Bedside table #7. Grzegorz Uzdański: My aunt once annoyed me terribly, because she said that Adam Mickiewicz and “Pan Tadeusz” cannot ever compare to “Onegin”
Grzegorz Uzdański, a prose writer, musician, teacher of philosophy and ethics, as well as the author of the website "New poems of famous poets", talks about his admiration of Ursula Le Guin and Virginia Woolf, a stereotypical perception of comic books, very good but misbegotten literature, books that everyone should read, and those about which he cannot say whether they are great or pulp.
What book do you have on your bedside table right now?
Roman Dmowski, Myśli nowoczesnego Polaka (‘Thoughts of a Modern Pole’).
All right, sorry for such a silly joke. Of course, I have a little pile, there are books that I wanted to read quickly, then I didn't read them at all, and, what's worse, I put even more books on them. It’s an Ikea foldable, very pendulous. It already collapsed once under the pressure of my current readings.
In my case, this is a job done by cats. Chasing one another, they smash my piles of books, thanks to which I find absolute novelties, immediately for reading, from a year ago and beyond.
I have just had Lincoln in the Bardo on my bedside table, but I already read it and took it off. I have Ursula K. Le Guin there and her The Eye of the Heron, which I read in my childhood. I adore Le Guin, and I think she is a brilliant writer, but it's not her best book, and she churned them out. However, I suspect that most people writing science fiction and fantasy would like to write such a not-so-great book. I have two comic books that I have read and they still lie on the table, but both are average. I really like the heroes of DC and Marvel. I picked them randomly, one comic with the League of Justice and one with Avengers.
Will you add them to your comic book collection, though? Do you have such a collection at all?
I have just bought three comics, Nina Szubur by Daniel Chmielewski, Weź się w garść (‘Buck Up!’) by Anna Krztoń, and another DC about The Flash. I don't have a collection - in my childhood I devoured two series - Kayko and Kokosh in the humour category and Thorgal in the adventure category. I guess no other Christmas gift ever made me happier than Czarna galera (‘The Black Galley’) from the Thorgal series. And then, I had a long break and, in general, it came to me relatively late that there are lots of artistic and very ambitious comics, because I saw comics in a rather stereotypical way. Since then, I've read a few amazing comics, but it’s still not many.
I also have on my bedside table a book by Maciej Płaza, Robinson w Bolechowie (‘Robinson in Bolechowo’).
It must have been there for a while. Its premiere was about a year ago.
Unbelievably long. I got two Robinsons as a Christmas gift, I was very interested in the reviews, because they stated that the language is unbelievable, and I have this fixation with language. I started reading, at first, I was delighted, then, I started to have various critical remarks. There was a moment when I decided that I didn't like it at all - but not like bad literature, but more like misbegotten, very good literature. If you make a pastiche of literature that is no longer really good today - and I have the impression that Robinson sometimes slips into it - then it has to be done in a funny way. Płaza is very capable linguistically, but, sometimes, a bit kitschy if you read it seriously - because the chosen idiom pushes him to do so. And this is a big problem, because, on the other hand, the choice of this idiom is a very conscious and interesting artistic decision, and also, in many parts, the book is very sensual and atmospheric, and excellent. I don't think I have everything well thought through with this book. I stopped reading, I try from time to time, but, somehow, I am not convinced. But now, I started again when he received the Angelus Award for it.
If you don't like a book, do you feel obliged to finish it?
No. I felt this way for a very long time, but I’m over it now. I think we are a species that has been taught that books need to be respected and read from beginning to end, because many friends of mine have the same problem.
I finish them. I'm afraid there will be something amazing at the end, and I won't read it and make a hasty judgement. Although I have never come across a book that would really work that way. So will you still give another chance for Płaza?
I will (I’m sure he just let out a sigh of relief, he had to be terribly afraid of my verdict). After all, this is very good literature, undoubtedly. Sometimes you just think that the author has gone in the wrong direction. I don't know what to call it. It's as if Tarantino made a tenth identical film - I don't like it, because it's too similar to the previous ones, but that doesn't mean that I think it's a bad film. What else do I have there on this bedside table... I have Paradise Lost by Milton in the original. What total pretension! But I don't read him, no way in hell. I took it, because I had the impression that it was a book that I should read, but I can't force myself to do so. Also because reading in English... I don't like the fact that I have to reach for a dictionary while reading, and, on the other hand, I can't stand it when there is something I don't understand.
And contemporary prose? Milton seems to be a rather ambitious challenge.
No, I generally don't read in English. I know this language well enough for me to be able to, but I would have to use a dictionary. I don't find myself reading in such a way that I don't understand one word, but I continue reading or just guess it from the context.
Have you tried an e-reader? They usually have a built-in dictionary and checking goes quite painlessly.
I don't have an e-reader, unfortunately. For example, I would love to read Lincoln in the Bardo in English, because, whilst Michał Kłobukowski's translation is superb, I did have some doubts. However, I am also lazy and I like an undisturbed reading process. In the same way, I don't read in Russian, although, basically, I could.
Let’s list the languages in which we do not read. I do not read in French and Czech.
Mandarin. No, there are only two. My aunt always encouraged me to read in Russian. I even read one book, Fatalne jaja (‘The Fatal Eggs’) by Bulgakov. No, wait… The Fatal Eggs… I read The Master and Margarita in Russian! And also Eugene Onegin. By the way, the only book I read in English was The Lord of the Rings.
How come you name such titles, and then you say that you can't read in the original? These are not easy books.
But I read The Lord of the Rings being a total fan of Tolkien, who knows Skibniewska's translation by heart, so it was very easy for me. But I'm really proud of Eugene Onegin, especially that it's so amazing. Although my aunt once annoyed me terribly, because she said that Adam Mickiewicz and Pan Tadeusz cannot ever compare to Onegin. My aunt is Russian, but she has lived in Poland for many years. I was very offended, a classic Polish-Russian clash.
And does it happen to you that you cannot look at this pile anymore, you throw it away, and build a new one?
No, I rarely do it. I have just recently moved, so there's a fairly new deck on the table perforce. I read from it, for example, a bizarre book about which I do not know what to think, Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sacred Night, which received the Prix Goncourt. On the back of the cover, it is written that he is one of the most outstanding French authors. I understand that he pays tribute to the tradition of Middle Eastern oral literature, but for me, it is so opaque that I find it hard to say whether it is pulp or a great thing. I could agree with both of them. I just don't get this context. Off the table. Together with Maszkaron by Patrycja Pustkowiak.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes, although I wouldn't say it's a great book. What I liked most was the fact that the heroine is so ugly, at least in her own opinion. We don't know what she looks like, we only know her own projections. This is an extremely important theme, this social pressure on the beauty of women, and it’s done superbly. However, I have the impression that the plot is just a pretext. Anyway, it is one of the known accusations against Polish contemporary literature: it is very often good linguistically, but the plot does not exist. The second thing, it sometimes seemed to me that she is too bright, this narrator, that it would be stronger and more impressive if she wasn't so witty. I don't like at all such...
Yes, I prefer when they are gentle, feminine, they don't vote, they don't learn... No, I’m joking, it was about heroes. I mean, for example, in comedy – of all sorts, books too - I find it funnier when the situation itself is amusing, or when a character's speech is amusing without intention, and a little less when a character throws witty comments. Plus, I have the impression that a bright character is very very hard to write without smothering many other important things in the book. But, of course, it can be done.
And what do you do with the books you take off the bedside table?
I set them aside on a bookcase, sometimes I lend them to someone, but only recently. I mainly lend them to my ex-girlfriend. When we were together, naturally, it was not necessary.
Do you have a system of supervision of returns?
No, but recently a therapist took a picture of me with a book I borrowed from him. He said that thanks to this, he knows what goes with whom. A bit frightening, but effective. I definitely don't throw away any books, I don't really give them away either.
Do you return to some copies? Do you have important fragments highlighted?
I totally return to some copies and I totally do not make any notes at all. I've never learned it, a bit like smoking cigarettes. I don't think that highlighting is evil or ‘take your hands off books!’, but it just worked out that way. I do have my beloved books, though, such as Le Guin and The Wizard of Earthsea. I feel that I should read some New Important Book, but I take Le Guin and say to myself, "Eh, I will just read this one scene that I like", and I end up reading almost the whole book. Most often, I return to books from my childhood.
Do you take notes? Do you have notebooks filled with quotations and reflections after reading?
No. I only took notes on philosophical books for my master's degree or doctorate. Philosophy is amazing, but my guts don’t lie: even when I read the most fascinating and suitable for me philosophical book, I still have to fight sleepiness. And when I read novels, on the contrary, I can stay up until the morning. I never take notes on novels and poems. If I like something, I read it many times and remember it, whether it's Virginia Woolf's diaries, poems, or any other thing. It enters my head purely mnemonically.
And then you remember visually which volume, which page, right bottom paragraph?
No, especially that they are often thick volumes. In Woolf, for example, there is one of my favourite fragments about a solar eclipse, it always takes a little bit of time before I find it. And there is an absolutely phenomenal fragment about male and female writers. Woolf was a friend of Mansfield, they exchanged very friendly letters, but there was some rivalry between them. As it is in patriarchal society: it is interesting that she has always felt that she is more in competition with Mansfield than with male writers. To sum up, Woolf writes that she is terribly sad that Katherine died because she did not live to see the publication To the Lighthouse, which would prove once and for all that she is better than her. Of course, I don't want to make a psychopath of Woolf, she writes then that she misses Mansfield, because she was her soul mate, such a love-hate relationship. But this is a rather strong quotation.
How do you look for new books?
Either I get recommendations from friends, either in person, or on Facebook, or I draw inspiration from the Internet - I read book reviews. The main source of getting my books, however, is Facebook, definitely. If, for example, Justyna Sobolewska recommends a book, I don't see it in the printed edition of Polityka, but on my Facebook wall.
And do you happen to go to a bookshop and rummage through the so-called bargain bin? Do you visit libraries?
It happens to me, of course. If I pass a bookshop, I feel like going in, and if I go in, something will usually draw my attention. This is how I bought this The Sacred Night. I also used to go to the library, more often in the past, it was easy for me, because I have a library in my block of flats. Thanks to it, I read Roth. I went there without a specific plan, oh, a well-known name, and I haven't read this person yet, I'll take it. But I haven’t done it for a long time, I lost my library card and, for the time being, it's just overwhelming to look for it or to get a new one.
Who do you talk to about books? A discussion club? Flame wars on Facebook?
I was very tempted for two years to write a post in which I would pour out all my disappointment with this unfortunate A Little Life, but I didn't do it, a little prompt though appeared only on the occasion of a post about Lincoln. I started to read it convinced that it was a masterpiece, because Kurkiewicz and Nogaś, whose opinions are important to me, used the expressions that it is great literature, that it changes people... I got totally sucked in, I read it on the tram, and in every free moment, until a certain moment, I felt that it was a great book. Then I started to have doubts, and, the closer to the end, the more I came to the conclusion that this is terrible toss, to finally settle on a moderate judgment that this is simply a good book with some drawbacks. There is almost no normal, little life at all (pun intended)! There is nothing like, ‘I am wondering if my socks look good, and generally I'm nervous because I have a job, and someone from my family wants my attention.’ The author writes only about how they peel off the skin of this poor guy. In addition, there is magical richness and all the wonderful things that will not cure him, because there is rape and killing. There is nothing else there, everything is extreme.
I had the impression that it was deliberately over-egged.
Maybe it's some kind of a fairy tale for adults. But really, take a look at it (attention, serious spoilers, if someone doesn't want them, then please go to the next question): one of the most tragic moments, Willem dies in an accident. At this terribly tragic moment, it turns out that he was killed by a drunk truck driver from a brewery. Or from a brewery company, anyway, comedy. I was even thrilled when I read in the descriptions that the deep wisdom of this book lies in the fact that even a great love is not able to cure certain traumas. Not true! It did, but he died in an accident! If Willem really couldn't help Jude, I would understand then, but he did help. And then a drunken driver of a brewery company crashed into him. I get convulsions when reviewers write that this is the biggest and most outstanding book they have read in life and generally it’s a masterpiece. In recent years, I have read numerous books better than Little Life. And I really was full of good will and wanted to read a masterpiece. It's easy to get me on board. "Oh God, I'm going to read a masterpiece, how great is that!”
So you are a person that publishers dream about, who believes in blurbs.
Well, even I don't believe in blurbs. Okay, so who else do I talk to about books? With my loved ones (ex-girlfriend, mother, aunt), female friends, male friends, sometimes I even get involved in discussions on Facebook.
But you don't belong to any particular discussion club?
No, it's very cool, but I wouldn't have any time to squeeze it in. Once, I was at a meeting about Virginia Woolf's The Waves, which was hosted by Sylwia Chutnik in Nowy Teatr. I am a member of a Facebook group Book's Not Dead. I don't write posts myself, maybe I've commented on something about three times, recently, when someone posted a link to an incredibly smug review of Tokarczuk's Opowiadania bizarne (‘Bizarre Stories’) by Paweł Kaczmarski from Mały Format (an online literary magazine). It is not a matter of content, because you can agree with him or not, but in what tone he writes about Tokarczuk! There is such a fragment, "Well, if there had been a bit more effort put in there, then maybe there would have been one good story for the lifestyle press.’ What is it supposed to be? He has the right not to be enthralled, and I am not entirely enthralled by Bizarre Stories, but come on, she is an outstanding writer after all, or at least a significant one. Writing in this tone... what a smug ass.
Time for the favourite question: the most important writer?
Dmowski, because he opened my eyes to many things. Ok, it was a joke. I don’t think I can choose one person, there are at least ten of them equally placed. But perhaps I can mention Woolf here - I have the impression that she opened my eyes unbelievably to how to write novels, how to write in a non-standard way as compared to the 19th century model of novels, an omniscient narrator, and so on, how to create a world of specific characters, adapt language to their sensitivity, how to do something intermediate between prose and poetry, how to do internal monologues. In fact, I owe it to her and to Faulkner. Joyce was also important, but they were more important. Besides, I love her books, they are wonderful. It is here that Yanagihara (let me return to my obsession) could learn something. Mrs Dalloway – the chick buys some flowers, recalls the past a bit, meets a guy she once fell in love with, but nothing happened. Okay, maybe later she commits suicide, because it is suggested by the last sentence of the English original, but it is only a suggestion, besides, a normal life (there is also the second plot of this mentally ill guy, where there are more drastic things, but anyway, there is shedloads of everyday life in this book). But there are billions of times more emotions and substance and heaviness than in all those paedophilic rapes committed on the hero of Little Life. Woolf is also very close to me because of a certain intimacy of writing, entering into the way someone sees the world.
And a book that shaped you?
Certainly, many of Astrid Lindgren's books shaped me, Rasmus and the Vagabond, The Brothers Lionheart, Seacrow Island, The White Rose Rescue, Ronja the Robber's Daughter. The world in Lindgren's books is quite realistic, there is death, in The Brothers Lionheart there is a proper tyrant who kills all over the place, in Rasmus and the Vagabond, there is a boy from an orphanage. But this world is essentially good, and I think it is good to be shaped by her books. This world is magical, in a sense, even if sometimes, for example in Rasmus and the Vagabond, there are no fairy tale elements. But there is Sweden, with all these fields, forests, and meadows, and food.
For Poles, Sweden is generally some kind of magical land in a way, if it’s not Lindgren, then there are meatballs in Ikea.
Yes, and for everyone. For leftists, because of ethos and equality, and for rightists, because of mythical Sweden, supposedly so good, but just so evil, terrorised by refugees or feminazis in turn. Another formative readings certainly include Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia. When I read it now, I see sexist elements, but, on the other hand, there is Lucy, there is Jill, who are, to a large extent, the main characters - and this is great. Of course, the only one of the Pevensie siblings who forgets about Narnia, because she prefers stockings and parties, is Susan, and, of course, battles are not for women, but I think that as for the spiritual formation by Lewis, it is not bad. After all, in the first volume it is Lucy who enters the wardrobe and meets Mr Tumnus. At least, girls don't read again about guys only. Then there is Tolkien, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story. A brilliant book, to which the cult film doesn’t even come close. By the way, Ende brought legal action against the filmmakers, he was so outraged that his book was so distorted. Well, it's understandable, the filmmakers made an adventure film in the eighties, they added Limahl and cut off the second part of the book. When Bastian rescues the Childlike Empress, the complicated action just begins. And, in the film, it's the end, a happy end, they fly on the dragon and throw the persecutors into rubbish bins. Ende was terribly outraged by this, he wanted to withdraw his name from the credits.
Do you buy books as gifts?
I do. I could now give someone Lincoln in the Bardo, because I’ve just finished it. I could buy Mrs Dalloway or The Sound and the Fury. These are two books that I would like everyone to read. Although not everyone likes Mrs Dalloway. My friend once said that it’s good, but let’s not exaggerate, and that John Fowles is ten times better. The statement that Fowles is better than Mrs Dalloway has driven me to apoplexy. Maybe I could buy Celan, but it is a terrible gift because of the omnipresent topic of the Holocaust. I guess you should give lighter things for gifts, shouldn’t you? But he completely changed my perception of poetry. I know that Herbert, Szymborska, Różewicz are grand, but after Celan, I am sensitised to poetry in which the author Utters Thought. Even if it is so ironically dressed, "after every war somebody has to clean up", I can't do it anymore. It is known that when we go into Celanism, we are threatened by the other extreme, everything becomes incomprehensible for a reader. His late poems are hardcore. Oh, and I would also give Kayko and Kokosh.
I really love Kayko and Kokosh from the time I read it in childhood.
It got older dramatically.
I experienced something like that, I saw The Olsen Gang after many years, and it turned out that it wasn't funny at all.
And a book that disappointed you years later?
Hopscotch. I was absolutely delighted with it in high school. I mean, it's not that much of a disappointment, because I still think that it's a great book and, at some moments, it's still a masterpiece, but unfortunately other fragments make me shudder with shame. These meetings of intellectuals...Ughh. I'm probably one of many people who read almost all of Dostoyevsky in high school, I was a fan, and what a fan! I took books off the shelf one by one and absorbed them. It was an amazing experience, but I suspect it could be a bit different now. I would like to check it out, but I haven't done it yet, because there are new things all the time. I read Steppenwolf too late, and I almost puked at this accumulation of pretensions and the ‘how cool I am, and these stupid townspeople are so stupid’. This got properly old, Kayko and Kokosh compared to it, come on! There is, at least, an unpretentious slapstick and a lot of cool linguistics.
Interviewer: Olga Wróbel
Translated by Justyna Lowe