Bedside table #70. Elżbieta Łapczyńska: you prepare for your debut all your reading life

Playwright and prose writer Elżbieta Łapczyńska, winner of this year's Conrad Award, talks about being madly drawn to Stanisław Czycz and literary eccentricities, her returns to the classics, fiction that enriches our understanding of fundamentally important experiences, what has impressed her most recently, and she also reveals what keeps her up at night.

I guess I know the answer, but - have you read Igor Jarek's Halny (“The Foehn”)?

What do you think?

I think you have. I'm curious to know what you think of this kind of writing about Nowa Huta (a district of Kraków - translator’s note). I realise that stylistically, it can be quite unfamiliar to you. And as a reader? Do you believe in this kind of Nowa Huta?

When Igor's book came out, I was finishing Bestiariusz (“The Nowa Huta Bestiary”) and embarking on editing it - it was a time of total immersion in a world that I had to somehow compose, devise, so I was even afraid to approach the shelf with The Foehn, lest my Huta collide with another one. Then I looked at the excerpts though - I was enthralled by the language. It's not unfamiliar to me stylistically at all, I love this flow, this roughness, this dirtiness; I just can't do it like that. I finally bought the book to read together with my sister, except that my sister took over it for months, and it hasn't been my turn yet, although I keep reminding her. So, I still don't know what this Nowa Huta from The Foehn is like. And since you ask if I believe in this kind of Nowa Huta, there is probably something phantasmagorical about it, which wouldn't surprise me at all.

I am also asking because I'm curious about how you prepared for writing - what did you read, what did you watch, how much material did you have to absorb to construct such a world?

I guess the thing with debuts is that you prepare for them throughout all your reading life. But, of course, I understand what you are asking about. First of all - as you can see - I have avoided Nowa Huta literature. I only read what was necessary, and if I did reach for something, I tried to look at it in a purely factual way: what people ate, where people worked and so on... This is what I learned, for example, from Renata Radlowska's Nowohucka telenowela (”The Nowa Huta Soap-Opera”). Then, of course, there is Ważyk, Kapuściński - but with the same assumption: I only looked, not delving into the text, into the atmosphere. I just tried not to imbibe their narrative. And when I was looking for something that wasn't simply the proletarian prose of life, I read Nie wierz nikomu (“Believe No One”) by Czycz, which differs from the others because it’s an 'insider book', somehow consistent with the experience of a very unique author. By the way, I must admit that I am somehow madly drawn to him.

Why so?

Let's say that he is depressive in content and manic in form. I think I have both tendencies, although - you know - not on the same scale as him.

And what about strictly historical sources?

A whole lot, including two gems: a sociological work on the inhabitants of Nowa Huta in the 1960s - that is, at a time when a still fragile, fresh phenomenon was being studied, and an engineering booklet from the construction site of the combine, a real marvel.

Can you tell me a bit more about them?

The sociological work talked about the change in lifestyle from rural to urban. It indicated that most people were not able to cope - for example - with extra free time or working within a certain time frame. It's actually funny, because the book's written in a slightly superior tone, as if someone was repeating irritably, "You are so unadapted!". And yet the very circumstance of transplanting a human being from one system (ecosystem?) into another has something violent about it - it even seems to presage a tragedy. The second book, written by Jan Anioła, i.e. the boss of all bosses, was published six months before the first blast furnace went into operation, which is considered to be the symbolic start of the combine. It proved to be a mine of interesting facts about technology and construction, albeit the truest communist propaganda.

But the greatest fun for me was reading all sorts of books about poisons, genetic diseases, sleep disorders, Kashubian customs, witches - I wrote a good part of The Bestiary in the library, so I explored the topics that I was really keen on. And in the meantime - and we're talking about five years or so - I simply read prose, some drama, and a bit of poetry.

Was it also in the library that you came up with the word 'bestiary'? Or has this - shall we say - postmodern genre been on your mind before?

No, the "bestiary" came to my attention not in the library, but in the vastness of the Internet, probably on some forum, although I do not remember which one... Anyway, I knew straight away that I had found the title. However, I'm attracted to the demonic nature of the word rather than its genre affinity; it actually bothers me a little, because it seems to me that it gravitates towards subduing or harnessing the characters presented.

But I don't think I've missed the point with this postmodernism - you do combine the most diverse types of literature.

That is true if you understand postmodernism in this way. I use this term somewhat blindly, and in relation to The Bestiary – rather uncertainly, but I don't mind. I enjoy the idea of combining, I have an inner imperative to expand my field of vision, to break down walls - and I guess that's what combining is for. This applies both to the genre and the world presented, what is possible in it.

I also thought it might be some reference to those 'dictionary' marvels in the style of Lem's Doskonała próżnia (“A Perfect Vacuum”) or Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas. Is this at all familiar or something you're fond of?

Very much so! As I mentioned, I like weirdness... Perec, the OuLiPo group, Calvino - their way of thinking stimulated me exceptionally. As a teenager, I would even defiantly exclaim: "Nothing but form!", although now I would say that every formal solution must be justified in one way or another - as the best possible means, and at the same time available to the imagination, to reveal some truth. And if it is to the detriment of this very purpose, then these figments of imagination should be cast aside. I feel silly to admit it, but I think I learned this from working in advertising, where you constantly have to ask yourself: "Why spend thousands of pounds on a production packed with fireworks - will it help convey a key message?”

Some interesting themes are being developed here... But let's talk about truth first - how do you understand it at all? Linguistically? Factually?

You caught me out, this is what happens when you cast truisms. I am usually wary of such serious words. Perhaps I mean "some truth" about the heroine or hero? Truth about her or his condition? About the conditioning?

What I mean, for instance, is an attempt to convey a certain life situation, for example guilt - with all the accompanying phenomena. This can be done in a million ways, including formal ones, but we are looking for the one that reflects – so to speak - some truthfulness of this experience, although it is difficult to apply here the categories of true and false. Rather those of the adequacy of description. And yet, I would not want to remain at the level of mimesis in my writing. Now you're probably going to ask, "All right, so what other level are you thinking of?", and I'm going to meander again. But I have a sort of naïve belief that imitating the world in literature, especially in prose, is not enough.

You see, I drew similar conclusions from reading The Bestiary. And I am asking about truth because I'm curious about precisely how fiction slips into your world. Everything in your work is based on historical realities, yet it's only a certain foundation, and even that may be too big a word. The aforementioned Lem, Bolaño, and perhaps Calvino in particular - in each of them, the realities of everyday life were only minor elements of a fictionalised reality. Do you believe - there's that word again - in some kind of power of fiction?

I'm glad you asked that because it's something that - literally - keeps me awake. I don't know if fiction holds power. Seriously, I simply don't know, I have a problem with it. On the one hand, I am thinking of the market situation, i.e. the dominance of non-fiction or novels that are firmly rooted in history, in the biographies of their creators, and, on the other hand - a certain moral responsibility. For am I allowed to invent, to create fiction, when a genuine tragedy is taking place on the border with Belarus? Should I not do everything to give a voice to these people? Can I fantasise, create fiction about them? I am constantly debating with myself, and I have a stubbornness within me to somehow justify fiction in spite of everything. Because after all - perhaps fiction will enrich our understanding of these fundamentally important experiences?

I willingly look for the source of this enrichment beyond realism, or even just beyond its border. Who knows, maybe I'll find a metaphor in an invented storyline that captures the issue better, deeper, differently than - for example - reportage. This echoes the same belief I mentioned earlier: that literature is not just about recreating the world. It is based on reality, which in my case is specific because it is historical, but it is possible to bounce off it like a trampoline. I just wonder if, when I defend fiction so strenuously, some inner trickster is speaking through me, who ultimately just wants to play with the reader... And if that’s the case, isn’t it a sufficient enough reason to write fiction?

I believe it is. I do not necessarily believe, as has been expressed here and there, that literature must serve a purpose.

I too am afraid of didacticism, of Literature with a capital "L", of Ideas with a capital "I". On the other hand, I myself have experienced having weighty issues brought to me precisely through literature, for example the scale of the cruelty of slavery in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. However, Richard Flanagan's Gould's Book of Fish might be a counterbalance to this book. It's a wonderfully twisted piece of fiction that turns a factual tale of the slave labour of prisoners sent to Tasmania into some kind of totally messed up, bittersweet mix, where tangible evidence of torture is intertwined with totally fantastic freaks of the imagination. Well, guess now which of these books appealed to me more. Funny, actually, because the same author wrote a rather crappy book that I think was actually supposed to have some kind of mission, a "purpose"...  I am talking about The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a novel about Australians tortured in Japanese prison camps. I'm sorry to say this, as it' a subject important to Flanagan because of his father, but maybe that's why it's such a anodyne book. I think that's the danger we're talking about - involvement makes us lose our distance, we want to shovel something into someone's head.

So, as a reader, do you reach for fiction? Or do you also go for reportage, fact, personal document?

I was once told by a friend with whom I was exchanging e-books that he thought it was a waste of time to read fiction. I thought, "Really? Then I think it’s a waste of time to read reportage.” I got over it after two years or so, but I still read mostly prose. Not only fiction, although fiction has a place of honour with me. I'm also getting more and more essays, poetry books, science books.

Let's start with reportage then - what have you read recently?

I'd have to reveal the subject of my next book, for which I'm reading different things, and I really don't want to. But a couple of books of reportage earlier, I read 27 śmierci Toby’ego Obeda (“The 27 deaths of Toby Obed”).

It's a shame, because I wanted to ask you about it. But maybe this is a good cue for us to skip to fiction after all. What have you been reading lately?

It may be funny, but I have just finished Lalka (“The Doll”). A while before that, I read another classic - Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (“The Hourglass Sanatorium”).

For any specific reason?

It was Michał Domagalski who got me into The Doll - we talked after the premiere of the Strona Czynna quarterly – and who tried to prove the superiority of Prus over Sienkiewicz. If he tells his students about it with the same fervour, there is hope for our education system. In turn, I was reminded of The Sanatorium by Jan Gondowicz. I watched his master class given at the Poznan of Poets. I had heard more than once that The Bestiary was a bit Schulzian, and I wanted to re-examine his world for myself.

And when you read Schulz for the first time - did he impress you?

Of course. And now, he did too. He even surprised me with his sense of humour.

Sense of humour? Gosh, I don't know, but maybe it's because of my cool attitude towards Schulz....

Perhaps, then, I was amused by something that shouldn't have been amusing at all? Even better.

I'm going to ask you about old Polish films then, it reminded me of The Sanatorium. Do you watch them? Do you like them? I've recently started catching up on my embarrassing backlog, I watched Munk's Eroica and Kawalerowicz's Pociąg (“Night Train”) – this is really great stuff.

As you can see, I'm happy to follow recommendations, so I'll catch up too, thanks.

I also thought that something might have leaked from this Polish film school - in terms of atmosphere - into The Bestiary, for all the films are both outdated and exceptionally up-to-date.

And somewhat poetic, not long-winded. It's possible that when I wrote about the 1950s, I unconsciously put on the glasses of that time.

And back to fiction...

From recent discoveries: My name is Adam - Children of the ghetto by Elias Khoury. An excellent example of my favourite novelistic mystification, where the author - who just happens to be the author - gets caught up in the plot. The theme itself, moreover, is about making up, fiction, the role of stories, all with Palestinian history in the lead role. And a book that has completely knocked me down recently is Anthony Joseph's The African Origins of UFOs. Frankly, OH MY GOD, as Janice from Friends says. I don't even know where I would start if I wanted to explain the phenomenon of this book. I read your interview with the translator by the way, thanks for that conversation.

Are you looking for such twisted language in Polish prose and poetry?

Yes, I would like to read such things, and write such things. Although the ecstatic, trance-like quality of the language comes to the fore here, and, at the same time, it's such an impossibly poignant text... ah. Do you have anything similar to recommend?

Have you read anything by Andrew Szpindler? It seems to me that no one else in Poland twists the language in this way - sometimes even to the point of complete incomprehensibility.

I haven't read it; I'm writing it down in my notebook.

Does this mean that Szpindler will end up on your bedside table? Do you even have one? Do you read before going to sleep?

I read before going to bed, but on the sofa - I'm somehow uncomfortable on the bed, although, during the day, I happen to read on it, write, work, lay out notes. And no, I don't have a bedside table, just a sort of bookstand. Random books end up there, without any sort of preconceived concept, I just use the space. I also have a kitchen table, on which the book I currently read usually lies, because I like to read while eating. At least it's in plain sight, I know where to look for it when I go out somewhere.

What is lying in the kitchen right now?

Pomarli (“The Dead”) by Bawołek. And za lasem (“beyond the woods”) by Michał Domagalski, I was reading to my husband as he fried pancakes, because it's very homely poetry.

How is The Dead going?

Very palatable. There's a lot going within the words here, I'm mincing them little by little. I didn't think I'd find such a beautiful erotic scene in this book, subtle, heavily carnal but reliant on detail and one unfortunate phrase like "stiff piece of meat". There's also a lot of Bawołek’s mellowness here, I feel some kind of bond with these characters. Oh, and there's a lot more Schulz here than in my book.

The erotic scenes in Bawołek are wonderful, I even swore to myself that I would write something about them one day.

I’d read that.

So, what do you have on that bookstand then?

For example, the books I referred to while working on the drama, when I was writing about Ewa Kuryluk and her mother, Maria - in fact, this is some kind of meta-story about their relationship, that is, the one we know from the books. I can now see the two parts of the triptych on the bookstand: Goldi and Feluni, because I had to return Frascati to the library. Next to it lies the book Matki i córki (“Mothers and Daughters”) by Aleksandra Grzemska, the editor of The Bestiary, because it was her research into the autobiographies of female artists that led me to this topic. Then there is Kępinski's Schizofrenia (“Schizophrenia”) - Maria Kuryluk suffered from this disease, and, in my drama, it becomes almost a central theme, because, to some extent, it manifests itself through speech: jabber, silence, single words.

So, you write about words?

Yes, about words, those written or spoken. Equally important in this story are the forbidden words... Anyway, this is a text about forms of expression. Ewa Kuryluk obviously uses literary language, but she also has art at her disposal - she is a painter and author of artistic installations. Nevertheless, it seems as if these measures were not enough for her either. This is what I was trying to write about, namely the hunger for information and the simultaneous overproduction of words. What weighs on Eve and her mother is a secret, something that has never been uttered - Maria was Jewish and a Holocaust survivor. A trauma so evident and yet so silent.

At the same time, I wanted to raise the issue of today’s daughters who inherit the traumas of their mothers - the daughters of refugees, for example - that is why I have several reportage books about Lesbos or Lampedusa on my e-reader, which is just next to me. I finished writing this text in August, when Usnarz Górny (a village in Poland – translator’s note) was added to the places where trauma is born.

It sounds a bit like you're reading mainly for work.

That's what it sounds like, but no, I also read completely random stuff. And often, the most important and interesting inspirations come from such readings. But I have to admit that I am very diligent when it comes to research. It wasn't always based on books, by the way - I prepared for my earlier drama about serial killers and punk rock by watching British crime mystery shows, or GG Allin's concerts.

Exactly, for some time now, people have just been putting a laptop on their bedside table. Are you a serial binger?

No, just a regular viewer, I mean I do watch, but I don't pull all-nighters or devour whole seasons in one weekend. And I'm always late when it comes to new stuff. Instead, we have this habit on Sunday mornings: coffee, cuddling cats, and an episode of Trailer Park Boys. It's our guilty pleasure.

And a reading guilty pleasure?

Oh dear, I’ll come across as a square. Let me look at my bookstand. I've got Bukowski's Pulp and Świetlicki's Trzynaście (“Thirteen”) here, there is Chandler somewhere in the files, so maybe the pulp of crime noir would be something like that. I'll even be working on a comic in this style, at the invitation of an illustrator friend. I don't read mainstream crime fiction. Although I have the utmost respect for the authors' plot-making abilities. Oh, sorry, I got my hands on a 'sort of' crime novel not too long ago - Douces déroutes (“Blissful Retreats”) by Haitian author Yanick Lahens - but I think it's hard to write about Haiti without mentioning crime.

Perhaps, in this case, every pleasure is guilty, because literature should give you a kick and make you think - and that's rarely enjoyable?

Oh, I don't know. For me, it's always enjoyable.

Interviewer: Maciej Libich

Translated by Justyna Lowe