Włodzimierz Kowalewski, prose writer, literary critic and teacher, talks about novels he is currently working on, about Zbigniew Herbert as a generational idol and authority, his fascination with Żeromski and Julian Wołoszynowski, the disappearing ethos of the writer-sage, the impression À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans made on him in his youth, the literature that avoids important subjects and about what is missing in Polish literature after 1989.
What is on your bedside table?
Włodzimierz Kowalewski: I don't have a night table. Books are lying on a desk, on an armchair next door, sometimes on the floor. I also don't have fixed working hours, and the intensity of my writing and reading is influenced by very different factors. I have to fight for focus and concentration with myself and the adversities of fate. When I finally enter the "writing mode", I have to think only in terms of a book, and now I have a problem with it. It's a serious one, I'm not hiding this fact. But I'm working on two novels and I'm immersing myself in source materials. The first one tells the story of an affair between a Polish journalist and a German actress. It begins in Toruń just before the outbreak of World War II and ends in 1974 in Cyprus, during the Turkish invasion. The main character of the second one will be a forgotten figure, Marta Rydzowa (Thomas-Zaleska), wife of Marshal Śmigły-Rydz. In the 1930s she was a controversial figure of Warsaw salons. Some secretly mocked her origins (she was "only" a daughter of a pharmacist) and alleged mediocrity and blandness, while others, on the contrary, gossiped about her explosive temper and inclinations to provoke or manipulate people, fascination with esotericism and chiromancy. She was also accused of megalomania and disastrous influence on her husband. She survived the war in Monte Carlo and was cruelly murdered in 1951. The French police never detected the perpetrator or even determined the motives. Probably because they were deeply rooted in the "Polish hell" of post-war emigration circles, which no Western mind could understand. For me, however, this is not the most important thing. I would like to show this strange woman as the voice of conscience, which the unfortunate Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły did not listen to. Not for entertainment or sensation, but for a little bit of truth about us, Poles, here and now.
Do you only read sources?
Actually no. I immersed myself in traditional paper publications. For a very long time I was under the spell of the Internet. I had the impression that everything can be found online. I was convinced that the knowledge, which a few years ago, when I was writing Excentrycy (Eccentrics), was hidden in libraries, is now available at the click of a button. But this admiration has passed. Especially since I notice more and more often how many contemporary Polish novels are based on Internet knowledge. Even in widely read, celebrated and awarded titles - such as the sensations and detective stories of the interwar period - one can find knowledge from Wikipedia. And these are the whole threads, characters' personalities, their motivations. There is no consent to this, the Internet cannot be a template for literature. I go back to books, because they contain more details, credibility and confirmed knowledge. It only takes more work to get to them. I recently read Diariusz wrzesień - grudzień 1939 (Diary September – December 1939) by Jan Szembek, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Second Republic of Poland, deputy to Józef Beck, for the second time. An invaluable source of knowledge about the events that took place then. I draw tragic conclusions from this reading, often very suitable for the present day. Many researchers speak of political megalomania as the cause of the September defeat. The fact that we tried to be an international player, which we weren't in reality. We played the role of a superpower while we were economic and military weaklings. And in international circles it was our pompousness that aroused a sense of ridicule. We were quietly mocked, the disregard was painted with diplomatic courtesy, which we naively took for the expression of respect and esteem. This was confirmed in conversations with Szembek by the bitterness of the failure of professional diplomats: Ciechanowski, Muhlstein, former minister August Zaleski and others.
I also read biographies. It's my favourite genre of literature, because fiction puts me off. I will not be original here, I am fascinated by Zbigniew Herbert's biography by Andrzej Franaszek, as well as the biography of Czesław Miłosz by the same author. I'm full of admiration for effort, knowledge and craft. And jealousy. I can say the same about the biography of Gombrowicz by Klementyna Suchanow. While reading both books I came to the conclusion that I do not really know the writers whom I thought I knew very well. Especially Herbert.
Did you read him in your youth?
He was one of the idols and authorities of our generation. He still is. He's sacred for us! I discovered him at the end of high school. In 1974, as a secondary school student, I bought a volume of Mr. Cogito, which I still have today. I got it with difficulty, because it was goods from under the counter. At that time Herbert was a poet who was read and commented on very widely. In dormitories, at night, with vodka and cigarettes we were arguing about his poems. But as a man we knew nothing about him. Only that he stays somewhere abroad and sometimes comes to Warsaw, that's all. We were convinced that he is a crystalline figure, someone like his poetic Mr. Cogito. And Franaszek's book shows that he was a complicated and very strange personality. A man-phenomenon, an astute philosopher and ethicist, an incredibly talented poet, but also a loser addicted to alcohol, a knight-errant and a Don Juan constantly entangled in affairs. This is an extraordinary experience for me, because earlier I had not been able to imagine Herbert in typically human roles at all.
Why did you stop reading fiction?
I don't really like fiction because I know too well how it's done. Over the years I've acquired such a proficiency in constructing stories that I'm not really able to care about them anymore.
Anyway, what interests me the most in Anyway, what interests me the most in pieces of fiction is the sphere of reflection on human, and contemporary Polish novels are less and less interested in such considerations. The ethos of a writer-sage, who sets the moral standard, is disappearing. A writer who, even showing the evil of this world, aims for goodness. Polish prose is moving into the ludic, commercial, show-business zone. This ethos was replaced by the figure of a writer providing entertainment. More and more books are being written with ambitions only to be read, allow the reader to break away from reality for a moment, and then to be forgotten.
Don't you root for any young Polish writer?
I don't see anybody worth rooting for. Of course, very well-written books are published in Poland. Jakub Żulczyk's novels are written very skillfully. Or some books by Szczepan Twardoch – Morfina (Morphine) or Król (King). However, I do not see in them the sign of an author's greatness – a universal reflection on human in the world, on today's historical moment, on the condition of a Pole, on our Polish way of thinking and evaluating reality.
Don't you thinl that Żulczyk in Ślepnąc od świateł (Blinded by the Lights) or Wzgórze psów (Hill of the Dogs) does try to say something about the evil in modern Poland?
He certainly shows contemporary Poland. And you are right, he is talking about evil. But I did not see there a reflection that would lead to goodness. Some kind of purpose for which Żulczyk shows what he shows.
You should also note that Polish literature after 1989 could not bear the burden of the new times. Is there really any good novel that illustrates the years of transformation? The beginning of the 1990s, when all these changes attacked Poles out of the blue, is a period that literature didn't take interest in.
I myself wrestled with this historical moment in the micro novel Rude włosy nocą (Red Hair at Night), but I didn't fare well. And I miss someone who could do it well. Maybe Andrzej Stasiuk's Biały kruk (White Raven). But this, in turn, is a book that requires the use of interpretative keys to be understood. I have the impression that the average reader did not understand its symbolism.
The enitrety of Polish literature took a step sideways. The stars of those times, such as Manuela Gretkowska, Natasza Goerke and Olga Tokarczuk created excellent literature, but they did not deal directly with the most important topics of contemporary times.
Do you rate Gretkowska?
I rate her and I like her. Especially her early novels. She was a Polish Francoise Sagan in them. A knack for words, finesse and lightness, as well as moral audacity. It was unfair that her first books were forgotten.
Unfortunately, there were no novels after 1989 like those after 1918. Generał Barcz (General Barcz) by Kaden-Bandrowski, Pokolenie Marka Świdy (Marek Świda's Generation) by Strug or The Spring to Come by Żeromski – these were books that faced the reality of those times. Contemporary literature panicked and withdrew behind the threshold.... anyway, as I mentioned, I was not able to write anything like that either, and maybe that is why I long for The Spring to Come of the 1990s.
Who is your literary model?
I have a few of them. I have always said that Żeromski is a very important author for me. I have read everything he wrote very carefully. And I've never read him the way they taught us at school – it was stupid. I considered Żeromski from the moral point of view, but also from the poetic and pictorial point of view. I like how Żeromski uses colours and smells.
I remember the impression the short story Ravens and Crows Will Peck Us to Pieces made on me, when I read it for the first time.
A phenomenal story. It is a very powerful blow to someone who wants to understand the meaning of Polish fate, the engines of our history. And something like that is missing today. Żeromski - in a short text - showed the divisions, mentality of Poles, juxtaposed the nobility of ideals with primitivism, incredible greed and perhaps animal desire for survival. This is a masterpiece. Actually, all of Żeromski's work is condensed in Ravens and Crows Will Peck Us to Piece, you hit the bull's eye.
I also appreciate Żeromski for the fact that he understands the history of Poland very well. Today, the documented events practically ceased to matter. History is no longer perceived as a science practiced at universities, striving for objective truth. Today, people value a story created for political purposes. My friend, Stanisław Piechocki, who was a writer discovering Olsztyn's past, described how in 1945 special units responsible for creating history followed the Soviet army. Shooting films allegedly from the battlefield, creating heroes or tactical moves of the command. The important thing was what was written down, not what really happened. Today it may not be so vulgar, but the most important thing is still the story. Not facts.
Who else except Żeromski?
Julian Wołoszynowski, a writer that is almost completely forgotten, author of, among others, Opowiadania podolskie (Stories from Podolia), precursor of the Kresy motif in post-war Polish literature. He was an author who used a very poetic, suggestive language. Nostalgic. He created complex characters powered by passion.
Tadeusz Konwicki - because of his very visual language. He was born in the same town as my mother, in Nowa Wilejka near Vilnius.
I value writers from Olsztyn. Tomasz Białkowski for his novels Zmarzlina (Permafrost) and Rausz (Intoxication) unjustly unnoticed, perfectly illustrating the mechanism of the birth of evil in a human being. And Mariusz Sieniewicz, who wrote Czwarte niebo (Fourth Heaven) a great novel about the so-called "bad" Olsztyn district, Zatorze. Also the extraordinary poets from Olsztyn: Erwin Kruk, Alicja Bykowska-SalczyńskaErwina Kruka, Alicji Bykowskiej-Salczyńskiej, Kazimierza Brakonieckiego, Piotra Piaszczyńskiegoj, Kazimierz Brakoniecki, Piotr Piaszczyński.The latter for his ascetic laconic nature in expressing the drama of the contemporary world. It is a pity that the poetry in our contemporary literature has descended into such a deep niche, it is a pity that this literature more and more clearly separates with the wall the Warsaw-Kraków salon from the rest, i.e. the province.
Paweł Huelle is also a model for me. In his prose, the atmosphere of Gdańsk and Gdańsk's character comes to the fore. It is hard for me to describe it, becausethe world in which Paweł's prose takes place seems to be an easily definable world: Gdańsk, the past, cultural transgressions.... But there is something elusive, extensive, attractive in it, which is difficult for me to name. Some kind of exoticism. I'm not the only person to feel it when getting off the train in Gdynia or Gdańsk. Maybe it is this "wind from the sea" that Żeromski wrote about...
Does what you're saying mean that you are still waiting for the Great Polish Novel, which would explain to Poles their time and place on earth?
Yes, I would like this kind of work to finally appear, and I really am waiting for someone to take on this task.
Do you think that nowadays, a book that the whole nation would unanimously discuss has a chance to exist at all?
It does. But it must be an outstanding work. Great literature that really touches on important Polish issues.
Do you read popular literature?
Detective novels. I have a weakness for Zygmunt Miłoszewski, who is also connected with Olsztyn. He has a great literary sophistication. Excellent plot and language orientation. And these are also multilayered novels in which it is not only the solution of the mystery that counts, but also considerations of social, psychological and moral nature. Contrary to what the author himself thinks about his works, I think that his best novel is Bezcenny (Priceless). I devoured it in one night, I was ill with flu and completely forgot about the illness and fever. His latest novel, Jak zawsze (As Always), is also interesting. I've always been intrigued by alternate reality creation. Szymborska believed that reality consists of those episodes that took place and those that could exist. That the whole reality is a negative and a positive together. Something that was and something that wasn't, but left behind an empty space. And Miłoszewski created a novel showing Poland and Warsaw, which could have been if history had happened differently. There are several scenes and symbols that should go down in the history of literature. For example, a monument in alternative Warsaw, depicting an eagle. Not a proud, militant, but surrounding with its wings - a symbol of love for man, and not just a cold ethos of the state.
Is there a genre that you can't stand?
Romance, i.e. the so-called "slice of life". These books are published by the dozen. In libraries and bookshops I see piles of colourful covers, very popular authors (usually). These are formulaic, one-note books. I can't stand it, I can't even focus on the content presented in such a way.
Is linguistic mastery important to you, as a reader?
Very much so. Since I have written scripts of radio plays and films myself, I always pay attention to the construction of dialogues. The form of language in a dialogue says a lot about a character, sometimes everything. And a writer should be able to control the language just like a good actor can control gestures and facial muscles. I am annoyed by incompetently written books, in which authors don't find enough talent in themselves to present their point through thought-provoking images or suggestive dialogues. This is often the case with mass-produced popular literature. Even in the case of an author as renowned as Agata Christie, the mystery of a murder is not solved by stimulating the reader's imagination, but through a "meeting", which is usually the last scene of the novel, where a detective first talks about the circumstances and then points the finger to the criminal, usually politely waiting in an armchair.
For a very long time you were a Polish language teacher in a secondary school. What was your way to get teenagers interested in literature.
I talked a lot. About biographical details. About ridiculous things. About stories from life. About writers' misdeeds. I paid attention to time, biography and context. It was not favourably received by methodologists, educational authorities. It was believed that every student could check the writer's biography on their own. But for me this context was important. There is no fascination with a literary work without knowing the author's biography. I used to be interested in the work of the Brontë sisters. In the 1990s I received a scientific biography of Emily, the author of Wuthering Heights, brought from England. There was practically no analysis of works known from the Polish literature studies, but all of them were inscribed in sequential biographical facts. When writing about specific poems, the author gave an account of whom Brontë could have known at that time, who she was visiting, what the weather was like, and so on. It is the environment in which a literary work is created that is important, not a dry doctrine, which requires academic analysis, removing the text from reality. After all, what would Joyce without Dublin and Mickiewicz without Maryla Wereszczakówna?
Were there any books that particularly appealed to your students?
It is difficult to treat young people as a whole. But there were. At the turn of the century records were broken by fantasy literature. I organized literary competitions and most of the works by the participants were attempts at this genre. Tolkien and Sapkowski were undisputed idols.
However, when it comes to the compulsory reading list, you should remember that even the most interesting compulsory book pushes pupils away. Because this is something imposed from above, knowledge of which is subject to evaluation. Borowski's short stories certainly made a huge impression. A bit smaller – Conversations with an Executioner by Moczarski. Camus's The Plague perfectly translated, reached many older students. The poetry of Leśmian aroused great interest, which is interesting.
And the worst books?
The Sorrows of Young Werther always made them shout: “Oh God!” There were also problems with Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. But it seems to me that this is a matter of translation. Conrad was a sensation in the Anglo-Saxon world because of the lightness and Slavic vividness of his writing, which was admired there. Probably the people translating him into Polish were not able to do it justice. Besides, high school students did not really understand Conrad, he seemed convoluted, overtly wordy, he bored them.
And what books were formative for you?
I will say something very strange now, but the book that made a colossal impression on me was a novel that was a generational reading of modernists at the end of the nineteenth century. I'm talking about À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a novel about a loner who, out of disgust with the world, isolated himself in incredible luxury and fulfilled his desires of an aesthetic nature. I have an impression that this book had as strong an effect on young me as it had on the poets of Young Poland. And the second such novel is The Other Side by Alfred Kubin, also a surrealist painter, author of covers for books by Thomas Mann, who considered Kubin to be a madman. The Other Side points to the bipartite nature of reality. It is divided into a rational and irrational world, just like the world of beauty and ugliness, depending on what point of view we take. A shocking read. And Franz Kafka's Process - the most perfect synthesis of the society of the 20th and 21st century, even more so probably in the 21st century. Kafka predicted an era of general surveillance, eavesdropping, fear, tracking. This incapacitating powerlessness of the individual against the machinery of the state, power, large corporations.
I must say that you surprised me. I expected you to name one of the Ibero-American writers, very popular in Poland in the 1970s.
I was not fascinated by their work. I guess I was too clearly aware of the political context of their popularity. At that time I was a fervent anti-communist, but they were of left-wing provenance and therefore safe for the authorities and published in large editions. Seemingly they did not refer to Poland, to Europe, but to distant South America. The books could be printed without a fear of unrests. Hopscotch or One Hundred Years of Solitude were unproblematic books for the authorities, they did not arouse longings, dreams of a better life. I don't mean to criticise their authors, but they didn't win me over.
It is also possible that I rebelled against fashion. Ibero-American authors were then published very generously and nicely in terms of editorial content, much more attractively than Polish authors. All my friends read them during their studies, and everybody was supposed to talk a lot about them. I do not exclude the possibility that I simply acted in defiance of it. But there was one text from South America, which made a colossal impression on me. Paradoxically, it was by a very left-wing author, the leading writer of communist Cuba. I'm speaking about Baroque Concerto by Alejo Carpentier. Music is my great passion, and Carpentier showed in an incredibly fluent way that it is one element functioning in different incarnations. He started with Vivaldi and ended with Armstrong and jazz. In those days such a statement was very brave. Classical musicians and the so-called "high culture artists" in general considered playing jazz or, God forbid, rock as profanation and betrayal of great art.
– interview by Tomasz Pstrągowski
Translated by Łukasz Konatowicz