photo: Grażyna Makara / Tygodnik Powszechny

Beside table #19. Rafał Woś: Books were tiring for me for a long time

Rafał Woś, a journalist and economic publicist, talks about economic and business readings, returning to his childhood’s favourite books, learning to read with Agatha Christie's crime novels, his first book to lose contact with reality, his aversion to reportage, his fascination with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a novel in which the Germans colonise the Moon.

What are you currently reading?

Every week, I have a column with a review of an economic-business book in "Dziennik. Gazeta Prawna"(Polish newspaper focusing on economic and legal affairs – translator’s note), which means that every week, I read and review a new item from this bubble. Just yesterday, I sent a text devoted to a book which, in principle, which rarely happens, is not literature at all, but a very good collection of documents and statistics on an extremely important phenomenon which was completely passed over in silence and falsified in Poland, that is to say what in fact the industrial potential of the People's Republic of Poland was. It is quite unbelievable that although the public space of the last thirty years has been dominated by the conviction - in fact everyone has an opinion on this subject - that the industry of the People's Republic of Poland was disastrous, in fact, we have very few statistics proving it. The announcement of the death of Polish industry was very convenient for the political class and for those who bought it, because when it is believed that it is worth nothing, everything can be bought cheaper, it is easier to privatise. But there were people around Professor Andrzej Karpiński, an economist, who, with boundless diligence, researched and, once in a while, published books based mainly on statistics. This is a very interesting type of literature, for on the one hand, there is little to read, and on the other - the mere flicking through these charts is impressive. Looking through these statistics while writing, I had such an impression that it was worth more than a thousand words. I flicked through the dairy industry, the processing industry, but also the modern, electronics-style industry: most of the plants are gone - they were closed, sold, liquidated... It is impressive.

But, if I understand well, it's an exception.

Yes, because I usually write about full-fledged books, better or worse ones. They can be divided into several types: the first type constitutes economic-journalistic books, e.g. from recent weeks, the history of capitalism told through the history of extraction of natural resources, i.e. Extracted by Ugo Bardi. With great geographical and geological knowledge, Bardi shows where these various metals and elements came from, how civilisations were formed on the basis of their extraction, and finally - leading us to the present day - what the ecological consequences of this are. The second type of books are business-economic handbooks mocked by many. I do actually like to read such a book once in a while myself, because I think it wouldn’t be bad if Polish managers, people who manage people, relied not only on their intuition, but also on knowledge, in a word: if they read something about it. I recently reviewed a book called Quiet Leadership by David Rock, a guy who is very interested in neuroscience and thinks it can be applied by advising those who manage other people to become better bosses. There is one thing that really stuck in my memory from this book. Rock proves that every time we learn a new thing, a new neuropathic connection is created in our brain and it opens us up to completely new perspectives. It's very appealing to me, because I feel that many people have a problem with knowledge. They treat the brain like a box where one throws new things in, most of them are never used, they accumulate there like old objects and rust. Those who think they've learned a lot in life are afraid they won't be able to close the box if they throw too much into it. And this perspective that Rock gives is very invigorating to me. I recommend this book to those who are convinced that everything has already happened, they know everything, and nothing will surprise them.

Do you ever read anything for pleasure?

Yes, I try to have a pile of books that are ostentatiously useless. Being a journalist, a publicist, it is easy to turn into such a hound dog, i.e. someone who gets up in the morning and starts to sniff what could be maybe used for the current assignment. I try to guard against this by searching for things that my brain, which is specialised in dealing with reality, will not be able to use for the purposes of work. It is with great joy that I have recently returned to books that are synonymous to me with my childhood, i.e. to a series of books published since the beginning of the 1990s until now by a sports journalist Andrzej Gowarzewski from Katowice, kind of football encyclopaedias. It was a thing I used to buy as a young boy together with the weekly Piłka Nożna (“Football”).

I’d add Przegląd Sportowy (”Sports Review”) to that.

I didn't read it then, just collecting and watching it was enough for me. Anyway, rightly so, because I think that I wouldn't appreciate it at the time. I am now reading a side series, Kolekcja klubów (“Collection of Clubs”), in which several books about Polish teams have been published. I am currently reading a volume devoted to Cracovia Krakow, I read one about Wisła before, I am planning to read a book about Górnik Zabrze, and even earlier, I read a book about clubs in Lviv and Vilnius. Apart from the fact that this is an incredible knowledge mine about football and also about those times, Andrzej Gowarzewski has his own incredible style. It is worth emphasising, because it is not common knowledge - of course, those who know his books, know about it, you can knowingly wink at them, say ‘Gowarzewski’ and it is known that he is an incredible stylist. He is a columnist-moaner, a man aware of his value and the uniqueness of what he does. He does not spare the world various scores of this kind when he catches someone in error, e.g. about the fact that in some statistical data someone couldn’t be bothered to check that the match did not take place or that the line-up was different, because officially, there was one given, but in fact, it looked differently, or that some name is a pseudonym and it was enough to ask. When he catches someone in a blag, he's ruthless. Of course, it doesn't matter today, because these people are mostly dead, or nobody knows them. But Gowarzewski is such a type of very inquisitive, even pedantic author, who writes in beautiful Polish at the same time. He has his own style. In general, having your own style in literature is a big art. Working out something that is authentic, that will not be an attempt to imitate someone else. You usually work for it for years.

Do you ever reach for fiction?

Yeah, it happens, but not so often really. The last thing that made a great impression on me was a novel by the Austrian journalist Hannes Stein, Der Komet, which unfortunately has not been translated into Polish. It is already a few years old, it was published probably in 2013 or 2014, when many books were written in the German-speaking publishing world about the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, which they worship there as the end of the old order, old empires, and so on. There was also a book by Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm, which was published in our country. I also saw that someone published a Polish version of it.

Professor Chwalba. What was it about Stein?

This Komet is a fantasy, a novel with an alternative story about what would have happened if the First World War had not broken out. We have a whole series of events there - Archduke Franz Ferdinand doesn’t die, there is no pretext for declaring war, so the war does not break out, there is no great crisis, so there is no Nazism, no Nazism, so there is no Second World War, no Second World War, so there is no Holocaust... Europe does not lose its geopolitical significance neither, and the United States does not gain it. Since the author is Austrian, he tells the story from the perspective of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. And this is where my fascination with this somewhat forgotten empire came from. In Poland, it is known mainly for its Schweik and sometimes Galician visage, that is as a not very serious empire, a bit funny, pragmatic, non-ideological... This book shows it from a completely different angle - from Vienna, which is a European New York. For example, psychoanalysis and all these stories, the whole network of associations that leads us through Woody Allen and other big-city neurotics, all this is happening here in Vienna.

It's a probable scenario, by the way. At least in this place.

At the same time, we have an crossover between technology-oriented Germany, which is colonising the Moon, where one can go on one’s honeymoon and swim in pools in weightless conditions, and Austria, which is the capital of culture.

When you have children, sometimes the flight-price multiplier is too big, so you travel by car, but you would like to go a little further to see something you haven't seen yet. This is also why I am now discovering the old Austro-Hungarian Empire - Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Austria, but also its other corners. During the last holidays, I reached Trieste, which used to be the port of Habsburg, and there I opened up to a whole new, unknown to me, chapter of the history of literature and stories about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I read, for example, Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo and Trieste and the meaning of nowhere by Jan Morris, a woman who was stationed as an allied soldier in Trieste in 1946 and, after leaving the army, she began to write, dealing mainly with the history of Pax Britannica. Then she underwent sex reassignment surgery, and, at the end of her active writing life, she wrote a book that is a meditation on Trieste and its history. It is actually fiction, and this is the kind of thing that I try to read, too. But my interests follow strange paths.

Let’s go back to your childhood for a moment. Did you have any favourite, most important books?

I have a great fondness for classical crime stories, for Agatha Christie's books, because they taught me how to read. But I didn't take my love for books and the habit of reading out of my home. The books were there, I even remember when my father, taking advantage of the first breath of freedom, ordered, from a publishing house, probably non-existent anymore, novels about which he had heard before that they could not be published, that is, The Gulag Archipelago and The Tin Drum. The books were there, but not so much that we read them or were fascinated by them. I was tired of books for a long time, television dominated, because it was easy. I read required school reading, because I tried to be a conscientious student, but I didn't really have a flow, I didn't get this kick from books. I was only absorbed by Three Act Tragedy by Christie, which arrived in my home because my parents had fallen into the trap of the Świat Książki publishing house, which had a subscription scheme at that time: they sent books until it was cancelled. And it was the first time I lost contact with reality, I wanted to know what was next. Agatha Christie taught me how to read. I've only had one such experience before, it was an extended interview with Józef Młynarczyk, the goalkeeper of the Polish national team in the 1980s. I am so grateful to these crime novels that now I have interested my children in Sherlock Holmes. We have this thick edition with all the books of Sherlock, and we now read them one by one. From the beginning, that is from A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. The children are 10 and 7 years old, so it's interesting to introduce them to this world, which interests them and attracts them, although sometimes they are afraid. I still nurture my sentiment for crime stories to this day.

Did you have a book that shaped you? Maybe ideologically, but not necessarily.

It was never the case that I accidentally came across something that turned my world upside down. My views have rather evolved, also under the influence of reading. But it was evolution rather than revolution. I would find a lead, most often it was closely connected with my professional work, I immediately delved into it, read an interview with the author, took some pieces of a jigsaw puzzle from it, and matched it to other parts of my own puzzle, which led me to further discoveries. The most important elements of this puzzle from the point of view of my socio-political-economic views are the critical titles concerning the Polish transformations - the books by Tadeusz Kowalik and Jacek Tittenbrun. Afterwards, I myself wrote Dziecięca choroba liberalizmu (“A Childhood Disease of Liberalism”), which also deals with this problem. I could point to a whole range of books that shaped me, but I would not be able to choose one.

Are there any books you're avoiding?

I’m not a big fan of reportage, I don't understand its phenomenon, I don't understand why describing something from a single person’s view would be more valuable than looking at it from above. This is a frequent dispute in the editorial offices between those who believe that only human stories are worth describing and those who believe that journalism has nothing to be ashamed of. Very often, what I do not like in reportage is that they are written according to a pre-imposed pattern. If someone is a master of reportage, someone who has their own style and language, such as Arthur Domosławski, you can immediately feel it. But very often, reportage is as schematic as if they were written according to a stylebook: first the human story, then broader, broader, broader, and finally conclusions. And when one comes to these conclusions, you can tell that if the author lacks theoretical and journalistic baggage, human history does not get broader, it does not have a more universal dimension. This funnel remains just a trickle, and it does not expand, and maybe that's why I'm more attracted to journalism - at least I can see right away whether it's erudite, broad, worthwhile, and not that I'll devote my time and attention to following human history, and the author won't get me anywhere, and I'll stay with nothing.

There is certainly an overproduction of reportage, their quality is very different, there is not much left of it.

When I think about books, the coolest are the ones that leave something in your head, something you can refer to, a thought, a point of view that has changed your way of looking at things. I still remembered a book that completely randomly fell into my hands, and I even wrote a review of it for "Dziennik", but it turned out that the day before, someone else, in another part of the newspaper, had also written about it, so I hadn't even published it (it's probably the only review in my life that I hadn't published). It was a book by Przemyslaw Czapliński, an academician from Poznan, entitled Poruszona mapa (“A Moved Map”). Czapliński talks about the fact that Polish literature after the transformation was focused on the East/West axis, trying to prove - sometimes in a horrible way - that we are not the East, but the West. He showed it very well, for example, with Kapuściński, who went to Russia in 1991 and tried to prove by force that these Russians are so The East, it is not us, we are different! At the same time, this simpering towards the West, all the restoring of memory, the Kundera phenomenon, that we are actually like French people, who no one knows where they came from in this part of Europe. Czapliński also shows that it reverses later, the interest in the North/South axis emerges, Scandinavian literature, and detective stories. On the other hand - and this coincides with what I said earlier - we have these journeys, Poles discover the wealth of the Austro-Hungarian treasury. I wonder what's next, which way it's going to go. I say this because although I read this book two years ago when it came out, I told about it many times to different people – both Poles and some people with whom I talked about Poland in the world - and this is a story after which, I have the impression, people were grateful to me, because they did not have to read all these books, but they had a thesis that they had to face. So I do value books that stay in my head. Recently, I got a call from Czapliński, with whom we hadn't met before. He introduced himself, said he didn't know if I knew him. I replied that yes, of course, you are the author of one of the best theses I have ever found. He was very happy.

Also, from a non-professional field, from what I read for pleasure, in addition to the history of football, one of the most interesting topics for me is the history of cities, or city stories in general, but more documentary than novel stories. When I'm in some place, I like to be able to walk through the place with the author following a well-marked trail.

And the third set of topics that attract me is architecture and urban planning, city ideas. I like this quarterly magazine "Autoportret" published by the Malopolska Institute of Culture. I learn a lot about the history of architecture from there, the history of urban planning, and new trends. Each issue is devoted to something different, for example, the most recent issue was devoted to the architecture of postmodernism. It is very interesting for me.

Before we started the interview, you mentioned socialist realism. Are there any authors from Polish socialist realist literature you reach for? Or the ones for whom you have a great fondness?

Bruno Jasieński, definitely. He is not a socialist realist, rather a futurist, but also one who is currently despised for ideological reasons. I once found Palę Paryż (“I Burn Paris”) on a shelf, I read this book with great interest. And as far as non-fiction is concerned, many interesting things were published in the Polish People's Republic in the series Biblioteka Myśli Marksistowskiej (“Library of Marxist Thoughts”), e.g. Karl Kautsky's book The Foundations of Christianity. This is a vast story, a story of Rome told through Christianity, written by a socialist, that is, critical. But so well written and so interestingly published - in a completely different way, the footnotes are now placed differently, it is made up differently, and I’m not sure if I didn’t like that style more. I remember reading it once on the road, and I had nothing to underline with; it didn’t feel right to use a pen, because it was already a 60-year-old book, I didn't have a pencil, and I had such a need to mark some things, return to them and process them somehow. I remember a lot of things, so the text makeup was really good. Whenever I reach for these books from the 1950s or 1960s, I can see high editorial craftsmanship, good editorial staff... You can see everything we are complaining about today when we say "has the editor read it? Well, he hasn't read or has read, but he read five other things at the same time. So, you can see how it could look today. And at the same time, the circulation of those times blows you away.

A hundred thousand, I suppose? Recently I've been looking through some older things, and 50 thousand is a small print run for the People's Republic of Poland. For the end, I would like to ask you about you reading plans.

As I started working for “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly a few months ago, I was very happy to come across Roman Graczyk's book Cena przetrwania? SB wobec Tygodnika Powszechnego (“The Price of Survival? Security Service and Tygodnik Powszechny”), which was very popular a few years ago. This is the story of the relationship between Tygodnik Powszechny weekly and the Security Service. Surveillance, compromise, struggle, resistance; I remember that it aroused great controversy in Cracow and in the Tygodnik’s milieu. Various voices were heard, ranging from "great" to "how could he!", but it encourages me even more.

I kind of hope for a book in the style of Artur Domosławski's Kapuściński non-fiction, which I read with some delay, for such social-professional reasons, when I started working in the same editorial office with the author, and I thought it was time to finally read his famous thing, which was also a big turning point in his life. I read it, and I wasn't disappointed, it was a good piece of biography. I also like diaries very much. I regret that writers often gush out so much in social media that they probably don't have enough strength, and there won't be another wave of these dairies, unless someone places an order...

Dehnel and Twardoch happened recently.

But I think it has to be ordered, it has to be a publishing house’s idea.

I guess.

I just don't think that it's going to happen again, that someone will write one on their own, even keep their writing in a sock drawer. My fondness for diaries started with Kisiel's Diaries, I liked it very much at the time. What's interesting, today, Kisiel is one of the authors whose phenomenon I cannot understand. I do not agree with him at all, I believe that these are fables at a high level of generality. But I remember these Diaries as a picture of the era and, with all my accusations against him, he did not beat about the bush. If he didn't like someone, he wrote in rather harsh words that he didn't like them, when he thought someone was stupid, he wrote that they were stupid.

 A few years ago, when I was living in Berlin, I came across the diaries of a German critic Fritz Raddatz. It was a very talked about book. Raddatz taught in high school for years, he was a part of this liberal establishment, the "Die Zeit" community, and, at the same time, a colourful bird, a very ambitious man who also tried his hand as a writer and was friends with all the greats. Paradoxically though, he achieved the greatest fame thanks to these diaries. The first volume, which describes the 1980s and 1990s, was published in 2010. He kept his writing in a sock drawer, but just like Kisiel, he did not beat about the bush, he wrote badly about people he did not like, he wrote that Helmut Schmidt is a tit and has limited horizons, he wrote that Marion Donhoff is a cow. At the same time, he was a part of this community, describing how each of these writers, when they meet, talk only about themselves, that everyone would like to read only their own things, that nobody ever asks, "how are you? It looks just like the Goncourt brothers before the censorship. And Raddatz did not censor it, published it, caused a great scandal, and at the same time, he did something that the German elites really need, because the Germans created for themselves many monuments that cannot be criticised, but he threw them off the pedestal. I read it with great pleasure. Then there was the second volume, and at the end, Raddatz wrote his last text Time to say goodbye in "Die Welt", he went to Switzerland, and there, he used the services of an euthanasia clinic and did the so-called exitus.

If something like this appears in Polish... Or it did actually appear - Iwaszkiewicz's Diaries were good, I would even say very good. We read them out loud with our friends.

Interviewer: Krzysztof Cieślik

Translated by Justyna Lowe