photo: Piotr Haltof

Bedside table #53. Marcel Woźniak: The inability to read everything is killing me

Marcel Woźniak, prose writer and biographer of Leopold Tyrmand, speaks about how much Tyrmand-the-legend has in common with reality, about the characters who live with him to this day, and he also reveals that he dreams of riding the bus from one terminal to the other, reading The Count of Monte Christo.

It is usual in this series to start our conversations with a question about recent readings. However, primarily, it is the Year of Tyrmand, and secondly, your book about the author of Zły (“The Man with the White Eyes”) has just been published. What else can be said about Tyrmand? Or else: what is this book for? Don't you have the feeling that we all know him well? 

I’ll answer it ambiguously: if someone associates Tyrmand with colourful socks and jazz, or possibly with The Man with the White Eyes, they know nothing about him. The first book was a beadlike recreation of his life story, some kind of a map on which Tyrmand can be generally located. Since then, I have delved even further into his biography, and what has happened over the last four years has exceeded my imagination. A few hours ago, I was coming back from a printing house near Poznan, the book has just landed at the printing machine. On my way back, I received an email from the USA with another story. I stopped to read it and chewed my lips out of anger that this story wouldn't make it into the book. And I have exchanged hundreds of such emails - because there is so much to tell about Tyrmand. The result of it is a literary reportage about a legendary man. Do we know everything about Tyrmand? After reading the book Tyrmand. Pisarz o białych oczach (“Tyrmand. The Writer with the White Eyes”), readers will surely be much closer to the truth. Anyway, as close as the author (laughs).

And what has surprised you most about him over the past few years?

Truth and history take time to become visible. These few years, it was developing pictures from old films. And Tyrmand was on many films, often faded. So, what had to be done was examine everything with a magnifying glass and check. It is incredible how much one life can hold. His story of being outed by state services is a topic for a separate book. The history of censorship of his works - for another. And most importantly, stories often told by elders. Sometimes you have to ask one question to open an unknown drawer. For these scattered anecdotes and details live without time or place. The guardians of history often do not know that what they remember is part of a chain. You ask what has surprised me. Mainly, the power of dreams and taking life very seriously. Quite the opposite of what it would appear from ‘bikinier’(Polish equivalent of American ‘beatniks’ or British ‘teddy boys’ – translator’s note) legends.

Indeed, I guess especially this American Tyrmand was a serious man?

Because this American man was quite an old man! (laughs) The problem with Tyrmand is that there was one Tyrmand in terms of attitudes and worldview, but he had several lives in several different worlds. If we stretch these strings from the interwar period and the family of Jewish craftsmen, and end up at Manhattan, buzzing with cars, and star wars, then we will see how capacious his life was. His American time is an attempt to spread wings, the ability to write what you think on a larger scale. And there, in the 1970s, a colourful butterfly from Warsaw sees the sexual revolution, the birth of counterculture, galloping media, the beginnings of cultural homogenisation. This Warsaw celebrity and heartbreaker watches a show on Broadway and suddenly sees that the actors on stage start copulating. Tyrmand looks at the spectators, who are unmoved, and is terrified of it. "If this doesn't shock anybody," he'll write down, "then what can shock?” So, in that sense, he is serious in America. He is a European shaped by the 20th century with a strong value system.

This is what he has in common with other emigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. But I guess it can't be said that Tyrmand became more radical when he came to the States? Can we assume that in Poland he would write, if it was possible, similar things as in "The New Yorker"?

That's right, I wouldn't see Tyrmand as a radical. What he said and wrote was, of course, a stance on reality, which today is easily subsumed under one or another ideology. But Lolek, I believe, followed the philosophy of Edmund Burke, who wrote that man is a part of society, has their rights and freedoms, but cannot renounce them under the influence of momentary moods and madness. At the same time, he loved freedom and has always considered himself a liberal. No wonder that in those crazy times, he sounded like a conservative. And he was simply a thinker and a writer who listened to jazz.

Let's move on to the customary model of this interview series. What books do you have on your bedside table?

When you ask this question, I move my computer, behind which stands a lot of new releases. These are the ones for the so called "the soonest now". On one pile, there is the newest book by Sylwia Chutnik Miasto zgruzowstałe (”From Rubble Rised”), Wit Szostak’s Cudze słowa (”Other People’s Words”), and Baśń o wężowym sercu albo wtóre słowo o Jakóbie Szeli (“The Tale of the Serpent’s Heart”). Next to it, the second pile, more sophisticated. Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Miazga (“The Pulp”), Na nieludzkiej ziemi  (“The Inhuman Land”) by Józef Czapski, and Ripley Bogle by Robert McLian WIlson. All currently being read, maybe you can advise what to finish first?

I would probably finish Ripley Bogle as a Polish philologist reading mostly foreign literature. Anyway, it is a great novel. And how do you choose the books you read?

As the football commentators say, I am widely spread out (laughs). But I can refer to what I mentioned. Let's take a look. Sylwia Chutnik is close to me because of her passion for the capital, the technique, and her affection for Tyrmand, about whom there is a lot in this book; besides, this is Sylwia’s PhD thesis. Wit Szostak juggles with polyphony and form, I want to check if the springs in the genre can be screwed on again. I bought Radek Rak's book a few days before the Nike Award, because we once shot a music video for Kobranocka during workshops with Yach Paszkiewicz. And there was a chorus "Let the rebellion take place / Through the crusades’ processions / Long live Jakub Szela / Long live the revolution". Preparing for the shooting, I read about the Galician slaughter. Andrzejewski wrote The Pulp on a typewriter belonging to the person... the interview with whom begins my latest book about Tyrmand. And Czapski? A few years ago, I gave an interview on the radio, saying that there are many outstanding, explored creators, such as Czapski, and that Tyrmand languishes. The journalist asked, "Sir, but who reads Czapski today?!". So, I thought I would read it, and, at some book fair, I grabbed The Inhuman Land. And Wilson. The way he writes, and the rhythm of this translation is a real masterpiece for me. As if I was reading Hesse. However, I don’t want anyone to say I only theorise, I have to say that I dream of sitting on a bus and riding it all day long from one terminal to the other, reading The Count of Monte Christo. The inability to read everything is killing me.

Do you finish everything you start?

In general, yes. You always have a decision tree in front of you and believe that you are going in the right direction. Nowadays, I rather finish what I started, because I try to pick things with some more awareness, watching carefully the way that leads to them. However, there are also half-eaten books and half-baked texts, which I am not satisfied with, obviously. So, it happens that things hover in time, in the middle of a room. Then, I strongly avoid their obtrusive gaze (laughs).

How did your adventure with literature even begin?

I wrote short stories as a kid; then, I replaced them with school essays. But serious writing began with the first book about Tyrmand. I wrote to a publisher that I was wondering why there is no Tyrmand biography. And it was after the defence of my BA dissertation on Tyrmand's image, at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. They wrote back saying they didn’t know why there wasn’t one, but it would be good if it was created. And so it began. It was lucky because the publisher wanted the book right away. But, at the same time, it was not luck: nobody ever wrote to them about it. That is, about Tyrmand, and they published all his books. When writing about Tyrmand, I was exceptionally lucky because I got a free tutorial on what a writer's life was like. When you read for a year about writing issues, about the course of publishing processes but also about creative processes, you develop humility and respect, but also a certain peace of mind that yes, it will be difficult, because it’s difficult for everyone. That's why I later fulfilled my eternal dream of writing a novel - that's how Powtórka (“Replay”) came into being. What happened next will be told by Google (laughs).

And from the other perspective, what were your first literary fascinations?

The first stories in which I became lost in the pages were Niziurski's books and comic books about Tytus or Diplodocus. Then, there were the polar stories by the Centkiewicz duo about Amundsen and the chess anecdotes by Litmanowicz. When I was a child, stories from books were mixed up with comics, fairy tales, and films on VHS. Everything changed when I found a leaflet on ‘masterpieces of literature’ in the high school library. I started to read books from this list. Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Magic Mountain, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These titles have changed me forever. Lonely Winston Smith, the world of Joseph K., Hans Castorp losing track of time, Porphyry treading on Raskolnikov’s heels, and the beautiful Remedios. These characters live with me until today.

Was there a book that made you think to take up writing?

This thought accumulated for years, precisely from books read in my youth. My writing began with writing stories instead of essays. The protagonists of the books met in them and shook up the world. Winston Smith, Hans Castorp, Józef K. This is how I got into Polish philology, writing a story about them.

Are there any books that have changed you, somehow deeply affected your personality, etc.?

Do you mean the books that I have read? Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, comprehensively. But what comes to my mind now is a story that made me cry for a long time after reading it, and still don't know why. It was Hesse's Iris.

Oh yes, I read it. What moved you so much in Orwell? Because we won't find out why for Hesse.

The complete truth about human existence. Everything hurt me when I sat next to Winston. This injustice, the struggle for dignity, for getting something out of his eye that he wants to remember. There is a scene when Winston is interrogated. The commissioner presses his head with his shoe to the ground and says that Smith is nobody and no one will remember him or the others who opposed Big Brother. Winston tells him that something will always survive: the human spirit. Every single time I read this, it clenches my heart. I read it as a sixteen-year-old, and I read it today. Big Brother keeps looking through telescreens, Facebook algorithms replace the thought police. And everyone really loves Big Brother...

Let’s return to Tyrmand for a moment: do you see any equivalent of him in world literature?

I think that every era and place have their own Tyrmand. Let's have a look at our backyard, if you will. How many years, how many myths and searches have been made to remind people of Tyrmand, but the question is: how many artists like him have been burned at the stake of oblivion? There was a wonderful Seweryn Goszczyński with his horror. Apart from Dziady (“Forefathers’ Eve) and Kordian - a somewhat forgotten Irydion by Krasiński. Indefatigable Kraszewski and... his spying affair in Leipzig, earthquakes, his death... At the beginning of the 20th century – ‘the Polish Poe’, i.e. Stefan Grabiński, and then a whole plethora of artists from the beginning of the era. Andrzej Bobkowski, about whom no one spoke at school. I will hence redirect this question to the Readers. What peripheral name attracts your attention? Who exists somewhere on the border of different collectives and cannot fit into frames? Maybe this is where the answer lies. A Polish scientist Ludwik Fleck wrote about such people that they can hide a genius within themselves. A genius to penetrate and permeate between different worlds. Karel Čapek, for instance, with his robots, The Man without Qualities by Musil, Chesterton. This whole writer's attempt at writing, which resist the piling up of reality. The canon gives an image of the genius of human activity, but much escapes it, too. We know Lem from the great novels, and yet, his Śledztwo (“The Investigation”) and Katar (“The Chain of Chance”) are, in my opinion, all you need to know about crime literature. I put these two inconspicuous books by this author higher than all Cobens and Mankells. Lem - a fantasist who penetrated the wall.

If you had a chance to have coffee with a late writer, would you choose Tyrmand?

If I could choose anyone, I would probably invite someone from an even more inaccessible world to talk. Mary Shelley, for example. Although she would probably choose tea.

Why her?

It must have been unusual to be a writer at a time when women had so few rights and opportunities. When the world itself was so technically inaccessible. How was it possible to write such controversial books? Was she aware that her work will one day be a time machine for us? That she would be the Frankenstein’s Mary Shelley, the first science fiction novel?

What are your reading plans?

Currently, Other People’s Words by Wit Szostak and Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. And also, all the joyful work to be read in the public space.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe