Bedside table #43. Maciej Bobula: To read more insightfully

The poet and prose writer Maciej Bobula, a winner of the Silesius Award 2019 for the best debut, talks about his guilty pleasures, the influence that Tuwim and Burroughs had on him, reveals which Polish authors he always reads, and he indicates must-reads.

Do you have a bedside table or other place where you gather books for current reading?

I have three bedside tables with books always lying on them, because I lead a nomadic lifestyle within my flat. One bedside table is in the room which is my bedroom in the autumn/winter (there is a wood burner in there), another one is in the kitchen, and one more in the room that is my bedroom in the spring/summer. In the kitchen, I have books for breakfast/lunch/dinner, and in other rooms, books that I read when I live in that particular room. It happens sometimes that when I don’t get to finish reading a book until I move from room to room, the book has to wait two seasons for me to finish it.

How quickly do you switch between books? Do you read fairly efficiently or do piles of shame grow?

Recently, they haven’t been really growing, because I don't buy books at the same rate as I used to. Just two years ago, I thought it would be a shame for me to leave my flat without having read one of the new titles declared masterpieces by various opinion-forming people; what is more, I thought all those blurbs saying "You're gonna die if you don't read it" or "the greatest novel since Franaszek's Milosz” or else "Here's a new Jan of Kijan born" are all addressed to me and I just MUST know all those books. So I used to spend half of my earnings on all those new releases and collected these books like toilet roll, not so much out of fear that they might run out, but with the certainty that it would be a shame not to have them if someone asked. From today's perspective, a large part of these books is nothing more than toilet roll indeed. And nobody asked me about them. So, this is why I'm talking about them now.

For two years now, switching between books has been slower, I already have my own topics, which I try to follow in literature, and I have limited myself to 3-4 people, whose opinions on books I listen to; the piles are not growing so much.

Who are these influential people?

First of all, my Facebook friends, there are about four, maybe five people whose taste I believe in completely, I have never been disappointed by their recommendations. I don't really read reviews. Alternatively, if a topic interests me so much that I can devote a lot of time to it, I swallow everything available on the market. And I have my favourite authors and translators, whose new titles I ALWAYS read. Some Polish ones would be Artur Domosławski, Tadeusz Sławek, Adam Lipszyc, Dariusz Czaja, Maria Janion, Renata Lis, Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Anna Bikont, Małgorzata Łukasiewicz, to name a few.

What’s on your bedside table right now?

On my bedside table in the autumn/winter room, there is the English biography of Austin Osman Spare - The Life and Legend of London's Lost Artist by Phil Baker and something reportage-like GEF! The Strange Tale of An Extra-Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe, both published by Strange Attractor Press, a publishing house whose publications are always a safe bet. They deal with underground culture, so they have a lot of biographies of various freaks (in a positive way), cultural studies, beautifully published collections of horror literature - things, in short, completely unpopular. I also have the book Copenhagenize by Mikael Colville-Andersen (translated into Polish by Weronika Mincer), and it is because I'm a Denmarkophile, but not in the recently popular sense that Danes are the happiest people, (which is why I omitted the idiotic subtitle of the aforementioned book, which doesn’t even appear in the original version, namely Danish Recipe for a Happy City [the subtitle in the original version reads The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism – translator’s note]). What I mean are strong social democratic traditions, a strong sense of responsibility for oneself and the society one lives in, in the micro and macro dimension. And as for Copenhagen itself – I love it. I'd like to live there someday.

I also have Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man published by Egmont. It's a childhood journey. As soon as I learned to read at the age of four, I mainly read superhero comics from a kiosk in Kłodzko and Julian Tuwim's poems.

Indeed, what did you like to read as a child, and what did you read in your formative years? Are there any books that influenced your growing up and your taste?

As a child, I mainly read comic books and Tuwim's poems. I bought and devoured comics heavily, everything that I could find in a kiosk, mainly titles from TM-Semic publishing house (from Batman and Spider-Man to Sailor Moon and Moomins), but also all the Donald Ducks, Giants, Asterixes. My love for Tuwim, on the other hand, came from his early poems for children, which I knew, almost all of them, by heart, but it quickly evolved into his "adult" work, because somehow, I had his poems, collected in two volumes. From the back of the second volume, where Abecadło (“The ABCs”) and Lokomotywa (“The Locomotive”) could be found, I walked my way to the front of the book, towards Do prostego człowieka ("To the Simple Man"). As a child, I did not understand much of it, yet I was exceptionally moved by the magic of Tuwim's language, rhythm, and rhyme, and I still am. I don't think there's a more important poet for me.

Later came various boyish readings, in Szalejów, I discovered a library, and in the library, various football jewels: Do przerwy 0:1 ("0:1 at Half-time") by Bahdai, Pół wieku z piłką ("Half a Century with Football") by Górski, Kick-off by Schumacher, some books about the World Cup - all of this made me red-hot when I was 10-14 years old. I remember that at that time, I subscribed to Przegląd sportowy ("The Sport Review"), walking every day through the village with the magazine under my arm, I felt like an old soul, and I also started to smoke then, so even more so. From the age of fourteen, rock, punk rock, and metal conquered my imagination. I searched for all the possible books about music, and I read all the available biographies of bands and musicians from the In Rock publishing house and similar ones. It is from there, in turn, that I found out that a whole lot of these musicians were reading beatniks, so I started too. I fell in love with Burroughs and, just like Tuwim, I love him to this day. Not from his novels, though, but from interviews. There's a collection by Daniel Odier The Job and Burroughs Live. The Collected Interviews. These are my bibles. Following Burroughs, from America came to me Pynchon and DeLillo, perhaps the greatest modern prose writers for me. If I do read prose, I look for humour, primarily humour, and these two can soak up one or two sentences with such a stinging irony about the moronic reality in which we have to live, and get my receptors punctured, and then I lie and laugh for hours. And it's not so terrible to live like this anymore.

All of these reading fascinations were carried out in stages. What's interesting, with a few exceptions, I wasn't attracted to novels at all. Comics, poems, biographies, diaries, letters, essays, reportages, yes, novels, however, somehow less.

What did the reading in Szalejów look like? I apologise in advance for the distasteful ethnographic tone of this question.

In Szalejów, there is one library and there used to be a kiosk where I used to buy comic books and "The Sport Review". The kiosk shut down around 2003, but at that time, I was already in middle school, and I bought comic books in Kłodzko. From the Szalejów library, I borrowed all these football books I talked about; it was there that I discovered Polish comics - Kajko i Kokosz (“Kayko and Kokosh”), Thorgal, and Tytus, but I didn't like them at all at the time. Then, I enrolled in the library in Kłodzko and started to bring books from there and get my first serious debts for overdue books, because I happened to read one book several times. I remember that it was the case with the books about drugs, another fascination of mine: Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F., Junk, Naked Lunch, Pamiętnik narkomanki (“Diary of a Drug Addict”), the first edition of Cave's biography - I borrowed it all and read it several times with bated breath. There never was a bookshop in our village, the first books I bought myself were from a bookshop in Kłodzko or from a mail order bookshop. At the very beginning, my parents provided me with books, I had a lot of books about dinosaurs, Disney's books with illustrations (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Snow White, Lady and the Tramp, Aladdin), Sesame Street (e.g. The Sesame Street Storybook), I also rummaged through the book collections of my grandparents. My grandmother used to travel around bigger cities looking for books, and then she would come back with full bags. She had all the new titles – stuff from PIW publishing house: the ‘Black Series’, the ‘Ceram Series’’ from PWN publishing house: a library of contemporary philosophers, a library of classical philosophers etc., Jung, Arendt, Huizinga from Czytelnik publishing house, all these novel classics from the ‘Golden Series’: Dostoevsky, Conrad, and others, all the dense stuff. Later, when I grew up, I swallowed it all like a gannet. Today, I buy mainly online: mail-order or e-books, and bookshops - only when visiting larger cities.

Is there a book that you liked insanely, but you are afraid to return to it, or you did, but it turned out to be a disappointment?

I don't think I've ever returned to something and I've been severely disappointed. I don't return to many of the books I've read, and if I do, it's because something touched me so much at some point that I want to experience the emotion again. And I usually do. Recently, after many years, I have returned to the Moomins, to Astrid Lindgren's books, The Wind in the Willows, Andersen's Fairy Tales, Winnie the Pooh - these are still wonderful things, even more wonderful, because you can see now that all these are also books for adults, only now they work on a different level. Would I be afraid to return to something? I think to some comic books. That Spider-Man I'm reading and watching now, he's got old in an ugly way, Mary Jane is a bimbo-ish girl in it, often drawn in pretty seductive poses, which is probably the wet dream of teenagers growing up (which I didn't notice when I was six years old), not doing much except constantly waiting for Peter Parker. It annoys me. It would probably be the same case with other superheroes now. Especially with Lobo, which used to be my favourite comic book, and today, I would be afraid to look into it, so as not to be flooded with a wave of sexist, macho shit, although it's tempting, because it has been republished. Indeed, I recently watched "Pretty Woman" after many years, I haven't seen it in twenty years or so. I wonder how it is possible that such a film could have been a blockbuster one day. A rich bloke, to whom the shop staff pour champagne while shopping, allows a several years younger prostitute to become SOMEONE - his wife or partner (I don't know, because I didn't finish watching), who, from now on, starts to know how to use cutlery to eat crabs. Unbelievable.

Guilty pleasures?

As far as guilty pleasures are concerned, maybe these are those books and comic books for children and teenagers, often the ones you recommend on Kurzojady (forgotten books’ reviews by Olga Wróbel – translator’s note), e.g. The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez, books by Sarah Crossan, Hilda by Luke Pearson. I used to passionately read all the works of the chief transgressors of literature- Bataille, de Sade, Sacher-Masocha, Lautreamont, Sasha Grey's The Juliette Society, once I could speak English, there was also more pulp stuff, but I quickly got bloated - nothing more boring than the admiration of violence and pornography.

What do you look for in reading: inspiration, escape, or something else? When you write yourself, do you read more, or do you try to switch off and not be influenced by someone else's phrase?

It depends on what I read. If it’s reportage, scientific literature, essays - I'm looking for knowledge about the world, other perspectives, attempts to explain phenomena that I don't get or that I haven't dealt with at all. A large part of the abovementioned Polish authors does it - they open my eyes to what is going on in literature, painting, and the world. It is because I simply like to read how others write about literature, this is how I learn to read more insightfully. And I don't have to read all these things I haven't read yet, because others have already explained to me what Walter Benjamin's baroque drama is about.

If I read poetry, it's mainly for the artistry of language. I often don't understand what many poems may be about, but language affects me, so I hum it like a song. In general, this songful nature of poems speaks to me more and more over the years. There has always been Tuwim who has probably already become my prototype from Sèvres when it comes to poetry. Clear, narrative, rhythmic poetry. From contemporary poets, I love rappers, Kate Tempest can be an example here. As a poetaster, I would also choose to go this way, my favourite poems so far are things you could rap. And, yes, when I write poems, I read as much as possible. Nothing stimulates me to writing like reading other people's things. And do I copy the others' phrase then? I don't know. Let the critics say.

As far as fiction is concerned, I read it the least now, and if I do, I look for the escape you mentioned. And humour. Now, during the virus lockdown, I really want to catch up with unread books by Ursula Le Guin. She combines these two, the possibility of escapism and humour, in an excellent way.

What book has made the biggest impression on you most recently?

Barndommens Gade by Tove Ditlevsen, a story of the adolescence of the main character, Ester, before the Second World War, from a working-class family in Vesterbro, for whom it was hard to make a living. Each day is a struggle for the heroine in a rather hostile environment, full of violence, drunkenness, and sexual abuse. But, like in any naturalistic novel, this heartless social background is balanced by lyricism in the description of Esther's friendship with Lisa, children's imaginations and dreams of a better life. A wonderful book, something like Elena Ferrante from the Neapolitan series, but from eighty years ago, published in 1943. I intend to translate some excerpts into Polish, maybe someone would like to publish it someday, but I don't think so, who would want a translation of a book from eighty years ago? Were we to look at the translations of Danish literature in recent years, these are mainly crime stories and some poetry (the wonderful Alphabet by Inger Christensen and the no less excellent poems Digte by Yahya Hassan, both books translated by Bogusława Sochańska), sometimes there is an exception, e.g. The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine (translated by Agata Lubowicka and Justyna Haber-Biały). I hope there will be more of Christensen, because she is a really exceptional poet, with a great gift for bringing small miracles out of everyday reality. Anyone who has not read Alphabet yet should read Alphabet.

Interviewer: Olga Wróbel

Translated by Justyna Lowe