photo: Maria Bernat

Bedside table #86. Zofia Stanecka: The first time I skipped school, I went to the library

Surrounded by a collection of her favourite books, writer Zofia Stanecka talks about the books she grew up with and revisits to this day, forgiving authors, and the ways to win against a dragon.

We are at your parents' house...

Actually, my grandfather's house, Tadeusz, to whom I dedicated Świat według dziadka (“The World According to Grandpa”). Where I am sitting now, there used to be an armchair that Marianna Sztyma drew on the cover. Currently, there is my dad's sofa on which Drań (the title character of the book Drań czyli moje życie z jamnikiem [“Bounder - My Life with Dachshund”] - editor's note) used to sit. In short, we are talking in a space that is not only real, but also literary.

You come from a family who read.

Yes, we read a lot. My dad was a Polish teacher, he loved his profession very much. Mum worked in the school library - not surprisingly, books were an important part of her life. Consequently, books were read to me every night from early childhood.

A very nice tradition.

My mother and I read together until I was eighteen. The last book we read together was Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Unfortunately, at some point my mum figured out that while she was going to bed, I was grabbing the book and reading ahead. When I revealed that I knew the plot, my mother got cross, said, "That's enough!", took The Name of the Rose away from me, and hid it as punishment! And she only gave it back when she had finished it herself.

Do you remember when you learned to read?

I was about five years old when I started reading independently. I grew up partly in a library and partly among bookshelves full of books stacked from floor to ceiling. So, I always had bookshelves at eye level. The first thing I tried to spell out were the titles of the books. My potty was standing by the spine of a book that I thought was entitled PROEMMAAS LECTURE. It's the first thing I ever read. I wondered for a very long time what this 'proemmaas' was, and instead, it was the novel Prof. Mmaa’s Lecture by Prof. Mmaa Stefan Themerson, only I read that 'F' with a full stop as an 'E'. I misread my first words in life (laughs).

"F" is a treacherous letter, no wonder it confused you! Anyway, you usually get to know it towards the end, when the 'more ordinary' ones are somehow familiarised. And when you were reading independently as a child, what did you read?

A large part of my reading was books about animals. I loved O czterech warszawskich pstroczkach (“Four Warsaw Sparrows”) by Irena Jurgielewicz, over time my special friend in real, not just literary life. Most beloved, however, was The Wind in the Willows. I have the first Polish edition because it is a book that was translated by my grandmother's cousin, and my grandmother, Zofia Baumowa, translated the poems that appear in the novel. Reading them, I had a sense of connection with the grandmother I had never met. It is a story that has done a lot in my life, I still read it over and over again to this day, and I have a large number of copies - both in Polish and in English, although only with illustrations by E.H. Shepard. I also owe to this book my other passion in life, which is theatre.

How come?

Many years ago, I went to London and as I was walking across Waterloo Bridge to the other side of the Thames, I saw a grey building - I didn't know at the time that it was the National Theatre building - with a The Wind in the Willows placard on it. In his biography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis described a feeling of joyful daze that cannot be consciously induced. The kind that sometimes just appears and makes you feel as if a glimpse of Paradise has descended upon you here and now. And I, on that bridge, having seen that sign, just felt exactly this kind of happiness - it was the first time in my life that it was so evident to me. I went inside, and it turned out that in a few minutes or so the performance would start. It was such an extraordinary experience that it sparked my love of theatre. Anyway, I owe many other enlightenments to Kenneth Grahame's novels - a love of nature, paying attention to small animals, a liking for very specific riverside landscapes...

And, as I understand it, for safe driving...

Yes, yes (laughs), but on the other hand, I definitely know the euphoria behind the wheel that Mr Toad experienced!  Sometimes, when I'm driving across Poland to an author meeting, I feel like, just like him, shouting "Poop poop!" and dashing off. Another fascination of mine from this period is Leśmian - Klechdy sezamowe (“Sesame Tales”) and Przygody Sindbada żeglarza (“The Adventures of Sindbad the Seafarer”) are responsible for my love of the Polish language. As a child, I was able to read descriptions of the forest that Alibaba walked through over and over again. Nothing special happens there, apart from the fact that “parrots are parroting” and “'the forest is foresting”, but there is such beauty and richness in the language that it evokes my constant admiration.

I can see illustrations from The Moomins among your things. What memories do you have of Tove Jansson?

When I was quite young, we didn't read The Moomins at home. My mother was more oriented towards British literature. I discovered The Moomins in the school library - I was a rather well-behaved schoolgirl, but one day, I skipped class because I happened to come across Moominsummer Madness, started reading and forgot that the bell had rung.

So, the first time you skipped school, you went to the school library?

Exactly so (laughs). The Moomins have accompanied me for many years, and I like them for their entirety - for their wisdom, for their sadness, for their truth about life, and, of course, for their illustrations too. I don't like to use the word ‘product’ in relation to books, but this is such a complete product - a whole world, full and deep. An extraordinary universe.

Definitely extraordinary. I read Moominvalley in November every autumn.

I very much like Moominpappa at Sea. And not because of Moominpappa, but because of Moominmamma, who follows him, but at a certain point has had enough. She goes to sleep in the bushes with her handbag under her head.

There were a couple of those emancipatory Moominmamma moments. In retrospect, I think they were valuable for female readers.

I also like this book for the fact that it is both feral and tender at the same time. It's a great art to write something that is both feral and tender all at once.

When it comes to literary universes, you were also close to Narnia.

I once got The Voyage of the Dawn Treader for Christmas and didn't unwrap any other presents or eat anything until I had finished reading. Those were the days when the Pax publishing house released one volume at a time, so I waited with anticipation for the following parts. This realm has strongly embedded itself in me, I even wrote my master's thesis on the characters of Narnia. Thanks to Narnia, I also took a trip to Oxford. I was at Lewis's house at the time when renovations were to be done there and the Lewis Society, who oversaw the work, allowed me to see the house from top to bottom and to touch Lewis memorabilia just like that.

A wonderful opportunity.

And a magical experience. I also have, by the way, this memory: I once came home from school a bit early, turned on the TV and there happened to be a TV programme about Tolkien. As a faithful reader and admirer of The Lord of the Rings, I started watching it. When my mother returned from work some time later, she found me all in tears. "Muuum," I sobbed. Mum - frightened that something had happened - tried to get it out of me what was going on. "They were friends!” I exclaimed, as it was only during the programme that I realised that Lewis and Tolkien, two writers I adored, were friends. So, during my time in Oxford, I followed in the footsteps of both.

I understand that this was a particularly momentous discovery.

Definitely! This friendship of theirs was important to me because not only did Narnia and Middle-earth have a special place in my heart, but also Lewis as a person. He is still important to me, although years later I have started to argue with him on many topics.

Well, yes, Lewis as an author made no secret of his worldview.

I have been aware of Narnia's worldview for some time. I enjoyed the story itself, but I was also curious about the meta layer: what the author wrote about this characterisation. I'm happy to dispute that too. I think Lewis was a remarkable, human being. What fascinates me about him to this day is his gift for befriending different people. Years later, of his works, I return most readily to his letters, including in particular a short volume of letters to children. Lewis wrote back to his young readers with incredible attentiveness! Despite his clearly crystallised views, he was a very open person. He understood that different paths could be taken, he was never condemnatory. This is where he and Tolkien diverged, because Tolkien was much more doctrinaire, whereas in Lewis, you see this openness. It's a beautiful quality, and to this day I admire him greatly for it.

Lewis also wrote essays on literature.

His essays on literature for children, despite the passage of years, are still very interesting. Today, we know a lot about child psychology, and Lewis came to his conclusions simply by not forgetting what it was like to be a child. He wrote, for example, that adults tend to treat children as beings of a different species - meanwhile, they are the same people who differ from us only in that they have fewer experiences. They have, at the same time, a great openness to the world and, as a result, fewer prejudices.

These are very novel findings for the state of pedagogical science at the time.

It takes a great deal of wisdom to reach them on your own without the knowledge we have now. Not only did Lewis remember what it was like to be a child, but he also had a great attentiveness towards other people, not just children. His book A Grief Observed, a record of his feelings after the loss of his beloved wife, is unique. It is a title that accompanies me with all family losses and deaths.

Do you have any antipathies among books for non-adults? Titles you didn't like as a child, or indeed read as a child, but returned to them in adulthood and experienced disappointment?

It was customary at home for me to get to know the books on my required reading list long before they became compulsory reads for me, and, as a result, I didn't get a chance to dislike them for being compulsory (laughs). I certainly didn't like the overtly didactic books, for example Pollyanna, which is admittedly tongue in cheek, but its forced optimism didn't necessarily delight me.

And what kind of relationship did you have with Anne Shirley?

As a child I was very fond of Anne. I recently bought the new translations - I really like them. I am not outraged by the 'green gables' (the old Polish translation of the book read “Annie of Green Hill”, and the new translation proved somewhat controversial for some – translator’s note). The translator's attention to detail specific to the architecture of Canada at the time is very interesting to me. I also like the revised plant names. Since the setting is Canada, not Poland, I want to read about Canadian, not Polish flowers. If I'm not sure what they look like, I can always check it out and learn something along the way. When I read Anne now, especially the later volumes, I notice passages that didn't strike me as much when reading as a child, such as the unequal treatment of Tadzio and Tola - now Davy and Dora.

Yes, an innocent little girl was treated horribly!

Her politeness is interpreted as boring. No one pays attention to the fact that these are children traumatised by the loss of their mother and one of them reacts by being naughty - and thus is considered interesting by those around them - and the other by shutting themself away, being forcefully polite.

Between themselves, Anne and Marilla say outright that they like Davy better and that Dora bores them.

I noticed this as a child, but only in my adulthood do I have the tools to name what doesn't work for me here. As for literary discoveries, I am in the middle of reading George Saunders' A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, these are his lectures on the short stories of Russian writers, excellently translated by Krzysztof Umiński. I found this book enlightening - for someone who writes, it's a goldmine of knowledge, but also a source of fellow writer's empathy. Saunders describes how a class participant, while discussing a short story by Gogol, said she didn't like The Overcoat because it was a sexist text: when Gogol's heroine is offended, her offence is treated with laughter, with irony. And when a male protagonist is resentful, he is taken seriously and given a whole range of internal reflections. And indeed, Saunders admits, it is sexist - The Overcoat is a brilliant work with a crack in it. And that is how I treat these debatable issues in Anne. Lucy Maud Montgomery described the world as she perceived it, with the tools available to her. Her books therefore have cracks, and it is what it is. We are all human beings, non-ideal beings.

I, for one, have recently become so engrossed in reading The Green Gables that I found myself reading the series to the end, in the old translations. Although I was rather bored by Anne's university and early marriage adventures, I was surprised to discover a gem - Rilla of Ingleside, set during the First World War.

I, even as a child, was irritated by the all too often repeated pattern in this series, in which people once quarrelled and then reconciled. The same is true of the motif of first love, which only comes to fruition years later. This is a pattern that Montgomery broke with in Emily of New Moon, where she showed that fulfilment in a romantic relationship is not necessarily the most important thing in life. This is repeated in Anne, but I take no heed to it, especially as the author has given her readers much more, such as a whole range of unique expressions, phrases through which 'soulmates' still recognise each other today.

Yes, it is true that these novels provide a kind of lexicon of the stirrings inherent in sensitive, adolescent individuals. The author has given many of them the tools to express what one feels during this period of storm and pressure. It's hard to hold it against her that she didn't write the way it's done in 2020.

Definitely. I understand that for many people, the world of Anne Shirley is now obsolete. But if one indulges in it, I'm sure they can still find something personal and dear to them today.

And if I asked you about today's readings?

I like short stories. For some time now, my great love has been Elizabeth Strout. I admire her for her creation through very simple language. Her books, also read in English, are written very accessibly, yet this simplicity does not deprive the text of its multi-layeredness. It is a great art to write something in simple, uncomplicated sentences, in such a credible and complete way. I also like the way Strout composes her worlds from mini-stories, and in the end, it turns out that they form a whole, larger story. I'm captivated by this kind of narrative. Everything in Strout's work actually happens in one place, but this is what gives the world she describes depth. This is what her way of creating this world is all about - adding further points of view to the picture. Characters return in subsequent books, becoming side characters and suddenly, seen from a different perspective, they seem like someone else.

George Saunders?

Yes, Saunders is my next illumination. Not only the essays, I also like Lincoln in the Bardo very much...

Tenth of December? An excellent volume.

Still ahead of me, waiting in line. Meanwhile, from new discoveries - Marlon James and his Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first part of the trilogy. Subsequent volumes are meant to describe the same events from the perspective of different characters, and I find it exciting to immerse myself in their world. One of my childhood delights was tales from around the world. I've also read African tales, but it was just a slice of that culture, a small selection, on top of that made by someone from Europe, so it wasn't a voice from there. Meanwhile, James draws entire themes from African mythology and history hitherto unknown to me. I also greatly appreciate Kazuo Ishiguro, who always surprises me. What impresses me is that when I reach for his book, I don't know what to expect. Apart from excellent literature, of course. And from yet another side of the world, I like to occasionally torment myself with reading gloomy Scandinavian novels.

It is clear that you are drawn to literature born in other cultures.

I am particularly interested in stories set at the crossroads of cultures. When I was younger, I was very fond of books about Europeans travelling to India and how India changed them, such as Edward Morgan Forster's A Passage to India, but not because I was fascinated by colonial culture. It was about a journey that changes the protagonist, and in a way they didn't expect. A couple of books I hold in high esteem are Mircea Eliade's Bengal Nights, and It Does Not Die by Maitreya Devi, written in response - both authors meet in literature, and each tells the same story from their perspective.

Are you up to date with Polish literature for young readers?

Of course, I read children's books by Polish authors. Much of it is excellent, both in terms of text and illustration. In recent years, a number of interesting voices have emerged, both those that react strongly to what is happening at the moment and those that are more timeless, being somewhere beside current events, but instead touching on the emotional sphere that has always been with us. This second approach is particularly close to my heart. Just like a hundred years ago, we still feel joy, sadness, disappointment, jealousy, suffering. I enjoyed finding emotional truth in the books I read as a child, and I still enjoy it today.

Books that prepare readers for difficult emotions and for important moments in life are an invaluable aid.

It is possible to lose oneself in literature, but not in order not to live one's life, but to experience great emotions, which, by the way, can prepare us for similar feelings in real life. I will use Lewis again here, who wrote in one of his essays that when a boy lies in an empty house and hears noises, he had better not think it is a thief, but a dragon. The thief is a threat from the adult world, the child does not have the tools to deal with it. On the other hand, if it's a dragon, it's clear that you can win against it - either by cunning or by sword.

Interviewer: Patrycja Pokora

Translated by Justyna Lowe