photo: Krzysztof Rajczyk

Bedside table #83. Paweł Rzewuski: I am more interested in the author's thoughts than in the plot itself

Paweł Rzewuski, prose writer, philosopher and historian, talks, among other things, about the literary Borderlands, books that inspire him to work, the prose of Józef Mackiewicz, revisiting the classics, as well as novels that he intends not to read on principle.

Syn bagien ("Son of the Marsh") talks about the Second Polish Republic and mysterious murders in the Polesia region, now a part of Belarus. Are you also drawn to this area as a reader?

It is precisely from this literary fascination with the borderlands that it all began, from their ambiguity in Polish literature, which ranges between describing them as Arcadia and presenting them as a forgotten and threatening land. Piasecki, of course, with his inherently recorded smuggling and intelligence stories, but also Nadbezrezeńcy (“Berezina People”) and Mackiewicz with the heritage of the Grand Duchy have shaped my literary outlook. Another writer, discovered by Wańkowicz in prison, Urke Nachalnik, who described these lands to some extent, also contributed to it. Finally, my literary discovery, which later became the pretext for writing Son of the Marsh, namely Kostek-Biernacki and his Polesia stories, rich in their ambiguity and defiance.

This is where two questions come to my mind, or rather a question and a suggestion. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about Kostek-Biernacki, as he is a completely forgotten figure. And secondly, did Son of the Marsh require you to do more serious research, or did these readings - Czarnyszewicz, Mackiewicz, Piasecki - make it relatively easy for you to write?

Biernacki is a fantastic character, not obvious and, what is worse, pigeonholed. In people's minds, if any association with him arises, it is always Bereza Kartuska Prison and the Brest Fortress. And this is only part of the truth, because Biernacki was not only a military policeman, but also a writer - he wrote, for example, the lyrics to the Pieśń o Wodzu Miłym ("Song of the Dear Commander”) in honour of Piłsudski, published memoirs (Jak oni! and Ułan dyżurny), but, above all, he wrote two collections of Polesia stories, Straszny gość (“Terrible Guest") and Djabeł zwycięzca (“The Victorious Devil”). This earned him the label of satanist and depraver, which dovetailed with his dark legend. By contrast, these are extraordinary texts, written in flowing Polish, playing with convention, which transport the reader into the unknown world of the Polesia marshes.

Borderland writers obviously helped me, whether by describing the natural realities themselves or the prevailing relationships. I even honoured Piasecki in the pages of the novel, creating the character he could have become if his fate had turned out a little differently. But spiritually, I think it was more Mackiewicz who was looking over my shoulder with his conviction that reality is very complicated and not obvious.

Which Mackiewicz do you value most? Which of his novels do you return to?

To Sprawa Pułkownika Miasojedowa ("The Case of Colonel Miasojedov"), which is probably one of the best Polish post-war novels (I always waver between “The Case” and Hanna Malewska's Przemija postać świata [“The Form of this World is Passing Away”]). As for the rest of Mackiewicz's work, Droga donikąd (“Road to Nowhere”) and its sequel Nie trzeba głośno mówić (“No Need to Speak Out Loud”), and as far as moral-military realities are concerned, the bitter Lewa wolna (“Clear of the Left”).

How did you come across Mackiewicz? It's actually not that easy. I remember when I was studying, it was difficult to borrow his books and there were none in bookshops.

It seems to me that this must have been due to my high school tutor, who suggested many non-obvious reads of this kind to me. But I could be wrong, because this was a period in which I read a lot of different authors and I might have come across The Case of Colonel Miasojedov (because it was the one I started my adventure with) somehow differently.

Let's move away from the Borderlands - what attracts you today, now as a mature reader, most in literature?

I guess discovering, in what ways my thinking about the world might be different from that of others. And I am thinking here somewhat in a holistic sense, starting with how someone formulates a sentence, how they use language, how their feeling for the world is reflected in the letters cast on paper, all the way to what comes out of it (much more serious matters!) and what lies behind the author. I have to admit that what interests me more than the plot itself is the hidden thought of the author, their perception of the world, their sensitivity and twisted mind, and then - as if by implication – their interpretation. Hence my wide-ranging literary fascinations, from South America, which I came to know through Our Lady of the Assassins, through the United States and Kerouac and his The Subterraneans and Pic, to Europe, and finally the East and Yerofeyev's prose poem Moscow-Petushki. At the same time, I rarely dismiss a title, because even if there is nothing interesting in it, it usually has its own informative weight.

Does it mean that you are one of those readers who finish even poor books?

I used to finish even the worst reading. I think it's a matter of first reading in primary school (and that was Kownacka's Kajtkowe przygody [“The Adventures of Kaytek”], which I forced myself to read all summer). It got me into the habit of reading to the end. At the time, I didn't yet know that reading would be my main occupation. Now it's a bit different: if I reach for something that by definition I don't expect to be good, it's easier for me to get to the end (tis your own fault, George Dandin), but if something is written by a good writer and I have high hopes for it, but it turns out to be poor, then I abandon it without resistance. There are a few things from the canon that I don't intend to read on principle, but that's a whole other topic.

You've got me curious. From the Polish or foreign canon? And most importantly, who will you not read on principle and why?

Not much from the West, because from the syllabus, it’s only The Sorrows of Young Werther that I found indigestible. And I don't think I read it in the end (I can't quite remember). It is different with the Polish canon - here I have rejected and consistently reject Nad Niemnem (“On the Niemen”), for which I feel an intuitive aversion, just as I do for Granica (“The Frontier”) and Cudzoziemka (“The Stranger”). I long ago decided that I would not read these novels, and I am holding on to that. There's also a bit of contemporary stuff that I somehow haven't come to read, even for no particular reason. I have never read anything long by Dorota Masłowska, for instance.

In the case of Werther and Masłowska, however, this is a mistake. And are there any writers whose new books you always look forward to?

The Sorrows of Young Werther is even supposedly funny, but I'm letting myself put it off for another time. I used to look forward to Houellebecq. Now, I think there are too many interesting books to wait for this one author. Unless it’s scholarly treatises - in which case I eagerly await the second volume of Robert Frost's The Oxford History of the Poland-Lithuania

And were there any writers who taught you how to look at the world? If so, whot, when, and why?

Yes, especially those I came to know in my youth. Starting non-chronologically, but in order of importance, they are Hanna Malewska, for her extremely perceptive view of the world, then Witkacy with his twisted yet reaching to the very core of existence approach to what literature is and what it is for, and Mackiewicz, for the most beautiful demonstration of the ambiguity of attitudes, choices, and cases. Of the foreign ones, Lebedev and Roth have always made a huge impression on me. Somewhere in my heart, there is also a special place for Binet and The Seventh Function of Language. Nor could I forget the author whose books I devoured in my teens at the rate of one a day, i.e. Agatha Christie and her calm observation that evil lives under the sun and it is better to always remember this.

I can't help but ask: which Roth?

Philip, not Joseph, although I value him too, but rather as a representative of a certain current of reckoning with the belle époque, although here I value Broch and his The Sleepwalkers the most, even more than The Man Without Qualities. Philip, on the other hand, has that something characteristic of New World Anglo-Saxon literature, detachment while engaging. Something that is appealing even when it turns out to be ultimately very stupid - see Ayn Rand and her pseudo-Nietzschean-Weberian Atlas Shrugged.

You've given me an empty goal here - the worst/most stupid book you've read in recent years? Apart from Rand, of course.

Ah, I won’t fall for that so easily, there are no books that are stupid or the worst, just ones that are not for me. But in all seriousness, it's a complicated matter, for there is something to be learned from every novel as long as it's not harmful, even if it merely connotes that there really are people who think in a given way. However, if I really had to pick, I think it would be Atlas Shrugged because of its ultimately terribly naïve view of the world, disguised as a caricature of Nietzsche's thought, and a particularly weak one at that. I prefer to talk about disappointments, books we put our hopes in but turn out to be mediocre. Such an unpleasant disappointment for me was Umberto Eco's Numero Zero.

And do you happen to return to readings that once delighted you?

I regularly return to parts of books, sometimes because of new translations, and sometimes to see if I read them differently years later. And so, for example, I read Witkacy once in a while, I regularly return to Malewska's The Form of this World is Passing Away, to Dostoevsky, and Conrad.

Which return surprised you the most?

In the case of Nienasycenie (“Insatiability”), at the age of fourteen I thought I understood the novel, ten years later I knew I didn't, and after another seven, I knew I didn't want to understand everything in it, and I was fine with that. Of the others, the most interesting are the revisits of compulsory school readings, books that fell into educational modes as if by accident, and can only be understood years later - here we have, first of all, Lalka (“The Doll"), which I first read as a realistic novel and which also has completely different dimensions, or Chłopi (“The Peasants”), which I found extremely boring at school and which, years later, became one of the more inspiring reads for me, and Reymont became a writer who touches on the most weighty issues, just like Conrad.

Just to finish: what are you planning next? Reading and literary-wise.

Reading-wise, I'm drawn to the New World. Roth and Franzen: the first one, I'd like to read everything I can - I recently remembered that one of my first serious books was The Prague Orgy, which rekindled a sentiment in me. Literary-wise, I have a few ideas; the Borderlands is still an inexhaustible subject. There are two particular topics on my mind, but they require a serious amount of work.

Translated by Justyna Lowe