Bedside table #27. Daniel Odija: I'm looking for an outstanding sentence

Prose writer Daniel Odija talks about his impatience with lengthy novels, Carver's pampered short stories, theological literature, homage to writers in his own work, interest in comics in recent years, as well as being infected with Gombrowicz.

Tomasz Pstrągowski: What is on your bedside table?

Daniel Odija: American short stories by Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Carver. Short, highly condensed, mainstream fiction forms. Carver is particularly suited to this description. I now have three volumes of his short forms. Very simple writing, focused on history, linguistically ascetic. I have just finished Vonnegut’s "Complete Stories". It was an adventure. Over a thousand pages. 98 stories. And before that, I had completed Nabokov's collection of short stories. Bukowski returned to me years later, too.

Recently, I've been reading a lot of stories. I try to start my adventure with each new author with their short forms. I have no patience for long novels.

Besides, it impinges upon my writing. I am a writer of short forms, which I then combine into a larger whole. A short literary and readership breath suits me. Those 15-20 years ago, I used to read Dostoevsky and Tomasz Mann's books. Thousand-pages-long novels. Today, I do not have the strength nor patience to do this.

The problem is that going into a novel is not only a week of reading, but also a week of taking it in. As a result, there is no time to write your own stuff. I have my own stories to write, so in others, I'm most interested in the technique, the way of writing. And I can find interesting writing faster in a story than in a novel. Anyway, I'm not able to write a longer novel myself now – let’s say a 300-page novel - so why would I read such things?

It seems that you treat reading highly technically.

Yeah. I always try to learn something.

Do you focus on one book or do you read in parallel?

In this case, I focused on each volume one by one. I was fascinated by how Vonnegut's writing developed. I got sucked into his biography. Vonnegut had a family to support. He simply had to earn money. So, he sat up at nights and wrote. The texts in this volume are uneven, but it inspired me to work on my habits. It forced me to sit down and write.

It was a similar case with Bukowski, who said that to write something good you have to write a lot of shit. And that's what you can see in his work. He wrote all the time. Many works are weaker. But some of them are jewels.

If you happen upon a weaker text, do you reject it or wade through it to the end?

I wade through it. Even a weaker story by Bukowski has a good dialogue. Even a poor story by Vonnegut has an interesting turning point. And Carver... well, he doesn't have weaker stories. With him, the selection was cruel. Every text is pampered. Which, by the way, results in me not being able to devour these stories one by one. After each one, I need a day off to think.

Why are you focusing precisely on the Americans?

I don't know. Earlier, I had a Czech period. Ota Pavel. Count. Škvorecký. Great storytellers. I got over it. Now the Americans. My last discovery is George Saunders. I read Lincoln in Bardo and Tenth of December.

Tenth of December is still waiting for me.

I'm jealous. You will have incredible fun. Every story in this volume fills a reader’s brain with hotchpotch.

I'm not particularly consistent. I sometimes take challenges like, "Now, the beatniks”, “now, Russian literature”, “now, this writer, because he enchanted me with his style". I read it until I'm tired. But at some point it becomes excessive, and I give up the subject.

But... we're talking about fiction, and I'm not only reading fiction. All my life, I've been going back to psychedelic experiences. I am reading Timothy Leary now. He is a famous psychologist, who in the 1960s and 1970s studied how psychedelics affect the human mind. I have just finished "LSD, My Problem Child" by Albert Hoffman. I had previously read Baudelaire's Artificial Paradises: Treatise on Wine, Hashish and Opium. I always have this kind of stories to hand and read them in my spare time.

In the same way, I always have some theological reading to hand. The Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Upanishads. As well as Zen philosophy.

That’s quite a lot.

It's not always like that. I have less intense periods. When I worked in the library for 3 years, I just didn't have the time nor strength to read.

Now, I read a lot, because I cut myself off from TV. The less I watch, the more I read. So, I turn on the TV only when Liverpool FC is playing. I also had a period of Facebook indulgement and unhealthy e-mail checking. I noticed that it brought chaos and anxiety into my life, making it impossible for me to function normally. I am currently in rehab; I log in every 2-3 days just to check if maybe I have a financial proposal. I used to get addicted to video games. I spent one summer holiday playing "Heroes of Might & Magic". A few years later, I became addicted to "FIFA".

How many books, roughly, do you read a year?

I won't give you a specific number, because it was only this year that I started to write down on my phone the titles I read. I try to read 100 pages every day. And to write 5-6 thousand characters. Reading works out well, writing doesn't. Of course, this is not measurable, because I read a lot of poetry...

What poetry?

From Szymborska, Miłosz, and William Blake, through Emily Dickinson, to Edgar Lee Masters, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Octavia Paza, Arthur Rimbaud, Elizabeth Bishop... I can name them endlessly.

Do you take notes?

I underline notoriously. In pencil. I often use specific sentences of others in my own writing. I treat this sentence as a starting point for my own paragraph. In Kronika umarłych ("The Chronicle of the Dead"), I pay homage to Shakespeare, sonnet 66.


I say homage. Someone else will say stealing, someone else will say intertextuality. I simply converted the 66th sonnet into my own phrase.

Coming back to taking notes…

I write a lot on the margins. Usually, key words. I used to have discussions with the text. I would leave a card filled with reflections and polemics between the pages. I don't do that anymore today.

I definitely underline the most in Emil Cioran’s. A lot in Upanishads. A lot in poetry. I used to underline Dostoyevsky. A little in William Burroughs’ works. Less in short stories. I'm looking for an outstanding sentence, something that will inspire me.

I don't treat a book as sacred. I can destroy it.

If underlining is so important to you, I suppose you don't read e-books?

No, not at all. I know it's convenient, that my rucksack would be light when going on vacation. One e-reader instead of seven or eight books. Maybe I will ask for a reader for Christmas?  But, man, I'm not convinced. I love the touch of paper. The smell of the book. I like underlining and noting. And I know that in an e-book, you can underline, and people take notes on the phone, but I guess I'm just too old for that.

You don't listen to audiobooks either?

No. It's weird, because I write radio plays myself. And while working in a multimedia library, I had access to and recorded books for the blind and visually impaired. I once listened to I Served the King of England by Hrabal. Hungover, when I was unable to do anything else. It was fun, but I didn't get sucked in.

Do you have a problem with storing books?

Yes, of course. I buy a lot of them. Often on sale, for two zlotys (0.45€) for a book. Usually poetry and collections of short stories, because novels are in libraries. I am just getting ready to renovate. I have a nine-meter hallway in my flat, where I will put up new shelves. Especially, since I've been interested in comic books for about two years, and these take up even more space.

You're building book towers on the floor?

It's not that bad yet. I put two rows on the shelves. I put them on the chairs. But the floor is still free. I am lucky to live in an old tenement house. 94 square meters. The ceiling is three metres high. There is some space.

What have you bought recently?

Island by Aldous Huxley. I love his anti-utopias, but I value him above all for his columns and essays. The Perennial Philosophy, Synthetic God.

Do you read only Polish or in other languages?

Only in Polish. I will communicate in English, but I am too weak for literature. If so, it's bilingual editions. Last time, I read T.S. Elliot's poetry in this way. To be able to compare the translation with the original.

You mentioned you started reading comic books. Do you have any discoveries?

I won’t be original here. Certainly Alan Moore. Amazing screenwriter. World champion and an alien. From Hell by Moore and Eddie Campbell was a great discovery for me. I am now preparing for Promethea. Next to Moore, I was fascinated by Maus by Art Spiegelman. Epileptic by David B. I very much appreciate Daniel Clowes's graphic novels, he's an intelligent guy. I love the unbridled explosions of Alejandro Jodorowsky's imagination, and I'm a big fan of "The Incal". My guide and comic book librarian is Wojciech Stefaniec.

Do you read the typical comic book superhero stuff?

Hardly at all. Some Batmans. I appreciate playing with the convention in The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. But I treat them as a curiosity, because superheroes are not my thing at all. It's a children's dream.

As a Liverpool fan, do you read football books?

No. Just watch it.

Genre literature?

When I want to rest. First of all, science fiction. I won't be original here. I am a fan of Stanisław Lem and Philip K. Dick. Once, I was delighted by Frank Herbert, I am very much looking forward to the screen adaptation of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve. In general, I try to keep up to date with science-fiction cinema.

In Dick's works, I am especially delighted with Ubik, Three Stigmata by Palmer Eldritch, and his short stories.

You aren’t bothered by the fact that Dick was a very mediocre writer in terms of technique?

Dick was never a great artist of the word, and I certainly don't read it for the language. I'm looking for surprising stories, twists and turns of action, adventure. I like the madness of these novels.

Do you also read Dick’s mainstream fiction attempts?

I value A Scanner Darkly. But Valis is impossible to get through. This is some attempt to create a religious system, suspiciously crazy. And boring to boot.  And, as I have mentioned before, I'm looking for adventure in Dick’s books.

What about Lem?

I love Bajki robotów („Fables for Robots”). I used to make radio plays based on them myself. Solaris is unsurpassed. Maska (“The Mask”) is amazing. Powrót z gwiazd ("Return From the Stars”). Niezwyciężony ("The Invincible"). I kind of liked Eden, too.

Have you read Lem's biography that came from Orliński’s pen?

I have it at home, I borrowed it from a friend. But it's on the shelf, and I am haven’t reached for it. One day, there will come a time when I will start reading biographies, memoirs, and diaries. My wife is at this stage. She reads, often aloud to me, the diaries of Zofia Nałkowska and Maria Dąbrowska (a very interesting picture of the Second Polish Republic, disturbingly close to what is happening in Poland today).

Which book did you return to the most?

I haven't read any book three times.

I read Solaris, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, and The Hangman by Lagerkvist twice. I know for a fact that I will read Hamsun's Hunger for the second time, Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice (this book amused me a lot at the time). I will definitely return to Jewgienij Zamatin’s We someday. The author was an engineer, so he wielded technical language excellently. We is an anti-utopia about love written in mathematical-engineering language. This incompatibility of style with the subject fascinates me.

Much more often than novels, I return to short stories. To Platonov, Nabokov. The latter is a great stylist. Sometimes a bit too sophisticated a ballet master, who plays and shows off. But I will return to The Defense many more times.

Is there any reading that shaped you?

Gombrowicz. The whole theory of mug and dealing somebody the pupa. In high school, I read everything except "Diaries". Oh, so those are other books I read twice. A few years ago, I refreshed Gombrowicz and, even though I was delighted in high school, today - not everything holds up today.

Gombrowicz is the writer from whom I had to free myself. He is the most infectious writer in the world. At university, being under his influence, I also complicated my writing, my style. Fortunately, I fell into the hands of Andrzej Stasiuk, who published my first novel. Andrzej cleansed my style. He simplified it. He set me free from Gombrowicz. Today, I treat Gombrowicz as a guide as to how not to write.

And Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Brothers Karamazov. Today. I move away from Dostoevsky, but his work had a huge impact on me.

And a personal hero, a writer whose work I would take to a desert island, is Bohumil Hrabal. His books have always relaxed me. Literature was born by the bonfire, so the best literature is gossip, stories, storytelling. And Hrabal is the best storyteller. I served the King of England, Too Loud a Solitude, Closely Watched Trains. And short stories.

And when I was a kid, I devoured Karl May and Jules Verne. Though much more May than Verne.

Are you up to date with contemporary Polish literature?

Yeah, I guess so. I flick through Polish novel prose in bookshops. I know how someone writes, what phrases they use. I try to keep my finger on the pulse. But at the moment, there is no Polish author that I would run to the bookshop for their new novel on the day of its premiere. Too much padding.

I single out Andrzej Stasiuk - his language is outstanding; you can return to Stasiuk like to poetry. And Olga Tokarczuk – especially her early works, I love Prawiek i inne czasy (“Primeval and Other Times”), it is her most outstanding achievement. I also like Dorota Masłowska - her books do not teach me anything about life, but every sentence surprises me. Dorota has her own phrasing.

Do you give books as gifts?

To my father and my brother. Reportage to my father. To my brother - mainly comic books and scientific fantasy. Ursula Le Guin, a series about the torturer by Gene Wolfe, Roger Zelazny, everything by Frank Herbert. I don't have one book, a sure thing that always works. And I don't buy fashionable novels from bestseller lists. I give titles that I know and I'm sure they'll like it.

Do you read non-fiction?

I worked on TVP (Polish Public TV – translator’s note) for 10 years when it was still independent. I was working on the news for Gdansk Panorama, TeleExpress, Wiadomości (news programmes – translator’s note). This job taught me that every journalist heats up the topic. Without exception. And it discourages me a little from reportage. It's not always well written, although it's not the style that matters most here, it's the world and people.  

You don’t reach for it at all?

I can reach for it, but there is no fire. I read the whole of Kapuściński. I know what Wojciech Tochman, Paweł Smoleński, Jacek Hugo-Bader, and Justyna Kopińska write. I appreciate Małgorzata Rejmer's style very much, and I will certainly read her new book Błoto słodsze niż miód ("Mud Sweeter than Honey"). But I prefer fiction.

Interviewer: Tomasz Pstrągowski

Translated by Justyna Lowe