Bedside table #57. Maciej Płaza: When I get a strong craving for some literature, I soak into it for months
Prose writer and translator Maciej Płaza talks about his work on his latest novel entitled Golem, being cut off from the world while writing, Julian Stryjkowski's wonderful, rich Jewish Polish language, a return to Thomas Mann and reading Joseph Roth, as well as the benefits of freelance work.
A lot has happened since the premiere of Robinson w Bolechowie (“Robinson in Bolechów”) and our last conversation. For example, the pandemic, which completely changed the possibilities of working, its rhythm. You've also published several acclaimed translations, i.e. Edge of Irony… by Marjorie Perloff, Arthur Machen's excellent The Hill of Dreams, now nominated for the Boy-Zeleński Award. You edited the issue of "Literatura na Świecie" magazine devoted to Machen and wrote afterwords to the Opowieści niesamowite ("Incredible Stories") series published by the PIW publishing house. How do you find the time to write prose among all this?
I would’ve rather expected the question why the new book is being published only now…
True, there was a two-year gap between Skoruń (“Scallywag”) and Robinson in Bolechów, and between Golem and Robinson – a four-year gap.
After Robinson in Bolechów was published, I indeed took up translating: at first, to have a bit of a break, because writing this book tired me terribly, for various reasons, and then, the opportunity arose to publish a few things by Arthur Machen in Polish, and I sank into it for about a year and a half. Translating The Hill of Dreams has been a dream of mine for so many years that I had already given up hope of it ever happening; so, when I was offered the job, I committed to it without hesitation. But it has been several months now since it was completed. In that time, Golem has been written. It's a child of the pandemic: I started writing it exactly a year ago, and the enforced isolation helped me a lot, nothing distracted me. I wrote this book very quickly, including the notetaking and outline stage, it took me nine months. A smooth, enjoyable job. When I know what to write, I feel I have a steady hand, I can write quickly. But there are costs. I go on holiday, usually very short ones, every two years on average. Work takes up almost all my time.
This is probably connected with a highly regulated daily routine.
Well, yes. I have a great intrinsic desire to create, a lot of ideas and enthusiasm to realise them, I try not to waste time and not to be distracted.
I’m asking because I am curious as to how you have planned all this. Did you not need to use the archives? After all, Golem is historically, and linguistically, embedded in what is long, and irrevocably, bygone.
Yes, of course, Golem is a historical novel, i.e., taken from writings. In order to write it, I read a lot of material. These were both old books, from previous years, but refreshed, and completely new ones: books on Jewish history, Judaism, Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, East European Jewry, shtetls, Jewish folklore, Hasidism - I would not even be able to list everything... Memoirs of Jews from the eastern borderlands. And fiction. And not only readings, but also museums, exhibitions, films, music, a lot of Jewish music in various varieties.
But how did you manage to get access to the materials you needed? The pandemic didn't make this somehow... radically difficult?
I was able to complete the enquiries just before the lockdown was announced - pure coincidence. At least enough to get to work. With some of the research, I had to wait, not long, as it turned out, until summer. Also, quite a few of the books I could have borrowed, I simply bought.
Did anything from these readings particularly stick in your memory?
Oh, lots of things. This world consumed me; otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to write Golem with such commitment. From fiction, the greatest discovery to me, or rather recollection after many years, because I read him at university, was Julian Stryjkowski. I think he is the best prose writer who has written about the world of the shtetl. Wonderful, rich Jewish Polish language, great sensitivity and wisdom. I am very glad that the Austeria publishing house has started to republish his novels, as this great writer must not be allowed to be forgotten. Besides, from Hasidic-connected literature, I was particularly impressed by the book Gog and Magog. A Novel by Martin Buber and Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries by Jiří Langer, and from contemporary works - The Rebbe's Featherless Parrot by Géza Röhrig. But there is also music hidden in Golem. Do you know that when writing this book, I thought of it as of a concert?
I was then enthralled by a piece by Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinian composer of Jewish origin, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Although it's a composition for clarinet and string quartet, and I'm not fond of string quartets, I found an orchestral version with David Krakauer on clarinet, a virtuoso of the instrument, so I listened to that one. The various parts of the piece capture, especially in the clarinet solos, the character and mood of the three Jewish languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish. And you can really hear it! I imagined then that my Golem is like a concerto for an orchestra and a solo instrument, or rather instruments; the orchestra is the anonymous voice of the shtetl community, and from it emerge, like the solos of individual instruments, the stories of various characters: Rafael, Shira, Yakov. Especially when writing the chapters on Shira, I just thought of them as solos, I even called them in such a way in my mind: opening solo, second solo, third solo. I even assigned instruments to them. Shira is the violin; Rafael is the clarinet. Yakov... maybe an accordion?
And what about painting - fundamentally important to Scallywag and Robinson in Bolechów?
Golem is not a painterly book - because it wasn't meant to be. I have exhausted the subject for the time being, especially at Robinson in Bolechów; after all, I made completely different assumptions here. My style probably has some kind of involuntary ‘plasticity’, tangibility, but these are not the qualities I used in Golem. It was fortunate, however, that I was able to give the publisher the idea for the cover again, a wonderful painting, or rather a fragment of a painting, by Samuel Hirszenberg. It perfectly reflects the theme and mood of the book.
So, a concert instead of a painting. How is it to write such a musical novel?
I had already practiced the modus operandi for Robinson in Bolechów, which also required extensive reading, not just of history. I work in a structured and planned way; first the readings, then the outlines, the thousands of notes, until finally, there comes a moment of saturation when I feel - because it is rather a feeling, a whisper of intuition - that it is enough, that I must start writing, the rest will happen later.
What was the biggest challenge? Putting all those notes and ideas into a coherent whole? The archaic language that had to be recreated, or, perhaps, partly invented?
The biggest challenge, at least for me, is putting together a coherent outline. Once I know what to write and how to write, everything goes smoothly for me. Language is never a problem. I don't work on the style, I don't polish it endlessly; I do correct a lot, that’s true, but these are rather cosmetic corrections. The language carries me rather than resists me.
However, Golem is written in a Polish language that reaches into long extinct and forgotten registers. After all, this has to be learned in some way - no one speaks the language of the early 20th century just like that.
That's true, but the language that I partly tried to imitate in Golem - because you can't write about a piece of the world without reaching for the language or languages that have been used to write about it so far - I permeated it while reading. It is not just the language itself, but also the values it carries, the metaphysics behind it. The language of Golem is a bit like the language of novels by Stryjkowski, Asch, or Buber, because I talk about similar issues as them. If I get deep into an issue, my mind figures out what it's about, but I don't separately learn how to write about it; my hand somehow remembers it on its own.
I am currently reading a great anthology Marani literatury polskiej (“Maranni of Polish Literature”). Isn't this concept close to your idea for Golem?
You write about a superseded heritage - about multiculturalism, about a language that has been forgotten. If I understand correctly, the authors of this volume have a similar task.
Hm, I share your positive attitude towards multiculturalism, but I think Golem deals with it indirectly, that is, it only shows the ultimate consequence of cultural violence, in other words, literal violence. Multiculturalism as such is not present in Golem, it shows the closed world of one culture, subjected to constant external threats and internal conflicts. Orthodox Ukrainian culture and Catholic Polish culture are but a homogenous background, an alien world of goyim, and, as we know, Orthodox Jews care little for goyim. The Maranni concept on which the book by the Austeria publishing house is based, which is by the way very fascinating and inspiring, concerns rather those who remain in the background in Golem, i.e., the seemingly or superficially assimilating Jews. This is where interesting cultural and literary phenomena are actually born. Incidentally, Orthodox Judaism - or ultra-Orthodox Judaism, as the Hasidim are probably classified today - ignores secular science, literature, art, so the possibility of dialogue is limited here. This does not mean, of course, that mutual respect is not necessary.
I will return to language for a moment, because I am particularly curious about it. Are you able to combine writing or translating with reading books by other authors? Does this not interfere with your work?
No, I don't think I can. There is then some kind of blockade in my mind, a heavy bar that prevents me from doing this. Sometimes, for the sake of detachment, I feel like reading a novel of a completely different kind, but I am rarely able to. The writing process for me - and probably not only for me, it’s probably quite typical - is extremely intense and engaging. This doesn’t really apply to translation; working on a translation, though it can be hard, does not cut you off mentally from the world so much.
So, you finished Golem and threw yourself into reading?
A little bit, yes, I was ravenous, I just felt like ‘just reading’, taking a break, that's normal. Immediately after I finished working on Golem, I had the Mann period, reading, one by one, the six volumes of Thomas Mann. Some books I knew before, others I didn't, for example I read Joseph and His Brothers for the first time and was surprised, because I didn't think any of Mann's novels would delight me as much as Doctor Faustus, and yet it did. Or also, before Golem, I read, one by one, five or six books by Joseph Roth. As a consumer of culture, I am, to put it plainly, compulsively monomaniacal: when I get a really strong craving for literature or music, I soak into it for months. Hence such excesses like the Mann one. Or like last autumn and winter, when for three months I listened exclusively to John Coltrane.
Which binge, because I guess I can call it that, was more enjoyable? Mann or Roth? Can they be compared at all?
Not really, they are completely different writers. Mann is majestic and principled. It is writing that is absolutely confident, rational, and finished. Roth is fragile and emotional, a bit like a sketch. I don't know the secrets of his technique, but I get the impression that he hasn't made much correcting, his prose has a remarkable freshness.
Do you think that corrected, long-chiselled literature ultimately comes out worse?
No, I did not say that. Every writer has their own distinct creative temperament. This can sometimes be deduced from the tone or pace of the story, for example, in Tadeusz Nowak's prose, you sense that it was written very quickly, and in Myśliwski's - that it was written rather slowly; but, such impressions can sometimes be misleading, for example Faulkner, as far as I know, wrote quite quickly, although his prose is incredibly intricate.
What other authors have you read in this way - in one go?
These monomanias are getting worse as I get older, so these are mainly cases from the last few years. When I discovered John McGahern, a wonderful Irish novelist whose best novels are unfortunately still not translated into Polish, I read almost everything he wrote within a few months – there is not much, just a few volumes. When I was working on Arthur Machen, I was also reading mostly things by him and around him for a dozen months or so, which is what I needed in order to translate him and write something meaningful about him: from The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends, to Robert Louis Stevenson. I also read Tadeusz Nowak in this way, one book after another. I once read perhaps five of Faulkner's novels, because I had just bought myself some beautiful American editions in the "Library of America" series, and health problems had confined me to bed for weeks. Just a bit of madness.
You know, I don't at all feel obliged to read certain books or authors; the freelance profession of writer and translator, among its blessings and curses, has this good feature that you can read exactly what you want. So, I just burrow down different corridors.
I actually know nothing about McGahern. What kind of literature is it?
McGahern is unanimously regarded as the most outstanding Irish novelist after Joyce, in the chronological sense, so the second half of the 20th century. He grew up in the country, worked as a teacher for a while, left the country, worked on building sites in England, then came back, and lived by the lake. He knew the Irish provinces very well, terribly poor and backward, tyrannised by the Catholic clergy, and he wrote about it with a unique mixture of tenderness and despair. He is a very autobiographical writer. In nearly every one of his six novels and in many of his short stories, he processed his own experiences, mainly his childhood in a large family, with a widowed father - who was a village policeman and a very rough, unpleasant man - and his bereavement of his mother. McGahern lost his mother at the age of ten and never forgot her for the rest of his life.
It's beautiful prose, very honest, seemingly simple but only on the surface - McGahern, like many Irish prose writers, is an extremely subtle stylist. You can see in him the heritage of Irish modernism: Joyce, Beckett. Unfortunately, only McGahern's less successful novels have been published in Polish, and barely a handful of stories in "Literatura na Świecie" magazine, as well as, quite unusually, his autobiography, written shortly before his death. Should any publishers finally want to discover him, I will drop everything and translate it.
And any new titles? Throughout this year, despite the Cassandrian predictions of last March, quite a few interesting things have nevertheless been released.
I don't read many new things. Of the really new stuff, I've read Adam Leszczyński's Ludowa historia Polski (“A People's History of Poland”) and Piotr Paziński's Atrapy stworzenia (“Simulacra of Creation”), very good books, but I didn't expect bad from either author. I am reading, but slowly, the aforementioned Maranni of Polish literature.
Nothing else? Two very interesting things have come out recently: Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, translated by Tabaczynski, and Jean Ray's Malpertuis. I thought the latter might be of particular interest to you - a specialist in horror literature.
I’ve heard about it, but I don't know anything about this book. I'll probably look into it, though I don't know when. The same goes for Burton. At the moment, I am not into such books. But indeed Ha!art quarterly is now doing interesting things; I was delighted to welcome, for example, Ambrose Bierce's excellent The Devil's Dictionary, diligently translated and compiled by Mateusz Kopacz, Poland's foremost Lovecraftologist.
If I do buy new things at all, they are usually new-not-so-new things. I was greatly delighted with a huge selection of Iwaszkiewicz's Droga. Proza i wiersze (“The Road. Prose and Poems”), which was prepared by the Iskry publishing house; I don't like Iwaszkiewicz's poetry, but his prose, which I hadn't read since university, delighted me years later. But I repeat: I hardly read new fiction. There are too many old marvellous things to waste time looking for gems in piles of wastepaper. Especially as I know how publishing marketing works, so I am immune to the new hopes, new masterpieces, and other revelations announced every now and then. Instead, I follow and read the series of Yiddish writers published by Austeria, reissues and new translations of Melville published by the PIW publishing house. I enjoyed reading The Golden Kite by Dezső Kosztolányi, my favourite Hungarian writer.
Have you read The House of Liars? It's fantastic. I have the impression that Kosztolányi was better at short stories.
Yes, Kosztolányi was a virtuoso of the short form, his short stories are an absolute artistry, but I liked virtually everything I read; before The House of Liars, a collection of short stories was published, The Wedding Night, and three novels. Kosztolányi was also a great poet.
“Favourite Hungarian writer” sounds like you read more than just Kosztolányi. Hungarian literature is close to you?
No, unfortunately I only know pieces of it, although it intrigues me, so I will probably penetrate the area more thoroughly at some point. I have read one book, two at the most, by authors such as Péter Nádas, Sándor Márai, László Krasznahorkai, Gyula Krúdy, and maybe two or three more... I have also tasted a little Hungarian poetry, mostly in English translations. But I know too little about the subject to act smart, and Hungarian literature is not simple, on the contrary, it is very sophisticated.
It has always seemed to me that the best Polish literature (for me, it’s somewhere between Buczkowski and Haupt, but also Gombrowicz) is similar to Hungarian literature. Not necessarily stylistically or even thematically, but, how would you put it, in spirit. We are, together with the Hungarians, very anguished.
Buczkowski, since we are talking about him, is a much-forgotten writer, but he has earned it a little; for me, after Czarny potok (“Black Torrent”), by the way, one of the most outstanding Polish novels, his work becomes less and less digestible. But such were the times... Writers who went into the avant-garde or allowed themselves to be seduced by fashionable poetics have aged badly. Take Kazimierz Brandys, for example, in whose work, once he stopped writing socialist-realist atrocities, and before he wrote the wonderful Wariacje pocztowe (“Postal Variations”), you can see the influence of the nouveau roman, and it shows ugly, like a rash. But yes, you are right. Nations that have been anguished and oppressed for hundreds of years develop a similar mentality, full of bitterness but also with a unique black sense of humour that happier nations do not know or understand. The Poles and the Hungarians, but also the Irish, are a kind of European brotherhood. Have you noticed that black humour is typical of nations that have been dragged through history? I once talked to a Slovenian and we were both delighted to realise that in our countries, exactly the same jokes are told about war and partisans: grim, brutal and, at the same time, terribly funny.
And yet, your novels are not lined with black humour.
Somehow, there hasn't been room for it in my writing so far, but that will change, I feel it in my bones.
What are your plans now? Not resting, I understand...
I have a lot of plans, but it is too early to talk about them. Resting is boring, anyway I can't rest at home, and it's impossible to go anywhere right now.
Interviewer: Maciej Libich
Translated by Justyna Lowe