Bedside table #25. Jerzy Jarniewicz: A book read once is a book unread

The poet, literary critic, and translator Jerzy Jarniewicz talks about the differences between translation and reading, a book and a chair as a pair of lovers, reading for pleasure, despite holding a pencil in hand, what is lacking in Polish prose, and he also confesses what he would like to translate if he had time.

In your last volume of essays entitled Tłumacz między innymi ("Translator Among Others"), you write: "The night is a translator’s time (...) Between a word and a word, something begins to happen, the mind tired from the course of the day, less and less aware of itself, loosens, turns a blind eye to the lack of discipline.” Is night also the best time to read for you? At what times do you enjoy reading the most?

Every time is right to read, because reading a good book, and we are talking about fiction, invalidates time. I do not make theories, I say what I have experienced more than once. Or else: reading invites me to a different time dimension, in which time runs differently, faster or slower than real time. When I read a book, it is no longer important to me whether it is night outside the window or whether the city is vibrant with life. I am already in a different dimension. I like to start the day with reading, I like to end the day with reading, life then goes on in between reading times.

Translation work requires special attention and discipline. How do you manage to keep your focus on the text you are translating or reading? How do you deal with excess of stimuli?

Translation differs from reading. I can read anytime, anywhere, but I can only translate under certain conditions. The tension accompanying translation, such a bodily and mental stimulation, without which I cannot imagine the translation, has no equivalent in reading. Reading allows me to submit to the text, translation requires me to change my roles with the text, so to submit it to myself as well. When I read, I don't play with the text, I don't play hare and hounds with it - I let it take over myself. When I translate, however, a perverse, seductive game is played between me and the text. The night only favours such a game. It doesn't distract, but it stimulates. It does not discipline, but it loosens. For stimulation is more important than "special attention and discipline"; after all, we are talking about literature that affects emotions and stimulates the senses. When I translate, I sometimes turn on instrumental music, or, I’ll be honest with you, I reach for, in controlled quantities, a good tipple, coffee, or strong tea. In both cases it's about such a stimulation that you can forget or expose yourself, stop controlling yourself, stop being ashamed, not be afraid of transgression. It is a moment close to erotic rapture or madness, without which there is no creativity. Such a text written at night will, of course, have to be properly edited, tamed, chiselled the next day, but the translator's truly creative work takes place under cover of the night. 

What does the place where you read look like? Is it one, fixed, lair? Or are you maybe a rather mobile reader – you take books with you on a journey, into the world?

Why a lair? A seat. I don't like reading lying down. And so much so that a book and a chair seem to me to be an inseparable couple of lovers. A book and a chair are like tea and a cup. Or like a river and a boat. Reading is an activity invented by a human being, sitting on a chair or in an armchair - too. But to read while lying down? Or hanging on a branch? An inner contradiction. I can read anywhere, as long as I have a place to sit. Let it be a train or a bench in the park.

What are you currently reading? What books are there on your bedside table?

There are a lot of books on my bedside table, we don't have enough room to name them all. But there is Dziecko z darów ("Child from Gifts"), the latest poetry volume of Justyna Bargielska, to which, I admit, I am addicted, though not without reason: is it one of three or four of the most expressive and, at the same time, most credible voices of Polish poetry. This book is lying on my table, because I reach for it to read two, three poems, and put it away. I like books I pick up, read for half an hour, and put them away. Just like with albums containing reproductions of works of art, I open an album with the collections of the London National Gallery, for example, just to look at Venus by Velazquez, close it, and put it down. Short visits can make more sense than a long-term stay.

You are a translator, university lecturer, essayist, literary critic, and editor. Do you see a difference between 'professional' and 'private' reading? Can reading 'for duty' (e.g. academic) be simultaneously a reading "for pleasure"? Should these two modes of reading be separated?

Professionally, that is, "for duty", I now read only my habilitation monographs and doctorates - I read them professionally, because it is one of my professional duties. My duties also include reading other people's translations when I edit a number of "Literatura na Świecie" ("World Literature") magazines as well as books submitted for the literary award, the committee of which I sit on. Apart from these cases, I have no "obligation" to read, which would not be at the same time as reading from choice, or reading for pleasure, even if the reason for reading is an ordered review or the need to conduct a seminar. Once it was different, today these two ways of reading have come very close to each other. I read with a pencil in my hand, marking important passages, so it seems "professional", but I read as long as I have fun reading.

As a translator, you deal with both poetry and prose. You have translated Philip Roth and Philip Larkin, Raymond Carver, and Rosemary Tonks. What brings you more satisfaction in reading lately - poetry or prose?

Are you serious? Then I'll answer seriously that I'm most satisfied with hardback books. And if I can be not serious, or accept the obvious, I'll say that good poetry brings me more satisfaction in reading than bad prose, or good prose than bad poetry. There is a limit in my reading experience, behind which the division into prose and poetry disappears. Joyce's prose, with its complexity, resembles poetry dense in meaning, and Larkin's poems can be read like a good, though miniature novel, with a plot, characters, social background, descriptions of nature, and so on. As long as for the author, it is important not only what they write, but also how they write, as long as they try to use language creatively, to build fresh sentences that will be remembered, then I couldn’t care less about the distinction between poetry and prose.

What do you think about contemporary Polish prose? Do you follow it? Recently, you have spoken favourably about books by Waldemar Bawołek.

To such a general question, what I think about contemporary Polish prose, I refuse to answer, because whatever my answer is it will be a simplification, banality, or tittle-tattle. If what your question really means is who, apart from Bawołek, I have been reading in recent years - because I do not "follow" - with interest, then here you go, these are the titles that spring to mind off the cuff: Włoskie szpilki (“Italian High Heels”) by Magdalena Tulli, Małe lisy (”Little Foxes”) by Justyna Bargielska, Krótka wymiana ognia (”The Short Fire Exchange”) by Zyta Rudzka, Zdrój (”Resort”) by Barbara Klicka, and Skoruń (“Raskal”) by Maciej Płaza. These are books from the last few years, each above average, although it is not a closed list. On the other hand, when participating in the annual meetings of the Gdynia Literary Award jury, I know all too well that I have the greatest difficulty in selecting nominations in prose. And this is not a problem called, from the foreign language, embarras de richesse.

In your book Znaki firmowe (“Trademarks”), you wrote that American prose 'may impress with its consistent attempts to quickly record escaping reality, done without the paralysing feeling that time is being wasted on ephemeral and trivial phenomena'. Isn't this something that contemporary Polish prose lacks?

Yes, I must admit that Polish poetry does it more often, more interestingly, more deeply, and, altogether, more convincingly. For example, Dominik Bielicki in Pawilony ("Pavilions") or Tomasz Bąk in Utylizacja. Pęta miast ("Reprocessing. The Shackles of Cities”), to recall only two recently published books, different in fact. I would like to remind you, for the record, that the excerpt you quoted, in which one can actually hear my dissatisfaction with the tepidness of Polish prose, which favours, interestingly often, I admit, trips into the past over a creative confrontation with everyday life, comes from the introduction to my book published in 2007, i.e. twelve years ago. Wojna polsko-ruska ("Snow White and Russian Red") was three and a half years old, it was just learning to speak, Lubiewo ("Lovetown”) was a year younger, and we had to wait a few more years for Obsoletki (“Born Sleeping"). And these are the three titles which might be the most important in Polish prose of the last twenty years, introducing new language and, in their own way, defining hitherto unnamed areas of our reality.  

And what readings have shaped you as a poet? Which poets had the strongest influence on your own writing?

What has had an influence on me, only critics know. Writers probably rarely have such awareness. I can tell you which poets have captured my imagination, but have they had influence on my writing? I don't know. In my childhood, in rather blurry times, I was fed Mickiewicz - instead of bedtime stories, I heard the lamentation of my grandmother, who recited him from memory, "You don't have, you don't have Maryla”. The first conscious poetry reading took place during an English lesson - my grandfather, an English teacher in a female high school, taught me the language by, among other things, reading English literature. For a few months, for example, we sat, at the end of primary school, with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. I tried to write like him, not with great success, though. I also remember The Prisoner of Chillion by Byron, which tired me terribly. Then came the readings, already independent, of Polish poets, quite predictable: Różewicz, Herbert, but I also read Bursa, Nowak, Harasymowicz, Grochowiak, and, from the young ones, I was curious about Lipska at the time. And Barańczak, who discovered Białoszewski for me. A close friend of mine suggested Wojaczek to me as part of diversification. My understanding of poems was certainly influenced by Zdzisław Jaskuła, with whom I had a long friendship and whose poems I translated into English. The breakthrough came at the end of the seventies, when I found Małe muzea ("Little Museums") by Bohdan Zadura and Inny świat ("Another World") by Piotr Sommer, and then, obviously, the invasion of the British and Irish, from Larkin to Heaney. The next stage was the post-war Americans, but this is already a known history, as it is universal. Here, in a gesture of self-defence, I consciously tried not to relish these brilliant New Yorkers, seeing them dominate the poetic scene. They certainly influenced the way I write, but I was also afraid of that influence.  

I will return to your translation activities. Did your foreign-language discoveries induce you to take up translation? The authors you wanted to hear in Polish?

Oh, yes, of course. I can't imagine any other inducement than a reading discovery. The poets translated at the very beginning were the authors I had discovered, who were so deeply under my skin that I had to let them through (my) Polish language. Not to share my admiration for them with others, but to see how they work in my language.

Are there any books that you wish were translated? In other words, who else would you like to translate?

I won't do it, because I don't have the qualifications, but I would be happy if someone translated The Canterbury Tales. There is a translation of excerpts from over half a century ago by Helena Pręczkowska and The Knight's Tale by Mroczkowski, but this great work by Chaucer remains practically unknown. I would myself translate Larkin's first novel, "Jill". Or Lady Chatterley's Lover by Lawrence. Or a few early novels by Evelyn Waugh. If I had the time.

What are your reading plans? What else would you like to read? Do you return to the classics or are you trying to keep up with current literary production?

As a reader, I'm a man of returns. I often return to texts that I cared about, which touched me somehow. That's what they are for, to return to them. That's why we keep them on the shelves. Never exhausted, they let themselves be read differently each time. Ideally, it would be perfect to read every single thing worth reading at least twice: first, wandering to the end, unaware of the end or the composition of the whole, combining excerpts into larger sequences, second time - with knowledge of the whole and the ending, with sharp focus on the detail. I will take my chances and say: a book read once is a book unread.

Your question about whether I return to the classics or whether I am trying to keep up with current literary production is a question that suggests many things, including separability. And I both return to the classics and read what comes into being during my own time. One without the other, it wouldn't make any sense.

By the way, I’ll just note that you used the phrase "keep up (with the production)" - as if reading contemporary literature involved some irrational, condemned to lose race, and reading classical literature - with classical ease. Meanwhile, I imagine that some people are trying to keep up with the classics and they lose this race. We should not keep up with literature, be it from the past or the present. "More" and "faster" are terms that are alien to my understanding of literature.

Is there any canonical author you haven't read? Have you managed to get through all the volumes of Proust? Have you read Nad Niemnem ("On the Niemen") without skipping the descriptions of nature? "Finnegans Wake" from cover to cover?

If I said I hadn't read Hamlet, that would be something, but you wouldn't believe me, and rightly so. If I say that I have not read the whole Księga Królów ("Book of Kings") or "Germinal," or "The Betrothed," or, I’m almost done with this list, "Resurrection," you would only shrug your shoulders, wouldn’t you? For what would result from it? It is good to live with the feeling that they are, and that there will always be vast areas of literature untouched by my reading. To get through, you say, through Proust? No, I certainly did not wade through, but I felt carried by Proust - it was the reading delight of an 18-year-old. I had to wade through "The Glass Bead Game", which seemed to me to be ghastly preaching and pretentious. I read On the Niemen at school, without skipping, and without any particular pain, even with interest, because, I remember, I fished out and wrote down some of the more interesting, rarely used now words and phrases. I didn't read "Finnegans Wake" cover to cover, but in a spare moment, casually and impulsively. Until now, I like to get into this text, get lost in it, and get out of it into the everyday sun. But let us return to your question, because I feel that there is a belief behind it that I do not share: that literature can be catalogued, closed in some canon, for example in a mad list by Harold Bloom. That it is a limited phenomenon that can be exhausted or at least embraced. This is an alien attitude for me: to me, literature is something inexhaustible, open, a process rather than a magazine of texts, something - in its essence - closer to life than the richest museum, a domain of transformation rather than petrification, a stream, not marble.

Interviewer: Jakub Nowacki.

Translated by Justyna Lowe