photo: Zbyszko Oleś-Wollenberg

Bedside table #24. Mariusz Czubaj: For vast areas of Polish literature, I am out

Writer and anthropologist Mariusz Czubaj reveals who he considers to be the Coelho of contemporary political and worldview issues and what kind of literature makes the greatest impression on him.

What are you currently reading?

When I talk about my discovery, which perhaps I should have come across fifteen to twenty years ago, I have such a sense of shame, by the way, undeserved, because you cannot read everything. I am now reading The Life You Save May Be Your Own, i.e. The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor, and I am delighted.

There's never been such an edition before.

I've never known this writer before!

This is not so surprising, because it is not always so obvious when it comes to American classics in our country - some of them are very present, some are less present.

Exactly. I heard that there was such a woman that had, generally speaking, not a very happy life, but that's where my knowledge ended. I am reading these stories, I marvel at the South, the simplicity of the story, the fact that there is no blathering, there is no element that would be unnecessary. The economics of words is something extremely important here.

Yeah, but how hard she worked on it! It resembles the situation with Salinger, who, for twenty years, has written barely a dozen or so short stories for the "New Yorker".

This is the art that the Americans acquired due to the specificity of the publishing and press market, as well as the life of writers in the United States. They lived off and still do mainly thanks to publications in magazines. This ‘economics’ of words is something extremely valuable.

The specificity of the market imposes a certain form.

That's right, but, at the same time, it imposes something else that is alien to our literary bios, namely diligence.

Work on a text.

Titanic! Not just ordinary, but really extremely meticulous, painstaking. Of course, there are some writers who have made this absurd, and with them, I am not completely on-side, e.g. Carver. His writing puts me off. I appreciate the genius, but at the same time, I feel rejected by this asceticism.

It was largely thanks to his editor, Gordon Lish, who crossed out everything for him.

And yet Carver himself was ascetic in this area – not in other ones, though. Coming back to my readings, I am also reading Gyula Krúdy's short stories, The City of Sleeping Women (short prose collection – translator’s note) . And this is something completely different from O'Connor - a manifestation of some kind of literary gargantuanism, magnification.

Sandor Marai dedicated to Krúdy the absolutely magnificent novel Sinbad returns home. And Marai wrote it completely differently from other books, slightly imitating Krúdy.

Sometimes I think of various correlations between the text and the author. It is common knowledge that Krúdy was a huge glutton. There are even some people, like Krzyś Varga (Polish-Hungarian writer – translator’s note), and who is supposed to know about Hungary if not him? - who claim that gluttony led to his death. The afterword to these stories says that he was starving at the end of his life, but that is impossible. So, it is gargantuan prose, but, at the same time, extremely chunky and... culinary. The metaphor of life is consumption, but consumption on a plate. In this way, women, human relationships, and life in general are consumed. The most beautiful thing that can happen is a portion of well-done pork scratching.

It may seem slightly odd that I am not talking about crime stories.

Not really, but, as you’ve already mentioned it, do you read a lot of those?

Maybe not a lot, but I have some authors whom I simply love psycho-fanically. One such writer is certainly Lee Child. We have a three-person Lee Child’s fan club. It includes Marcin Świetlicki and, strangely enough, Krystyna Krynicka.

Who publishes subtle poetry.

Ryszard Krynicki apparently isn’t, but Mrs Krynicka is definitely on Jack Reacher's side. Marcin always writes to me, "I've already finished. I'll tell you how it's going to end.” And I give him a big "NO!" and he says, "Jack Reacher kills everyone and leaves for another small town.” Well, I am fascinated by the repetitiveness in this prose. I don't know how it works. There are authors who are simply secondary in this repetition, but in the case of Lee Child, the fact that his 20th novel is exactly the same as the second one does not bother me at all. I know for a fact that Jack Reacher will get off the bus, as usual he will not have a mobile phone, driving license, and many other documents, he will determine that there are some problems in the town, he will solve them in his unique way, that is he will kill half the town, get on the bus, then get off in another small town in the next American state, and it fascinates me. I can't really tell you why, but I don't think I'd even want to. There are two things about it that I like very much: firstly, the US bus service, and secondly, the fact that Jack Reacher does not have a telephone, but he is taking advantage of the fact that, until today, in every American bar, there is a phone hanging around, which, strangely enough, he can calmly use to call the Pentagon and receive the sensitive information he needs to solve the case, a kind of licentia poetica. And I admire him!

I’d say that you seem to be a reader who, despite your rich experience, experiences a lot of such delights.

I don't know. We started with delights, because I personally consider literature to be the second most beautiful art after music. However, music is more important to me, maybe because it is usually simply non-discursive, which means that it provides a different type of experience - such as, so to speak, un-logocentric. In literature, I look for things that delight me, but unfortunately, I am most often a reader…

A grumpy reader?

Maybe not grumpy, but I actually sample books, that is, I choose an excerpt, I look at it, a page or two, and if I’m into it – I read it, but if I’m not, I don’t read it at all. I start to read, I get bored quickly, there are some authors that I am not able to read. What is beautiful, however, is such a utopia of infinity. I buy books compulsively, and I know for a fact that I won't read them. I am happy that I won’t read them, but I do have them! There's some sort of Borgesian utopia of a library. But there are certain literary traits I don't like.

What would that be?

Lugubriousness... Although, of course, there are lugubrious writers I read for this very reason. Since we talked about Hungary, I very much value Memoir by Márai, which is a very lugubrious read. There, even if the sun shines in America, it is black.

The black sun of melancholy.

Exactly. Or when it shines, it'll stop in a minute, and there's a catastrophe lurking in it all. But how it is written! However, when lugubriousness goes hand in hand with pretentiousness and - especially in memoir prose - a sense of self-complacency, with megalomania – then I am out. That is why, unfortunately, I am out of vast areas of Polish literature.

Whom, for instance?

I can't read Wojtek Kuczok, I can't read Szczepan Twardoch.

I’m not even asking about Adam Zagajewski.

Not really. I support him on obvious matters, like all Poles, but I do not necessarily read him. I don't really understand Olga Tokarczuk's prose, but it's a different story. I have a feeling that she promises something that she does not give. In this prose, there is an empty facade that boils down to the sentence: "Look how deep it is.” Opowieści galicyjskie (“Galician Tales”) are wonderful, but Stasiuk, as a diagnostician of Western culture and the problems of civilization, is no longer wonderful at all.

The classic case of a writer I hate is Houllebecq. This is the Coelho of contemporary political and worldview problems. I can't see anything inside, he's pretentious, I can't get through it. I hate Fiodor Dostoyevsky. But it is because of another thing: his protagonists do not talk to each other. This is autistic literature, where everyone gives an exposé.

Milan Kundera is also a pretentious writer I can't digest. I can't read it!

The Joke, however, is a great novel.

And only The Joke! It's a great novel, but then, everything is on a high C, set on some kind of diapason...

It must be at least Jan Sebastian Bach.

Well, that's the point. It's a bit like in Janusz Leon Wiśniewski's prose - if the characters have sex, it has to be the best champagne and Brahms. They obviously won’t have sex by David Podsiadlo.

That's too bad.

It would be good for this prose!

It would give it some credibility.

I don't know anyone who would behave like that, but perhaps my experience in this area is too small.

Bukowski listened to a lot of classical music. But he has a counterpoint.

The counterpoint and the fact that he hated beatniks and wrote about it very well. He didn't let himself be seduced by something that should obviously be his.

You could say that if someone was a beatnik, it was him.

It's true. So, I hate this grumpiness. For the Czech counterpoint: Josef Škvorecký - that's a writer! The Cowards, and Miss Silver’s Past, and The Engineer of Human Souls, and The Tenor Saxophonisťs Story – there is a spark, there's distance, there's humour. Despite the pathos of the situation, his work, including that from Canada, is completely un-homeland-like. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a Czech who is reopening his wounds, especially in literature. But against the backdrop of this catastrophe, which is somewhere in the back of one’s head, this spark of life is something incredible. Distance, humour, irony, punch line - these are the features of literature!

Let's go back in time a little bit. Did you have any writers who shaped you as a human being, a reader?

It so happens that Varga's book about Edmund Niziurski has recently been published - and he is one of the writers of my youth, I read it avidly, a great deal. I have read each of Niziurski's books several times, same thing with Nienacki's books. It may not be top-shelf literature, but it's the kind of literature that shapes us. After all, nobody is forcing anyone to read Różewicz before going to sleep, and that "I survived / being led to slaughter".

I have daughters aged 16 and 18, I asked them, I also tried to check if there are Polish writers who would fill the gap for teenagers and...


… and apart from Kosik, I can’t see anyone else.

So, this is the kind of literature that shaped me, and before that, the wonderful novel Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, which I had also read goodness knows how many times. Nothing sophisticated. And do I have such a brigandish book? I don't think so. To this day, however, I still wonder what was it with being bitten by Stachura. I completely cannot tell why everyone had to go through it. His prose, maybe... But these poems were just pulp. Yet, we loved it.

You had to go through Stachura, you had to go through Latin Americans. Today, hipsters read Houellebecq, and I think we both belong to a generation when you read Garcia Marquez and thought these were important things.

These are definitely the things that are left in literature.

Yes, of course. But I don't have such a book of my life. I won't be very original if I say that I belong to the fans of Lalka (“The Doll”).

I don't really know people who wouldn't value The Doll.

And that's how it should be. Just as I am on the side of Prus against Sienkiewicz in the eternal dispute, I am on the side of Wojaczek against Stachura. I do like a lot of - this may also be not entirely obvious – poetry, because I read it completely selflessly. I often read literature instrumentally. It is difficult for me to liberate myself from the professional way of reading, both academic and writer-like, a way in order to see how something is done. This makes it all the more important for me to appreciate the moments of epiphany and admiration.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik (the interview was published in the last issue of "Nowe Książki" monthly)

Translated by Justyna Lowe