photo: Albert Zawada

Bedside table #52. Barbara Sadurska: Reading is the foundation of all my activities

The prose writer Barbara Sadurska, a winner of the Witold Gombrowicz Literary Award, talks about metaphorising everyday life, her next book, reading to children from an early age, the pleasure of reading for understanding and not for erudition, readings that shake a reader out off their contentment and trigger doubts, as well as reading until the morning.

In a few days, you are going to receive the Gombrowicz Award for your prose debut. Meanwhile, there are rumours that you are working on your second book. Will you lift the veil of secrecy?

I think there is something fascinating about being inside a realistic dream, even if it is a nightmare. But I don't know if there is anything more awkward and boring than talking about what I dreamed of.  Talking about an unwritten book is probably a similar thing. Writing is fantastic, talking about it - not necessarily.

The idea for what I am writing now came to me in 2014. I was reading then a record of a chess game played by Bobby Fischer with Boris Spassky during the so-called match of the century. And, since I am a creature of fiction, I have translated this game into a story. There are two strong action twists and a beautiful finish. Three stories are immersed in a narrative that organises the whole. And that's it.

Have you read The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis or watched the series based on the book? It has become very popular recently.

The Seventh Seal by Bergman, The Luzhin Defence based on Nabokov, Pawn Sacrifice from 2014 about Robert Fischer, and now The Queen's Gambit and the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead role. I am watching The Gambit now, I am afraid I will finish it tonight. It is fascinating that each game is shown differently, I mean the work of the camera, editing, dynamics, music. I mean, film narration simply.

What I am writing, though, is not about chess. The match of the century is an inspiration and does not appear in the plot. My love for chess is of a completely different kind. For me, chess is not a game of winning, losing, masterful opening, or strategy. I played chess in kindergarten with my dad, and it was boring. For me, it was the story that was attractive in chess, not the game. I used to tell what was happening on the chessboard as if it was a fairy tale, "And then, a knight on a white horse jumped out in front of the army. A black bishop crossed his path. ‘Where are you heading, white horse?,’ he called out. ‘I want to capture your queen.’ the horse replied and skilfully passed the bishop. ‘Ah, ah, noble steed, don't kill me!,’ the queen sobbed, brushing a lock of black hair from her forehead. ‘Get out of my way! I won't kill you if you expose your king.’ ‘I won't do it!,’ she said courageously. ‘So, you're going to die!,’ the horse neighed. ‘Over my dead body! Queen, hide behind me, I'll cover you with my walls,’ said the unmoved rook.” One time, I discovered that my parents were standing behind the door, hooting with laughter. I was mortally offended by them. I was probably six years old...

Have I already said that I saw the plot everywhere?

And I guess you still do today... Do you narrativise everyday life?

I am not sure if I narrativise everyday life. The way I see it is that reality fits into certain narrative patterns. You just need to see them. In fact, it is natural. A person who tells the doctor their medical history or the course of a party to a friend does narrate everyday life. What I do, on the other hand, I would rather call it the metaphorisation of everyday life and this is a completely different procedure. For example, I got to like cleaning windows because I recognised that you have a better view of the world through clean windows. Not that the world is better because of that, maybe you can even see then that it is actually worse? But, thanks to this, I like cleaning windows. I prefer to see clearly a worse version of the world than to imagine it is pretty good.

You graduated from two faculties, you are a lawyer, you write stories (a lot, all great), you also teach how to write, and you are raising two children. Where can you fit something as mundane as window cleaning? Or reading?

It seems to me that my life looks completely different from how you describe it. First of all, I don't work that much, and, secondly, reading is the foundation of all my activities. My job is to read. Literally and metaphorically.

In what sense?

You mentioned that I teach prose writing classes. The element of the workshop is working with text. I receive an excerpt of a story, I read it, think about it, I read it out loud again, literally: over and over. Metaphorically, this kind of reading is the reading of the unwritten. In order to conduct writing classes, I have to believe in a text that is not yet there. Anticipate that it will be great and... finished.

And the work of a lawyer? I guess it's a different kind of reading.

Is it really? In the fourth year of Polish philology, I went to a modern literature class with Dr Wróbel, and, because at the same time, there was another class conducted by some Cracow celebrity and everyone ran to him, I went to this seminar alone for the whole semester.  A kind of individual class. We talked a little bit about literature (I made my own reading list, there was one Polish name on it), and a little bit about law. And we both came to the conclusion that legal logic and hermeneutics would be useful in the Polish philology faculty. I have to admit that I love commentaries, glosses, justifications of judgments. Actually, I discovered that during the quarantine, it is easier for me to concentrate on non-fiction things (let's call it that way) than on artistic prose. Generally, I find it very difficult to read right now. I miss the time when I could read infinitely, for example to children.

To both of them?

Since birth. When they were one or two years old, they could listen endlessly. I stopped to make them some food or go for a walk. During walks, of course, I was making up stories. Especially on the trams, so they wouldn't get bored. They still remember some of them today. Besides, I read not only to my children. For twelve years, I did community reading to toddlers in a nearby bookshop. The bookshop shut down, it is a beauty salon now, and in April, during the first wave of the pandemic, I started to read to the nine-year-old daughters of my friends on Zoom. New listeners join with each book. We’ve read MomoRonia, the Robber's Daughter, Ferdynand Wspaniały (”Ferdinard the Great”), Moomins, and now, we are reading Roald Dahl. I read to them for an hour or two.

And before that, when they were younger, did you suggest any books to them?

When they were little, I read to them some old things, some new titles. Now, they have their own fascinations. Thanks to a director friend, Magda Miklasz, they started reading Shakespeare. It really was not my doing. They started with A Midsummer Night's Dream, and kicked off. It happens that we read the same books. For example, Olivier Sacks or Tahar Ben Jelloun. But now, I have little influence on what they read.

By the way, my life with these two teenagers is not about raising them. What I mean by this is that if I set them an example, it is a rather bad one - and I have an adverse effect on them. If we happen to get distracted while talking during breakfast I’ll say then, "All right, don't go to school today", or encourage them to watch another episode of a series, your homework is not going anywhere. I always have time to talk about the books they read, but I hate required school readings just like the devil hates holy water. I am glad when my daughter sees more rhetoric than despair in Kochanowski's Treny (“Laments”), my son accuses Mickiewicz of sexism, we happen to mock Sienkiewicz a tad, to call Marcus Vinicius a traitor who renounced his own faith and converted to Christianity, to see Ligia as a manipulator, and Lady Macbeth as a victim of patriarchy. Luckily, these are not the only books that exist in the world. In the summer, my son just started reading This Blinding Absence of Light by Ben Jelloun. My daughter has been drawn into Terry Pratchett's world. Not bad.

And you hate required school reading because...?

Because I fundamentally question what is mandatory, obvious, given as the only correct version. It is not about specific names or titles, but about the very functioning of the list of required readings, discussed in such a way as to pass the Matura exam. Endless belittling. This process makes me think of the autopsy of a corpse, and then the laying of the deceased in a deep tomb. If young people read something (and they do, and they read a lot), these are the books outside of the list of required readings. I see this problem as a tragic dilemma. Without such a list, it is impossible to teach literature, and whatever you find on it is as if it was sentenced to death. It’s even the case with Harry Potter, the kids get tired of it and claim it is deadly boring since they have to read and discuss it in class. Do you know when most people read Gombrowicz? When the Minister of Education Roman Giertych removed him from the list of required readings. There was a shortage of books in libraries and bookstores.

You have also come across canons and mandatory readings while studying Polish philology.

But it was completely different there. I studied Polish philology by accident, with no ambition and no plan to graduate from it. I needed to have a high GPA to take a second major, that's all. When my friends complained, very disappointed, that there are no soulful discussions and nobody in Old Polish literature class wants to talk about Wharton (oh my, I remember the queue in front of a bookshop on the Main Square, which reached as far as the Town Hall Tower, because Wharton came and was signing books! I was on my way to work then, to the Chimera, and had to navigate past this queue). So, when my friends complained about the reading list, I would tranquilly read medieval religious poetry and the songs of Roland, because, under the table of the reading room, I had an introduction to jurisprudence open. When they were crying because of historical literature, I was getting a pass in logic. Anyway, I fell in love both with legal logic and with Old Church Slavonic. Historical grammar could be my passion.

In the third year, I wanted to resign, but there were linguistics classes with Antasowa, philosophy of language and theory of literature with Próchnicki – and these were such classes, conducted in such a way that I did not want to miss a single minute. Besides: I had to pass the first and second year of Law at the same time. Believe me, when I was already sick with Roman law or the Inquisitorial system, such things as Witkacy, or Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, they acted as an antidote. It was a relief - reading, just reading for pleasure, without the torture of a lecture! But when I couldn't stand this symbolism and the wallowing in existentialism, the cool, elegant language of the civil process was an intellectual SPA. I guess, I wouldn't have graduated from Law without Polish philology; without Law, I would have crashed out of Polish philology.

And what else, apart from that, did you take away from Polish philology?

From Polish philology, I took away the feeling that I am a cheater who doesn't really want to study Polish philology and takes someone else's place and, on top of that, is far behind others. It took me a lot of time to get rid of my insecurities and the sense of shame when I had to admit that I didn't read something, that I don't know this author, or that I can't even read her or his name. I replaced it with the pleasure of reading for understanding - not for erudition. This required me to change my attitude. Very radically. Now, I don't feel guilty because I didn't read something, and I should read it. No. I shouldn't, I don't have to.

What else did I take away from Polish philology? An allergy. At that time, I ‘communed with’ the classics so much, I breathed modernism, postmodernism, and deconstruction until I got an allergy. Literally. For two years, I couldn't get close to the Jagiellonian Library. My eyes felt like after chopping onions, my breathing like after a sprint. It was gone when the Library moved to a new building, and I didn't have to sit in the reading room of old prints. From Law, I learned how to use the archives, which was very useful while writing my master’s thesis (it was on the debuts from ‘Nowa Fala’ magazine). Besides, I think that studying philology has given me a lot of valuable skills, the less of which I am aware of, the better they work.

But does it happen to you that you approach every book with that philological... ballast? That you still read too suspiciously?

Not only do I read with this ballast, but I don't want to admit it. I trivialise, tell anecdotes, change the subject, so that it does not come to light that while reading an essay or a justification of the judgment, I fish out words and check their meaning, context, origin. It is even worse - I check the different meanings of this word: in the language of origin, in Latin, Greek, Hebrew... I’ll tell you more. I am suspicious not only of every book. I question the words of religious authorities and political leaders. I know what they need an enemy for and why they call it ‘ideology’. I know why I am suspicious of the sugar-coated word ‘values’. The sense of the word ‘value’ comprises an element of violence. The sense of the word ‘compromise’ comprises a violation of borders. Behind ‘tolerance’, there is an aversion to the Other, xenophobia. Philological ballast? It probably helps me to keep my balance on this wobbly raft. But yes, you're right, it doesn't make reading any easier.

And what are you reading now?

Nothing. I have some books open, but I am not reading. I'm waiting.

What for?

I guess for Godot. What else? Something has fallen apart in my reading. I'm reading, but I stop on the shore, I don't step into the stream. I find it difficult to focus on the language, on the form, even on the plot. I reach for diaries, but fragmentarily. I read essays, but I do not finish them. I buy collections of stories, and I can barely read one. My head is busier with what is going on across the street than what is on the next page of a book. And I cannot free myself of the impression that I am helpless both here and there. I sit on the shore and wait, stand on the sidewalk - and look. I shout in the crowd of men and women, in the Main Square, near the diocese building, by the party headquarters, because the situation calls for shouting. "But what can I do? -Nothing."

So, what books do you reach for the most every day? Do you like poetry?

Yes, I read poems, almost every day. Actually, every day. Sometimes, I do not even remember the author or translator. If I read, I read a poem for words. And only one. And besides, I fall in love. I fall in love with writers, and then, I read everything they have written. This was the case with Nabokov. In 1990, I bought Priglaszenije na kazń (there was no translation) in a Russian bookshop on St. Cross Street and read it Russian. And then, I read, already in Polish, everything that was available. Look at the Harlequins! I love it.

I fall in love with books, and then, I can read a book several times. For example, A Dreary Story by Chekhov. Or Confession of a Murderer. Told in One Night by Josef Roth. And Everyman by Philip Roth. Anyway, I always read the most important ones at least twice. In the most important ones, the end changes the beginning, and then nothing is the same as before. They were joined by Oblivion by Sergey Lebedev and The Lit-Up Burrow by Max Blecher. These are the books I have read more than once.

Sometimes, I experience short-term publishing fascination, but publishing series quickly disappoint. Recently, as I mentioned, I have difficulty in focusing on plots, hence I returned to essays. Sebald’s The Description of Unhappiness, Engelking’s The Metaphysical Device (as an ebook). I read, and I daydream, but that's what I mean, for a sentence, a remark, a thought to be an escape, to shake me from my contentment, to trigger doubts. Reportage is what I read the most rarely. Biographies, rarely. Diaries - never in its entirety and not in order. But I love them. Three-volume edition of Mrożek, five-volume edition of Márai. Nałkowska, bristling with footnotes. Gombrowicz.

I read Gombrowicz - I remember like it was yesterday - thanks to Marcin Szmel, a friend from high school. We were standing on the stairs, he was smoking and said Ferdydurke was a waste of time, but I will like Cosmos. He was right. Then, there were plays, short stories. And it kicked off! I have never enjoyed Gombrowicz so much as in high school. Generally, I am damn lucky to have people who know what to recommend to me.

What did you get from Gombrowicz? Or maybe still do get?

Absurdity, on the one hand, and on the other - Gombrowicz's attention to form. If I could treat the form like he did, lightly and seriously at the same time... I look closely at his early stories and late diaries - and I am delighted with their diligence. Nonchalance and elegance. I don't know how else to express it, how to... express Gombrowicz. Whatever I say about him, I immediately want to say the opposite. Always against the tide, against the grain, against pre-existing conventions. Immersed, entangled in Polish insecurities. Indeed, he exposed and crossed them at the same time. Ironical and self-ironical. He was characterised by detachment, which was a rebellion, although the rebellion assumes no detachment. Rebellion. What brought me closer to Gombrowicz in high school was rebellion. Now, I envy his form.

Do you read before bedtime?

I read at night. Sometimes until the morning. If I couldn’t sleep, I would take a book and go to the kitchen. I did not turn on the lights, I sat on the windowsill. The streetlamp shines straight into my window, it is bright as in the daytime. (By the way, I usually feel like shooting these streetlamps with a slingshot to at least turn them off sometimes. The lockdown was a blessing in this respect!) So, I read at night. I happened to finish when birds were yelling outside the window. Freezing, I would go back to bed for an hour or two.

In order to read, I need it to be that nobody wants anything from me. During the day, I feel guilty that I read. However, I don't feel guilty about the books that I haven't read - and there are plenty of them. I will even say that since March, there have been notably a lot of them. How does it happen that the more time I have, the less I work, the more books, wonderful, fantastic books to read are there for me?

So, is your beside table swelling?

Something like that. There is fifteen centimetres of floor between the mattress and the bookshelf. Right now, there is Lebedev's Debutant, Igor Jarek's Halny (“Foehn”), and Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years - the latter still wrapped, it arrived by mail the day before yesterday. They are waiting.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe