Marta Kwaśnicka, writer, critic, and editor, the winner of this year's Marek Nowakowski Award, talks about reading for pleasure and pleasure from reading, reading delights, which are hard to find, she explains why she reads and reveals her literary delights – the first and the most recent.
What are you currently reading?
Many things at once - mainly because I'm forced to by duty. As far as fiction is concerned, yesterday, I finished Dominika Słowik's Zimowla ("Overwintering"). It was a reading for pleasure. Since the beginning of the quarantine, I have been unhurriedly reading Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, and that’s because of my involvement in a certain philosophical project. This reading will probably take some more time, because the book is really extensive, and I'm only halfway there. I also have Wiesław Juszczak's essays on the go, because, for various reasons, partly professional, I have recently become interested in his philosophy of art. I don't like to read several things at once, but sometimes you have to do it.
It seems that reading for pleasure does not happen to you often. What do you reach for when you have free time?
It’s not like that! I need to be more specific. When I said that I read Dominika Słowik ‘for pleasure’, I meant that I read it selflessly, having no plan to use what I find in this book. But reading Taylor or Juszczak gives me great satisfaction. I should have read A Secular Age a long time ago - for many years now, in various contexts, the topic of the beginnings of the early modern period and ‘re-enchanting’ of the world has been returning to me. Had I read this book earlier, it would have probably helped me with my various inner journeys. A lot of the problems I've encountered would turn out to have a solution. Now, I've just found a good reason to make an effort and ‘break into’ this brick. Juszczak, on the other hand, is an excellent essayist and one can read him selflessly. Zasłona w rajskie ptaki (“A Curtain with Birds-of-Paradise”) is amazing. However, I read Juszczak because I want to "make use" of his intuition when writing my own book. Indeed, I very rarely read selflessly. I usually reach for what I'm currently curious about, what I need for some reason. I go to a book with some question that it answers or not. But if you wanted me to start listing my favourite genres or topics, I don't think I would be able to do it. There is no fixed scheme. Well, for example, I try not to lose contact with current literature, and that is to some extent selfless. But can I be sure? After all, I don't know what this reading will result in in the future.
I must admit that I admire the fierceness with which you defend the selflessness of professional reading. Have you had any great reading delight lately?
Even if we are paid to read - although no one pays me - we have to read selflessly as critics, or at least try. Who needs a self-interested critic? As for your question: delights - but I mean such real bedazzlement, reading knockouts - happen to me very rarely. I don't want to pose as some kind of a jaded conservative who can't like anything after reading Norwid and Sienkiewicz, God forbid. Maybe it's about some of my character traits, it is just hard to overwhelm me. But I sometimes happen to read with bated breath, unable to break away, and then regret that the book ends. It was the case with with Carpentier's recently renewed The Lost Steps. Last autumn, I read Iwaszkiewicz's Książka o Sycylii ("A Book about Sicily") avidly - maybe because it was in Sicily? It's strange that this title is not as valued as, let’s say, Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie ("Barbarian in the Garden") and that it is not as well known. In my opinion, in some respects, it outperforms the latter. In his essays, Herbert is a kind of Eastern European "top student", who broke out to the West as the first of his "class" and shows off a bit in front of his colleagues. He describes fanciful tales, drops the names of great people he did not meet, though. Iwaszkiewicz travels once again, he has many memories, in Palermo, for example, he witnessed the premiere of Szymanowski's Król Roger ("King Roger"). He has a bad opinion of the local cuisine, yet he loves vino nero. Iwaszkiewicz's book is the notes of a denizen who is part of Western culture and who knows that his own culture belongs to the same circle. For example, there is no problem for him to compare Norman cathedrals with the cathedral in Sandomierz. And on top of it, it's perfectly written. It's wonderful. I don't know if that's the kind of titles you meant...
Maybe Iwaszkiewicz wasn’t just like other authors from Zeszyty Literackie ('Literary Notebooks' - the leading literary journal in Poland aiming to bring emigré authors to the Polish readership – translator’s note), he was closer to life, so to speak?
I don't think it's all about some kind of environmental aesthetics - rather general cultural self-confidence. Herbert was a debuting artist in the times of the People's Republic of Poland, when an average Pole, even as well-read as he was, had a completely reverent attitude towards the West. If anyone went out to see those monuments at all, they felt they had broken through "seven mountain frontiers / barbed wire of rivers", and so on. This could be masked by irony and erudition, but certain conditions could not be overcome. It's the optics of people living in specific realities. In turn, Iwaszkiewicz's book presents pre-war sensitivity, a completely different self-confidence. When Iwaszkiewicz spends time in Agrigento with English gentlemen and sips cocktails, you can see that he does not feel like their poor cousin, but an ordinary travel companion, perhaps even more experienced than them. Aside from the fact that before the war, similar journeys were made mainly by members of certain spheres, I think that we are slowly regaining that confidence. This also makes Iwaszkiewicz more up to date.
What about the fresher titles? Do you read a lot of Polish literature? Do you try to keep your finger on the pulse?
I try, but not always with the same intensity. Sometimes, I just don't have time for this. But if I were to list any titles, I would say that from the books published in recent months, the already mentioned Overwintering seemed very solid. Many of us grew up in small towns or suburban housing estates, so we are well aware of such a reality - seemingly coarse, but quite easily submitted to poetry. Dominika Słowik used this potential. Also, Barbara Sadurska's Mapa ("A Map") read quite well, although it is a secondary prose to Jaume Cabré. A very interesting record of some generational experience is Dropie (“Bustards”) by Natalka Suszczyńska. Her stories did not only describe the catastrophic-grotesque world of the precariat - that would be funny, but not particularly revealing. It seems to me that Suszczyńska accuses her peers of chronic infantilism, and this is definitely more interesting. Finally, Professor Ryszard Koziołek's literary sketches are noteworthy, especially those in which he perfectly ‘reconstructs’ the approach to Polish classics. In Wiele tytułów ("Many Titles"), for example, there is a brilliant sketch about Reymont.
What's the most striking about this sketch? And slightly provocatively: why do you read at all?
I was struck there by the interesting interpretation of Chłopi ("The Peasants") as a work not so much about the eternal timelessness of the rural world, but about the fiasco of the external - invented by both invaders and intellectuals - projects of controlled emancipation of the peasantry. It even deals with civic regression: people in Lipce managed to come to terms with the state of affairs, they can only afford cynicism. I have the impression that ‘the people’ for the local ‘elites’ have long been simply ‘political biomass’.
And as for the second part of the question, I read because the readings (if they are good) inspire me to think, propel me to make my own reflections, sometimes to write. In principle, I expect the books to give me food for thought, with their content or intuitions that are not necessarily expressed explicitly but result from the author's worldview. Reading can also give food for thought with its form. I think that's the point.
What gave you the most food for thought in recent months or years?
There were many such books. It happens very often that my readings are arranged in a sequence, and each successive one highlights a problem discovered in the previous one. In current literature, for example, I look for intuition about the state of contemporary society. A shortage of good, up-to-date social diagnoses in the mainstream Polish literature gave me food for thought some time ago. Exaggerated descriptions of the lives of thugs or small-town bums, or rather trivial stories from the life of the affluent metropolitan middle class are usually considered to be incredible vivisections. Meanwhile, society in its majority is somewhere in between - people who are neither one nor the other. It seems to me that this is quite a paresis – a proof that the mainstream of Polish literature does not fully keep up with reality or tries to practice some kind of pedagogy in relation to it. I emphasise that I say this as a recipient of literature. As a person who tries to write herself, I treat these observations as a challenge.
And if you were to point out some books that best diagnose Poland after 2000, what would you choose? Can you see any of such things at all?
Well, that's the trouble. Certainly, a dozen or so years ago, the books of writers operating with irony and the grotesque, such as Masłowska and Witkowski, were a big event. If reality cannot be told normally for various reasons - because it is absurd, because it eludes comprehension - then it can always be inflated and mocked. I do value Między nami dobrze jest ("No Matter How Hard We Tried") or Barbara Radziwiłłówna z Jaworzno-Szczakowa (”Barbara Radziwiłłówna from Jaworzno-Szczakowa"). Except that it's a ‘replacement narrative’. The teeth of the grotesque get blunt quickly, and the main problem - the core, that is the reality that is not told - remains. David Foster Wallace, for example, pointed this out: in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, he wrote that irony is great as a negative tool, for example to point out hypocrisy, but cultivated for too long, it becomes barren. The ironist constantly distances themselves from everything, they walk ‘around the perimeter’, so they have no culture-forming power. If it's not about what the ironist is talking about, because it's being ridiculed, then what is it about? What's a positive project? Morfina (“Morphine") was a very interesting criticism of some of the deformations of the ‘Polish form’, although Twardoch's novel did not seem to talk about contemporary times. Also, quite a few good books that refer to the tradition of rural literature have been created. Writers of my generation describe their childhood in the countryside – Skoruń (“Raskal”), Guguły (“Swallowing Mercury”), Rdza (“Rust”), and so on. Finally, there are good books in which writers reconstruct their genealogy, tell about their ancestors - grandparents, parents. All this is valuable because it brings back the past.
Recently, you wrote in a Book Institute series that Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was the writer who showed you that there is still much to do in literature. And besides, who influenced you the most, what were the readings you could consider as the ones that shaped you?
My journey through literature was quite long, so there are very, very many names. I think that every writer will confirm that the discovery of literature takes place in waves, the subsequent readings reveal something to us. I don't want to turn our conversation into a phone book. If I have to answer, I will describe what was at the beginning. First, I guess there was Shakespeare, thanks to whom I discovered that literature is more than a good story. Then there was Dostoevsky with his agitation, perfect for teenagers, then Herling, who, in turn, opened my eyes to the gravity of literature. At the time, I also read Mann. In high school, I went to the theatre constantly – many enthrallments happened to me through performances. The key experience was Iwona, księżniczka Burgunda ("Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy") in the Old Theatre directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna. It was such an artistic shock to me that I would be afraid to see it again... Some things can't be repeated, it's alchemy. At the time, I read this work through the prism of Hamlet, but right after, I also picked up Gombrowicz. There were also Herbert and Miłosz, both mainly as essayists, and it’s a shame to admit it. Then, of course, many, many more writers. I'd have to spend a long time listing them.
Let's go back to your childhood for a moment: what kind of reader were you then?
Fervent. I read a series about Tomek Wilmowski, books about Winnetou. I did enjoy Lucy Maud Montgomery and Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels, too. During holidays at my grandparents', I read over and over again W pustyni i w puszczy ("In Desert and Wilderness"), because they had it on their shelf. I identified myself with Staś, of course.
Do you return to books read a long time ago?
Sometimes I do, and only some of these ‘great’ readings stand the test of time. But I always see the way I've come since then - and this is also important cognitively.
From a technical point of view: paper only or do you happen to read e-books?
I do have a Kindle, of course. It's very old. I bought it at a time when there were no such ‘wonders’ in Poland. It was brought to me from the U.S. by ‘a cheap private importer’. Amazing device, still working. I read new titles mostly on it. I have too many books at home; for some time now, I've been buying only the ones I really want to have on my shelf.
What are your reading plans?
From ‘cognitive’ readings - when I finish Taylor, I will pick up the newly republished Świadomość religijna i więź kościelna ("Religious Consciousness and Ecclesiastical Bond”) by Leszek Kołakowski. It's another book I should've read long ago. I'm not going to pretend - I'm an ‘early modern period’ person by education, I just should have read it at university, and now I'm catching up with it. From fiction, I will probably pick Julia Fiedorczuk's latest book, because I have not read it yet. Unless something intrigues and surprises me on the way.
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe