Bedside table #42. Mira Marcinów: I read whenever I can

Mira Marcinów, prose-writer, philosopher, author of Historia polskiego szaleństwa (“The History of Polish Madness”) and her prose debut Bezmatek (“Motherlessness”), reveals what she reads to her children, how she manages to read purely for herself, why she shouldn't read at night; she also talks about the primacy of form over content, insensitivity to plot, and about hiding her books under her bed.

Libraries, archives, and bookshops are closed. Where can one get books today from?

The internet, of course. I don't think that ever before have we had such access to online resources, free of charge on top of that. I miss libraries. But this longing lasts longer than the pandemic. Since I gave birth to my first child, I've been going to libraries on a different basis. I don't hang out in the archives anymore, I don't watch other researchers, I don't smell the books, I just drop in, take pictures - if I can - and come home quickly. That's how it is now. And I like it.

Your academic work is at a standstill?

I have never felt pressure to keep my academic work from standing still. There has been some reassessment, and our intellectual work, regardless of our specialisation, went more towards understanding the difficult pandemic reality, the humanists creating a narrative about what is happening now. Hanna Segal - a psychoanalyst, whom I highly value - said that during such historical moments, silence would be a real crime.

What do you do for a living?

I work at the Polish Academy of Sciences, I am engaged in critical reflection on psychoanalysis as a tool of interpretation in contemporary humanities, and recently, I have been leading the Centre for Psychoanalytical Thought at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. I have identified myself with the philosophy of psychiatry for thirteen years, and recently, I have also been studying the idea of hysteria. Right now, I am writing an essay on photography by Joanna Piotrowska for Zachęta National Gallery of Art. I have a few, maybe even a dozen or so, overdue texts to write.

Each of my writings is anchored in my personal experience - regardless of whether it is a historical-philosophical analysis of idea, an essay about some work of art  (recently I have been writing some texts of this nature for exhibition catalogues), a critical text about literature, or prose, like Motherlessness. I'm also making notes for a new novel.

Indeed, let's talk about Motherlessness. This is your first book of prose. What does its title mean? What are you talking about in it?

‘Bezmatek’ (English: Queenlessness, Polish verbatim translation: Motherlessness – translator’s note)  in the beekeepers’ language means a bee colony in which the queen bee died. Queenlessness can be assumed based on bee behaviour and hive sounds. In this prose, I write about queenlessness in people. The narrator and the main character of Motherlessness is a daughter, who talks about her love for her mother from childhood until her death - and beyond. I definitely prefer to talk about how I talk than what I'm talking about in my book, though. Because I am much more interested in language than in plot, in form than in content. The division into thematic literature and language literature is unavoidable.

Before our interview, you mentioned the sketches for your next novel. Do you have an idea for the whole thing in your head?

I do. I even have a working title. One weird word I like a lot. I'm not going to tell you which one, though. My writing comes out of my linguistic imagination. In my mind, there are words, fragments, so I write them down. Now, I'm waiting for this first sentence, which will make me sit and write another novel.

Do you read for yourself? Do you separate your professional reading from pleasure?

Who else would I read for? Well, all right, I read to my kids, too. Every day, obviously.

What do you read, for instance?

Right now, it’s Where Do We Go When We Disappear? by Isabel Martins and Madalena Matoso as well as Zagubiona dusza (“The Lost Soul”) by Olga Tokarczuk. So, it’s sad children's literature. My daughter asks me to write a children's book - for her and her little brother. I find that very difficult. But I come up with all kinds of fairy tales for my kids, so maybe someday? Besides, my daughter asks me every day for a non-fiction story. Before going to bed, she waits for one of my childhood stories. I ask her as a formality, "What story should I tell you today - funny or scary?" As a formality, because she always chooses a funny one. Thanks to this, I can see how difficult it is to build a story without fiction, how difficult it is to remain faithful to one's own biography. How it captivates the imagination.

Besides, I read purely for myself. At the same time, my job allows me to justify to myself that when I read, no matter what, I do work. This trick works the other way, too. If I'm working on a text or preparing to talk about a topic, then I also read for myself. No one is going to take that away from me. I like to be in the phase of searching, immersing, permeating, documenting, hatching, followed by the impulse to create, write, and tell.

When do you read? After you wake up, during the day, or maybe before bedtime?

I read whenever I can. But to be honest with you, I don't get much chance to read in peace, because I have two small children at home. I read and write the most while feeding my son. But only if he falls asleep and he doesn't pull books, e-readers, or my phone out of my hand. These are not luxurious conditions.

If I read before bedtime, I know that I will probably not fall asleep - the books wake me up, suck me in, irritate me. I shouldn't read at night.

So, you don't keep them on a bedside table...

My books are everywhere. Quite a few in the kitchen. While cooking, it is sometimes possible to read a book from the middle. The books also stand on the windowsills. In my son's room, among the neatly arranged children's books, I recently saw Erving Goffman's Total Institution, which ended up there by mistake of course, but rather a Freudian one. And in my daughter's room, in a huge mass of books, I found the wonderful Zita Rudzka and her Krótka wymiana ognia (“A Brief Exchange of Fire”).

I don't have a bedside table. But I hide a lot of books under my bed. They're safe there. Nobody's going to rip my last page off; of course, my husband doesn't tear the pages out of my books. Only children. That’s how my son treated a very gripping novel. I went to the bookshop and explained that I only wanted to look at it and read the last page, because the children had ripped it off.

Do you like to get carried away by the plot?

I think I've never been able to read any crime story in full. So, I guess that means one thing: I can't get carried away by the plot. But the atmosphere - always. I read for the sake of language, ideas, imagination, and atmosphere, indeed. I like the kind of literature that I can still sense in the air for a long time. This, of course, does not exclude a fast-paced plot. But this is not what attracts me in books.

So, what is it that you keep under your bed, then?

Among other things, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dezső Kosztolányi's House of Liars (selected stories), Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence. I'd like to return to them or finish them. It can be exciting: what will I draw today? What will I come across?

Do you have a backlog of reading that torments you?

Yes, but of a different kind. It concerns returning to the classics. It is probably because of my education (I graduated from MISH [Inter-area Individual Humanistic and Social Studies – translator’s note] at the Jagiellonian University), and I think I should keep returning to antiquity. Difficult, but important returns are The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as Sophocles' tragedies. They will always remain a backlog, because – even though I've already read them – they will never be sufficiently mastered.

Currently, I'm trying to get through Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, somehow, I'm not doing well. I usually devour this kind of books, and with this one, I’m stuck. Recently, I have so greedily devoured Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (in the end, however, I did not enjoy it) and The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (delicious). I also read a lot of philosophical literature, including new titles from my field, i.e. philosophy of psychiatry. A pandemic situation - a feeling of threat - makes me want to read what I've already read before and what I've enjoyed. That's why I return to numerous titles now.

To what, for instance?

I just got down to Marek Bieńczyk's Kontener (“Container”). Generally speaking, I really like to return to books I've already read. Some of these returns are painful, others give hope that some books do not age at all.

Tell me more about those that give hope.

These are mostly Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov. But also, to tone it down a notch, I like to return to The Diary of Anaïs Nin.

Are you up to date with new titles?

I've actually been for some time. I wonder myself - how did that happen? I used to question "fashionable" books. Now, I appreciate that in certain circles, we sometimes read the same things in parallel and can argue about them until morning. But it's rare. With such a choice and availability, it's still difficult to get books that everyone reads.

Do you read contemporary Polish literature? Prose, poetry?

I do. Masłowska and Najder, with bated breath. My favourite literary form is an essay. I definitely have an essayistic mind. I would never miss a book by Mark Bieńczyk. I've been doing worse with poetry lately. I do not remember the last time I read poems other than Tadeusz Różewicz. Such is life.

You're talking about essays. Literary or not necessarily?

Not necessarily. Indeed, a literary essay, especially a personal essay, is my form. But reading a French philosophical essay is usually a pleasant time for me.

And apart from that?

I read what fits the situation I'm in, and depending on what happens to me, what I'm experiencing or where I'm going (at least when there was still somewhere to go). After a long journey through Morocco, which I made ten years ago, I became fascinated by Tahar ben Jeloun. When I lived in the States, I read everything I could about this country. I remember, for example, that I almost studied Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to better understand where I am at all. Recently, following this confrontational principle, I returned to Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year. Excellent reading for this time.

Do you remember your childhood readings well? Could you name some books that shaped you?

Actually, I don't really remember my childhood readings at all, although I know that I started reading early. It was only the teenage period that brought important books. Philosophical books somehow ended up on the shelves in my family home. Short ones: The Confessions of Saint Augustine and Schopenhauer's The Wisdom of Life. It must have been relatively early, I was twelve, maybe thirteen years old, and this is how I got fascinated by ‘soft’ philosophy.

I also remember those bright colours of the covers of Ibero-American prose with weird zigzags, which were printed by Wydawnictwo Literackie publishing house. I used to read them avidly. It was, in a way, formative. However, the return was a disappointment - I learned Spanish, I went to live in Buenos Aires for a while, and I read many of these books in the original there. Magical realism worked on me when I was fifteen. Yet, it is from this literature that the impulse to write came, so I have to do it justice. Especially to one book. It was Paradiso by José Lezama Lima, Cuban author. Because after this reading, I thought I knew how I wanted to write. And if I may, I’ll also add Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Summer holidays, 1999.

Now, at the end, tell me about the most important books you've read in the last decade.

I don't think I can do it. It's a massive part of my life and, so far, its most turbulent period. Philosophically, Ian Hacking opened my eyes. I also keep reading Michael Foucault, however, the way I read him has changed and is more critical. What would I do without Susan Sontag's essays? And without Julian Barnes' Levels of Life? I don't know. I also fell in love with the title of the novel Mothers and Daughters (verbatim translation of the original title: May Your Mother Give Birth to You – translator’s note) by Vedrana Rudan, and then the book itself. In the last decade, Houellebecq has provided me with entertainment as good as a New York stand-up, and Neapolitan tetralogy has given me "Do not disturb, I am reading Ferrante" syndrome.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe