Prose writer Wojciech Chmielewski, a winner of the Marek Nowakowski Literary Award and the Cyprian Norwid Award, talks about his first fascination with Dickens, Salinger's writing burnout, love for Saul Bellow, passionate reading of Marek Nowakowski, Kazimierz Orłoś, and Kornel Filipowicz, about contemporary writers he roots for, the books he was strongly affected by, and he reveals the question he asks himself when writing.
What are you currently reading?
Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev. This is his first novel, he is a young writer, born in 1981. In my opinion, it is an excellent thing, a little bit about growing up, a little bit about discovering oneself. Above all, however, about how the history of a country affects the lives of people who had nothing to do with the horrors of the 20th century.
Are you fascinated by Russia?
Yes, especially the descriptions of the country, about how life looks like out there. According to Lebedev, Russia has not done away with its forced labour camp past. The camps are somehow inscribed in the landscape. Going somewhere outside the city, entering the tundra, we come across the traces of what happened there, and because the north of Russia is covered by an eternal permafrost, not everything has yet disintegrated, not all bodies have decayed - it's terrifying that you still have to deal with it. The corpses call from under the ice, they are there. And, what's more, it's prose written with a deep breath, as I like it.
Do you read any more contemporary Russians?
Sometimes, although I wouldn't say I do it on purpose.
Is he the writer-ideologist who is currently fighting in Ukraine?
I've heard about him, but I have not read him.
I am reading his The Pathologies about Chechnya. Phenomenal prose from the first pages.
I, in turn, will recommend you Anna Politkovskaya's Second Chechen War on the same subject. A terrible book. I was affected by this book very much. One great record of destruction, murder, looting - hell, or rather the extermination of a nation. There are accounts of civilian victims, but also of Russian soldiers - they also sometimes appear as victims of this war.
In October, the Karta publishing house will publish memories of Polina Zherebtsova, a young Russian woman from Grozny. The book is entitled Ant in a Glass Jar. Chechen Diaries 1994–2004. I read excerpts, the book is shaping up to be moving.
Marek Nowakowski also published a little book entitled Trzy teksty o Czeczenii (‘Three Texts about Chechnya’), the proceeds from which he donated to help Chechens.
A beautiful gesture, but let’s get back to the point: do you have a system for choosing books?
I read in a rather random way, I don't plan. If someone recommends something to me, I reach for it. Maybe I'll read Prilepin now? Recently, I was in the library and I picked The School for Wives and Other Stories by André Gide from the shelf with free books. I used to read him in the past: The Vatican Cellars, The Counterfeiters, Journals. I was particularly impressed by this last book, where the author presented himself to be a non-believer, but not a godless person. Now, years later, I have returned to him with pleasure. I read it in Julian Rogoziński's translation and admired the crystalline style of this literature. There is a saying by Camus about style, ‘Everybody has written novels since the moment thought took precedence over style.’ There is something in it, because when you read some books written today by Polish authors or the most recent translations from the West, which are considered literary revelations, you can clearly see a huge gap. The School for Wives is a mini-novel of manners with the plot taking place at the beginning of World War I... We see a bourgeois family first through the eyes of a wife, then a husband, and finally a daughter. It seems simple, but it is the most difficult to write about seemingly ineffective topics. Do I bore you?
No, why? I wonder what would have to happen for me to reach for Gide today.
A coincidence. I read The Counterfeiters a long time ago and I don't even remember what it was about. However, I remembered quite well his other book, The Immoralist, which was about a man who lives with his wife and slowly destroys her. Literally, because she withers, dies, and he really doesn't know what's going on. We also don't know why, we guess that he may be a homosexual who doesn't fully realise it. In this way, but it’s not entirely his fault, he causes this woman to die. We know what Gide's life episodes were, so I think he knew what he was writing about.
It reminds me of Joseph Conrad's The Return, a story about a bourgeois house where a woman writes a letter to her husband that she is leaving him for her lover, and then returns the same day, because she lacked courage.
I remember it, I read it, Conrad's early prose, I think it comes from the volume Tales of Unrest. There is no maritime theme at all yet. He is closer to Henry James' work. A huge house, stairs, a man dresses up and finds a letter.
Great psychological prose. And which of the classics was important to you in your youth?
As a child, I read Oliver Twist by Dickens and it was a very important reading for me in those years. I was surprised that it was possible to make a protagonist of someone so insignificant, vulnerable, weak, and, in addition, completely embattled. So this is the protagonist of the book, this weakling? No leader, admiral, prince, warrior? For the boy I was then, it was surprising and disturbing at the same time.
Did you return to Dickens afterwards?
I have recently read his novel Hard times. For these times, which Conrad's father, Apollo Nałęcz Korzeniowski, translated in the 19th century when he and his family were in exile. I read it in a series published during Stalinist times, in those blue covers. This is a very good translation, it reads very quickly.
Does Dickens still impress?
I wanted to see if he is a writer for our times. (laughter) And I must admit that I read Dickens with great pleasure, but I’m not sure if it is not already outmoded... Sometimes I have the impression that I myself am outmoded... Anyway, I consider Dickens to be a great writer. I recently visited his house in London, there is a museum inside. A very nice morning, although rainy...
And what else from the nineteenth-century novel?
Certainly Dostoevsky, I read all his novels.
Which one do you value the most?
A book, I have an impression, that is very topical today.
The most ambiguous of his work. Meandering and terrifying. Some of Dostoyevsky's novels take place nearly entirely in dialogues, yet here, there is action, and how much! There is action, there is a conspiracy, there are heroes, great types of humans. From the 19th century, I also like the German writer Theodor Fontane.
Not very popular in Poland, I must add.
In Germany, it is an absolute classic. There is a monument in Berlin - a pile of stacked books by Goethe, Schiller, other ones, and one of them is actually by Fontane. Greta Minde, Effi Briest, but I liked On Tangled Paths the most..., a love story taking place in Berlin, a bit suburban, with vegetable gardens, small wooden houses... Interestingly, Fontane made his debut as a man in his sixties, so, as you can see, it is never too late.
There were Dickens, Fontane, and Dostoevsky, so maybe a French writer too?
I like Victor Hugo.
Somehow, I am not surprised.
I used to read him very avidly. I was most moved by Les Misérables, thanks to Cosette and Jean Valjean, of course, but I also liked The Man Who Laughs very much. Hugo portrayed people rejected, imperfect, weirdoes. We all know Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and in The Man Who Laughs, the protagonist is a boy from a circus who was mutilated as a child - he had a permanent grim cut from ear to ear, so that he could be shown at fairs.
And do you value anyone from the American classics?
When I went to high school, I discovered Salinger. First, his most famous novel, The Catcher in the Rye, but later also stories which I liked even more. I started to follow who the author was, because I had never heard of him before. It was my Polish teacher, the late Katarzyna Sybilska, who said, ‘Read it, it's worth it,’ and we were learning about the Baroque style at the time. It was refreshing! Then, I naturally expanded my arc of fire, I started reading William Faulkner. At my grandmother's place, in her bedside table drawer, I found a novel without a cover, I read the title Absalom, Absalom! ... I liked it very much and that's how it started. However, let’s get back to Salinger, I have always wondered why he stopped writing. Why he printed his last short story in 1965 and then nothing, and he died only in 2010. I have recently read his biography by Kenneth Slavenski - a very good book - because I am still intrigued by Salinger's decision.
Have you found out anything?
In my view, the answer seems to be twofold. First of all, perhaps he really concluded that he has nothing more to say? His last story was poorly received by readers. And secondly, maybe he just had enough of it? Fame, interviews, etc. There are legends that although he did not publish, he wrote every day. There are, allegedly, piles of manuscripts in his safes.
If that were the case, we would probably get something from the publisher. I think we should not give it credence, although I would very much like to be wrong. I have the impression that he simply burned himself out in a natural way, and, what is important, he himself came to the conclusion that he should not print anymore. This is a very difficult decision for any writer.
And does this attitude - of a writer who, apart from books, hides from the audience, such as Salinger or Thomas Pynchon – impress you? Or do you view it critically?
In my opinion, the most important are works, oeuvre, not biography. It is of little importance, because I speak through my books and not through the fact I did shopping today. Personally, I try not to use my biography as a support, as, first of all, it is not too fascinating, and secondly, the world of celebrity is characterised by the fact that they fall and rise before our very eyes. I don't think it's so important in the writer's life to impress with his or her life. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Hemingway.
He also had personality predispositions – spewing testosterone, a narcissistic guy.
And all those sports - boxing, corrida, hunting, sailing... This also built his legend.
But Hemingway was authentic in all this. Today, many images result from ‘promotional strategies’.
Possibly. However, my favourite American writer is Saul Bellow, whose books I discovered many years ago. I keep coming back to him all the time. Even his latest novel, Ravelstein, I consider to be successful, and he wrote it as a man advanced in years, after a serious illness. I love his Herzog, Henderson the Rain King, and Seize the Day. Marek Nowakowski once told me that when he was in Chicago, he went to a bathhouse or a pub, I don't remember exactly, and there were people there, maybe not gangsters but some local businessmen who had lived there for years. And they told him, ‘Yes, Sol used to come here’, that's how they pronounced the writer's name.
And from living American classic writers?
Who else besides ‘Sol’ can be read? (laughter). I really liked Cormac McCarthy's first novel The Orchard Keeper.
Sometimes he falls into his mannerisms, but still outstanding.
Especially when one compares it with the trash that the publishers are flooding us with almost every day, this whole travel-adventure-memories fiction. Against this bleak background, we can see that this is really a prose that thrills and stirs our imagination. And I say this because McCarthy is hugely published, films are made on the basis of his books. He is definitely an outstanding author. He is ambiguous and has his own poetics.
Like the American classics - Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Melville - he intelligently refers to the language of the Old Testament.
He writes about evil, focuses on it, but if someone claims that there is boundless evil, such as Anton Chigurh, for example, then I imagine he believes in the existence of boundless good. This is somewhere on the margins of McCarthy's books, that's how I read it, and the last sentences of the novel No Country for Old Men, they are significant in this respect. Or maybe I'm simply naïve.
And what have you recently read from Polish stock?
Classics, again, because I returned to Julian Wołoszynowski's Opowiadanie podolskie (‘The Podolian Stories’), which was republished by The State Publishing Institute. The author's great skill was to combine the realistic with fantasy themes. There are inns, roads, Podolia (a historic region in Eastern Europe, located around Ukraine and Moldova), Kiev, and, suddenly, unusual things enter into this old Polish noble world: rusalkas, devils, Ukrainian mythology.
Unusually sensual literature, wonderful descriptions.
I always liked and valued descriptions of nature. It was important for me in my reading. I didn't complain when they dragged out.
Which contemporary authors describe nature most interestingly?
I would mention Kazimierz Orłoś's short stories, especially those about Masuria. Orłoś can perfectly describe ordinary heroes, sometimes even those miserable, the so-called ‘PGR-man’ (state agricultural farm-man), and, at the same time, in a discreet way, as if in a counterpoint to the fate of his characters, he shows the beauty of Masurian nature.
And since we are already talking about Masuria, I also like Ernst Wiechert very much. His books The Jeromin Children, The Simple Life, Die Majorin, or autobiographical Wälder und Menschen, childhood memoir, that was an adventure. He was born in Masuria in Piersławek near Mrągowo. He was German, son of a forester, grew up in a forester's lodge, then studied in Königsberg. In the 1920s, he was very popular in Germany until the 1930s, when, as a person who opposed the regime, he was sent to the concentration camp in Buchenwald for several months. He left from there, but was banned from printing. Nevertheless, he survived. He could not publish until the end of the war, then he settled in Switzerland and died in 1950. Apparently, he is completely forgotten in Germany today, I've heard that, but I don't know if it's true.
And Polish literature?
I am not going to lie, I read passionately such authors as Marek Nowakowski, Kazimierz Orłoś, Kornel Filipowicz. There was a time when you could buy various books for 50 groszy (10 pence) in the streets from a tramp. I collected the whole works of Filipowicz's. I liked very much his war novel Jeniec i dziewczyna (‘A Captive and A Girl’), but, most of all, the micro novel Nasza kochana prowincja (‘Our Dear Province’), great. Also, a very important volume for me is Co jest w człowieku? (‘What's In The Man?’). I always ask myself this question when I construct my characters. Can this question be answered at all?
Did any of the Polish authors debuting after 1989 impress you particularly?
I often asked myself the question: Could I write like my favourite authors do? Am I able to bear it all? Would I be able to do it? And paradoxically, it was new literature that started to be published after 1989 that encouraged me to write. Those different debutants, which I read then, and who had enthusiastic critics’ blurbs on the cover- that this is something new and good. I had the impression that this is not so good at all, but rather average, or even poor. And I thought to myself that if it is considered to be fresh, excellent prose, if it is published, read, and even more - given awards and translated into foreign languages, maybe I should try it too? But I didn't think then I was going to write books. I didn't take this into account when I was studying history in Warsaw and then working in various places.
And you didn't value anyone from those young people from the 90s?
I am young (laughter).
How not? (laughter).
Nobody caught your eye?
Very many, I appreciate the prose of Włodzimierz Kowalewski, for example. I liked his book Powrót do Breitenheide (‘Return to Breitenheide’), the novel Bóg zapłacz! (‘God Re-pray!’), and, most of all, his best novel, screened by Janusz Majewski, Excentrycy (‘Excentrics’). Apart from Kowalewski, I also liked Rafał Wojasiński with his short stories, where the protagonists are poor people, village dwellers. I root for this writer. He made his debut many years ago in 2006. And now, he has published a collection of short stories in Nisza publishing house under the title ‘Olanda’. Very interesting. Rafał comes from Kujawy (lowland region of central Poland) and writes mainly about the village. These are stories about rural fools, sometimes degenerates, and, at the same time, somewhat saintly. But most often about ordinary people: a farmer, a teacher, a gravedigger, a shop owner. Everyone there is unique, though crazy.
Slightly like Mirosław Nahacz’s Bombel.
But Wojasiński uses different language, writes with a breath, keeps an eye on the detail, carefully follows the landscape. I found it very difficult to read Nahacz.
His prose was dirty, dense, unrefined.
He was still a very young man then, what can be asked of him? Although I remember that various newspaper claqueurs built him up as a literary revelation. And what for? In this way, a very young author can only be harmed. I once bought his Niezwykłe przygody Roberta Robura (‘Unusual adventures of Robert Robur’) on sale.
This one is difficult to read!
There was a lot of positive energy in all this. It was as if he modelled himself on Thomas Pynchon. A total hit. I feel sorry for him.
Any more names from the last quarter-century?
I liked Michał Witkowski's Lubiewo very much. An authentic and suggestive image of old public conveniences and men hitting on each other there. I don't know any more of his books. I know that Witkowski started to write crime fiction, so it discouraged me a little, because, in principle, I don't read crime fiction. But Lubiewo is a successful attempt to capture reality from the very depths of communism, repulsive, but also somehow appealing.
It seems that you read old literature more.
Definitely. Pre-war Yiddish writers were a great inspiration for me. For example, Itzik Manger and his The Book of Paradise. This is a book about the fact that before our birth we are all angels, our souls live in paradise. When a soul is to be embodied in a human being, the angel is given a punch on the nose to forget what they saw before birth. Two of them, Shmuel-Aba and Pisherl were friends, and they didn't want to forget about each other when it turned out that Shmuel-Aba should become a human being. That's why he stuck his nose with clay and when he got a punch, it was weak enough for him to remember everything he saw. Then Shmuel-Aba was born in Warsaw and as a child he was a genius. Rabbis and other wise Jews gathered around him, nodded their heads, and he told them how it is in heaven - that there is a Jewish paradise, and then there is a wall, and behind it there is a Goya paradise, and even further...
It's strange that they didn't treat him as a madman.
It was a miracle for them! I also like the Singer brothers very much. Isaac Bashevis Singer, but also his older brother Israel Joshua Singer, who died in 1944 in New York. Among other things, he wrote a masterpiece entitled Yoshe Kalb. This is actually a romance that takes place at the tzadik's court. I have been reading Isaac Bashevis Singer for many years, I still return to him. And, because I grew up in Wola (a district in western Warsaw), we lived first on Krochmalna Street, and then on Waliców, so I was naturally interested in the things and people he described. The world, which, 40 years before my birth, stretched out in the place where I played caps with my friends on the ground. Recently, I have once again read Shosha and I think that this is a wonderful book, one of the best ones devoted to pre-war Warsaw. And that heroine! There are also other Yiddishists close to me, e.g. the poet Zusman Segałowicz or Alter Kacyzne. Their world was Jewish Warsaw, they reveal for me a city that does not exist and will not exist. It is very suggestive prose, poetic, but, at the same time, holding on to the detail, the courtyard, the wall, the cobbled street. A big discovery for me, as the Śródmieście (central Warsaw district) dweller, was also Bogdan Wojdowski’s Chleb rzucony umarłym (‘Bread For the Departed’). In my opinion - the best novel written in Polish language about the Warsaw Ghetto. The author was a boy from the ghetto and, after many years, he included his experience in prose, which cannot be easily forgotten.
His short forms from the volume Mały człowieczek, nieme ptaszę, klatka i świat (‘A Little Man, a Dumb Bird, a Cage and the World’), ending with a poignant story Ścieżka (‘The Path’), are also great. Further on, following this trail, I, of course, value Julian Stryjkowski and his Głosy w ciemności (‘Voices in the Darkness).
I was just about to ask about him, because this is my favourite of Jewish-Polish literature.
Very ambiguous prose, starting from his debut, and later also, for example, Azril's Dream or The Inn. The world of Hassidim, undefined, foggy, magical, a bit raw, so miserable as well, poor. This ignites the imagination. Why don’t people read Stryjkowski nowadays? Why isn’t he renewed, and completely unknown authors are printed, sometimes even ordinary loonies, whose books can be thrown under a radiator after reading one page? I have no idea. In some of my stories taking place in Warsaw, I tried to include flashes of the old world that once was here. I don't know to what extent it was a successful attempt, but because of the place where I grew up, it came naturally. Singer once said that the author should write about what they experienced and what they themselves lived through. Then, they are authentic, they have something to say, they don’t lie. I can't imagine myself writing a book that takes place, for example, in New York or another city I know nothing of. We have only talked about prose, though, and since we talk about literature, I will also mention poetry. For example, I like Adrian Sinkowski's poems very much. I read his two volumes, his debut Raptularz (‘Diary’) and Atropina (‘Atropine’) with great attention. In these poems, there is a city, but different, blurred, puzzling.
I read Krzysztof Kuczkowski's poems, they touch upon topics that are important to me, they are often the most deeply religious poems, for example those from the volume Kładka (‘Footbridge’). It is a poetry of thoughts rather than imagination. I also read poets who are already classic, e.g. Krzysztof Karasek or Marcin Świetlicki, and sometimes I reach even deeper - Herbert, Gajcy, Wierzyński, Staff.
And on whom did you learn to read poetry?
Poetry has always been for me a genre equivalent to prose. I consciously read poems starting from romantic poetry, through modernist, classical, and, of course, contemporary poetry. Back then, the important authors for me were Goethe, Mickiewicz, and Schiller, and later Rainer Maria Rilke.
I may not have read quite consciously yet, but on their poems, I learned humility towards the word. One had to think about it in some way, stop at a crossroads, think about choosing a way to go further. I do not know, but it is possible that this is what the mystery of literature is all about. I read Celan's poems and I still wonder what he writes about, of course, I make my own attempt at interpretation, but it's very possible that I'm wrong, that it's a dead end. That is why I keep reading him.
Interviewer: Marcin Kube
Translated by Justyna Lowe