Bedside table #35. Marek Krajewski: I wasn't showing a promise to be a writer
Marek Krajewski, a living classic of the Polish retro detective novel, talks about his love for Forsyth, writing like Bolesław Prus and breaking up with fiction. He also reveals what books he read during the dark night of martial law, how many books he reads each year and how Zbigniew Herbert strengthened his belief that he should deal with classical philology.
Do you read reviews?
As far as reviews are concerned, there have been changes in recent years that worry me. Maybe it's the concern of an old man who was used to something else, but still.
What's the change?
Well, in my youth, when I read a press review by an author I respected and whose opinion was relevant to me, I went to a bookstore and bought such a book. After some time, I noticed that there were less and less of these reviews or they disappeared at all. I learned something very strange from the publishers – I was told that today the value of reviews lies in the fact that the reader can notice that the book has been published.
No matter what they say, it's important that they don't twist the name and include the cover.
And now there is a problem, because where is the reader supposed to look for opinions about books?
You have to enter the massive blogosphere that's shaky, unclear, uncertain. Suddenly, we are dependent on bloggers, about whom we know virtually nothing. And on the other hand, there are exaggerated, complicated reviews written by literary critics, for example in. The reader is caught between a rock and a hard place.
And you, as a proponent of the golden mean, probably lament this state of affairs.
In addition, both fiction and non-fiction books are often inflated by the opinions of various people to an extraordinary extent. Being a contrarian and not wanting to follow the herd, I do not reach for these books. So I hardly read fiction. But I will never be disappointed when reading philosophical books. When I reach for Leibniz or Mark Aurelius, I know what to expect.
You really never touch fiction? Not even to compare what your colleagues are writing?
I have stopped reading fiction for a few years now and I feel no discomfort because of it. Of course, if someone I know and value - and there are a few people who have interests similar to mine - privately recommends me a book, then I reach for it. For example, several colleagues recommended me the novel First Person by Richard Flanagan.
The 2014 Man Booker Prize winner.
I've read it with great pleasure. It used to be different, I used to read everything passionately, any time I could. But years fly by, and I have no time to read something that will leave no trace in me.
Do you read your old books?
Absolutely not. I'd get depressed if I read my own books. I keep them on the shelves, but I don't look into them.
Because if I looked in there, I'd want to change everything immediately. What flaws do I see there, what mistakes. I'd change everything, starting with the sentence sequence.
So what did you read last month? Leibniz again?
I happen to have read a book about him. An eight-page biography of Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography by Maria Rosa Antognazza, published by a great publishing house Copernicus Center Press.
I was close.
But I also read fiction. You know, my favorite author is Frederick Forsyth, but it just so happens that I never read his novel The Odessa File. And here I am, three days ago, I noted in my notebook that I read it.
Are you just writing it down, or are you counting?
I count. I read 35 books a year on average. It' s been like that for about 10 years. There used to be more.
Flanagan was recommended to you and you were not disappointed. And who do you recommend?
Wait a minute, I'll just grab the phone and tell you what it could have been... (Marek Krajewski pulls out his smartphone and reviews his notes). Just historical and philosophical ones... Oh, I have, I have read and recommended Jacek Bartosiak's book "The Republic between land and sea. About War and Peace". A very interesting book about geopolitics. I also recommended an excellent historical book by Ronen Bergman – Rise and Kill First.: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. I also read and recommended The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail, a very interesting book.
Do you read it all in paper or on a reader?
I have this category of books, which I read only as ebooks. These are the ones that I don't feel like keeping on the shelf. I already have three thousand books at home and they take up a lot of space. Therefore, if I feel that a book that is available as an ebook won't win me over, or if I want to read it for purely practical reasons, then I choose the reader version.
What have you been reading on your reader lately?
I was recently in Spain, and I became interested in the history of the Spanish Civil War, about which I knew very little. I found a book by Antony Beevor, a historian who mainly deals with World War II. Beevor also wrote one book about Spain. So I already know I want to look into it, but I don't really know if I have to have it on my shelf, also because it's thick. So I'll probably buy it in electronic form. Apart from that, I'm a fan of gadgets, I like electronics and technical novelties.
Was the choice of a course of study, classical philology, the result of some reading?
In the 1980s, when I was a sensitive young man, then a high school student, you read the books of Dostoyevsky, Gombrowicz, Witkacy. These were authors who were hotly discussed at parties. But none of them showed me the way. I read their books a bit out of snobbery, a bit to impress the girls. I did not have my own literary model until I discovered Zbigniew Herbert's poetry. He became my master, he showed me a moral signpost.
What year was it?
1984, the year before graduation. I remember well that shock, aesthetic and spiritual, which I experienced while reading Herbert's poetry - full of irony, calm, crystalline and razor-sharp. Not exaggerated, without dazzling metaphors, simply magnificent. In a sense, he showed me the way in the poem "Why the Classics".
After reading this poem, I have confirmed that I will study classical philology, but I have already had this conviction.
Rarely seen among teenagers.
In high school I was good at two subjects – mathematics and Latin. At first I wanted to study mathematics, but I realized that I would never be a creative mathematician, someone more than a person who successfully solves trigonometric equations, which I was good at. So I chose a course that was both humanistic and scientific through its codified grammar.
In the '90s, everyone around here was "doing business," and you were learning Greek.
Before I got a job at the university in 1995, I was in various professions too. For four years after I got my master's degree, I was doing a variety of random jobs. Also those that gave me false hopes of getting big money. There were also some not very impressive occupations, such as a bodyguard, and I even worked as a gravedigger at the cemetery.
At least no one's gonna tell you today that you're disconnected from "real" life.
Oh, no, I know life well. And when my next professional project fell apart in 1995, I got a job offer at the university that I was happy to accept. Because I always dreamed of becoming a teacher. Then I started to lead a life of a typical humanist, apart from working at the university, I also gave Latin and German tutoring, I also did translations. A lot of work, but those were good years.
Do you remember your youthful fascinations?
Two books made the biggest impression on me as a teenager. The first one will probably bring a mocking, ironic smile to some people's faces when I mention it, because it was Stefan Żeromski's The Labors of Sisyphus. I thought this book was excellent, but let's not forget that as a teenager I lived in a very politicized time and it was, for me, above all, a story about the indoctrination of the Tsarist Russia and about how middle school students defended Polishness. It was 1981, the dark night of martial law, tanks in the streets, blood on the snow. I read it many times, it shocked me. The second book, which is also connected with the time of old Poland and with secondary schools, was a novel about the crisis of faith of a young boy, that is Niebo w płomieniach (Heaven in Flames) by Jan Parandowski.
I thought you were gonna mention Emil Zegadłowicz's Zmory (Wraiths).
No, although I did read Zmory, but it did not impress me much. Parandowski created a story about a classical grammar school in Lviv, where various people fight for the soul of the main character Teodor Grodzicki, who consider it their mission to shape him in their image, including his father. I liked this novel about a youth rebellion very much, although it was set in old times. I was also rebellious then.
I wore long hair, which may seem strange today.
You belonged to a subculture?
It was our own subculture, mine and my colleagues'. Outwardly, we were impressed by hippies, but we didn't like their softness, giving up without a fight.
This was the first book that introduced Lviv to your life?
Yes, the first and the only one for a long time. So much so that when I was on a literary scholarship in Switzerland writing Głowa Minotaura (Minotaur's Head), my first retro detective novel about Lviv, a transitional novel between the characters of Eberhard Mock and Edward Popielski, where they both appear, the moment I started writing it, I immediately called my wife to send me Heaven on Fire to Switzerland. I had to have it, I couldn't imagine writing about Lviv without looking at this book.
Did you have similar literary fascinations later?
In high school I appreciated Boleslaw Prus's The Doll. This is the novel that had the greatest influence on me. I was once invited to a discussion at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, it was on the hundredth anniversary of the death of Prus, in 2012, and the question was asked then, what do contemporary writers owe to Prus? Several invited authors said that they owe nothing to him. They were actually standing in opposition to him and said that this opposition is creative for them. I, on the other hand, stated that I owe a lot to Prus, and even investigated it. Earlier, I took scenes from my books - It was painful, but I read them - and saw that each scene ends with some, even the slightest suspense or a reference to the next scene. I found such a structure, which I unconsciously constructed while writing these scenes. I realized then, without reading any creative writing book, that I was creating something that could be described as a three-act structure. Then I started to read Prus's scenes and saw that he also does it. In short, I was writing like Prus. Unconsciously, intuitively. He stuck the deepest in me.
Prof. Ryszard Koziołek claims that the contemporary Polish writers owe the city above all to Prus.
It is an accurate diagnosis.
Have you ever read a book and thought, "This is how I want to write?
Yes, I found a model for myself. That model was Frederick Forsyth. For a long time I didn't realize that I sometimes depict in my novels minor characters in a much more complete way than their role in the plot would suggest. For example, the guard in Festung Breslau - I described his childhood and youth. It wasn't until years later that I realized that this is what Forsyth, who is famous for his accuracy, does. When I read his book, in which he described in detail 20 different airports in Saudi Arabia, I said to myself: "Respect for this man". Because, as you know, I'm a detail freak too.
The important thing is not to go too far.
So Forsyth was a signpost. I didn't think I'd ever write anything so good, especially since I wasn't showing a promise to be a writer. I was weak in Polish in high school, and my essays were not particularly appreciated.
A C student?
I got such comments under my essays: "Krajewski, try to control your thoughts and your pen." That's why I wasn't convinced that my writing had any value. But when I was reading Forsyth, I was imagining that maybe I could write something like that? Maybe in a different setting? He inspired me to make bold plans.
And have you returned to some of the books you loved in your youth, and ended up disappointed?
Yes, Sienkiewicz's The Trilogy. I first read With Fire and Sword when I was twelve. I remember that feeling exactly - I have never experienced such excitement from reading as I did when I was sitting in the countryside surrounded by grain at my grandmother's place near Piotrków Trybunalski. I devoured With Fire and Sword, The Deluge and Fire in the Steppe maybe within ten days. And then, as a twenty-eight-year-old man, I returned to them. The book W ręku Boga (In the Hand of God) by Andrzej Stojowski was published then, which was a continuation of The Trilogy. I started to read it, but I didn't finish it, I didn't like it. I thought: why read a fake, I will return to the original. I reached for With Fire and Sword and did not read it again.
It just bored me.
- interview by Macin Kube
Translated by Łukasz Konatowicz