Bedside table #30. Mariusz Sieniewicz: I often torment myself with one beautiful phrase

Writer Mariusz Sieniewicz talks about his recent readings, books that shaped him, and about what he is looking for in literature. 

What lies on your bedside table?

I currently have two new guests: William Carlos Williams and Reznikoff. It must come with age: I seek simplicity, unpretentiousness, substance. And smaller but more comprehensive forms, because they stimulate imagination. Live takes a symbolic breath. As Williams used to say: “No ideas but in things”. So I'm reading The Late Singer and supplementing it with Reznikoff's collection What Are You Doing in Our Street.

And this is how I see writing more and more often: focused on detail, on a fragment, on a specific image that turns into an afterimage, into something that stays under the eyelids for a long time. Literature teaches us to be attentive, it is a state of concentration that pushes everyday life out of the obvious.

What book made the biggest impression on you recently?

Definitely the debut of a young Olsztyn poet Malwina Banach. The author committed a collection 300 dni bez psychiatry ["300 Days Without a Psychiatrist"], winning a competition for the debut of the Olsztyn branch of SPP.  In my opinion, it is the most interesting phenomenon in the young literature of recent years. An original, distinctive metaphor, intriguing, neurotic interpretation of the world, association of unobvious worlds in the language. And she, like Reznikoff, is interested in everyday life, but this one still takes place in relation to another. There is a boy, a lover, a man, just someone else and there is She. However, she is only a "costume", a clothing of words that can be put on or taken off. She is an incidental event that grows throughout the world. The nature of the world, unfortunately, is that it clings, sticks to us - our existence is covered in it. It's been a long time since anyone has written about feelings and their own body in such a way. The “costume” is changeable, used many times, it suggests something, but never fully names it, it forms layers (I hear here an echo of the Tokarczuk's gender “onion”). Probably such is the identity today - not obvious, at the mercy of external descriptions, it looks at itself in the eyes of others. Identity as a second-hand biography.

Do you focus on one book at a time, or do you do you read many things simultaneously?

Usually I focus on one book. I immerse myself in the story and don't emerge to the end. Simultaneousness distracts me. I don't like many dishes at once. Maybe it's because of poor divisibility of attention.

Do you read many books yearly?

I don't count them. I can absorb a few titles a week. Sometimes I spend months on one.

Are there any phrases that stay with you?

I often torment myself with one beautiful phrase, rubbing a juicy paragraph under my tongue. Then I paraphrase it, depending on the situation in which I am. Like Natasza Goerke: "My horror", "my delight", "my bastardice", "my indifference today does not fit the scale of the language. It is time to let the world take a rest from itself." This is how I describe myself, this is how I censor myself - with other writers. The same is true of Gombrowicz's phrase: "It happens that I amaze myself." Or Balzac, yes Balzac is very capacious and very contemporary. Like here: “The more rascally our business is, the more honesty is necessary”. I like to sadistically abuse myself in conversation when I can only comment on my interlocutor in my mind with Dostoyevsky's words: "And he looked at me with the sincere gaze of a man who is lying."

There's plenty of such perfect phrases. Some of them become stale, others stay for longer. However, they never initiate my writing, rather they appear inside the writing - paraphrased, polemical, contrapuntally clashed. We are supposedly only a forest of camouflaged quotations.

What is the main thing that you look for in literature?

A language unlike any other. Peculiarity, an assault on reality, an experiment, a beautiful failure that opens the door for others. I don't have one set of expectations. Reading often makes me realize what I was looking for, although I couldn't name it. This was the case with Gombrowicz, Gogol and Dostoyevsky, especially his Demons and The House of the Dead, Pelevin and his Buddha's Little Finger, with the first enlightenments involving Jelinek, Atwood, Whitehead and many others.

When it comes to the Americans I keep coming back to Coover and The Night at the Movies, especially to the story "Lazarus" - it's language as a vehicle that goes beyond time, a vehicle that ridicules the cause and effect, the action and its aftermath. Probably a separate autobiography of books would have to be made. A man as a reader. They make a mark, shape us in the next stages of life, or determine them. They disappear, others appear, sometimes unexpected, passionate returns happen.

That's where I am now with Whitman and Walser, his short forms. I would probably name hundreds of names. From Russian literature, through Central Europe, to American poetry. And Bernhard, his Extinction, the Austrian, traumatized "Howl" by Ginsberg, with a whole bunch of history and taboos. And also Herta Müller's The Land of Green Plums, which strangely enough corresponds in me with " The Museum of Unconditional Surrender" by Dubravka Ugresić.

This is a rosary, these are beads applied to a reading biography. Our conversation is on the one hand a "testimony" to literature, on the other hand it works on the principle of the domino effect. What am I looking for in literature? For someone to describe the world to me in a way that I will never experience for myself. Neither in my own writing nor in experiencing language. I answer the question and then the dominoes move on. Cortazar, Marquez, Borges. And Baudelaire? I cannot forget about Rimbaud. And Brach-Czaina and her Szczeliny istnienia [Rifts of Existence]... Tokarczuk's Flights – the most symbolic work of our civilization, of movement and wasted myth.

What do you value Jelinek for? Her Nobel Prize caused a lot of controversy. Even Prof. Knut Ahnlund left the Swedish Academy as a sign of protest.

Jelinek was a totally shocking discovery a few years ago. I value her for the discipline of form, coolness, surgical precision, for her economy and loathing for literary exaltation, for her uncompromising, sterile anti-psychology. I love it when a book irritates, when a novel is uncomfortable, when it irritates and when at first I don't know what to do with its world, because it throws me out of the ruts, habits and my preference for the books I've already read. When noble academics such as Ahnlund throw a fit, I start to read even more intensively. Now, writers of all people, especially writers, have the right to destroy awards for writers (to invoke his indignation).

Your reading interests are very diverse.

I don't have any one way of searching and discovering. Literature happens to us and we happen to literature. I appreciate Klicka, Julia Fiedorczuk and Bargielska from among the more recent, contemporary names. I haven't read her Dziecko darów [A Child of Gifts] yet, but her phrases are cluttering my head: "On Friday after school I couldn't kill myself as I had planned, because I had to breastfeed a child found on the mezzanine floor". Inga Iwasiów's Umarł mi [He Died] blew me away. Marta Dzido's Frajda [Fun] transcends the corsets of the genre beautifully, I like the way it cascades, its poetic character and its song-like qualities. I'm thinking: "Hey guys, how is your intellectual abdomen", and I'm peeping at Twardoch, Dehnel, Szostak. A diary is always a display of an Achilles' heel. Szostak is the most interesting, Dehnel never loses form (big respect!), let's not talk about the Twardoch's diary

When you read, do you take notes and underline?

Notes, on a separate piece of paper. I write down quotes and, with time, I allow them to break away from the context and original meaning. I like the lives of single phrases that escape the founding story and resonate with their own sense.

Do you debate with the text?

I try not to. I recognize its autonomous story, to which I, as a reader, want to listen above all. I think one time I deliberately polemically referred to this antimetaphysical poser - Houellebecq, his Submission. From my humble provincial perspective I wrote Plankton. God, metaphysics and the need for sacrum are still a walking commodity in the world of the soul, especially the soul of the community, as evidenced by today's organization of social life by those in power and the church (please write it in lowercase). We are metaphysical populists.

Do you buy many books?

I used to buy more. Greed gives way to prudence. I've always preferred to buy a book than to borrow one. A book is an important thing for me, in the material sense it cannot be something passable, from hand to hand - it's as if I'm giving someone very close to me. It's better fot it to live on a shelf, I want to feel that it is there and we can meet at any time. I used to buy tonnes of books. I didn't borrow books, I was jealous of them, if I was delighted by any author I had to read everything they published. Today, these emotions have slightly subsided, I am probably more capricious and picky. Or is it the result of the degradation of the literary world? More and more book-like products and imitations of literature are appearing. You have to fish, search, avoid walking in the dark. The promotional PR is ravaging. After the death of literary criticism choices become more measured and restrained.

What is your opinion on modern criticism?

The third eye - the one of criticism - is essential for literature. Critics are older brothers in faith. Speaking of the death of literary criticism, I mean its growing transparency, its detachment from the shaping role by the publishing marketing. Criticism is the bloodstream of books. I value the work of literary criticism, it suggests ways of reading, maps worlds and places books in the space of ideas - this is important to me. As authors, we are never lonely islands. Criticism tries to see one hermeneutical continent..

What are your complaints about criticism?

It' s hard to complain about anything, since the dictatorship of circulation is gagging its mouth more and more. We live in a world of stars given to books, "notes" taking up half a page of a standardized typescript and the orgasmic PR hyperbolization. This phenomenon has already been thoroughly described, and is quite painfully experienced by critics. Criticism probably goes foot in foot in the procession of high-art literature.

Do you read e-books or only books in a paper form?

I am an analog persom and I prefer paper form above all, although the process of transformation is accelerating. I have reached for an e-book several times and, to my surprise, the world is still turning. It's like writing itself. It used to be a pen, then a typewriter, and finally a laptop, all at the price of a fear that the new tool will limit the unconstrained space of the spirit... But paper is paper! A higher form of sensual contact with a story. From the texture of the paper, through its smell, to the pages yellowing with time and a fading font. A book as an entity, a concrete thing ages as much as a human being and together with a human being. Recently I have returned to Schulz and his edition from several decades ago. I was moved.

And audiobooks?

Audiobooks trigger a radio drama syndrome in me. The reader imposes an interpretation. However, literature, although oral in its origins, is a text for me. I understand better in reading. I am a visual person. A word on paper has a stronger effect than a spoken word. I prefer to read Ulysses in my mind rather than out loud.

What kind of a reader were you in childhood and youth?

I consumed paper. I read everywhere and always. I wanted to experience everything. Every available language and story. I locked myself in my room for many hours and got swept away. I lived probably more in literary spaces than in real life. It was then that I became convinced that language, especially non-transparent language, is the same entity as a chair, a table, a tree. And that generally I (and us) am overwhelmed by it.

What literature excited you at the time?

If we are speaking about fairy tales, I preferred the Brothers Grimm to Andersen. Makuszyński didn't move me at all, the same goes for " Anne of Green Gables". When it came to adventure and existential fiction for youth, I was more drawn to Pan Samochodzik i niesamowity dwór and Christiane F. than to Musierowicz and Niziurski. I read the scandalous Raz w roku w Skiroławkach with a flashlight under the covers and I still remember the scene with the rooster. In the area of the meta worlds, of course, de Exupery. Then Guy de Maupassant and his incredible beautiful stories entered the stage. They were followed immediately by Gombrowicz, Witkacy, Schulz, Sartre, Camus and obligatorily Hopscotch by Cortazar. At the same time, the Russians. Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Yerofeyev. I had and still have a problem with Chekhov, although he is an undisputed giant.

Have you come across a book that shaped you, thanks to which you are today the kind of a person/writer you are?

Oh, it's a daring challenge to point out one. Many authors could be offended by such a choice. But okay - I'll risk that it was Gombrowicz and his Diaries. My mentality, the way I look at the world and people, were strongly marked by it. Irony as a defense mechanism against the horror and stupidity of the world. Creating oneself, creating existence. Finally, the grotesque as a natural element of our relationship with others. But you have to liberate yourself from Gombrowicz, he is strongly possessive, toxic, his phrase is oppressive, vampiric. It is worth taking an antidote from Miłosz, for example, or from Magdalena Tulii or Natasza Goerke.

When did you come across Gombrowicz?

I "came across" Gombrowicz in front of a dentist's office, at the end of high school. I had the first problems with toothaches, quite like in Wilengowska's novel Zęby [Teeth]. I took it very seriously. Day after day: a drill, a medicine, a filling. Gombrowicz before the procedure and Gombrowicz immediately after. A toothache is a very Gombrowicz thing.

Do you read genre fiction?

I don't like genre fiction. It's a game of marked cards. I prefer open collections. Literature is a transgressive gesture of freedom of form. A genre proficiency is an hollow display.

So you don't read the most popular Polish writers? And most of the "media" literature in general? Don't you care about communication with the world of pop literature? Being up to date?

Yes. You make strange suppositions. Let it resonate more loudly: I don't read the most popular Polish writers. I don't read most of the "media" literature at all, I don't care about communication with the world of pop literature. Pop literature makes me shrug. Let it be, I don't have to be her groupie. What does it mean to be "up to date"? It's a matter of one's own rhythm. As for me, I want to be up to date with daughters' lives.

If someone, and there are more and more of them, gets a publishing diarrhea, writing two, three or more books a year, I just don't believe in being "up to date" with it. "Up to date" prevents fidelity and constant returns. I'll sound pretentious, but there is some "refusal to participate" in this race in me. I think I prefer to stand aside.

Włodzimierz Kowalewski told me that he was trying to follow writers connected with Olsztyn. Do you do the same?

Yes, of course. I come from an old school. I believe that despite the “republic of soloists” created by writers, literature as a resonance is what counts. We create ourselves through texts, dialogue about one world in which we live. It is worthwhile to turn our eyes and ears to others. I miss conversations about books, quarrels, discussions, polemics - they strengthen reception and attention. Unfortunately, egoism and narcissism are eating away at the environmental space. We close ourselves off more and more often in our own “ingenuities”, we stop listening to each other.

So which Olsztyn writers do you recommend and why?

Erwin Kruk, of course, it's mandatory reading, from Kroniki z Mazur [Chronicles of Masuria] to Nieobecność [Absence]. Jerzy Ignaciuk and his Martwe dzielnice [Dead Districts] are unjustly forgotten. - I am seduced by his roughness, some kind of cold, emptiness and hopelessness. Włodek Kowalewski, mentioned by you, certainly, and his elegant interplay of style and story, rooted in the modernist writing tradition. Marcin Cielecki and his poems on religion and existence are always worthy of more attention. Alicja Bykowska-Salczyńska is one of the most interesting poets with an unmistakable diction and sensitivity of a phrase so great that it is painful - I recommend reading the volume of poems Cno. I appreciate Marek Barański's "American" style, his unpretentious images of everyday life, imbued with a delicate irony. I'm just naming a few of them. I follow most of the authors whenever they appear with a new book. Absences also somehow shape us - I crave more books by Joanna Wilengowska and Piotr Siwecki.