Maciej Urbanowski, literary historian, critic, and editor, tells us about literary discoveries, the recovery of masterpieces, reading caprices, the search for marginalised voices, books worth publishing abroad, The Odyssey, from which everything began, and about how reading a book is a reading of another human being.
What are you currently reading?
I read a lot of things simultaneously. Today, yesterday, tomorrow, primarily Wspomnienia polskie (‘Polish Memories’) by Gombrowicz and literature around the Polish biography of Gombrowicz, until August 1939. I read a little as my professional duty, because it is a continuation of my adventure, which is to edit texts and pass them onto other readers. I read so that others can understand the text better. Currently, I am also reading Herbert, in preparation for the Herbert Conference in France.
And for pleasure? If it’s possible at all for you?
Pleasure is mixed for me in a blurred way with, let's call it, professional reading. But it is also often a pleasure within this professional reading. I am a jury member for a huge number of literary competitions. I myself am surprised by how many. I often find valuable books in this job, and I still discover authors who seem particularly interesting to me.
Do a lot of these valuable findings happen?
Over the years, it becomes more and more difficult to choose such books. I like sometimes comparing reading to eating.
You mean one can over-read?
Yes, it happens sometimes that there is a moment of surfeit of reading. On the other hand, there comes a moment when it seems to us that we already know a lot about literature. Our taste is so well-formed that already after a few pages, we feel that we know the value of the book, what it is, and that it will not surprise us anymore. Yet still, from time to time, there appears a book that intrigues me or resists me unexpectedly, and I don't know what to think about it. This is the case with A Book of Memories by Nadas, which I have been enjoying for some time. This is one of those books with which I fight a little.
A summer discovery for me was a novel by Wiesław Helak Nad Zbruczem (‘On Zbruch River’), which was published by Arcana. It is a wonderful picture of the Polish Eastern Borderlands, a continuation of the line going from Nad Niemnem (‘On the Niemen’).
Do you feel that Eastern Borderlands are absent in Polish literature?
There was a period in the 1980s when the Eastern Borderlands were extremely fashionable. Then, I think, there was a certain ebb of interest in this literature, but it seems to me that it is still important, for we also need the memory of the Eastern Borderlands. The issue of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia shows how much it is not fully discussed in literature, and also by us, the readers. So we still have such discoveries as Nadberezyncy (‘Berezina people’) by Czarnyszewicz… It is characteristic that this novel, which was reissued at the beginning of the 1990s, did not actually enter into circulation at that time, and when published by Arcana in 2010, it went down a storm. Books sometimes have to wait for their own time and for their own readers. It is a matter of patience. From both sides. Helak's book is part of this trend of great Polish prose, under the tutelage of the masterpiece by Czarnyszewicz. It is not written with a revisionist intention, but rather for the affirmation of the Eastern Borderlands experience, Polish, and individual, and thus it shows what the Eastern Borderlands meant for us in cultural and spiritual terms. It is also beautifully written.
However, my reading is a bit capricious. I like it when books find me by themselves – somewhere, I come across an unknown name, someone recommends something to me or sends me something. I was glad when I got a collection of Wiersze zebrane (‘Selected Poems’) by Konstanty Dobrzyński, a pre-war poet connected with Prosto z mostu (‘Straight Out’ – a Polish weekly magazine published in 1935-1939) and National Democracy. Dobrzyński is a poet-labourer who died at the beginning of September 1939. A fascinating figure, it is good that these poems have been collected. The author of this selection, Wojciech Rotarski, published it con amore. There is a lot of interesting information about this part of the Polish intelligentsia, which I have been interested in for a long time.
I also liked very much the biography of Herbert by Brigitte Gautier entitled La poésie contre le chaos. I read it in a single breath. From French readings, Bobkowski once enthused me with them, I also brought another biography – because, as everyone nowadays, I like to read about the life of writers... It is a biography of a right-wing French prose writer and essayist, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Une histoire de désamours by Julien Hervier, so somewhat ‘The Story of Not-Love’ . It is a biography somehow in the spirit of Rymiewicz, because it is made up of various slogans with which Hervier describes his subject.
I also liked the small, Conrad-like reportage by Mateusz Janiszewski entitled Ortodrama about his trip to the south of the globe, to Argentina, and then to Antarctica. It is a fascinating description of a journey that also has a spiritual dimension.
I am also reading the latest volume of Wencel's poems, Polonia aeterna. I have accompanied and supported Wencel since the very beginning of his career. Polonia aeterna is a surprisingly bright collection in comparison with the recent collection of Wencel's volumes. It shows Polishness and patriotism in a very poetically successful way.
I read opinion journalism. When I was recently abroad, I heard a lot about Murray's The Strange Death of Europe. It falls into the pattern of such an intense trend in the 20th and 21st centuries, which still prophesies Europe's death, its dying, suicide. Murray’s book is illustrious, discussed in England and France, inspired by the events of recent years, mainly the refugee crisis. It has the value of diagnosis and caution.
I am also casually reading the novel Zgliszcza (‘The Ashes’) by Zaremba. I am full of admiration for the author's idea of creating a novel-fresco of post-war times. We can see the rise and fall of the process of the Communists gaining power and the loss of power by the anti-Communists. But I have a feeling of some un-fulfilment reading this book. So I am reading The Ashes a bit like Nadas: small portions, in stages.
You have mentioned that it is still not uncommon for literature to surprise you. Have you recently had any greater delights?
Perhaps the greatest aesthetic delight for me was the aforementioned novel by Helak, as well as Wencel's poems. But it was stronger in Helak's case, because I hadn’t read his earlier novels.
And he is a 1948 author, let's say a peer of Chwin and Nowa Fala (‘New Wave’ –a Polish poetic formation from the 1960s-1970s). So here we have a kind of late debut, a late entry into literature - surprisingly mature and interesting. I know that not everyone likes his prose, but I am a great supporter of it.
Let's go back slightly in time: how did your adventure with literature start? Or maybe, was there a book that awoke your bent for books?
I think that the first such book was Homer’s The Odyssey. It was during deep childhood, although not too early. First, there was an Italian series on television, I think, in which Odysseus appeared. I was extremely intrigued by this, especially by how Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, and my parents borrowed the book for me. It was certainly not the original version of The Odyssey, but rather a prose adaptation, most probably by Parandowski. It was a really great reading experience for me, and I think it was then that I asked my parents to sign me up to the library, and I started to look for book treasures myself.
The library in our house was not too large and rather random. So I was building my own one from scratch. At first, there was a period of children’s delights – boy’s literature from the period of the People's Republic of Poland. Szklarski, in particular, was important to me. I have read every part of the story about Tomek many times over. Niziurski, Bahdaj, Nienacki - this was the literature I devoured. Detective stories as well: Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Joe Alex. And comics. This was reading for pure pleasure, extremely intense, multiple, stimulating imagination, conjuring dreams.
The next stage for me was high school. Thanks to the great Polish teacher, Professor Zofia Rychel, I started to discover poetry. I certainly had read poems earlier, but it wasn't important reading for me then, private. Thanks to Professor Rychel, I heard about Herbert for the first time, and I started to read Mr. Cogito. It was a lesson for me that literature is not only a pleasure, an escape from reality into the world of dreams.
It’s not self-contained.
Yes, it tells you about reality. It is not only an adventure, a trip to Australia, building fictional worlds, but it tells about MY world, about important things, and, at the same time, it is a kind of intriguing puzzle. So it is somewhat a better, more difficult ‘detective story’.
So, I remember this Herbert enchantment. I even asked my dad to transcribe Mr. Cogito for me on the typewriter. Then, during a famous meeting with Herbert in the Redemptorist Church in Krakow's Podgórze, I gave him this volume for his signature. The poet was very surprised, looked a little suspiciously at what I was giving him there. But, in the end, he wrote an inscription.
At that time, at high school, in the beginning of the 1980s, some books found their way into my hands themselves. I started reading the literary press, for example Pismo (‘Scripture’). There were some names, titles, which I used to check.
Schulz’s prose, Ferdydurke and Trans-Atlantyk by Gombrowicz were certainly extraordinary experiences for me. I remember that I wanted to write an essay about Ferdydurke at that time. It was already a serious encounter with literature. It took place at a specific moment, not only in my biography, reading from the period of adolescence, but also in the period of political revolution. I went to high school when the August ecstasy of freedom began. On Gołębia Street, I flicked through forbidden books, from the underground circulation. After martial law, they were also distributed in high schools. I hunted for them. It was a forbidden fruit, also dangerous, so all the more desirable. But again, showing that there is some strength in literature. People in authority are afraid of it, they forbid it, because they fear that it can change the system, and thus the world.
Literature as a medium of rebellion.
Yes. I read Gombrowicz at the time, who somehow explained to me my rebellion against the surrounding reality, hypocritical, shoddy, false, with all those communist-national phrases. Gombrowicz freed me from this hard-to-untangle net.
Kundera and Škvorecký's novels were also a strong and important experience for me at the time. And the Russians: Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, Bunin. These books helped me to get to know the world I had known very little about before, but they also depicted literature that is still a story about reality.
So if I were to create my own history of reading, it would probably start with The Odyssey, but I think that all the time I have been, and still am, a reader of Polish literature. It is the closest to me, the most important to me, the most interesting, although, as you can see, I have here, on the table, a book by a French writer, I have a Hungarian. But most of the books lying here are Polish books. And this is what interests me most in literature, because my reality has always been the Polish reality.
What currently affects you the most in literature?
It is difficult to answer this question. I am rather a follower of the classicist principle of je ne sais quoi, so I do not really know why I like something. In this sense, I have no expectations of literature. At all times, I am a slightly naïve reader, who is guided by his own taste and instinct which tells him that something is good.
However, I certainly always look in literature for a description of historical, communal, and even political experience, I am still interested in it. I am also interested in a kind of political incorrectness, rebellion, outsiderism in literature. It can be subjective, of course. What many people think is a rebellion, it is not a rebellion to me. For example, for me, Helak is an outsider, who writes an apologia for noble culture, that is to say, he goes against the current of the revision of Polish tradition...
Yes, saying that we were colonialists, that we were abusing peasants and minorities, that our culture was actually a culture of exploiters and, at the same time, of losers. I am looking for the voices of defiance, but also for the voices that are marginalised by what is now called the mainstream.
I still believe that literature is experiencing beauty and this is what is important in it, although I do not know how to define it. I certainly feel that some kind of classicistic poetics is closest to me, based on harmony, order, dialogue with tradition, seriousness, and even pathos.
But I also have another side of my reader's self, and I still remember about this Gombrowicz experience, the master of grotesque and farce, I do not reject him, although I am tired and even bored by today's deriders.
Do unsuccessful returns to previously fascinating books ever happen to you?
I had such a return to Szklarski. At one point, I was preparing an entry about him for the Biographical Dictionary. I wanted to pay tribute to him years later, but I was also curious about the not entirely clear history of his collaboration with German propaganda newspapers during World War II. Today's books by Szklarski, probably perforce, were kind of a disappointment. I quit quite quickly.
I think every book is necessary at some stage of our biography. That's why I was disappointed to come back to Kundera's books a few years ago. And yet The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting were books of great importance to me.
I think The Joke aged the least.
Perhaps. Some ardour will not return during reading. A great discovery during my student days was Škvorecký. I once came back to The Cowards, but I no longer had the impression that it was a book that can shape you.
Speaking of which, what books have shaped you?
Certainly The Cowards, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Mr. Cogito, Ferdydurke, and Trans-Atlantyk. In later years, the annuals of the weekly ‘Straight Out’ was such reading that shaped me. I wrote my doctoral thesis reading ‘Straight Out’ and the writers connected with it: Stanisław Piasecki, Bolesław Miciński, Jan Mosdorf, Wojciech Wasiutyński, Czesław Straszewicz...
Then, all the books that I dealt with as a researcher were important to me. Koń na wzgórzu (‘The Horse on the Hill’) by Eugeniusz Małaczewski, Goetel, Nadberezyńcy (‘Berezina People’).
Yes, of course. I wrote my master thesis about him, but I did it con amore. I read the Szkice piórkiem (‘Sketched with the Quill’) and it was an extraordinary experience for me. The diary of a rebel, but also of a free man and a great writer at the same time. And, what was important to me at one point, someone from Krakow, who lived not far from us. I returned to Bobkowski constantly. Sketched with the Quill never disappointed me. Perhaps my love for this book is not as intense as it was then, but it is lasting.
I see my scientific activity a little like a repayment of my debt to writers who gave me a moment of pleasure, wisdom, and shaped me in a spiritual sense. I try to pay my debt as much as I can, and I try to pay it off to the literature I love the most, Polish literature.
In your opinion, which Polish writers are not properly appreciated abroad?
The question is what it means to be appreciated. Whether we are thinking only of translations or of the actual existence. I am aware of the fact that most of the writers I deal with do not exist strongly in the consciousness of a Polish reader, let alone a non-Polish one!
For example, Karol Ludwik Koniński, whose excellent journals from the time of occupation, metaphysical and religious, as well as opinion press I used to publish…I would like his notes to be published in one of the main European languages.
Perhaps this is how we should try to put this question: what deserves to be translated?
Certainly Brzozowski, about whom I wrote a book. No selection of his poems has been published in English. In French only Pamiętnik (‘The Diary’). And perhaps The Diary and Listy (‘The Letters’) by Brzozowski would be the best introduction to him. Recently, the first Italian translation of a selection of his texts was published. But whether and how the Italians react to it, it's hard to say. I believe that one day, someone will be delighted by it. Reading requires, I repeat, patience.
Other books? Sketched with the Quill was translated into German and French, but an English edition would also be important for the career of this writer and this book.
From contemporary literature, the whole classicising-religious current, because I have the impression that Polish literature after 1989 is much more diverse than what is translated. Of course, it is difficult to impose any choices on translators, they know best what interests their readers. But Rymkiewicz's essays, such as Kinderszenen or Wieszanie (‘Hanging’), certainly deserve to be translated. It is, of course, very Polish, but it is interesting from a formal point of view. It was no coincidence that I mentioned Drieu's biography earlier. Moreover, Rymkiewicz's essays go beyond purely national-historical issues and move towards existence and metaphysics. Rymkiewicz's poetry and Wencel's poetry are examples of things that could explain to foreign readers the way a large number of Poles think, our history, the kind of look and sensitivity that is probably not understood in the West. Interestingly, in the West, they prefer to translate Polish reportage on the Czech Republic, Georgia, Russia, and Africa...
But we also have very little Polish reportage about the Polish countryside. It is changing slightly now.
We don’t have such a person as Ksawery Pruszyński from before World War II or even Melchior Wańkowicz or Wanda Melcer, who wrote Czarny ląd (‘Black Land’) about the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. It seems to me that what Marek Zieliński, a literary critic, once called an ‘escape from Poland’ actually existed in our literature. To some extent, this can be understood. It was the result of the relish for openness, freedom of travel, the desire to see the world.
It would be difficult to recommend reportage from recent years showing such a wide panorama of Poland.
I would struggle with that. I am a great fan of literature of the Interwar period, and I immediately think of Podróż po Polsce (‘A Voyage through Poland’) by Pruszyński. You will find there reportage about Łódź, which votes for National Democracy. Pruszyński is not shocked, he does not take the position of a teacher, but he tries to understand and explain the processes he is witnessing. He writes from an interesting point of view literature-wise, in which there is no mentoring or civilising of Poles, which is annoying in some of today's literature of this type.
You mentioned a debt to writers. In your opinion, is it the task of a literary scholar to unforget forgotten masterpieces?
A little bit yes. That's how it worked for me, it wasn't an intellectual or historical-literary project planned beforehand. But, in general, it seems interesting to me to remind people of those writers, trends, and environments which have been marginalised. Partly, or even to a large extent, in the People's Republic of Poland, as a result of the communists' very conscious cultural policy, which amputated entire acres of Polish literature and memory or showed them in a caricatured light.
In this sense, unforgetting masterpieces, reminding people about them, hunting masterpieces down seems to me to be the purpose of my reading and writing reports on that reading. In this context, I sometimes like to recall Koninski's words about historical gratitude to those to whom we owe our existence.
Do you happen to give books as gifts to your friends?
Less now, but it happens. Over the years, I have tried to be as fussy as possible. I try to make the gifted books as close as possible to the recipients’ interests and passions, to make them valuable as a souvenir, but also as a literary ‘food’. Sometimes I give books from my library. Especially when I know that someone will enjoy the gift, such as the first edition of Pamiątki Soplicy (‘The Memoirs of Soplica’), a novel with an inscription by Feliks Burdecki, or Herbert's Wiersze zebrane (‘Selected Poems’). I think that a book chosen with particular care can be a testimony of friendship, gratitude, but sometimes also an indication of a way of reading and demeanour.
What did you read to your daughters during their childhood?
We read a lot with my wife. Certainly classics: Tuwim's poems, Brzechwa's poems, The Chronicles of Narnia. Astrid Lindgren, Roald Dahl. Lindgren was my youthful fascination which I managed to transfer onto my daughters.
We read a lot, there was also a bit of fairy tale inventing, we did theatrical plays. The result was such that the older daughter read to the younger one, the older one graduated from Polish philology, and the younger one was in the school theatre at high school.
Of course, I had the problem that some of my childhood fascinations did not suit my daughters very well. An attempt to prompt Szklarski or Nienacki...
... too boyish?
Maybe, but I have the impression that youth and children's literature is often too deeply rooted in their own here and now. Each generation has its own books. Łucja was a great Harry Potter fan. The girls also read Musierowicz, whom, in turn, I somehow missed.
Is there any writer you would like to meet personally, but you will no longer have the opportunity to do so?
I don't think I would like to meet Gombrowicz, because I know that he was most often a harsh, dangerous, and probing host.
But one such as Bobkowski, I would very much like to meet him. Here in Krakow, or in France, where I would like to go on a cycling trip with him, drink wine, and talk about life.
I would like to meet Andrzej Trzebiński. He was an important figure for me in my post-student years. He died when he was younger than most of my students. Huge and, because of the history, unfulfilled talent. He had a magnetic influence on people. I remember that Lesław Bartelski told me that it was the only time in his life that he had a feeling that he met a genius. He spoke about the 20-year-old Trzebiński. I would also like to meet Brzozowski. He is a writer who has accompanied me since high school, from a very chaotic but strong book Legenda Młodej Polski (‘The Legend of Young Poland’).
I read writers I like as writers, but also simply as people, as personalities who somehow emerge from these books. To me, reading a book is a reading of a human being, getting to know another person, a different view of the world, kind of making friends, escaping loneliness.
Reading as a test of empathy?
Yes, a bit. But I did not feel too close to the category of ‘romance with the text’ by Bloński, especially understood as a kind of hermeneutics or personalism, which wants to understand everyone and accept everything. I think I have somewhat instinctive insight into which writers are close to me or attract me. After all, there are authors I do not like - they bore me or simply annoy me with their vision of the world, personality, aesthetics. I have my own salon of the rejected. Anyway, I usually do not write about them.
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe