photo: Jakub Celej

Bedside table #37. Jarosław Kamiński: The primitive man hunted for game, I hunt for books

The author of such novels as Tylko Lola (”No-one but Lola”), Rozwiązła (”Promiscuous”), or the latest Psy pożrą ciało Jezebel (”Dogs Will Devour Jezebel’s Body'”) doesn’t talk this time about the books he's written, but about the ones he reads. It turns out that Jarosław Kamiński has recently had on his reading list mainly items devoted to the climate crisis, he likes to look for books in wastepaper centres, and he values above all literary nonconformism and the work of Marcel Proust.

I'll start without warning shots. What are you reading now?

Antologia Archiwum Ringelbluma (“The Ringelblum Archive Anthology”). It was recently published by the Ossolineum publishing house. The whole Podziemne Archiwum Getta Warszawy (“The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto”) consists of thirty-six volumes, it was published by the Jewish Historical Institute. The Ossolineum collection is a choice of over nine hundred pages. Enough not to sleep at night. The description of what Jews experienced in the Warsaw Ghetto, as well as in their shtetls and villages, is so frightful that the book cannot be read all at once. I'll probably keep digging into this black box of Jewish-Polish memory for months to come.

What else?

A few titles that help rethink our contemporary times. The progressive disintegration of the world as we know it is largely "due" to capitalism. Capitalism has contributed to many great achievements. The incredible development of technology or mass production has made the standard of living in the West skyrocket, but nothing is for free. The bill was issued and has just arrived at the recipient. We will most likely pay for this development with an ecological disaster.

What titles do you mean specifically?

I started with The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. While working on this book, Elizabeth Kolbert travelled to various places which, from my perspective, often seemed to be paradise, unspoiled by the presence of man and therefore unthreatened. They are indeed paradise, only that it is a paradise lined with annihilation. Kolbert's examples of specific plant and animal species prove that we are dealing with mass extinction today. Not limited to one place or region but covering the whole Earth.

The main thesis of Kolbert's book is that in the Anthropocene, we are dealing with another, sixth great extinction of species in the history of the planet, except this time, we, humans, are to blame.

Exactly. Another one of my readings is about the Anthropocene. I’m talking about Ewa Binczyk's great work Epoka człowieka. Retoryka i marazm antropocenu ("The Age of Man. The Rhetoric and Lethargy of Anthropocene"). The author discusses the thesis that man's interference in nature is so deep that one can actually speak of the "the age of man" in the geological sense, i.e. the Anthropocene. Raw material exploitation, oil and gas combustion waste, rubbish, plastic - all this junk we're producing has transformed the Earth so significantly that changes can be seen in the geological structure. Question: and what about it? Usually, unfortunately, nothing. Lethargy. As reads the subtitle of the book.

Any more books on similar subjects?

The Uninhabitable Earth. Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells, the book that shows how the various manifestations of ecological disaster affect one another, strengthening each other. Warming leads to drought, drought to famine, famine to epidemics and migration, migration to social conflicts, and so on. A highway to global disaster.

That’s a very pessimistic set of readings.

It's hard to be optimistic these days, but you have to try. In order to overcome pessimism somehow, I recently reached for Jacques Derrida's texts. I was looking for the consolation that only philosophy can give. And I came across the essay Hostipitality, which treats about the reception of guests at home: immigrants, refugees, strangers. Derrida's radicalism is extreme and merciless to...the host. According to Derrida, the word "hospitality" includes the demand to host someone radically different. To accept them in this otherness completely, unconditionally, without exception. This challenge is even more demanding than evangelical. I doubt that, as mankind, we are able to meet it. A powerful reading, but no consolation whatsoever.

So, we have here documents that testify to the Holocaust, literature on the climate crisis, and 20th century philosophy. And what has delighted you recently from so-called fiction?

I read little fiction now and with much less satisfaction than I would like. There are exceptions, though. I am now reading Bernardine Evaristo's novel Girl, Woman, Other, which was awarded the Booker Prize last year together with Margaret Atwood. A very modern, witty, and brilliantly written thing. But recently, I've been more into short stories - for example, Lucia Berlin’s ones from the volume A Manual for Cleaning Ladies. I'm delighted by their narrator. It seems that she is a woman with a difficult past who has nevertheless preserved an almost childish innocence in her seeing the world, people, and the evil we do to each other.

So, you prioritise Anglo-Saxon prose, at least recently.

I suppose so, but, on the other hand, something is bothering me in contemporary British and American literature. It's usually well-written indeed, it reads great, but you can feel the formatting underneath. The creators write in a way to engage a refined intellectual, but also to have a chance to appeal to the mass audience.

Sometimes I have the impression that all these authors have completed similar creative writing courses.

Or they had the same editor. That is why I prefer novels that break through such schemes. In literature, I'm looking for something that doesn't fit into a well-constructed story, something that breaks the rules. In such cracks, something unexpected and unplanned may appear. Some revelation about the world and man.

Can you give an example of such a novel?

Let’s say Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

Would you rather reach for older things than follow contemporary literary production?

No, I do both. As a reader, however, I'm like a film festival old hand. When you don’t like the film, you are not bothered, you just leave the room. Not to waste time on things where resistance is insurmountable, and not to miss out on things that suit your sensitivity.

I guess you've been “leaving the room” a lot lately.

Probably that is why I now most willingly choose casual readings - diaries, and even more willingly writers’ letters. Recently, the ones written by Czesław Miłosz to Jerzy Giedroyć and Konstanty Jeleński. Even in private comments, you can feel the intellectual calibre of these guys. There are also funny moments - for example, when Miłosz complains that he is an artist ignored by the environment, passed over in silence, even forgotten. In the country, to some extent, he was indeed forgotten, but in exile, he had the best readership you can dream of: Giedroyć, Jeleński, Gombrowicz. I wonder how he would find himself in our times when critics were replaced by literature promoters?

Because of your recent novel Dogs Will Devour Jezebel’s Body', it would be impossible not to ask: do you somehow follow modern internet creation?

Do you mean posts, Facebook posts, Instagram, and stuff like that? Yes, I do follow it. You never know where the wind of inspiration will blow from.

Do you read your favourite literature when you're working on your books?

I do, but not to be inspired by it. Sometimes readers complain that a book that used to be rebellious has grown old... In what sense? That some kind of dialogue has become sentimental or an opinion about society has become naive? It's a normal thing after some years. Reading such books is about something more important. If a novel was born of rebellion, then somewhere in between the words, that emotion remains. That's why, in my readings, I try to dig into the original sources of objection of the authors, whose works today are respectable classics. I'm drawing rebellion energy from them. Reading Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, or William S. Burroughs inspires you to break through your limitations, looking for literary solutions outside the comfort zone.

If I ask about the most important writers for you, will you name these three?

Yeah, except Proust is number one to me. In Search of Lost Time is an all-out book. It encompasses the whole of our lives, at every level - erotic, love, family, political, social, metaphysical, etc. It also touches upon the so-called conflicts of the epoch, which is a favourite topic in the masterpiece analysis at schools, like the Dreyfus affair.

Who else, apart from the ones listed before?

Definitely Balzac and Stendhal, they are important to me. The former mainly for Lost Illusions, especially the part entitled "A Great Man of the Provinces in Paris". It treats about the world, as we would say today, of the media. It points out their dependence on centres of economic and political power. The so-called values have no chance in a clash with capital and government. It's almost a nihilistic book. As far as Stendhal is concerned, I like The Charterhouse of Parma the most, for its witty style, humour, lightness.

And who are your favourite Polish authors?

The most important Polish book for me is Lalka ("The Doll") by Bolesław Prus. I love Schulz and Gombrowicz even more, but The Doll is simply The Doll. Obviously, I don't have a clear love relationship with it. The main character annoys me, Mr wimp, draper Wokulski. It annoys me that Prus led the figure of Isabella with insufficient compassion. In short, I constantly argue with this novel, but it is certainly the most important thing for me. Apart from that, Miłosz.

Miłosz the poet, Miłosz the essayist, or Miłosz the novelist?

Right now, Miłosz the essayist. I love Ziemia Ulro ("The Land of Ulro”), I don't even know how many times I've read it. Miłosz is not afraid of any subject. I treat the reading of his essays as a challenge and a call to face the most difficult issues of today.

Miłosz was incredibly ambitious, he had a huge appetite.

It seems that it is true in every sense of the word - appetite for life, for fame, for an appropriate position in the history of literature, but, most importantly, for describing and understanding reality in an adequate way. He chased the changing world all his life.

You keep talking about literature of the highest calibre, so now I'm going to ask about your attitude towards genre books. Do you read sometimes just for casual entertainment?

I'm not at odds with entertainment literature. I like thrillers, sometimes science fiction, but I consume them mainly in the form of audiobooks. While driving or falling asleep. I find a fragment of the novel on YouTube, I turn the recording on, and after a while, I fall into a blissful dream. I play the same chapter the next night to find out what this murder was actually about... and I fall asleep again. I play the beginning again... I fall asleep. And so on forever. Or, for example, I wake up in the middle of the night and hear in my headphones that something is going on, only that the action has moved to another city, sometimes even a country. It turns out that YouTube has already jumped to another novel. But I don't mind. I actually like such surprising literary montages, it's a great stretching of the imagination.

You have an e-book reader with you, does that mean you don't read paper books anymore?

I do, very much so. The e-reader is useful outside the home to have a choice and to be able to match the reading to the place, mood, or simply to the brain's processing power.

What about paper?

The primitive man hunted for game, I hunt for books. I've been squirreling around libraries, second-hand bookshops, cheap bookshops, and even wastepaper centres. You never know what you can come across. That's how I discover things I didn't plan to read. For example, Ivo Andrić. I once dug up The Bridge on the Drina in a container at a wastepaper centre. The copy reeked of mustiness, but it was worth getting over it and reading it. A delight.

Which writer would you like to meet the most? It doesn't have to be a living writer.

Proust, obviously. I think we'd find something to talk about. For a large part of his life, Proust lost himself in social life, and finally locked himself in his flat and wrote his masterpiece. I've wasted a large part of my life at parties myself. From today's perspective, it's inexplicable to me. I'd be interested in his thoughts on that. But that's the least important thing I'd like to talk to him about.

Do you have a list of canonical titles you've never read and are a little ashamed of?

I guess Ulysses by James Joyce...

You guess?

I've approached this book from all sides. From the beginning, from the end, from the inside, I focused on selected excerpts. I also listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Zbigniew Zapasiewicz. And nothing, failure. On the other hand, if I put all these attempts into one great attempt to read the whole of Ulysses, perhaps I'd gone through the whole thing then. But I'm not sure. Maybe that's good. There's a reason to make another attempt.

Interviewer: Radek Pulkowski

Translated by Justyna Lowe