photo: Dariusz Gackowski

Bedside table #38. Michał Tabaczyński: I can allow myself to be picky

Michał Tabaczynski, essayist, translator, and literary critic, talks about his people, David Foster Wallace's wonderful insolence, a beautiful galaxy of Polish essayists, clumsy translations, reading freedom, as well as about being a younger relative of Gospodinov and the son of Bieńczyk.

What have you been reading lately?

This is always a beastly question. Obviously. And when it comes out of the blue, it can lead you into a real stupor. At least it does it to me. What have I been reading lately? Everything, of course. I've been reading everything that needed to be read, I'm up to date, I'm following everything, sure. But what exactly? I don't know. I'm childishly helpless. But once I get out of this stupor, I know. More or less, at least, because in my case, reading is chaotic, embarrassingly capricious.

First of all, I read what I need for my writing. And since I'm writing about Robert Burton, I'm reading intensely his The Anatomy of Melancholy. But you can read it all the time, because first of all, it is an opulent text, dense, an encyclopaedia of the world. And secondly, it's about 1300 pages. I am reading it, of course, chaotically and often accidentally, I flick through it, I go back to the excerpts I know well. I’ve been wondering recently if I have read the whole thing. From the first to the last page? Never, I know that. Maybe I'll do it sometime. But do these excerpts make up the whole thing? I have no idea. Anyway, I keep on reading.

Let's stick to the last few weeks then.

New titles, obviously. I'm under the illusion that it has to be done, you know, but also curiosity, of course. Essays by Sebald, Cieśniny ("Straits") by Nowicki, short stories by Lispector and by Soltys from Nieradość (“Nojoy"), Żółte światło ("Yellow Light") by Pilch, House of Liars (selected stories) by Kosztolány, and now, I haven't finished it yet, Maria Stiepanova's In Memory of Memory.

There are also older readings or re-readings. Kosztolány’s Anna Edes – to complete the selected stories – for the second time, but I hardly remembered anything. And Wurtzel, because she died, and I thought maybe I'd write something about her, and, even though I still can't warm to her, she’s finally my person. I tried in English and Czech as well. Essays One by Lydia Davis, one of my favourite writers, maybe it’s not as delightful as her prose, but still great. And Výstup Jižní věží - a collection of essays and journalism by Jáchym Topol.

I'm not even mentioning poetry, because this is proper chaos. That’s all my sins I am sorry for.  

And if you were to name your people, who would they be? And why? Of course, if we had to talk about it more extensively, it would take us a few hours, so maybe we should focus on the last few years.

All right, I understand we're leaving the classics and the archaeology of my reading, my eternal favourites. It's easier for me here, at least a little. My people in random order: Norman Manea, David Foster Wallace, Karl Ove Knausgård, Georgi Gospodinov, Don DeLillo. And I always say I don't like long books because I don't have the strength for them. Now I just see how much I don't know myself.

But length is one thing. Some of these writers are also extremely tortuous. But what a wonderful torture it is! Wallace and DeLillo especially, of course. They can easily be listed together, because their twin-ness is obvious. Not just because Wallace secretly confessed to it: it's good that they compare me to Pynchon, because at least they don't notice how much I take from DeLillo - he used to say. Wallace? What can I say about him? A giant who's overpowering, but also a giant who's exceptionally insouciant. And this combination of genius and insouciance makes an extraordinary impression. After all, Wallaceology is already a branch of literature, the whole scientific-publishing industry, and one can still read him insouciantly. My man in the basic sense, but I don't think that one can be his epigone, and even if it’s possible, it's not worth it, and one must try to avoid it with all their might. Because Wallace is, above all, a challenge and, because he is a wonderfully insolent writer, an insolently high hanging bar for anyone trying to read. And even more so: to write.

It's somewhat different with DeLillo, because he's more accessible than Wallace, though. Or maybe I see him a little bit differently, because I guess I admire even more his novels which are usually lower rated, such as Ratner's Star or Mao II. But that's a different matter, because I have a penchant for allegedly worse works by great writers. So basically, every book by DeLillo has the property that is the most charming. I’m not talking about the story, the perspective, the image, the hero - it's all perfect, of course, but for me, his greatness is in the language. Not even in stylistic finesse. The story goes on more or less, the latter is rare, swiftly, it’s delivered with nice sentences that explode from time to time. The nature of these explosions is different - thought, style, irony. But the model does not change.

In this quintet, one name surprised me a little bit: Manea.

Norman Manea, on the other hand, is an old but enduring fascination - a writer unusual in his modesty and courage. His short stories published a long time ago and especially his essays, in which he showed the life of a writer under the rule of the "Carpathian Clown", are delightful and cannot be forgotten. But it is The Hooligan’s Return that is truly extraordinary - it continues both topics from essays and stories, mixed with a travel diary, memoirs, and so on. A novel-not-a-novel, a risky but wonderful form. He also shows how illusory and fragile freedom is in Central Europe - what happened in Romania after the fall of the dictatorship is a great presage of the present state of the countries of our region, including Poland. It appears that the nostalgic writer is also prophetic. We don’t have his most important novel in Polish - I read The Black Envelope in English, just as his phenomenal novellas, especially Composite Biography or the shocking The Interrogation. The unknown giant - that's what I like most.

Knausgård is of course a monster of words, a master of the verbosity, a model of elan. I share this feeling, which the critics have also shared repeatedly, that you do not really know what this mastery is about, where the secret of his attractiveness lies. I share this opinion, but it doesn't bother me. I read him with growing fascination. And even more so I admire My Struggle because in the next series, he showed that he is not a slave to this form, but that he can do differently. I still do not understand the criticism of this second series, but this may be my penchant to these allegedly inferior works by outstanding authors.

Gospodinov is a different master, though: if the creators of magical realism could then have read Gospodinov, Latin American literature would have saved itself and us from this flood of kitsch! He is a sentimental writer who knows how to escape from the trap of sentimentalism, he can get out of any trap he, I believe, deliberately puts himself in. I read him over a decade ago in “Literatura na Świecie" (“World Literature” – literary magazine in Poland – translator’s note), after, there were two small books, delicious, but it is only now that we got The Physics of Sorrow. Finesse in every dimension: history, style covering all levels of language, formal ideas. In a cheeky way, I consider myself his younger and poorer relative.

And finally, because my fascination with her is longer, but also endless: Dubravka Ugrešić. Unparalleled. She has this kind of stylistic and notional intransigence, which I would compare to my greatest literary loves, to Brodsky for example. And she is mine in terms of cultural closeness. Central European from a Catholic country, I am talking about Croatia itself, of course, a country with a strong predilection for nationalism. A model of beauty, modest perseverance, powerful intelligence.

And from the Polish authors, does something particularly move you?

Polish authors move me, of course, all of them, and everything moves me in them.

But if I were to talk about my people again, there won’t be any big surprises here: Magdalena Tulli and Marek Bieńczyk. Tulli is a true champion: extraordinary concentration and beauty, crystalline style, and extraordinary intelligence, simply infernal. And also, this unshakeable righteousness without moralising. I don't know if some kind of gradation can be introduced in this fairly modest and yet extremely integral work, but if it had to be done, then the "middle" Tulli is the biggest one for me: Skaza (“Flaw”) and Tryby (“Moving Parts”). And Bieńczyk? I won’t renounce my sonship here even if I wanted, but I don’t even want to. Yet I do hope I'm kind of a wayward, rebellious son who causes trouble to his parent, or even sometimes brings shame. It has to be. When I read him, I feel like I can see him writing: he starts with some restraint, uncertain of every move, as if he is not yet feeling well in his body, a player before a warm-up who enters the match with uncertainty. But it's a moment, because in a minute, he’s getting started, some dribbling, some more, a spectacular feint, one or another shot, just for a test, and a beautiful goal. But the joy is short, even the goal celebration is somehow coy, and the restraint comes back. Both authors – both Tulli and Bieńczyk - extend this extraordinary writer's integrity to their translation activity. Their translations can be read as an extension of their own writing. Or the other way around, it doesn't really matter. Jaeggy, Calvino, or Proust by Tulii or Bieńczyk: Barthes, Kundera, Cioran, Camus. A beautiful whole.

Of my, say, peers, let me name the essayists, because they're, owing to force of circumstances, hidden.  Behind their writing, but also before the eyes of the general public, you know. Adam Lipszyc, Grzegorz Jankowicz, Małgorzata Rejmer, Piotr Paziński, Olga Drenda, Paweł Mościcki. That's a beautiful galaxy! Chaplin by Mościcki or Bukareszt (”Bucarest”) by Rejmer - these are extraordinary, delightful books.

We talk a lot about delights. Have you been disappointed lately? Any unsuccessful returns?

I'm withdrawing the charge of beastliness from the beginning of our conversation. This is a beastly question. Where to fit disappointments in the memory, when there is barely enough room for admiration?

I rarely appreciate it, but I'm lucky. For instance, in reading. And I don't mean that I only find excellent literature, because that's not the point. The point is that being interested in literature, I can allow myself to be picky. I envy critics their being well-read, their ability to assimilate so many letters and all the advantages resulting from it, yet I am glad that my reading can be governed by a lack of obligation, including internal obligation. Hence my little competence in this area.

But obviously, I've had some disappointments, not particularly dramatic, but still, so I'm not going to avoid this question completely. The biggest one? I consider Wieslaw Myśliwski's Ucho igielne ("The Eye of the Needle") to be the weakest novel in his otherwise great output. But all of it is nothing compared to the disappointment with translations. And that's where the aforementioned Wallace got punished, though he really didn't deserve it. And by the way - Polish readers did not deserve it either. And I'm waiting, shakily, for the translation of his opus magnum, i.e. Infinite Jest, having in mind what the translator did with previous books. The Polish fame of David Foster Wallace is due to the extraordinary power of this literature, which breaks through these clumsy translations, and his great international fame. If it weren't for that, he'd be disregarded as a third-rate writer.

This is actually an extremely interesting topic, because it is rarely discussed how much we lose from bad translations.

Yes, this Wallace is so obvious and, by the way, so important to me, it's hard not to mention it. We've had some peculiar cases, of course, like Cavafy’s The Canon translated by Jacek Hajduk - fortunately, there are other ones, including the newest one by Ireneusz Kania, a great work, even for those who, like me, have already harboured Kubiak in their minds, in their blood. Yet, in order not to talk about specific examples, because this is not the place to criticise translation, it cannot be done in a casual way, I will talk about something else that makes me wonder. Namely, I cannot recall a case where, in recent years, some translation has changed the fate of Polish literature, and this is one of its mythical functions. I can’t see that Polish prose, poetry, or essays have been turned somehow on a new track. Something new, of course. It doesn't have to be the translators' fault, however, in Wallace's case, I think it is. And it seems that it is the translation of David Foster Wallace into Polish that could introduce some change to our new prose. Too much probably has to coincide here: a brilliant author, an excellent translator, some acute deficiency in the target language in the literature, sometimes also a topic. Each of these conditions must be met. It didn't work this time.

Staying with the topic of translation: what are you looking for in a good translation?

It depends, of course, on the book. It's hard to generalise here. Because to say in general terms that I'm looking for perfection is a mediocre answer. It’s true, though. Yet I believe that standards have fallen so low that the very correctness seems to be the right expectation. But if I had some maximalistic expectations, it would be that the translation would fill some acute gap in the target language, in its literary spectrum, in its plethora of possibilities. Sometimes you can be satisfied with the subject itself, that's clear, but I'm interested in something else. With poetry, I would expect it to show the languages that are missing. And these do not have to be avant-garde examples setting new development trends, though they are always valuable.

I myself have specific interests in this area, which translate into equally specific activities of mine. I translate mainly poetry, and it is almost exclusively formalistic, most often rhymed. Mainly from Czech. So that I can answer you in an honest way, I'll show you this with my own example – honourably, because it can be checked if I've managed to do it and if I’ve made the right choice. The book editions published two of my choices of poems by Czech poets - both very much alike: 20th century classic Jan Skácel and my peer Bogdan Trojak. Both operate in a tone that is rare in the Polish language: it is poetry about the folk or, as Myśliwski wanted, peasant background, rooted in the tradition of the land. And such is also its character: spicy, often drilling through the etymology of words. The poetry of nature, which demands an ecocritical reception. But at the same time, it is also formally sophisticated, because it often rhymes subtly and ingeniously. And these three features: this specific work in language, an ecological theme, and formalism – it is a rare combination in the Polish language: on one side, Tadeusz Nowak, on the other - Jerzy Ficowski would be here rare references in Polish poetry. At least that's how I diagnosed it. What I'm looking for in translation, I tried to do it here. I can't answer that more honestly.

I’d like to change the subject a little. What has left with you from your childhood readings?

Moomins, obviously! My first memory concerned with them is not a reading, anyway. I must have been in my first year when someone invited children to a performance in a community centre. I forced my grandparents to go there with me. A small, stuffy, darkened room, full of people. And actors dressed as little trolls. That's how I remember it. And all of a sudden, Snufkin enters from the rear, walks between rows of spectators. I was scared and fascinated. Moomins are even more important to me today, I mean it. This is great literature, and Tove Jansson was also a great writer for adults. I have woven Moomins into really serious sketches, because their metaphorical potential is inexhaustible. I do not know a greater work disguised as children's literature.

There were more Scandinavian scenes in my childhood. Lindgren, of course, her The Children of Noisy Village and Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter - I read it to my daughter, because it's a beautiful girl's story. I missed the boyish readings, though. I didn't read Niziurski, Bahdaj. I liked Pan Samochodzik (“Mister Automibile”), and yes, I ticked off a few “Tomek” books, but without much pleasure. My mother, in turn, read to me poems from the "Anthology of Children's Poetry" - most probably this edition from the Biblioteka Narodowa publishing series. And here we can suspect some poetry infection, maybe this is where it came from. Among those early maternal readings - also Król Maciuś Pierwszy ("King Matt the First").

But the most important books for me is Skąd przychodzisz, Adamie ("Where Do You Come from, Adam?") about a prehistoric man, and an ancient series by Tadeusz Zieliński. And the most read one, Krajobraz z tęczą ("Landscape with a Rainbow"). My childhood diseases are marked by its presence. I read it all the time, tried to copy all these paintings, I knew the artists' biographies by heart.

What came next, before Bieńczyk and the other masters? Did you come across a book after which you thought you'd take up literature?

I'm even ashamed of the banality of this answer: Kafka, of course. Who else could it be? The wet dream of every high school student of my time. Sure, there were others who made the heart of a young snob beat faster, for example - be careful now! - Nietzsche. To this day, I still have his entire collection bought during high school, because then, the reprints of Mortkowicz's editions released by Bis publishing house appeared in bookshops. But then Jospeh Brodsky came and that was checkmate. I wanted to be him, simple as that. I’m not sure if he didn't say the same thing about Auden. But that’s the truth.

How did Brodsky conquer you to this degree? If this can be explained at all, of course.

I guess it can be, somehow, but I don't know how effective it will be. Do you know how many times I've tried to write something about him? Then I gave up completely, because I realised, I was powerless against this love. That it can't be rationalised. That there are only banalities and tautologies left: I love, because I love. I think we all know it from life's experience.

But I'll try to tell you something. First, there was poetry, that's obvious. And then there was the person, the figure. From some interviews, memoirs, introductions - by chance, because in those distant times it could only have been by chance, I bought it in a second-hand bookshop Reszty nie trzeba. Rozmowy z Josifem Brodskim ("Keep the Change. Conversations with Joseph Brodsky") and a book by Jadwiga Szymak-Reiferowa. And this Literatura na Świecie (“World Literature"), a monographic issue from 1987. And these two elements - poetry and biography - were propelling each other. It was a coherent picture of a genius or, as it turns out, greatness. It seems he could do anything with a poem. There was no rhyme that he couldn't find, no tone that wasn't available to him, no subject he couldn't touch. Language supremacy, simple as that. Utterly overpowering.

And what about essays?

Essays came later. Some of the best that have been made. Especially the autobiographical ones or those based on autobiography: Watermark, The Art of Distance, A Guide to a Renamed City (Krzysztof Siwczyk repeated his gesture in his Gliwice essay after all!), and also Spoils of War, Homage to Marcus Aurelius. And In a Room and a Half! Come on, I can't help but mention the titles! After a Journey! Flight from Byzantium! And the rest? I cannot stop! I said it wrong, all of them are autobiographical, even the dry On Tyranny. In all of them, there is something what overwhelms, enthrals - but it is a wonderful thrall. You can hear his voice in each of them, as if I was listening to it, as if he were talking to me. You can see that it was written by a poet, of course, because there is no time to catch your breath in this prose. Every sentence is like a firework, every sentence is an aphorism. The essays in which each successive sentence changes the direction of march, run, trot - depends on what he is writing about. And this originality of thoughts, no clichés, no repetition of current opinions. But also, his affection and those delights. And in all that - the insolence! Sometimes, you know, it would carry him abroad, as in that famous poetic foul On the Independence of Ukraine. But in essays, insolence makes it rather impossible to repeat their brilliance. How shall I put this: he not only climbed K2 in winter, he inhabited that peak.

If you could meet a late writer, any of them, would that be Brodsky?

I don't know, I've never had this kind of dream. With Brodsky, you know, I'd be afraid I'd be disappointed. Loving at a distance is always easier. And to meet a version of yourself that you dream of and never will be - that's a recipe for mental disaster, I guess. I'd prefer to see a summit meeting like this: Auden, and with him at the table, Brodsky and Merrill - two of his literary "sons", who probably lived side by side and did not know one another, at least there is no trace of any contact in their biographies. Maybe they didn't even like each other? It would be even more interesting. I'd sit quietly to the side.

Are you waiting for any books now?

Obviously, I'm waiting for Messiah. Since he’s been already seen in Sambor, he might finally arrive.

Before our conversation, you mentioned that you were lining up work on another book. What will it be?

It's going to be some kind of continuation of Pokolenie wyżu depresyjnego ("Depression Boom Generation"). And I'm not so much lining it up, but I am writing with stubbornness worthy of maybe a better cause, but also with a hopeless - otherwise it's just not possible - frenzy. I'd very much like it to be released next year, when it's the 400th anniversary of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. Because the book is supposed to be a great footnote to this classic, probably the greatest in history, undeniably legendary work about civilizational depression. It can’t be repeated, much less can it be trumped, I am not that insolent, but I would like to repeat Burton's gesture, as if to overwrite The Anatomy after these four centuries, to add a historical erratum. Again, on the thin line between the essay and the novel, but I guess I'm losing this wobbly balance and I am more often swayed towards narrative prose or - as Sebald probably wanted - simply prose.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe