Dominika Słowik, a prose writer and a recent winner of the Polityka's Passport Award, talks both about her fascination with W.G. Sebald as well as how much emotion reading the Witcher saga once evoked in her. She also talks about reading herstorical books, children's experience of naive reading, her discovering forgotten authors, and why getting to know the authors of one’s favourite books is unnecessary.
As you know, this cycle is called "Bedside table." There is a suggestion in this name, not even implicit, that everyone has a piece of furniture next to their bed, on which they put the books they are reading. Do you have one too?
I do have a bedside table, but there are no books on my bedside table. I have Legimi (application providing e-books – translator’s note) from my library subscription, and for some time now, I have been reading most books on my mobile phone. I even gave up the e-reader.
Doesn’t reading with a subscription cause you to start several books at once and not finish them later?
I have always read many books at once, but I don't finish only those I really don't like. It doesn't happen to me very often - I don't really choose my readings rashly. It's only recently that I've started reading new publications again, and when you read things verified by time, you may like them more or less, but generally, it's good literature. Or at least worth reading. But coming back to the main question - I rather finish reading books; however, it happens that I read something for a couple of months in total, because I put it away and then come back to it some time later.
You're saying you do not choose your books rashly. Do you have a way of doing that?
First of all, as I said, I have read very few new titles in recent years. This was not due to some kind of aversion to current literature, but rather to the belief that I had not read enough and should make up for it. So, I read the classics, I reached rather for the recognised authors, I was catching up with the canon. When you read new titles, you always take a risk. If, after years, a title is still regarded as an important cultural text, it's usually worth getting acquainted with. And I may not like the book itself, but, at the same time, I can consider it good.
Can you give us an example?
In my case, Dostoevsky is the best example. I’m not a big fan of him, I bear a lot of resentment towards him for various things, but I would never say that what he wrote was bad literature.
What resentment do you have towards Dostoyevsky?
I have various ideological problems with him, but it's not worth getting into it more deeply. Especially because our vision of the world today is different from how reality was perceived in his time. I don't know if it would be fair, from a twenty-first century perspective, to take account of a writer who lived in the nineteenth century.
Then tell us why you returned to reading new titles.
I've decided to catch up again, only this time with more recent things. I wanted to keep up to date with what's going on in literature now. When you live longer in isolation from today's literary world, you lose something too.
What exactly are you reading now?
Recently, I've been reading books by authors who were nominated for awards with me – Polityka’s Passport Award and Empik’s Discovery Award. When I have a joint author’s meeting or we're nominated for the same thing, I always try to read them.
Are you checking out who you're dealing with?
Not really, I rather consider it an expression of respect for this author. If we don't read each other, how can anyone else read us?
Which of these books has impressed you the most?
Asia Gierak-Onoszko is generally my favourite of recent months when it comes to Polish literature. Her 27 śmierci Toby'ego Obeda (“The 27 Deaths of Toby Obed”) is an excellent book. I read it before the awards, because a lot of people recommended it to me. Sometimes the Polish school of reportage is out of my way, but Asia's book is great: written very accurately, it talks about an important problem, and, at the same time, it can raise this problem to a universal level. It treats about Canada's settling its difficult past, the persecution of indigenous peoples, and the brutal system of boarding schools for indigenous children. Where is it more appropriate to read books about difficult settlements with the past if not in our country, where we love to talk about history, but not necessarily to account for what was wrong in that history?
And what have you been reading recently besides the co-nominees?
I read Sapkowski's stories over Christmas!
For the first time?
No, once again. When I was a teenager, I loved his books about the Witcher. Now, on the wave of interest in Sapkowski, I returned to them for the first time since then.
And how did they work out after all this time?
The stories about the Witcher are great! They are well written and surprisingly progressive. I mean, of course there are some ideological bugs à la nineties, but there are really very few of them, especially for Polish fantasy. I drifted away from the saga, but I read the stories surprisingly well.
Even in my childhood, I liked the stories much more than the saga.
I loved the saga. It made a huge impression on me. Years later, I think it was influenced by the presence of central female characters, the theme of Ciri's upbringing, who is being educated by both sorcerers and the Witchers, strongly emphasised theme of her carnality and adolescence as a woman, initiation issues... I remember that when I finished reading the last part - it was at night - I was sobbing terribly. So terribly that even my mum came to see if I was okay. Weeping spasmodically, I just whimpered: "MUM, THE WITCHER IS DEAD!"
Do you have in your mind a set of books from your childhood or early youth that were most important to you?
I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy as a teenager. I remember I loved Tolkien a lot, I read a lot of Lem and Soviet science fiction with the Strugatsky Brothers taking the lead. And during my childhood, I literally devoured books. We say "go to the field" (“to go out” – Lesser Poland regionalism – translator’s note), so instead of going to the field, I sat and read. There are so many of these titles that I could list them forever. I like to remember this childish ability to truly immerse myself in the world of books, so that nothing else existed for me - I locked myself away from the outside world and lived completely uncritically in the space created by the author. For example, I liked very much the convention of the crime story realised by Nienacki, Niziurski, or Bahdaj; I read Szklarski and novels about Tomek Wilmowski. Yet, I have the impression that Nienacki or Szklarski wouldn't stand the test of time - in Szklarski's books, Tomek travels around the de facto colonial world to catch rare animal specimens and export them to the European zoo...
But which readings were your favourites then?
The first one would be O chłopcu, który szukał domu ("The Boy Who Was Looking for a Home") by Irena Jurgielewiczowa and the second one - Czar wielkiej sowy ("The Charm of the Great Owl") by Maria Kędziorzyna. I used to borrow them from the library all the time, I could read them every month. Especially The Boy Who Was Looking for a Home. I remember I wanted to borrow one of them once again, and the librarian said she wouldn't give it to me: "You're probably cheating, read something else this time!"
Can you name any books that shaped you, the ones that changed you in some way?
That's a great question, because usually people just ask about the favourite books instead. "Favourite book", to me, is just a label that actually says nothing about the book or the person who read it. The question you asked me is much easier to answer for me, because I don't have to think about whether I still exceptionally like the titles I'm listing - I can focus on how much they meant to me at certain stage of my life.
So, which books have shaped you?
When I was a teenager, I had my trinity that made an amazing impression on me. I guess there will be no surprises, I read all three at a very similar time, at the beginning of high school. I’m talking about Prawiek i inne czasy (“Primeval and Other Times") by Olga Tokarczuk, Dolina Issy ("The Issa Valley") by Czeslaw Milosz, and Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną ("White and Red") by Dorota Maslowska. I believe that these three books have greatly influenced how I perceive literature and what I look for in it, and, at the same time, I have the impression that a valuable contradiction between Miłosz - Tokarczuk and Masłowska has been created in me.
I've just read Zimowla ("Overwintering") and now that you've told me about it, I can really see these influences. And the most important readings afterwards?
The seven volumes of Proust and the subject of memory in general are very important to me. Also, W.G. Sebald, whom I came across when I started working on Overwintering, and who has dominated my imagination in recent years. I have the impression that this can also be seen in my book, because I borrowed various "memory agents" from him: photographs, enumerations, collections, and generally the most external layer of his works.
What's the most charming thing about Sebald?
His amazing talent for reproducing memory processes. It's as if his books didn't describe memory processes at all, but they were them in their entirety. Also, the language, though I must tell you that I recently read Joseph Roth's Listy z Polski (“A Life in Letters"), which were also translated by the brilliant Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, and I had such a strong feeling of being in contact with the Sebaldian phrase that I began to wonder whether it is not by chance that I am not captivated by the Sebaldian phrase, but by the Sebaldian phrase translated by Małgorzata Łukasiewicz. And I can't read it in the original, because I don't know German!
Have you read the collection of Sebald’s essays recently published by Ossolineum?
Not yet, but I'm glad the Ossolineum will now reprint Sebald. I’ve recently seen a set of his books for 800 PLN on Allegro (Polish online e-commerce platform – translator’s note), it's incredible. It's been impossible to get them normally for some time.
On another subject: do you have any favourite rituals or reading habits?
The biggest disadvantage of reading on a mobile phone is that you cannot use a pencil. When I read on paper, I highlight a lot, bend the corners, take notes. Besides, I suffer from book FOMO - I feel bad when I know I could read, and I am not doing it. As a result, I always read when I have some free time: at the bus stop, on the tram, at the dinner table. When my phone goes flat, and I don't have a paper book with me, I feel uncomfortable. I don't think it's a good thing, it's rather one of the syndromes of being corrupted by electronics, of constant excess of stimuli, and the need to keep your head occupied. I fended off having a smartphone for a long time, and I remember that before the social media era, I had no such problem.
What titles lead on your list of the classics that you have never read, and you're ashamed of it, because one should know them?
You know what, I guess I've grown out of shame, although of course I have books that I haven't read, and I feel like I should. I think I quit "Ulysses" about thirty pages before the end, during Molly Bloom's monologue, it was an act of rebellion on my part. But that was a few years ago, I wasn't prepared for this novel at all, and I know for a fact that I will definitely return to "Ulysses". I've never read Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities" either, and I would like to. It horrifies me that it's such a vast reading, I have to make room for it in my life.
Do you like to meet personally the authors of books that delighted you?
I guess I don't look at it that way, I separate the book very much from its author. You know, you're upset when you like a book and its author turns out to be an ass - this is a normal reaction. However, after reading, I do not feel at all like meeting the author. I believe that reading someone's book is already this kind of getting to know them that no personal meeting has a chance to beat anyway.
And there isn’t even one writer you'd particularly like to talk to? They don’t have to be alive, you can fantasise.
I was on the radio yesterday, and a listener asked me the same question. It made me think about it, and it seems that I would like to meet Maria Dabrowska the most. I think she's a great and now forgotten writer, who wrote great books with a perfectly created world, and she also touched on important political and social issues. But I can't meet her, so I just want her to be read a lot and talked about a lot.
Do you have other favourites when it comes to the canon of Polish literature?
It gives me a lot of satisfaction to discover those writers who today are beyond the collective literary memory. I was very impressed with Pola Gojawiczynska's books, for example - Dziewczęta z Nowolipek (“Girls from Nowolipki”) and Rajska jabłoń (“Heavenly Apple Tree”). Both leftist, focused on female characters.
Do you reach for books by women more often than by men? Do you even look at it that way?
No, but I'm very happy to find a good book by a female author. But as you are already asking, I have to admit I read a lot of herstories. I have the impression that a lot of books about history written from the perspective of women have come out in recent years, and they are not necessarily widely recognised.
Aleja włókniarek (”The Avenue of the Weavers”) by Marta Madejska - a brilliantly written book on the history of women in the textile industry in Łódź. It shows this story from the side of silent, white spots, for example, the participation of women in people’s strikes. I am waiting for a similar book treating about women in Solidarity - I know that there are already such texts written, but I would like more, and more thoroughly. I also recommend the book Kwiaty w pudełku. Japonia oczami kobiet ("Flowers in a Box. Japan Through the Eyes of Women") by Karolina Bednarz, an excellent reportage on the situation of women and patriarchy in Japan. I believe it should be much more recognised than it is. Next: Joanna Ostrowska and her Przemilczane: seksualna praca przymusowa w czasie II wojny światowej ("Passed Over in Silence: The Forced Sexual Labour During The Second World War"). An extraordinary thing, firstly because Ostrowska is a real expert on the subject, and secondly because it is also a book about how to tell a story to which there are not many sources. No one has ever written before in Poland in such a way about how women forced into sex work survived the war. The fact how Ostrowska fights this difficult material, and with what piety she manages to reconstruct the facts, it makes the reader aware of how much each seemingly familiar story is, in fact, untold. The next title is Służące do wszystkiego ("Servants for Everything") by Joanna Kuciel-Frydryszak about the servants in the interwar period, yet I have the impression that she has actually been noticed. I also liked Anna Brzezińska's Córki Wawelu: opowieść o jagiellońskich królewnach (”Daughters of Wawel. The Story of the Jagiellonian Princesses”). There are a lot of books like that, and they always give me great pleasure; besides, I have the impression that in the coming years, we will read even more of them, because actually any part of the story can be told anew from a female perspective.
Let me change the topic. In our conversation, we’ve mentioned non-fiction, we’ve mentioned prose, but so far, no poetry has been mentioned. Do you read it sometime?
Yes, but I used to read more of it once, certainly more than prose. I love Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, and from newer things, I really like the poems of Małgosia Lebda. As a teenager, I was also close to Marta Podgórnik.
Were you glad to hear about the Nobel Prize for Tokarczuk?
I was glad, because I always had the impression that Tokarczuk was, yes, read, but there is still the opinion of one of the critics, who, in the nineties, declared that her books were "claptrap made of moss and fern". But I guess I was glad about the Booker Prize more than the Nobel Prize for her- this was the first great recognition of her work in the world, and I believe that in Poland, we still really recognise our artists only when they are esteemed abroad. I have the impression that the Booker Prize cut off the condescension with which some people treated Tokarczuk’s writing.
I know you read in Spanish, but no Spanish-speaking author has appeared in our conversation so far. Do you have any favourites?
I have a big problem with Spanish literature actually, I am not a big fan of it. I like Latin American literature, though. I obviously value Gabriel García Márquez, but I don't bear him on a standard, I just like him. I really liked the novel Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulf, not necessarily well known in Poland. I've been reading a little more in Italian and French lately. I don't mention English, because today it's lingua franca.
Four foreign languages is a lot.
These are Romance languages - when you know one, it is easier to learn the next. I like to learn them for literature, too. In Italian, for instance, I read the series My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, and I am very happy that I could get to know it in the original, I remember that the first volume of the Polish translation had some glitches (the remaining volumes have already been translated by another translator). Ferrante's books are written in excerpts in Neapolitan, this tension between universal Italian and local dialect cannot be translated into our unified Polish language!
Are there any kinds of books that you avoid?
Even a whole genre, because I don't read horrors. It's funny especially considering how some people classify Overwintering, but I just can't physically read them - I'm too scared. I don't watch horror films either.
Do you sometimes experience surfeit of words and a moment when you can't read anything at all?
There are periods when I don't read, but it's not about any surfeit of words. It's more because I'm consumed by other cultural texts. To call a spade a spade: if I get sucked into a tv series, I don't have time to read.
So, a difficult question to end with: what do you, as a reader, primarily look for in literature?
This is a topic not for one question, but for a whole conversation, and besides, like everyone else, I look for many different things in literature. But if I were to name one of them, I would answer: sharing in feelings. I do not mean sharing in feelings as empathy, but those moments when the author hits home with their description of an experience that you, as a reader, understand perfectly. When suddenly these two worlds - your inner world and the world of the book - intersect and some kind of unity of experience occurs, a barrier is broken through.
Interviewer: Radek Pulkowski
Translated by Justyna Lowe