photo: Gaby Jongenelen Photography for CELA

Bedside table #56. Aleksandra Lipczak: I read a lot ’with an eye on’

Journalist and reporter Aleksandra Lipczak tells us where and when she reads, her current readings, not particularly unpleasant reading for work, the book that put her in a state of delirium, and what books for children should be like.

Where do you keep the books you are currently reading?

They follow me around my flat like a shadow. Wherever I am, my current readings are there too: on the kitchen table, on the couch, by the bed.

When is the best time for you to read? Do you have a favourite time of day?

Early morning, late evening, so pretty standard. Well, unless on public transport - then the time of day doesn't matter. On a tram at 3 p.m., I instantly reach such a level of concentration that I can only hope for at home when life around me quietens down. But I guess that's typical, too.

What are you reading currently?

As I live in a mental and professional stride between Poland and Spain, I usually read something in Spanish and Polish at the same time. So right now, it's the novel Un amor by Spanish author Sara Mesa, who topped quite a few lists for the best novel of the past year there, and, well, not a Polish author, but published in Polish, Michel Laub and his Diary of the Fall.

And also, for more or less professional purposes, the very interesting memoirs of the pioneer of Egyptian feminism, Huda Sha'arawi (The Harem Years translated by Agnieszka Piotrowska), and a book on the International Brigades by the English journalist and historian Gilles Tremlett, whom I like very much and who really does a great job of scrutinising Spanish history and modern times.

You can see by this set that I am drawn, both in life and in literature, to the South in a broad sense.

I’m drawn to the Middle East, we have a Sha’arawi at home, but I haven't read it yet. Have you been delighted by something recently?

I was wowed twice recently. The first was the Chilean Pedro Lemebel and his queer novel My Tender Matador, a book that is funny, subversive, political, tender, and grotesque at the same time, a real gem.

And the second one is Walentynowicz by the duo Karaś and Sterlingow, a journalistic biography, which has pierced me emotionally and left me with an incredible dose of bitterness about us/Poland. A sentence from this book still resonates in my head, someone's suggestion from the early 80s, that one should ‘arrange a group therapy’ there, in Gdansk. An idea that nobody took seriously, of course.

What would this therapy consist of?

This sentence was uttered sometime in the early 1980s, when various interpersonal tensions and distrust between, among others, Walentynowicz and Walesa were gaining strength. It's the kind of moment where it's clear that a lot of these people, led by the main figure, are going into these completely epic events – strikes, Solidarity, the fight for freedom - with all the typical baggage of twentieth-century experiences, traumas, and warps. And this utopian idea - that you can stop everything and give them therapy, work through the conflicts, defuse all these emotional and political bombs, stop the madness and the breakup into two tribes - it strongly appealed to my imagination as an unrealised alternative scenario.

You mentioned reading for work and for pleasure, that's actually a regular theme of this series, most people involved in literature read a bit like this and a bit like that. What does it look like in your case?

This is my permanent evening dilemma: read a bit of something ’with an eye on’, for example, a new book, or indulge in so-called selfless reading. However, I usually read a lot ’with an eye on’, and since I also do a lot of interviews with authors, usually Spanish-speaking ones, my work-related list of books rarely gets shorter. I do have ground rule, though, that for, shall we say, pleasure (because reading for work isn't particularly unpleasant either), I read when putting my son to sleep, on a tablet, in night mode.

In fact, I’ve just realised that it would be fair to say that what I'm reading the most right now is children's literature. Which, by the way, can be just wonderful.

What do you read to your son? Any evergreen titles from your childhood?

The Moomins and Ronja, the Robber's Daughter have to wait, as he is only 2.5 years old, but we read, for example, my 1982 edition of Lokomotywa ("The Locomotive") with illustrations by Szancer and Puf a Muf by Nataša Tanska, which I somehow pushed out of my memory and, actually by accident, found years later in my parents' house. And it turns out that this Slovakian book about cats is exceptionally fun: sharp and rascally, which is what good literature for young children should be. This is what the Swede Pija Lindenbaum is like, whom we adore. I also have a weakness for the punk and surreal Kitty Crowther, with her Stories of the Night at the helm.

And how did your adventure with books begin in the first place?

Unfortunately, I don't have any inspiring stories to tell about the local library in Legnica, which I otherwise liked very much, but that's not where it started. The adults around me just liked to read, so it was probably quite natural for me that ’one reads’. My grandmother, a typically communist-era busy woman (full-time job, house, cooking, kids), played an instrumental role here as she used to say, "At least ten minutes before bedtime for reading!” Those ten minutes were probably the real amount of time she could usually spend reading before she got extremely tired, but it touches me that this was her ritual which she absolutely wanted to pass on to me.

Do you remember the first books which were significant to you?

This archaeology of reading-related memory that your questions provoke just made me realise what a crazy reading time the early teenage period is, when you're just developing habits and taste, so you absorb everything as it comes.

For example, I read Musierowicz and Colette, Kafka and my mother's Harlequin series at the same time, very eclectically and democratically. I also remember that in primary school, my reading guide was a list of one hundred or fifty ‘most important books of all time’ by Filipinka magazine (Polish teen girl magazine – translator’s note). I tried to tick off one title after another, and I remember that following Filipinka’s advice, I got through, for example, two thick volumes of Gone with the Wind.

The book that revolutionised my thinking about literature, although I wouldn't have called it this way at the time, was, for some reason, The Tin Drum. I never reread it, so I don't know what to make of my impressions at the time, but it put me in a state of some kind of delirium. It was like being struck by lightning; to this day, I remember its density, metaphorical nature, horror, and this revolutionary (to me) discovery that it was possible to write in such a way, adding a symbolic lining to reality, mixing orders. So, I think it was because of Grass that I began to realise whatever can be done in literature. Growing up in the ‘recovered territories’ wasn’t devoid of significance either; this feeling that underneath the ‘Polish’ façade churns another history, which was not taught in schools in the 1990s and which you had to guess and discover on your own.

For the same reason, I later passionately read Tokarczuk, Huelle, and Chwin, it was like discovering an embarrassing family secret, it even had a taste of something forbidden.

So, I know now that Grass has rearranged your head literary-wise. Was there a book that did something similar for you in terms of your worldview?

Beautiful and dangerous would be the power of one book to change a person's views. I don’t think it works that way, does it? But if you think about it in terms of processes, it happens that I've been reading definitely more books written by women for a while now, not as a strategy, but as a natural impulse. It's what they propose that just gets me curious, touched, feverish more often.

For the first half of my life, I actually read only men, because that was the canon suggested to me by school and the market. So, when I started reading Jeanette Winterson, Angela Carter, Gretkowska, and Filipiak at university, as part of various gender-whatevers, it was kind of a staggered shock. Something like the feeling that someone got my glasses right, and I can finally see the world sharply. Or rather that the world has been given back its formerly amputated part, without which it remained unfamiliar and somehow obscure, incomprehensible.

And have you had a chance to read Ferrante? Because for me, it was one of the more important books of the last few years, definitely such a thing a man wouldn't write, and it opens your eyes to a few things.

Well, that's interesting, because I had one go at Ferrante ("My Brilliant Friend"), and we didn't get along very well, so it ended there. She left me rather indifferent, and somewhere at the back of my head, an earlier comment by a friend from Italy was buzzing that she can sometimes be classist. But maybe I should give her another chance. What have you discovered thanks to her?

It's interesting, because I was under the impression that she was very sensitive to class themes. In a good way. And as for your question, above all, probably things that men can't write about women because they're not them. Some experiences are so specifically feminine that I don't think even Flaubert had access to them. And moving on to the question: what do you pay the most attention to when reading? What do you find most appealing about literature today in general?

Whatever kind of writer she might be, however, she has a crushing advantage over Flaubert when it comes to insight into the female experience. But I don't want to speak too categorically about her because, as I say, we haven't got to know each other better.

An emotion that has carried me through life for some time now is anger, or speaking more commonly: I’m pissed off. And this anger is probably what I mostly look for in books now, I am on the same page with anything that resonates with subversion, clashing with the system, whether it be patriarchy, neoliberalism, imperialism, or any other beast.

The books that sink deepest into me now are the ones that I feel the stakes were high in writing them, laden with some kind of personal risk. I think I got a glimpse of your picture with Kamel Daoud's The Mersault’s Investigation on Facebook recently, and it was one of those books, but I was also greatly impressed, for example, by Oscar Martinez's reportage The Beast and the incredible effort and - in this case literal - risk that this Salvadoran reporter took to describe the crossing of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras through Mexico. Or the Argentinean Ariana Harwicz and her Die, My Love, a rather bestial image of motherhood, also quite radical in terms of language. From books in Polish, I am tasting for example Warkot (“Burr”) by Joanna Mueller with illustrations by Joanna Łańcucka and it suits me very well. And I devoured Wanda Hagedorn's comic book Twarz, brzuch, głowa (“Face, Belly, Head”), which a friend gave me for my fortieth birthday. That's some bloody rage in there!

To conclude, one more question, what do you have in your reading plans?

Influenced by the musings you've provoked, I've developed a taste for Moominland Midwinter, and there's also a new Solnit waiting on the non-existent bedside table, as well as the unfinished and wonderful History as a Battlefield by Enzo Traverso and The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. So, it forms somehow into a mix like from the times of Filipinka.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe