photo: J. Nowicki

Bedside table #50. Wit Szostak: I am not satisfied with texts which use pre-existing techniques

The prose writer Wit Szostak talks about his writing debts, a panoply of empty experiments that serve no purpose, language that re-establishes the world anew, the unnecessary race between literature and film, and he also explains why he prefers ambitious defeats to easy victories.

What has delighted you recently?

I've been waiting a few years for the kind of delight that happened to me recently. I was looking for a novel that would grind me up, that would redefine my thinking of literature, that would suck me in and squeeze me out. I reached for various things, very good and grand, which nevertheless left me indifferent. And, in the spring of this year, I had an epiphany. I ran into Faulkner and it was like crashing into an iceberg. After The Sound and the Fury, I reached for the next books. And, from June to October, I did not leave Yoknapatawpha County: As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, The Hamlet … Some 3,000 pages, plus a biography and critical sketches about the writer's work, including a great essay by Bieńkowski and a monograph by Lyra. This has been one of the greatest reading adventures of my life, and I'm still trying to figure out how I could have missed Faulkner before. Something in my high school and student years, something I don't remember today, must have stopped my hand when I was reaching for Absalom, Absalom!  in a bookshop. At that time, I was buying almost everything from the ‘Biblioteka bestsellerów’ (Bestsellers Library – translator’s note) series of the Muza publishing house, that’s how I got acquainted with great Ibero-American writers and many others. And I remember holding Faulkner in my hand. Maybe I already spent the whole of my scholarship? Maybe, in the competition between the Americas, I stood too fanatically on the southern side? I don't know. But I'm glad that I discovered this perhaps greatest writer of the 20th century (such rankings are always risky) in my adulthood, having a few books written behind me. I think I would have underestimated him a quarter of a century ago. And now, thanks to that unexplained coincidence, I am experiencing one of the greatest literary fascinations which I could talk about for a long time.

Let's talk about Faulkner, then. I have the impression that he's rarely read today, and yet he’s the kind of prose writer who probably embodies the best of the 20th century: from extraordinary narrative tricks in The Sound and the Fury, through possibly the best use of the stream of consciousness in the history of literature, to wonderful family sagas. An overwhelming giant?

Yes, the grandeur of Faulkner can be overwhelming. Especially for someone like me, brought up on writers who, I now discover, wrote under the strong influence of Faulkner. I myself, indebted to them for my own writing, discover that above them is their great creditor and it is to him that I should repay my debts. Faulkner has seduced me on many levels, but maybe we should start with the formal one. In his greatest novels, he experiments with form, looking for new ways to tell the story. I must admit that although in the last quarter of a century, in my private rankings, one of the highest positions in this respect was occupied by Ulysses, after the adventure with Faulkner, Joyce's work has somewhat faded. I can see there spreading peacock tail feathers, showing the readers: see what else I can do. Today, this panoply of experiments seems to me to be spectacular, but empty at the same time. In Faulkner's case, on the other hand, one can see a clear concept: to find new forms for the story; to be able, through experimentation, to say more, in a different way; to reveal what has been absent from prose so far as it is beyond what has been told and named. And that is probably why his influence on subsequent writers was so great. Extreme subjectivisation of the narrative in As I Lay Dying, where we get a handful of accounts by nine narrators, unbound by any author’s framing device (except for the assembly itself, so to speak), where each, in their own language, recount themselves and their world; a frantic, for the reader, experience of Benjy’s narrative in The Sound and the Fury, at first resisting, incomprehensible, jumping around the timeline without almost any preconceptions; elaborations of the history of the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!, absorbing like a whirling vortex, delivered in the accounts of successive narrators, and moving from testimony to the play of imagination. This is impressive today; I think that in the early 1930s, it must have been a shock for many.

You mentioned Joyce, it is difficult not to mention him when talking about Faulkner. For the latter, the form always serves the content. I don't want to say that in the case of Joyce it's only the form that counts, but what attracts me most in literature is the combination of formal experiments with exceptionally engaging stories, i.e. something that can be found in Faulkner or in Vargas Llosa's early novels. What do you look for in your readings above all?

It is difficult to indicate a single quality. It depends on the mood, which sometimes determines such a search. For example, before I discovered Faulkner, I bowed out of every novel, even the greatest ones, in which I could be sure to find what I usually looked for. For many months, I was in a completely non-novel period, I simply did not savour novels. At that time, I was searching in poetry, drama, and literary essay writing. But usually - especially when we talk about novels - I look in them for attempts to push the boundaries, refusal to employ pre-existing ways of telling a story. When the author undertakes this effort, when they treat the novel as a kind of field of exploration, where there is room for questions and erring, then I read it with appreciation. It seems to me that pushing boundaries and exploring outside a well-known area is inscribed in novels - probably as well as in any artistic statement. I am not satisfied with texts that employ - even to an excellent degree – pre-existing techniques and that treat the ready-made form as a storytelling medium. I like it when something happens in form, in language - even if this exploration turns out to be a failure. I prefer such failures to successes of those who do not explore. Language plays a leading role here, and I don't just mean experiments with phrasing and lexis, but also attempts to find new forms of telling a story. Novels that would work perfectly outside of the language - that is, literary texts that can be screened loss-free - do not interest me and usually bore me.

Do you find such explorations in some contemporary authors? Are there any writers whose books you are always waiting for?

Experiments and explorations do not necessarily mean - and rarely do today - some fundamental revolution in prose. Many techniques and poetics have already been discovered and named; so, today, it may be more difficult than a hundred years ago. But I don't mean innovation for innovation ‘s sake, that would be an artistically futile and desperately mechanical activity today, but the awareness of how much language and form are inherently non-transparent, how much - regardless of the content - they shape the text, how they lead a game of revealing and concealing. Contrary to the hopes of realism - present not only in literature, but also in thinking - language is not so flawlessly adjacent to reality, it is not the case that we have the right word for every experienced or encountered thing. Language establishes the world each time by calling it some particular concept, introducing some particular category, persuasion and chiaroscuro. And I search among writers who write with deep awareness of these matters. Of the writers closer to me in age than Faulkner, the unfortunately late David Foster Wallace was such an explorer. His The Pale King is an outstanding thing. I know that in this case, I can only wait for the Polish translation of Infinite Jest. There is a lot of exploration in Polish prose, mainly at the language level. I would call it - I don't want to include specific names in this disquisition – constructing private languages, close to poetic idioms. However, the prevailing trend in novel writing today, I believe, is an attempt to simplify the message as much as possible, making the language and form transparent enough to ensure that the reader does not stop at the formal layer, but receives the given content clearly and without complications. Such novels can, of course, be written better or worse, and even with this approach, the author can leave the indelible stamp of their phrasing in the text. But in this whole trend, one can see an attempt to race against the art of film, some kind of capitulation of the novel that stops exploring and only wants to compete with cinema productions and TV series.

Indeed, that's probably the problem of contemporary prose straight from writing courses. There is a lot of solid prose, with a good plot, neatly told; however, won’t the recipient be more eager to go for a good TV series in this situation? Do you often experience such an after-reading yearning?

Relatively rarely, but this is because I rarely reach for such potential disappointments. If I have a feeling - and I may be wrong in specific cases of course - that the task of a particular novel is solely to recount the world, people, and a story efficiently, then I prefer the film or TV series. For example, I watch a relatively large number of crime series, of ranging quality, but I do not remember the last time I read a crime story. Literature which races against cinematography (that is, it tries to provide the same stories, only contained in words, not in images) must lose against cinematography, because film resources - the possibility of creating spectacular decorations, whole worlds, and finally acting - exceed verbal descriptions in this respect. The only advantage of such prose, surpassing a TV series or a film, turns out to be a radically lower cost of production. However, this is probably not an argument for the recipient, who pays a similar amount for access to these two cultural products.

Writing courses certainly unify the way of writing by teaching not only careful reading and learning techniques from authors through reading their works, but also often smuggling some kind of a writing doctrine: a reader likes simple sentences, etc. I don't trust such courses – though it depends, as there are different teachers with different approaches to literature – for one more reason. Writing has always seemed to me to be a lonely journey, a lonely discovery of literature through reading, shadowing the great masters. This search for form and language, which becomes the participation of an apprentice who wants to write, who has to learn to fish out novel and language structures from sentences or from between sentences of the books read, at writing courses, this is replaced by giving ready-made formulas. On the one hand, it may look very attractive: someone has erred for us, discovered, and now shares the truth. On the other hand, though, young writers are denied this whole journey – yes, often difficult, risky, and full of erring, sometimes completely futile. Such a shortcut takes away what I believe is probably the most essential thing in a writer's work: the exploration, indeed. And a graduate of the course is richer with more writing formulas, but poorer without all the drudgery of searching, which is the searching for oneself as a writer. Therefore, my attitude to such courses is rather cool. Although I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace I mentioned here - probably the most original and exploring American writer of recent decades - attended such courses. However, as you can see from his work, this is not what made him a great writer and we should be glad that it did not hurt him too much.

Such courses are also conducted by outstanding authors such as George Saunders or Jeffrey Eugenides. But we keep talking about North America, let's maybe go back for a while to South America you have mentioned. Has anything stayed with you from those readings? Do you ever verify earlier delights, or do you prefer to remember them as delights?

It is difficult for me to go into the details, because I don't know how the above-mentioned authors conduct their courses. If I correctly understand the idea of the courses themselves, I daresay they share their experience and the idea of literature, i.e. show the harvest of what they have discovered themselves. Therefore, their students receive the harvest, and they don’t have this experience of the work that leads to it. This is probably as much as can be said about it on a formal level.

Latin American writers stayed with me in at least two ways. First of all, it was they who greatly shaped my understanding of the novel in the nineties, when I started to pick serious readings and write myself. They seduced me with phrases, with those narcotic sentences from which one loses their breath, they seduced me indeed with the search for a new form, an attempt to invent a language to recount their worlds to the rest of the world. I think they have entered my bloodstream so strongly that you can still find their influence in my writing. The second dimension of their presence is reading and returning to them. To many of the texts I read in high school and college, I returned years later - often quite recently - and I don't recall any disappointment (although I do have memories of disappointments in other writers). Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Carpentier superbly defend themselves after many years; however, today, the mainstream of prose is probably flowing elsewhere. But their greatest achievements are great novels that have become truly timeless: they will be read for many decades. There was a moment when I collected a lot of Latin American novels that I didn’t manage to read, treating them as a vast supply for a dry spell. And, I have to admit, I don’t really reach for them. I know that there are great texts behind the covers, but I have been exploring other areas for several years. If I return to the shelf with the prose of South and Central America, I'd rather return to the books I already know.

Are there any titles that you reach for quite regularly?

Yes, apart from the aforementioned Hispanics, especially Garcia Marquez, it is primarily Bruno Schulz. There are months when I do not part with him. These are also the poems of Leśmian, Tkaczyszyn-Dycki, Cavafy, Saint-John Perse. Also, The Alexandria Quartet, and, until recently, Ulysses. I like to rediscover books that once fascinated me, see if there is anything left of my old love. And it depends, sometimes because of the books, sometimes because of me. But what is interesting are these returns after years, decades: a novel that impressed a 20-year-old suddenly strikes with all its power - and for completely different reasons - at a forty-year-old. If I were to name the books I have spent time with in recent years, it would be Schulz - both collections of short stories and the essay Mythization of Reality. I am constantly discovering some vital forces there, a deeper and deeper reservoir that cannot be traversed.

We already know what has stayed with you for years. And what attracted you to literature? Are there any books that have awakened in you the thought that you would like to write?

The answer to such a question is always some kind of construction. I don't have any clear memory that connects a particular reading with a decision to write. I think that when I read book as a child, I always thought about writing. In general, it’s in my nature that I try to be not only the recipient but also the creator. For example, when I was fascinated by the obereks (a lively Polish dance – translator’s note) played on the violin, I decided to buy a violin and learn to play. So, writing simply fits into my temperament. When I was little, I cut drawing paper into smaller pieces and stapled them together. In such makeshift booklets, I wrote richly illustrated stories of Indians, Grizzly bears, and everything that appeared in my reading. I do not remember when I started writing. I have the impression that it has been going on forever.

I would also like to ask you about formative books - do you remember the things that shaped you in terms of literature and worldview? We actually talked briefly about the former, so I'm asking particularly about the latter.

As for the books that had a great influence on me in my youth, I would also add Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet, Mann's The Magic Mountain, and Dostoevsky's prose. For many years, I was also strongly influenced by Tolkien's work, which opened me up to mythopoeia. And although I have not reached for The Lord of the Rings for many years, it was an important literary adventure for me.

I admit that I have a problem with the phrase ‘a formative book’, because it is rooted in a certain understanding of the formation of a person, which seems to me quite strange and simply false. I do not feel that I have been formed (or: I have formed myself) as a thinking man in my childhood and youth. This metaphor suggests that later on, the human being fossilises, becomes less permeable, and its shape is fixed. Maybe many people experience the world and themselves this way, yet to me, this process is not finished. I wouldn't give any special meaning to the readings of the time of my youth either, because I see a great influence of texts read later. I have talked a lot about Faulkner here, and recently, around my forties, I discovered Foster Wallace, Flaubert, Melville, or Leopold Buczkowski, who are important to me. The search and erring in literature I mentioned earlier would be just an empty declaration if I had everything thought through and formed.

It is even more difficult for me to find the books that formed my worldview. I don't think that I have a worldview as a collection of solid and fundamental views on the world that allow me to easily take sides in various debates or social disputes. In twenty years, I have made many re-evaluations, and many of the issues that usually form the backbone of the worldview base, I find too complicated to be answered with some clear and simple answer. I am somehow scared by these unshakeable ‘worldview packages’ that many people have, which not only provide them with answers to a number of fundamental axiological, political, social, and economic topics, but they also suggest that these responses form a coherent, unquestionable system, which usually has to be adopted in its entirety. I am still at the stage of doubt and erring, so it is difficult for me to point out readings that formed something that is permanently and probably irrevocably unformed in me.

Do you think that literature allows you to deepen your view on the world, complicate it? I know that it is a little too vague a question, but what I mean is the interaction with literature - do you think it should make us see more in 3D than in 2D?

It is not an easy question, as you can interact with literature in different ways. Very often, we try to reduce a novel to one meaning, one message. It is difficult to talk about a deepening role then, because by simplifying the reception, we won’t be complicating things much. And towards such an approach, towards looking for a single key that opens all the doors, often – although, of course, we’ll find exceptions and exceptional teachers here - we are brought up by the school and school readings. And once we leave its walls, equipped with this crippled but strong conviction that every book has a message to discover, we fall into the jaws of the book market, which fabricates simplistic messages supporting this approach. It takes a lot of effort to see in prose the play of languages, clashing rhythms and phrases, wandering meanings of words, the constant fight with speech. To me, in this sense, Bachtin's texts were formative - I deliberately return to the previous question - especially Discourse in the Novel and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. I remember the epiphany when, after reading, I raised my eyes to the shelf of the novels and realised that they are, in their essence, something different and about something different from what I thought before. Other people’s words clashing, language battles, appropriation of words, a desperate and, at the same time, indelible need to recount oneself and one's world, and the need to confront these stories with other recounted worlds: that changed me. After Bachtin, I returned to many important books for me and discovered completely new worlds, whole continents that I had not noticed before. My point is that in this way - or in other, non-simplistic ways - the literature we read opens up its abyss and depths, the existence of which we have not previously sensed. And then we can notice, lifting our eyes from the pages of a book, that our world is equally complicated and equally multilingual. That it is only literature that allows us to discover in the world some fundamental aporeticity, which often escapes us beyond literature.

This is how you see human life, as this fundamental aporeticity? We will return to literature in a moment, but this question arises immediately here.

I don't know about others, but my life still eludes my attempts at problematisation. It is the force that exceeds all attempts at description and explanation. Everyone probably experiences various tensions that different wisdom and ethical systems try to alleviate and solve. For some, these answers last for long enough, usually though until some serious tragedy in life; then, the questions about evil, its origin, and sense of suffering return. It is in such borderline situations that this abyss reveals itself, which, as it seems to us every day, we have skilfully covered with elegant answers. It was through literature that the Greeks revealed the tragic nature of human life. Later, Christianity has tried for centuries to convince people that there is no such thing as tragic nature, and every conflict in the world of values is apparent and relatively easy to solve. Today - although I don't want to refer too much to current events - we can see with clarity difficult to ignore that such unsolvable conflicts are the framework of our lives. And it turns out that the only strategy we have is to create languages in which a given conflict is apparently resolved or, thanks to linguistic and conceptual persuasion, will not be revealed at all. And only as long as we remain in the homogeneous environment of such language, the world does not creak. But then you have to put a lot of effort into suppressing - with different strategies - the murmuring of other languages coming from the frontier zone of our speech.

Coming back to literature: do you think that the form of the novel is still fresh enough for innovative, dazzling language to appear in it?

I do not know if it is a matter of freshness. Perhaps it is the maturity of the novel that can make it welcoming for innovative and exploring language? The novel is a genre that was written in parallel to modernity, expressing its main tensions and diagnosing its problems. Its polyphonic structure, its readiness for constant transformations and revolutions makes it a very modern form, capable of transformations and new openings. On the other hand, we see today not so much its spectacular development - although it is still a popular medium and attracts many readers - but the skilful use of these means, which have appeared in it over the last hundred years. The novel consumes its formal output rather than seek new ways. It tries to race against film and TV series, and, in this race, the experimental approach could probably be ballast. If there are genuinely creative and innovative explorations, it is on the fringes of the novel world. Which worries me. But I do not lose hope. However, I firmly believe that there is still an accumulated vitality in the novel, which may surprise us many a time in the future.

Finally, what surprises are there for you still? Are you planning your next readings, or do you choose them rather randomly?

If these are supposed to be surprises, there is not much I can write about them, because surprises are impossible to predict. But I prepare myself conscientiously for surprises, I buy more than I can read - often giving second life to books published decades ago - so I have supplies for a possible cultural lockdown. And I also have some hope that the library that I have been accumulating over the years will provide me with such thrills. If today some World Syndicate of Literature had announced that a ban on the publication of new titles in fiction is being introduced from 2021, I would of course get upset, perhaps more as a writer, but I wouldn’t be devastated as a reader. Even though I read a lot, I have barely read a fraction of the world's great literature and I will not be able to catch up. So, I could spend the rest of my life - in a world where this ban would apply – wallowing in masterpieces, discovering new islands and continents. It was the case with Faulkner, it was the case with Leopold Buczkowski a few years ago. Now, on the wave of entering American literature, I read Dos Passos, completely forgotten today, and I am halfway through his U.S.A. trilogy and my appreciation is still growing. Simultaneously, I read Tylko Beatrycze (“Only Beatrice”) by the equally unremembered Teodor Parnicki, discovering more and more incredible literary worlds and wanting more. So, these are the directions for the coming weeks and months. I count on epiphanies.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe