Bedside table #40. Stanisław Aleksander Nowak: Literature should be treated fairly
Prose writer, columnist and playwright Stanisław Aleksander Nowak talks about his fascination with Hrabal, Schulz, reveals which writer is the reason he joined the navy and what he read then, and explains why he will not publish any more novels.
You keep repeating that you have to for each page you write, you have to read a hundred pages of other writers. This shows you've flipped 90,000 pages, because Galicyanie (Galicians) have almost 900.
Indeed, I am a writer who reads. Maybe there are those who don't read, although I don't believe in literary savants.
Interestingly, you did not study humanities, but political science and foreign trade.
But I have always been interested in literature. My dad loved books. This manifested itself in the fact that in the 1970s he subscribed to PWN publications - Encyclopedia, World Atlas, etc. And in this Encyclopedia there was a list of world literature, two pages of titles from Old Indian Literature to contemporary times. Dad took the trouble to read all the books from this list. He read them one by one and marked them with a dot on the list. I later took this Encyclopedia with me to the navy, because I served in the army, and I also read books from the list.
Since you' ve served in the navy, I have to ask you about Conrad.
I joined the navy precisely because I read Conrad. I was fascinated by him. I even took the PIW edition of the Typhoon stories with me. The service in Ustka was very hard, but what's interesting, I volunteered, my father arranged it for me through his connections, he was a border guard. It was 1979. And when once in the unit a senior soldier, mate was checking the lockers, he found this Conrad's book at mine. Without much thought, he took it and threw it to the Baltic Sea.
A perfect scene.
But the funny thing was that when he found out that I could write well, he came to me to write him a letter to his girlfriend. I was then a young sailor - a newbie that everyone could push around, e.g. force to work from morning till 10 p.m. And suddenly a reservist comes to me, who was parading around the ship already in a pink sweater under his uniform and in slippers, in which only the old army could walk on board, and he starts to confide in me. Because if I am to write him a letter to the girl, I must know something about her. Like where she' s got the moles... So I started writing for him, and then there were others who I wrote letters for for an afternoon tea or for getting a pass.
So the variation of Hynek's prison fate in Galicyanie is partly your story.
If I didn't write, it would be really hard for me in the army. I was brought up on the Polish language curriculum - on Romanticism and Mickiewicz, and these people were without education or after sentences and speaking prison jargon. And thanks to writing I lead a charmed life. I became a confidant of old soldiers, an amazing job. I'm joking that I started writing for food, and that's how it has stayed until today, because I make a living from it. And since I was a signalman in the unit, I also learned the weight of words in a literal sense. Because we practiced flag semaphore, that is, sending messages with red flags. The company in Ustka lined up in two rows every day, the mate would broadcast a message and we practiced. When something didn't work out or we made a mistake, we had to take bricks instead of flags and signal with them. If the mate wanted to punish us, he would give the command "ear", i.e. hands high above the head and we had to hold the bricks like this. So you can say that I know the weight of each letter.
When did you publish your first writings?
At one point I started to publish my correspondence in "Sztandar młodych". The journalists from the Youth Journalism Academy, with whom we young people met, also came to Sanok. They talked about their work, we also had internships in the editorial offices. At that time, I was associated with "Sztandar młodych" and the regional magazine "Podkarpacie", where I published reportages on the front page. But I did not do well in my Polish lessons. I preferred to read the existentialists - Camus and Sartre - than school readings.
And besides existentialists, what were your youthful literary fascinations?
In high school during holiday, I read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, which I liked very much. It was similar with Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don and James Joyce's Ulysses, which of course I read to show off.
Did you finish it?
Cover to cover. Joyce taught me courage and honesty. When I read his letters as an adult, I was surprised when he asked his brother to find out what kind of tree grows on a street in Dublin. It surprised me, but I also understand why he did it. He wanted to create a picture. You can write "tree" of course, but when you write "chestnut" or "rowan" it is a completely different picture.
Isn't it a kind of surrender to the imagination to document reality in this way?
It's something else. I like the understanding of art in Chinese culture. The Chinese say that it's not about art reflecting life, but about it acting like life. You can write nonsense, but maybe this nonsense will work like real life. And this is art for me - creating a world that is a bit fairy-tale, a bit real. Take for example my beloved impressionists. Van Gogh painted a wonderful self-portrait with yellow eyes, like a bird. But he didn't have them. Is this self-portrait less real?
Does painting inspire you?
I read a lot and watch a lot of movies, the same goes for paintings that occupy me a lot. Van Gogh loved painting so much that he paid the highest price for it. I read about how he went to the museum and counted 27 blacks in a painting by Frans Hals. Who looks at paintings like that? He wrote in letters to his brother that he would give ten years of his life for ten days before Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride painting. He was an artist who really wanted to say something. Even when he went crazy, he ate paint. What for? To understand painting?
I had one of his landscapes in the rain for a long time in my apartment, a great quality reproduction on chalk paper. And when I looked at it, I wanted to put a bowl against the wall so that water would drip into it, so sensual was this moisture. Simply beautiful.
Let's go back to literature, to the time when you discovered great novelists.
The time has finally come for Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Bruno Schulz.
Your favorite novel by Dostoyevsky?
The Idiot, I was very fascinated by Dostoyevsky at the time.
Hrabal - a great writer and poster designer. He was able to build such pictures that momentarily became metaphors. He had fantastic ideas, for example in Closely Watched Trains the boy who cut his wrists, pulled out of the tub looks like Jesus. The head of the police, who is constantly being shat on by pigeons. Or the scene of stamping a bottom. Or the red-haired girl who climbs a chimney in Cutting It Short - It is, after all, a scene like in Podkowiński's Frenzy of Exultations.
Ryszard Kapuściński is for me the master of description. He talks about places through emotions, which is very important. Wiesław Myśliwski is also an important writer for me. His Stone Upon Stone is the basis, I modelled myself a bit on him, writing Galicyanie using his rural philosophy.
Oh, yes, I like the precision of poets. I read Szymborska, Tranströmer, Różewicz. I also reach for books about poetry, e.g. Janusz Drzewucki wrote interesting Lekcje u Różewicza (Lessons at Różewicz's). In poets, I like the fact that they try to face something that is difficult to grasp. Someone once calculated that an American soldier has to fire 15 thousand rounds to kill one enemy. A sniper only needs one. A poet is just like that. In one word, they can put what others need hundreds of pages for.
Or maybe very little good prose appears today, and most of the books are poor?
I look at it differently. It's also worth reading weaker books and watching weaker films to learn how something is done and where the creator made a mistake if they failed. When I come back to Ulysses today, it's not perfect or entirely stunning for me, but still it's a valuable reading. I can read one book many times. Each time I notice something different. I keep coming back to Schulz, especially to The Street of Crocodiles. I am also fascinated by Marquez - not so long ago I read again One Hundred Years of Solitude, although my favourite book by Marquez is Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I think it's the most compact and structured of his books, although it's not a big thing, it's only a hundred pages long.
Have you ever returned to Conrad?
Yes. And I read him differently today than in my youth. He seems to me a little bit overstated, a little flat - too focused on the plot. Although, let's be honest, he was a great writer. But I can't say anything bad about Schulz. I have not yet found any weak points in his work. He is one of the most inspiring authors. I took from him, lock, stock, and barrel, the idea of paying attention to comparisons. He said it somewhere directly that to describe the world, a comparison is needed. Indeed, the winter he describes makes an extraordinary impression. You get genuinely cold when you read in summer about days that "have hardened from the cold and boredom, like last year's loaves of bread".
You mentioned films. What do you watch?
Many different things. From my favourite films, the first thing that comes to mind is The Shining with Jack Nicholson, I also like the Coen brothers. I used to be surprised that my dad liked to watch the replays of matches. He used to get excited, but he knew the score. I'm the same with movies. I often go back to my favorites, re-watch them. I like Almodóvar and also Tarantino, although he had weaker films. I watch for pleasure, but it is also a job. Because filmmakers are also writers in their own way, and since I am a visual artist, I try to write as if I was also creating images. I like Lynch very much for that, just for the painterly nature of his films. After all, he, like Andrzej Wajda, studied painting before he started making films.
So do not shy away from pop culture. And do you read genre fiction?
I read popular authors such as Ken Follett and Robert Ludlum. I'm interested in the way they write. I always read a book on two levels - as a reader and as a fellow writer. I take my toy car apart like a child, because I want to see what is inside. Małgorzata Łukaszewicz, a translator of German literature, put it nicely, that it is like looking at the carpet from the other side - watching how it is all arranged. For example, Follett once said that he tries to write in such a way that every page is interesting and that the reader wants to turn it over. I was wondering what would happen if I paid attention not only to a page, but even to every paragraph or sentence? To every word? This is how Galicyanie were created. I tried not to let go of any word.
I mentioned my fascination with painting. The idea of the language in Galicyanie came from impressionists and postimpressionists. They painted with the pointilism technique, they put on such multicoloured spots. I decided to paint Galicyanie in a similar way, but the words were the spots. It can be compared to Roman mosaics. I tried to make every element, every single tiny square, real. And they were all supposed to form a single picture together.
A lot of prose about the province has been written in recent years in Poland. Do you read these books and compare them with Galicyanie?
There are many talented young writers, but most of all, when I was writing Galicyanie, I wanted to beat myself. Only such a rivalry makes sense. Not the competition with Marquez, not with Myśliwski, Hrabal and the whole plethora of great writers. The recipe for success is to create a discipline in which you will be the best. A discipline in which only I can compete. I think I can write - even very well. But I'm not the only one. Therefore, I don't compete with others, because they are better in their fields. And if I write my own way, neither Marquez nor Myśliwski will catch up with me. I'll say more: I write better than Marquez or Hrabal.
Do you know how that sounds?
Of course I do. But it's not everything. Because at the same time, I know that Marquez, Myśliwski and Hrabal write better than me. And that's because each of them writes their own way. The point is to create your own language by observing yourself. Not to try to write artificially or strangely, but to find your own expression. And to write so that I like it myself. I don't mean to underestimate the reader, on the contrary. If I write in such a way that I am satisfied, it means that I write honestly. I believe that someone who reads my work will understand and appreciate me.
So you are not a fan of lists, rankings and literary summaries.
Comparing writers may make sense for people who have a detailed interest in literature and its history, but in general literature should be treated fairly. Like love, in a pure manner. That's why I promised myself I wouldn't write a second book under my name.
I like the procedure for auditioning musicians for the Vienna Philharmonic very much. On the stage behind the curtain the candidates sit and play, and in the audience there is a jury that does not see them. All that matters is music. They will accept into the orchestra the one who will play most beautifully. I have the feeling that this is not the case in literature, and sometimes the opposite is true - like in a recording studio, when we see who is sitting behind a glass but we can't hear him play.
It seems a bit like tilting at windmills. In literature, the name, the brand, counts too.
And my point is that it's the value of the book that decides whether it's going to be published. With Galicyanie I managed to do that and I am most satisfied with it. A rookie whose name nobody knew and suddenly his 1,000-page book goes to a respected publishing house, written in some private language... I have a right to guess that they liked it. Especially since the publishing risk was high.
But today we know that Galicyanie were the literary event of 2016.
Please don't take this as breaking away from the literary community. I just want to make sure what I wrote is worth something. Every writer, and I certainly do, can write well or very well, but they can also write cringeworthy stuff. I'm sometimes wrong. I read Marquez's book, in which you could see the stitches, I don't remember the title anymore - it was just weak. They probably printed it out because it was Marquez. And I don't want them to print everything I write. I want it to go through an honest screening. Because if I sent some nonsense as Stanisław Aleksander Nowak now, it's very possible that they would publish it. And I want to keep writing my first book. That's why I told myself that the next book will go the same way as Galicyanie . That I would put it under an unknown name to the publishing house. If they like it, let them publish it.
Interviewer: Marcin Kube
Translated by: Łukasz Konatowicz