Bedside table #5. Jakub Małecki: To this day, I associate books with great adventure
Writer Jakub Małecki talks about his fascination with Lem, what he expects from literature, a literary genre he dislikes, the writers he wrote a letter to after reading their book, why he once claimed to be a “Newsweek” reporter, reading as a source of pleasure, and he also reveals the greatest compliment he gives to other authors' books.
What books do you have on your bedside table?
I don’t really have a pile of books there. I know that such a pile of shame is quite popular, but I don’t have anything like that. I am currently reading Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima. Recently, I read The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn in the original, but it wasn’t quite my kind of literature. It’s a great thing, but it’s about people I don't necessarily want to read about. Every character in this series is disgusting. But I do appreciate the whole thing from a literary point of view.
To be honest with you, my books don’t pile up. I don’t buy ahead. Sometimes I'm so tempted, when I go to a book fair with my wife, I could buy a dozen, but I keep myself in line.
So you are a very orderly reader.
I generally have such an orderly nature. Maybe it’s something I have after working in a bank and from my studies. When I write books, I have Excel sheets with heroes, dates, everything. When I read, it's also one book, not ten at once. Maybe it's disappointing and not very romantic, but that's what it looks like, I won't say it’s otherwise.
What has recently made the biggest impression on you?
Lincoln in the Bardo by Saunders. My head exploded. I envy all those who haven't read it yet, I read it right after the American premiere. I also read a book that will probably be published next year in Poland, a new novel by Richard Flanagan. I love him. Although it seemed to me from the description that it would not be as great as The Narrow Road to the Deep North, because The Narrow Road was thematically powerful: love, war, the whole life story of Flanagan, his father in all of this as well... This time the writer tells the story of an embezzler who swiped 70 million dollars in Australia. The main character of the novel writes his biography. I thought to myself: how can you make great literature out of it? I scratched my head while reading it, as I couldn’t believe it was possible. The most interesting thing about this book is that the protagonist of the biography is a ridiculous, regrettable ass, whom, after one or two hundred pages, one begins to fear. Although he behaves in a really absurd way, he tries to dress up, claims to be followed, and so on, in the end, you are really afraid of him.
To force a reader to fear is great art.
Yes, especially when you start from a completely opposite assumption. It made me think about Jacek Dukaj's Inne pieśni (“Other Songs”), the protagonist of which was Hieronim Berbelek, a guy with a grotesque name, but Dukaj presented him gradually throughout the book in such a way that, ultimately, this Berbelek made an impression on the reader as a great warrior and someone whom one admires.
Many discoveries like that happen to me. It changes with time. Coming back to the Excel sheets, I have a file in Word, in which I have been writing down all the books I have read for about twelve years. I write two sentences or so about each of them, and sometimes, when I don't have time, I only note down the title. Recently, I was supposed to write about three of my favourite books in my life for a newspaper. I looked through the list and I grabbed my head in disbelief because I couldn’t believe that I liked such things five or ten years ago.
What was it, do you have an example?
I once read almost everything by Nabokov and I really liked his elaborate style; but today, I am completely on the opposite side. Harsh, strong poetic sentences of Cormac McCarthy or John Steinbeck are more appealing to me. I have the impression that Nabokov, in his exaggerated, florid metaphors was very close to being kitsch.
I myself would like to make the greatest impression on the reader and evoke the greatest emotions in them by very subtle means. It's not about it being God knows what, a guy just talks to another guy and you're shaking. McCarthy or Steinbeck have such an impact on me.
On my old list, there were many things I tried to return to later and I didn't feel them at all. But great rediscoveries from years ago also happen to me. Some time ago somebody recommended John Fowles’ The Magus to me. I've never read anything like that before. I tell my wife a lot about books in the evenings. We noticed that the biggest compliment I give a book is, ‘Listen, you've never read anything like that.’
Do you often happen to say it?
Often, because I think that I choose good reading. I read a lot of reviews of harsh critics from the New York Times or other media and when I see that one of them uses the word masterpiece, I know that this is not a marketing trick, but it's really worth reading.
I have recently come across The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. And this surprised me too. First of all, I didn't expect her to be so contemporary, even though it was probably 1946. You read it like a book written today, and the characters are amazing. When you read some kind of literature that is not great, but is readable, such middlebrow literature, you often have the impression that you had already met these characters many times. Rand's characters are so unbelievable and so unusual that I've never met such characters.
Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, which is the second most read book in the United States after the Bible. 1300 crammed pages. I haven't attempted it myself yet, but The Fountainhead made a great impression on me. If we talk about books that have somehow changed people, then Rand's novel would surely be something like that in my case. It is very useful to me in my personal life and professional life.
The protagonist of The Fountainhead is an architect who always went against the current, invented innovative things, and did not manage to finish his studies. He couldn't create his designs because he didn't have a license. Yet, he designed unbelievably beautiful buildings that broke the mould. This guy had an enemy who studied with him and was a typical chameleon - a man with no talent, but able to follow the right trends and people. And this enemy comes to him at some point and offers him a deal: the main character will do all the projects for him, and he will sign them with his name. The offer was also supposed to have some financial aspect, but it was enough for the protagonist to design these buildings. It's as if you wrote a book, gave it to someone you hate, whom you despise, and this guy would win all the awards, take all the splendour, be on bestseller lists, go to banquets, and so on, and the only joy you would have from it would be the knowledge that you had written it. The protagonist of The Fountainhead went to see these buildings, and that was enough for him.
It’s like with Elena Ferrante.
A little bit, besides, I like her very much, too. It's easy to fixate on the fact that you're waiting for a review in a big newspaper, you read that the book is bad, and it seems to you that this is the end of the world. I speak purely theoretically, because, first of all, I try to have a life outside of writing, and secondly, I try to approach it calmly, maybe thanks to The Fountainhead.
I once heard the story of a jazz musician from New Orleans who hanged himself because of a negative review in a jazz periodical with a circulation of 300 copies. You think to yourself, ‘how absurd!’, but for him, it was the whole world, he knew only this environment.
And sometimes this is the case, you read some critic or reader's opinion and you think to yourself, ‘everyone sees it like this.’ I watch a lot of interviews with MMA fighters and boxers. One of the best MMA fighters in the world gave up his career because it seemed to him that everyone was watching his fights, that there was no one in the world who wasn’t watching him. The pressure he experienced was enormous. He couldn’t cope with it. Of course, literature is incomparably smaller in scale, but it works in the same way.
And have you ever read such a book after which you thought: I would like to do what this guy does, I would like to write?
I don't think so. More often, I feel something like that when I sit in the cinema and realise how difficult it would be in literature to achieve the same effect as some epic film scenes or shots provoke. As far as literary ideals are concerned, it would probably be McCarthy's book Sunset Limited.
I’ve heard about it, a very low-key thing, actually a theatrical play. The plot takes place in an underground train station, I think.
The plot takes place in a flat with two men, but, in fact, one of them saved the other from suicide in the underground train station. McCarthy evokes incredible emotions in the reader, and yet this is a book about two guys sitting at the table. This is the essence of my writing philosophy: to leave the reader wailing in bed, laughing in the armchair, or so into it that they miss their bus stop by five stops, but without bringing any madness into the plot.
I understand that you expect the same of the books you read.
Yes. I don't like reading crime fiction, for example. There are literally two or three series that I'm waiting for, but, generally, this type of literature is not my thing...
And Chandler, is it your thing?
Probably more than contemporary stuff. But in general, crime fiction makes me think of taking the easy way out in terms of capturing the reader's attention. Authors happen to use, how shall I put it... banal and crude devices, slightly as if you were forcibly chaining the reader to a radiator.
When I enter a bookshop and see that a book tells the story of an ageing married couple and has a thousand pages, I buy it right away. I want it to give me the emotions that crime fiction is supposed to give, but in a more subtle way. It's not that I don't like genre fiction, because I've always read and I do read for pleasure, but now I'm talking about my ideals.
You read practically everything, don’t you?
I read a lot of different things. We talked about Saunders or Flanagan, but, on the other hand, I also read J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.
What about non-fiction?
Sometimes, but very rarely. Recently, I read Lem’s biography by Wojciech Orliński, and before that, a book by Magdalena Kicińska about Stefania Wilczyńska. But most often, I use non-fiction when I write something myself and I have to find out about something. That's why I recently read a lot about Warsaw and individual districts, about piano factories and so on. But I don't really buy non-fiction for pleasure. I’ll definitely go for more letters by Lem now, because they're being published. But Lem, I just wolf him down. Today, I read all his correspondence and conversations with even more appetite than novels.
Is he the most important writer to you?
He definitely was the coolest of the writers I know about. If I were to go for a beer with someone, I would go with him, because he was just a fantastic guy. Fantastic may not sound best when talking about Lem, but I imagine him - on the basis of different accounts- as a wonderful man.
And the most important author? I don't have one. Some time ago, I’d have said Nabokov, later - Steinbeck, when I was small - Michael Critchton, because I was devouring him like kebabs. I used to like David Mitchell a lot, I even sent him a letter after reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. At the time, I was translating Letters of Note, a collection of correspondence, and I was surprised by the courage of some people, kids writing to presidents, etc. I thought I would do the same. I did not know Mitchell's address, so I sent a letter to his English publisher’s address.
An e-mail or a letter?
A letter. We were supposed to move with my wife at the time, so I put the address of my parents who live in Koło. Six months later, my mother calls and says that a letter had arrived for me, via Air Mail, David Mitchell. They had their first smartphone then, so they took pictures for me - dad's finger here, mum’s one there, a corner here, the envelope there. But I was very proud of them. They sent me about thirty of these pictures, I deciphered them. Later, of course, they sent it to me by post. Mitchell started the letter more or less like this, ‘Dear Jacob, I would like to write that the delay was due to some very important literary reason, but the truth is that your letter must have fallen behind my bed. Today is the first spring day in Ireland and, while vacuuming the house, I was surprised to see your letter flying out from under the bed. He wrote that he was happy that I liked The Thousand Autumns and that he greatly respected Polish writers, he mentioned something about Conrad. It was a great joy for me, because I thought that the chances were like in the Lotto.
Going back to the question about the most important writer though, today, I would answer Flanagan or Saunders. I don't like all of the stories of the latter, because some of them are a bit over-experimental for me, but most of them are great, like this one-page story about this pole...
It’s amazing how much you can fit on one page.
A fantastic writer. In one collection, he is able to move between genres and, over the course of ten stories, do as much as the majority do not manage to do throughout their careers.
I do greatly appreciate such writers who go against the grain of a genre and are not afraid that they will be somehow pigeonholed.
Since we are talking about it, did you feel like a fantasy author?
I think so, even though the scenery in my books was the reality from behind the window, where strange things happened only sometimes. I didn't know much about it, I've never had to deal with any writers or artists. Everyone said that I was writing fantasy, I assumed that this was the case. That's why I was surprised when after Dygot (‘Quiver’), there were opinions in the press that it was some kind of twist in my writing, but I simply just wrote another book about something that always fascinated me.
Do you happen to read something and think that you would like to write this book?
Sometimes, yes. I think it was the case with Sunset Limited, but it happens more often in the cinema - when the camera goes through people's lives, I think I would like to do something like that and I try to achieve it. In Quiver, I made such a very cinematic ending. I think I'm more critical of my writing than of someone else’s and I like many things, but it doesn’t really happen to me that I regret I didn't come up with an idea.
You quit your job at a bank in order to write. Weren’t you afraid?
I had one thought in my head all the time: if I don't try it, I will regret it. I knew that after a year or two I could look for a normal job. Sooner or later, I’d find something. In life and literature, I follow the rule that it is better to try and fail than not to try. I know it’s a cliché, but it does work. At the beginning, it wasn't easy, because I did a lot of things apart from writing - I translated, wrote reviews and columns. Gradually, I had less and less of that, until I reached the point where - apart from everything around writing itself, like book fairs, meetings with authors, trips abroad, meetings about translations or screenings - I only write. When I was leaving the bank, I felt that it was a dive into a swimming pool where there might not even be a drop of water. It turned out that there was more than enough of it.
What books do you buy as gifts for your friends?
Most often, I think, John Fowles' The Magus. I recently bought this four-volume saga by Ferrante for my friend.
The guy who, next to Saunders, has most recently made my head explode is Alessandro Baricco. I would like to buy the novel City for my friends, but it came out only once as part of the Nike literary series a long time ago and is only available on Allegro (Polish online e-commerce platform), second-hand. This is a book from the category ‘you've never read anything like that’. Now, his new book has been published, The Young Bride, also great, but not as great. Baricco has amazing ideas. His books consist of so many stories that fifteen novels could be made out of them. I don't know if you’ve heard about this film, The Legend of 1900.
Yes, about this piano player. The book was published by Czytelnik.
Indeed. A beautiful story. The protagonist was born at sea, he is one of the greatest pianists and competes in piano duels with jazz artists.
City tells the story of an eight-year-old genius who is bred for the Nobel Prize in mathematics or physics. The boy has a very dysfunctional childhood and two friends: a giant and a mute person. Neither of them exist. Every time he goes to the bathroom, he tells them the story of a fictional boxer, his subsequent fights, his way to the top and how he was on a downward spiral. These fights are as unbelievable as if you were watching MMA with Pudzian and Popek, pulling at each other’s heads. It's really very readable, and it's just a narrow slice of the whole. The boy is looked after by a girl who secretly records on a tape recorder a western about two women in the Wild West. And there are also fragments of this western in the novel, which are great by the way. It's a bit postmodernist, but in such a warm and cool way.
If you had kids, what would you read to them?
Definitely Harry Potter. Whenever I say this, I imagine those serious critics taking out a notebook and crossing out my name. I read Harry three times, I think, it came at a good time in my life as I wasn't too young nor too old.
Now, I also read J.K. Rowling's crime fiction. This year, there is nothing I am waiting for as much as for the next part of Cormoran Strike's adventures. I have probably already read other important book premieres. Once, I couldn't wait for the new Rowling so much that I resorted to trickery and wrote to a UK publisher that I was a Newsweek reporter. They started to send me her books before the premiere. Maybe they will send me this one as well.
Going back to the question though, I am friends with Kasia and Rafał Kosik and I know that his books are very popular, valuable, and fun to read. Children of my friends and family absorb the volumes of Felix, Net and Niki one by one. They are able to not play on the console, not watch TV, but just read. In general, it seems to me that there is a boom in books for teenagers now. And there are probably many good ones.
I think so, but I don't read them, so I can't talk about it very much. Green has been recently screened.
You are talking about young adult.
And you mean things for younger readers?
I guess you are right. I once read his The Fault in Our Stars and I thought it was meant for an older reader, but these books are addressed probably primarily for teenagers.
What kind of a reader were you in your childhood?
Passionate. I was a little ashamed of reading, because I always sat with tough friends in front of the block of flats, and reading was not really a popular activity. My childhood revolved around people who were tattooed and buff. When I was a bit older and I was alone at home, I felt as if I had caught myself watching some embarrassing porn. ‘You're reading a book, looser, and you should be sat on a bench and up to something dangerous.’ I was going out and was afraid not to let slip any clever words, because they would ridicule me.
Until a certain, quite late age, I associated books with nothing but pleasure. I have loved Tarzan, Winnetou, Zorro, all of Karl May's novels, the series about Knight Rider since I was a kid.
Yes, to this day, I associate books with great adventure. I once got a lamp in a pen from my uncle and I used it to read under a duvet. My parents always said that my eyesight would deteriorate, but it is still good.
At high school, I started reading Thomas Harris, I really liked his trilogy about Hannibal Lecter, and after having watched Jurassic Park, I discovered Michael Critchton. I read everything that was there. There was no greater joy for me than when I put some money aside and went to the bookshop to buy his Congo, Sphere, or The Great Train Robbery. I still have these books today. But I never chose a book to give me something more, to learn, for example, about the life in the times of the Mayas, Aztecs, or Incas.
Now it probably happens to you when you prepare to write your books.
Yes, but I still keep trying to look for the same thing in books and read for pleasure. Of course, today, it is a completely different pleasure. There may be nothing happening in a book, but it's all about entering the jungle of a new world.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace gave me huge fun. I read this book with the continuous disbelief that one can write such sentences. I bought it in Dubai, where I was at a book fair with my wife, then we stayed with my brother-in-law. In the evening, they asked me how much I had read - eight pages, five? I read it very slowly and someone could think that I was tired of it, but for me, it was exactly this kind of pleasure. In the past, I wanted to know if Tarzan defeats the monkey; now I just look for similar pleasures in different literature. This Wallace is an amazing thing - I expected something like Ulysses, which, to be honest with you, I wanted to throw out of the window while reading. And that is such a surprise. It's a novel that explodes before your very eyes.
Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik
Translated by Justyna Lowe