Julia Fiedorczuk, poet, prose writer, translator, and literary critic, talks about obsessive reading of Flaubert, John Cage, whom she always has at hand, about her plans to read less but more carefully, as well as about her latest novel and ecopoetics.
Do you read before bedtime?
I like to, a lot, but it doesn't always work out. I fantasise about reading things that aren't related to my work at such moments; unfortunately, over the years, it is becoming more and more difficult. However, my primary reading time is early in the morning, and I like to read right away after I wake up.
What time do you get up?
Six o'clock. I spend the first hour of the day with coffee and books before I start browsing social media, peeking at the phone, into the newspapers, into the mail. This is important: to find a few moments during the day when you can achieve full focus.
Does it mean that it is best to start and finish the day with a book?
It would be beautiful if it worked. In my case, I usually manage to read in the morning.
So, you wouldn't have a night table, just a morning table.
What’s on it?
We're talking literally five minutes after the announcement of the ten nominees for the Ryszard Kapuściński Award, so you can imagine what my pile looks like now, or actually all the piles in my house, because they consist of almost a hundred and forty reportage titles. And this real morning table... I have some books that I've been planning to read for a long time and that I want to return to. I'm not giving up hope that I will manage to do it. I like to return to classic texts. I'm obsessed with reading Flaubert. It is important for me to renew the readings of my youth, the readings that shaped me, the readings that I liked when I started to deal with literature seriously. Renata Lis's books are also on the pile: one, a wonderful one, about Flaubert actually, and Lesbos, a beautiful essay about Eros. Anyway, I feel close to the essay. I also have a new Koziołek on my bedside table.
A brilliant one.
That's what I've heard, and I can't wait to get on with it. I also read things related to poets I like, such as Forrest Gander, whom I am translating into Polish at the moment, and some books about Zen. And somewhere, there's always John Cage, his poems or his biography, because he's very close to me. It's a permanent décor of every table of mine - morning, day, or night.
So, you like to return to the books you’ve read before.
Yes. Or rather, I try.
I'm asking because I know a few people who will read a book once and don't feel the need to ever pick it up again.
There are books I know I'll never return to. But now, I have the aspiration to read more carefully, more precisely, though less - and to return to particularly important texts, to give them their due time and attention.
Do you have an inner imperative to read every text to the end?
I do. I happen to leave something behind, of course, because I read a lot for work, and, sometimes, I have no other choice, but I don’t like doing it. I’d like to finish reading everything.
Aren’t you afraid then to start thick, several hundred-page novels?
I sometimes think that such a thousand-page novel is a huge undertaking and you have to find the right moment in your life to take it on; I think about it also as an author. My new book, which will be published in March, is quite thick, which makes me feel guilty that I give the readers such a big thing and I'm asking for their attention, for their truely invaluable hours which can be spent on rest or life, on some other literature, film, music.
Joyce thought of it in similar terms, only à rebours when he said: "I've been writing the Finnegans Wake for seventeen years, and now I demand your time."
I, on the contrary, feel that I'm entering people's time, which is very limited, very scant anyway. This is some kind of coquettish proposition, "Spend a few days, a week with me." Besides, I think it’s my first book that can't be read in one day.
Four hundred and fifty pages. How long did you write it?
Five years. When Ecclesiastes translated by Anna Kamieńska fell into my hands, it was the moment when I came up with the fundamental metaphor on which the whole story is to be based. I do not create text from the perspective of plot, but from the perspective of metaphors or images - and their deep imaginative construction. So, it started with Ecclesiastes and then, it took a whole year to come up with topics. I've been writing down what the structure of this book might look like, then, I went to the publisher asking if it might be interesting, and finally, I started writing - with the wonderful editor Waldemar Popek, then also with another editor, Ewelina Korostyńska. Of course, at a different pace, depending on what was happening at the time, and it was an uneasy time in my life.
So, you've finished Nieważkość (“Weightless”) and started working on Pod słońcem (“Under the Sun”) practically right away.
Conceptualisation work, yes. I started writing a little later. But tapping out sentences and paragraphs on the computer is only a small part of the writing work in my case.
You do something all the time: prose, poetry, translations, sketches printed, among others, in Literatura na Świecie (“World Literature”) magazine, and also lectures at the University of Warsaw. How do you combine it all?
What I've been doing for some time is certainly a high-performance sport. To be honest, I don't think I can live with the intensity I've lived with over the years much longer. Sometimes, I think it's a matter of voracity - I have such an irrepressible desire to find out about things, to read, to write, to implement ideas... I live very much through reading, through writing, through certain metaphors that propel me. I live by thinking, I can’t help it. So far, by some miracle, I have had enough energy to move around in different spaces with great intensity, but I'm thinking more and more about the fact that I need help, even logistics-wise; I fall behind more and more, I forget about things, I don't keep up with correspondence. These are just seemingly mundane issues. I've just started to trip myself up on them.
Sticking post-it notes to remember about the other post-it notes.
Yes, exactly. I don't want to disappoint people that I forgot something, but controlling everything at once is very difficult. However, generally, I'm quite conscientious. Especially if something means other people’s engagement, I respect their time and effort.
I have this fantasy that I can find a year to read, just like that. This is my big dream. And a long Zen retreat, preferably solo. These are obviously escapist and unrealistic fantasies... and in the meantime, Filip Springer and I are founding a school of ecological thinking.
What will it be?
It's a school for people who practice different types of writing: from journalism - because there will probably be the most of these people - to poetry. We have nine weekend meetings, during which we will try to remodel our whole way of thinking about the relationship between nature and man, about the relationship between language and the world, about the great issue of ecological disaster and how we deal with it - also by means of imagination, designing the future. The meetings are to be very different, we will invite scientists, philosophers, writers, lawyers, people of different discourses. The essential element is the analysis of the discourse around nature and ecology.
So, this is about something completely different from creative writing.
Yes, we're not going to teach people to write. The point is to teach people, those who write and act in a symbolic space, people interested in what is happening now, people interested in the change of the language that would describe it, to teach them how to change their way of moving in the symbolic order, that is, their poetics. We boldly named this activity the School of Ecopoetics, thinking of poetry in the strict sense, poiesis, not writing poetry as such. It was a bit risky, but there is no shortage of volunteers. There will also be meetings away: field trips to the Narew River, or a visit to an opencast mine. A bit of wilderness, a bit of anthropocene. We'll see. The first edition, owing to force of circumstance, will be some kind of research field for us. We are in a very good position because we are supported by the Institute of Reportage, so we can let our imagination run free and design our own and new approach to learning.
You've been doing ecopoetics - and ecocriticism - for a few good years now. How did it all start?
I think Schulz said that childhood is a nursery for the imagination. So, my nursery for imagination is a Masovian backwater where I spent my days digging sticks into the ground, cutting earthworms in half, and running through stubble. I feel the closeness of nature, yet not pathetic and pastoral nature, but dirty, earthy, and muddy, full of rotten leaves. It's in my blood. Ever since I started writing anything, I have intuitively done it from my own experience and from my own feeling, just like that. Maybe I was trying to build poetics that would somehow reflect that? In addition, from the very beginning, I was fascinated by the relationship between language and body. You know, I've been doing psychoanalysis for years, I read Freud, I learned French so I could read Lacan's lectures in the original - and the relationship between the symbolic and the carnal still fascinates me. When I started university, I came across ecocriticism and ecopoetics from the academic side, and it was a natural choice for me to continue my academic path. I didn't concoct this - I just found a language that helped me articulate or channel certain issues more consciously.
And how does that translate into American poetry? After all, you wrote the book Złożoność nie jest zbrodnią (“Complexity Is Not a Crime”) about modernist and postmodernist American poets. Was the use of ecocriticism intuitive or difficult in this case?
It doesn’t translate in such an obvious way. Firstly, modernism is not associated with it, but rather with modernity, and secondly - not all the sketches from the book you are talking about are ecocritical. But, at a second or third glance, you can notice that there are Far Eastern inspirations in Pound; reading Chinese poetry, understood in a quite idiosyncratic way of course, allows Pound to build a completely new model of the subject in a poem. Pound is an objectivist, and then: Cage and his Zen Buddhism, his experiments with sound and silence, or Marianne Moore and her obsession with science, especially the natural sciences. Besides, the interest of poets in natural sciences turns out to be very common - modernism can also be approached from this side.
Did you transfer the categories that you feel scientifically close to into Under the Sun in any way?
Sure, definitely. Things that I have somehow thought through have naturally become part of the book. But again: I don't have a theory to which I would adapt my writing. Besides, searching for one's poetics, one's metaphors, one's world imagery, is a process that takes many years. This happens part consciously and part unconsciously. Sometimes, it is very difficult to talk about this process, because the things that will be most characteristic for the readers are things that I am not aware of.
What is this novel about? You said, though, that the plot wasn't the primary tool for you...
This is the first time I am talking - officially – to someone about this book. This is a touching moment. I will start by saying that the deep structure of this book is based on Ecclesiastes, which I have read over the years in various translations, also in Hebrew.
Have you learned the language?
I’ve been learning it before, for the Psalmy (“Psalms”), but it's still a long way from being learnt. While writing Under the Sun, I had regular lessons with a Hebraist, Magda Szwabowicz: week after week, month after month, we were wading through the text of Ecclesiastes, sometimes spending an hour and a half on two verses, because it is very beautiful, very inspiring poetry. Koheletian inspirations may not be obvious to the readers of the novel - and they don't have to be – because they are hidden in my story, buried, like flower bulbs or rhizomes.
It's not about an exact transposition - it's more of a catalyst, right?
That's right. I've placed the Koheletian motifs at different distances and at different depths. From time to time, something sprouts, grows, and appears on the most visible, "daily" level of the story. This "daily", outward plot can be summarised. It's a saga of some mixed Polish-‘Russki’ family; the "Russkies" in Podlasie are Orthodox, regardless of whether they consider themselves Poles, Ukrainians, or Belarusians. The whole story is based on the life of a certain seeker, who is born in the 1930s and dies at the beginning of the new millennium.
And in the background - the history of the Republic of Poland.
Yes. The intertwining of individual human fates with the "storms of history", particularly turbulent in these areas, is certainly one of the important topics of this book. At the beginning, however, we take a big step back and follow the fate of the main character's father. The father - a strongly mythologised character - is a brawler from an Orthodox village; recruited by the communists, he goes to the Soviet Union to build communism there, a better world. So, he crosses the Urals, convinced that he's going to bring his whole family together, but unfortunately, he goes through quite a gruesome time there. He's a carpenter. He works hard at the taiga logging first, and then he goes to Magnitogorsk, to an amazing, mythical, and monstrous city, embodying the momentum of inhuman Stalinist projects. Steel for the whole USSR is melted there. It is there where he experiences a traumatic clash with reality. It's a terrible time, the purges begin, there's hunger in many places. Fortunately, he manages to escape.
You know, in this reality, the decision or even the whim of one man decided whether or not you would live. The father of the main character returns home, penniless, by foot. And then, at the moment of this return - return from the East - the proper time of the novel begins. My protagonist is then a child, he does not recognise the man who came home after years of absence, and then, in a sense, he repeats his story.
And this is just the beginning?
Yes. But there's no point in me summarising the book. Let me just add that this is a story about identity, about wandering and exile, about being entangled in history.
Generational memory, post-memory?
That's right. It is also a story about the People's Republic of Poland, but from the point of view of people for whom it was a time of great social ascent and who really tried to build something in this reality. Some kind of positivist thought sneaked up on me there, or I simply am a positivist. I joke sometimes that I am a teacher by origin - I believe in work at the grassroots. And even more, I believe in work. At the same time, however, as I pointed out earlier, the novel is a metaphor. Sometimes a fairy tale. And I hope there's no moral at the end.
I almost forgot. It's also a novel about love.
In addition to the main male character, we have the main female character.
And at least two others.
A novel about love - it sounds banal, but frankly, love seems to me to be one of the most interesting topics in human life, a mystery, not solved at all. Erotic love is a challenge for the Polish language, which has dealt and still deals with this subject in different ways. Human Eros is both a great ethical and spiritual challenge. There is no easy solution for this task. Neither bourgeois nor libertine formulas provide an exhaustive answer. Thrown into the middle of a big mystery, like all of us, my protagonists are looking for beauty in several levels of life. The Koheletian narrative - the point of view of the witness, the one who saw various things "under the sun", calling for the perception of beauty - has provided me with a form in which I try to think various things over. Importantly, Kohelet is by no means a believer. Look at this passage: “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. (…) Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (3: 19, 21).
You said your novel was a family saga. Do you read Polish sagas? Are you interested in them? Drach (“The Kite”) by Szczepan Twardoch, Stramer by Mikołaj Łoziński – just examples from the top of my head.
I don't know if I'm more interested in them than in other things. I've read The Kite, and I've got Łozinski on my book pile. The form I have chosen is a function of what I wanted to talk about this time.
What was most important to you?
The fundamental theme for Kohelet is time. I'm sure you remember those famous passages: “a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot(…); a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance(…); a time to search and a time to give up” (3: 2,4,6). Time is the hero here; time becomes Time. And, perhaps, the main protagonist of my book is Time.
Interviewer: Maciej Libich
Translated by Justyna Lowe