The Swedish Academy has often been criticized for its decisions when it comes to the Nobel Prize in Literature over the years, but in 2019 the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was certainly a winning choice. This was only a year after Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International for her novel Flights (Bieguni), which was originally published in 2007. The quick succession of these two events became a significant global leap for the writer and for Polish literature. "Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if my books had been translated into English sooner," she jokes. Bulgarian readers are lucky to have had access to translations of her books for a long time; her work, which is proudly displayed in bookstore windows, is now being published by ICU. Most avid readers are familiar with at least one of her books (Flights, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, The Wardrobe, Primeval and Other Times, The Tender Narrator, Bizarre Stories) and have been moved by the talent, encyclopedic knowledge, depth, philosophy, erudition and sensitivity with which the writer handles and intertwines different genres, characters and stories. Vij! spoke to Tokarczuk the reader a couple of days before her visit to Sofia.
Your personal history with libraries began with your father, who was a librarian. How did this affect how you read and collect books, and how has your relationship with libraries changed since your childhood?
It's true, I was always crawling between bookshelves and I learned how to read on my own very early. I knew then that each book was a different world that I could enter through reading. I read a lot and voraciously, I read anything I could get my hands on. All the professions related to books, writing, and reading have always seemed to me the most perfect, the most dignified. When I was twelve, I wanted to write books and I already knew that I would do it for the rest of my life. For me, the library is a sacred thing, though I know that today many forego paper books altogether and build their libraries in cyberspace. Not me. For me, the book remains a physical object, something tangible. I picture paradise as a Borgesian library, where I have at hand every book I could imagine, even ones that have not yet been written.
Illustration from The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk
You have travelled around Poland and all over the world with your books. What are the most comfortable and the most unconventional reading nooks you have come across, and where do you prefer to read?
In spite of all of my travels, my favorite place to read is my grandmother's village. It has so many interesting reading spots – the orchard and the wooden table with chairs arranged under the apple tree, a blanket thrown on the meadow among the blackcurrant bushes, the river bank where the children would swim, the screened-in porch when it would rain, even the barn full of fragrant hay. I find it hard to read (or write) in the tropics, and I'm amazed by writers like Joseph Conrad who had to work in such a humid and hot climate. That kind of weather always makes me sleepy and all thoughts just fly out of my head.
What kind of reader are you and how have your reading habits changed over the years?
I read several books at a time and I don't find it difficult to concentrate. I always read at least a dozen pages of a novel or short story before going to bed, but never essays or non-fiction. It has to be fiction – my brain cannot fall asleep without fiction. I love stories. I think they are the highest form of fiction, and very difficult to write. Recently I've returned to the brilliant stories of Shirley Jackson, I also adore the Polish writer Iwaszkiewicz, Chekhov continues to be extremely relevant, and Borges and Cortazar never grow old. I really appreciate the stories of Philip K. Dick. When I'm writing a book, I start by gathering all the writing I can find about the topics and toponyms that will be part of it. In fact, as I write, I am not interested in anything other than what is directly or indirectly related to the subject I'm writing about. I have sadly noticed that, with age, I have less and less time to read in the afternoon while drinking tea, and then seamlessly transition into dinner. I need to return to this useful habit.
Photographer: Jacek Kołodziejski
Olga Tokarczuk is the special guest at the first edition of the Literary Meetings festival, which will take place on June 10 and 11 at Toplocentrala. On June 10 at 7 pm, she will be in conversation with the writer Georgi Gospodinov, and they will discuss various aspects of their literary work, and their social, civic and political positions; an hour will be set aside for questions from the audience.
Translated from Polish by Krum Krumov