial state. This is the case in Ionesco's and Pinter's dramas, which I value very much.
What was the purpose of the artificial language used by these playwrights?
Maybe in this manner, they were showing us that our world is artificial. It is generated, constructed, and mentally created by religion, culture, manners, upbringing. We create these constructs to deal with passing, dying, suffering. But dying and passing, they are constantly slipping away. They escape the truths proclaimed in words. They escape our taming of life.
For many people, the artificiality of the language of post-war drama is discouraging.
And I like artificial language, I don't like styling for authenticity. The language is not as physiological as breathing, so it carries a different kind of presence. It is artificial somewhat from the beginning. I notice it in the speech of people uneducated academically, in the irony they use through evolutionary spontaneity. I mean, literature is secondary. It is a reverse order - as if books were to be written because literature exists. Language is much more than what is probably understood as literature. And this can be seen in some writers’ work. Also, I think, with those we have mentioned.
Their protagonists were often madmen, who somehow did not discern cultural norms and looked at the world without confines.
In these madmen, we seek respite, we seek normality, something that will soothe us. Paradoxically, we find no comfort in what is very positive, only sometimes we are purified by what is unpleasant - the darker sides of our existence. Literature is about taming our darker side, revealing it in oneself. That’s what Dostoevsky did.
Do you value any books that raise and affirm the world, man, culture?
In his diaries, Sándor Márai tried from time to time to appreciate the nature and beauty of the world, he tried to assign a great role to culture, but at subsequent stages of writing, he came to the conclusion that it repudiates itself. Finally, he described the farewell to his wife, who, after the cremation, consists of three handfuls of ashes, over which stands a group of three mourners, counted together with an official.
At the same time, he writes about love all the time.
This is also the case with Miłosz - the affirmation of life and culture lined with doubt. There is a sentence in one of Miłosz's poems saying that if the last man on earth stood on a mountain of rubble and looked at all this, he could only say: no idea what that was. On the other hand, there is a strong instinct for the affirmation of life in us, because the ability to delight is very organic in a human being – at the image of nature, at the fact that a human being feels wonderful moments in the presence of another human being, that they like something, that they have a sense of beauty. Tadeusz Borowski, who, in the poems found 52 years after their creation, writes how he stops in the camp between one deportation of corpses and another, and he sees the wild strawberries growing behind the wires. In a way, the sense of beauty saves him, it becomes an ethical value.
Did you have any youthful reading delights?
I remember reading Gombrowicz’s Diaries at the age of thirteen or fourteen. My brother, who studied in Toruń, bought them and brought them home. I was fascinated by this, I read them, sitting on a sheaf, with a calf in front of me. It worked very well for me.
What was there after Gombrowicz?
Then, I didn't read for a long time, everything seemed poor after Diary. Until I was seventeen years old, I had a gap in reading and then, strangely enough, I started with Żeromski. I had to read Przedwiośnie (“The Coming Spring”) in high school. And then, I started reading a lot. There was a period in my life after I resigned from law school, that I didn't actually leave my village for a year and a half, rarely only to the nearest town. I used to go to the library to get books and read. It was a very pleasant time, intensive in reading, in classics, above all, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Kafka, Eliot. I had a lot of time then. I was taking unemployment benefit, the so-called kuroniówka, because I couldn't find a job. For some time, I worked as a cleaner and stoker at a school.
And today you are a teacher...
That kuroniówka was spent on the books, because my parents supported me. There began fascinations which has lasted until today, almost 30 years.
The Diaries 1910-1923 by Franz Kafka, from which I do not take a break. Witkacy's Szewcy (“The shoemakers”) was also a great discovery for me. Later, during my studies, I came into contact with Marek Nowakowski's prose for the first time, I was twenty-one, maybe twenty-two. I can reach for Fernando Pessoa's texts at any time. Hrabal has also been with me for a long time, I prefer Too Loud A Solitude rather than Closely Watched Trains. Czesław Miłosz has been with me for twenty years.
His prose texts and essays as well?
Mostly poetry, maybe with the exception of Dolina Issy (“The Issa Valley”), which was more assimilable to me due to the subject matter and the world described.
Any contemporary playwrights?
I read very little contemporary literature. For years, I have been revolving around the same writers. Różewicz is invariably fascinating to me. After twenty years, I return to some of his works with delight. I recently read the volume Wyjście (“Exit”) from 2004 again. His irony is very convincing to me. Besides, irony is the best tool to elevate dialogue and conversation to a higher level. The basic journey in Różewicz's texts takes place in depth. With the help of a very simple language, we can uncuff the world that has been given to us, the world that has been arranged. Reality, which was supposed to be an order, but it is an order concealing something more. Różewicz says that he writes because he has no faith that carries a mountain, or any unusual knowledge, nor does he know what is behind that mountain that he cannot carry... We are doomed to look for what is behind the image that we see. Just like looking for freedom forever. Even when one gets some kind of freedom, they still desire it.
Constant insatiability and curiosity.
One has a dry home, a full pot, money for holidays, permanent work, and anxiety is driving us to seek further freedom. I have the impression that in my childhood and adolescence, I saw old people from my home region, who had a big question on their minds. It sounded like: What for? Why go far away? Why watch a different world when there is only one world? Why look at houses other than my own? Such decadent thinking attracts me. It suggests a journey into the depths, a journey to the nearest forest to pick mushrooms, going to the nearest pond, lake to go fishing. Make your way to the nearest resident to sit with them, have a cup of tea, and talk about how rapeseed grows this year. As if the present was the only answer. And now, rapeseed is growing. Yesterday it was too, but it is growing now.
Do you know the films of Andrzej Barański?
I like. Especially Kramarz (“Street vendor”) with Roman Kłosowski from 1990. This is a fascinating film.
Barański reaches for authentic characters, adapts literature written by non-professional writers, literary amateurs, reaches for simple, rural language. A bit like you.
I draw from such people in an incomplete way, for instance, I take something from their language, movement, appearance; but, in their mouths, I put, using simple language, thoughts from Stephen Hawking's or Michał Heller's books, as well as questions that bother me. I put this man to a kind of madness during which he starts to ask these questions, both himself and the environment.
Where does this madness, which keeps coming back in your work, come from?
An important observational experience for me was the contact with a neighbour suffering from Alzheimer's disease, who kept looking for her house. She went out on the road, took my hand, and asked: Rafałek, where is my house? I walked her to her house. Two hours later, I was walking to a shop, and she is walking down the street again and she takes me by hand, asking: Where is my house? I was most struck when I took her to her house one time, and showed her to the gate, and she asked me: And where is my house?
That's how your play Długie życie (“Long Life”) ends.
To me, this scene reflects a man's clash with matter. We face the Cosmos not when one knows where home, shop, tannery, where Warszawska Street is, where a vet is, a church, a doctor. One faces it when they are home and they don’t know where their home is. There are moments when the language detaches from consciousness, and we start to speak in a completely different way. And that's the same person speaking! Only that their language is completely different. That is why the dialogues I read adoringly from Pinter, Różewicz, or in the dramas of Ionesco, Beckett, or the dialogues in Joyce's Ulysses, they somewhat reflect this for me. This detachment of the language from the human being.
The protagonists talk to each other sometimes very inadequately.
It is normally assumed that there should be a question and an answer. Well, not really. It is already an intercepted language, precisely transferred to dialogues in art. But it is a bit like the precision of a physical formula. We have splashing liquids, suffocating gases, cell death, and finally conversion into powder- all like chaos. But it can be described with an artificial, precise language of a physical or chemical formula. And this pattern has its own aesthetics, certain artificial beauty, and quality of the message. Similarly for me, that’s the case with a language that comes out of the mouth of a person who, for us, is deprived of a healthy consciousness.
Who else managed to capture it in art?
I love this film Synecdoche, New York from 2008. When I first saw it, it made a great impression on me. There is an incredible slowness of events, consisting in changes in the body of the main character, in the fact that he keeps inventing the title of his play, constantly expanding the scenery, and a great reality is being created. The events that take place there appeal to me in the same way as the film Wild strawberries by Bergman, which I also value very much. Also, Tadeusz Kantor appeals to me very much. I watch his plays, the recordings that remained. Despite the passing of time, he is invariably stimulating. It is so incredibly inspiring - these protagonists saying, "I wasn't here, and I wasn't here, and I wasn't here”. I did not know it yet, and I felt very similar when, as a child, I was walking on the wooden floor in the kitchen, funnily enough, at the former house of a cantor, the former German evangelical school. I was walking on this floor and thought that I am here now, but I wasn't here one day, and I won't be here one day. So what does the phrase "I am" mean?
Interviewer: Marcin Kube
Translated by Justyna Lowe