Not Settled: An Interview with Adam Zagajewski

Zagajewski consistently writes with lightness, wit, and a dry sense of irony that never shades into cynicism or self-satisfaction.

“All systems are finally a mental poison, the rotten apples of the mind’s life,” writes the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski in his most recently translated book of prose, Slight Exaggeration. Zagajewski’s emphatic rejection of any system is reflected in the book’s flexible form, which consists of a scrolling stream of fragments, often brief and not unlike those of a journal, though he also permits himself more extended considerations. Written between late 2008 and 2010, Slight Exaggeration offers a bracingly proximate encounter with Zagajewski’s thinking as he moves among various speculative preoccupations. There’s a nearly peripatetic sense of the poet’s mind as it searchingly makes its way, never haphazardly but without ever showing a desire to resolve the existential tensions made manifest in his consciousness. “We must live in doubleness, in difficult, impossible doubleness,” he observes.

Such difficulties notwithstanding, Zagajewski consistently writes with lightness, wit, and a dry sense of irony that never shades into cynicism or self-satisfaction. Among the book’s virtues is its account of the poet as an incisive and eclectic reader, especially of what some might deem mere ancillary works — diaries, notebooks, correspondence, and biographies, which, he writes in praise, “end peacefully, quietly, unexpectedly, they end in December or April, without proving a thesis, making a point.” Many of his insights derive from a nearly lifelong engagement with certain books — such as with the notebooks of Emil Cioran and Simone Weil, who with her uncompromising spiritual strictures “still tortures us” — but we also witness his excitement, as it were, in making discoveries, as when he first encounters the Austrian writer Walter Kappacher (unavailable, alas, in English translation) or writes at greater length about the letters of D. H. Lawrence, which testify to a “yearning for another life, for a pure intense existence, although we’re more cautious than he, since we’ve now seen— even experienced — so many false faiths and prophecies.” His enthusiasm for Lawrence emerges out of longstanding concerns: both the spiritual yearning and the burden of lived history cited here are ever-present themes in Zagajewski’s writing, a ground bass always audible in the music of his poetry and prose.

Interspersed among the dance of ideas and readings in Slight Exaggeration are the makings of a different sort of book, a memoir that encompasses not only the poet’s autobiography (including twenty years spent in Paris, and friendships with poets of the stature of Zbigniew Herbert, Czeslaw Milosz, and Joseph Brodsky) but also much of his family’s history. Their displacement from the Galician city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine) to Gliwice in Poland, part of the massive resettlement of the city’s Poles that took place after World War II, was a defining cataclysm for the family — a kind of year zero that forever oriented their self-understanding as exiles. Born in 1945, Zagajewski was made keenly aware by the adult emigrants in Gliwice that he could not feel their longing for Lvov. Yet their forced migration “pierced” him: “I might never have taken up writing if not for the unhappy exiles who didn’t know if they were living in the real world or in some bizarre propaganda film shot by the Allies to demonstrate the joys of daily existence beneath the dictates of the Potsdam Treaty. […] I’m not an exile. But I’m not settled either.”

In passing on his family’s stories and lore, Zagajewski provides glimpses into a remote, now utterly historical world, relating how his grandfather insisted before the First World War that his children learn the purportedly essential skills of swimming, stenography, and German, or how his mother’s right-wing family would rarely speak of her sister, who died young of tuberculosis, because she ran in Communist circles. But the core of the family material in Slight Exaggeration concerns his father, who was in his nineties and suffering from severe mental impairment while Zagajewski was writing the book. (He died in 2010, his passing announced toward the book’s end.) An engineer and professor, the elder Zagajewski was a taciturn presence with a strong moral sense, who loved the serenity of mountains and was given to terse pronouncements, though he also possessed a “marvelous sense of humor.” Although the portrait in the book is admiring (he was “honesty personified” and “a very good father”; “we were on the best of terms”), Zagajewski also considers his father’s anti-poetic worldview, and tells of his own grappling with the engineer’s empiricist outlook and the implications of this ongoing debate for his poetry. The book’s very title is taken from a characteristically laconic remark the elder Zagajewski gave an interviewer when asked to comment on a passage in his son’s essay Two Cities; to the reader’s surprise and perhaps even his own, Zagajewski comes to consider it “actually a good definition of poetry.”

I spoke to Zagajewski about Slight Exaggeration via phone at his home in Krakow.

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James Gibbons: Slight Exaggeration often reads like a diary. Does it have its origins in an actual journal you kept?

Adam Zagajewski: Part of the book goes back to my notebooks, but I’m not a very regular diary writer, so it’s not that the entire book corresponds one-to-one to a diary. There are some short essays which don’t have this diaristic character at all. I used the form in [the previous book] Another Beauty, so it’s not really new, but a continuation of the form I was using there.

JG: It’s evident that as a reader, you’re drawn to the diary, the notebook, and other more personal modes of writing. What are the virtues of such a form, as opposed to, say, the essay or even the novel?

AZ: For me a good diary, a diary which also comprises intellectual elements, is one of the most interesting forms of literature because you have both life and ideas. I’m not a philosopher. Reading ideas in their pure shape — reading Kant is pretty difficult for me. But reading diaries which limit themselves to “I drank a coffee and it was raining” is very boring. So the ideal form for me, not in poetry but outside poetry, is this combination of some empirical life-facts and ideas, literary ideas or observations about history, etc. I see it as a source of life in the writing, to have both — not only life and not only ideas — and to see how they meet, the line where they come together.

JG: Did you follow any particular models?

AZ: There’s a long list of great diarists, it’s hard to say which ones…. Kafka’s diary was a model — well, maybe not a model, but a summit of the form. Among Polish writers, there’s Gombrowicz. Having said that, I think my model is slightly different because I have these short essays, which don’t hide the fact that they are essays. There’s this mix between more diaristic elements and purely essayistic elements. Still, to have the two in vicinity is important to me.

JG: I wanted to ask about the autobiographical material in Slight Exaggeration. From the very first sentence — “I won’t tell all regardless” — you show a certain reticence toward full self-disclosure. In the United States we have something of a memoir industry, and I imagine if you were an American writer pitching this book to an American publisher, you might well be encouraged to be more forthright or even to write in a different manner. Could you talk about your approach to the memoiristic material in the book?

AZ: Partly it’s inherited. You know, there’s this expression “the Polish school of poetry,” but you could also say there’s a Polish school of essay writing, of diary writing, which shies away from divorces, from illnesses, from very personal matters. There’s something stoic, the aesthetic is that you don’t tell…. I start the book with this proclamation: there’ll not be much in terms of intimate disclosures. So it’s inherited. I feel a part of this larger group of writers and I don’t want to abandon this model. It’s also quite personal — I divorced once, but I’d hate telling my reader how it happened, it has no aesthetic interest for me.

JG: I found the material about your father quite moving. Was difficult to write about your father because of his condition?

AZ: By that time, as I mention in the book, he had really lost his memory, in a way he was mentally almost dead, so it was very painful, but it didn’t create any problems from the point of view of the writing. It was personally painful, but at the same time I knew by writing about him I was doing something good for his memory, for his nonexistent memory.

JG: It struck me how you take him seriously as an intellectual partner, in a way. You mention engaging in “polemics” with him and his sense of things. Now that several years have passed, do you still find yourself having this polemical relationship with him — he being the engineer, the taciturn one, and you being the poet, who perhaps have your own silences, but of a different sort?

AZ: Yes. I feel that in a way, a part of him exists in my mind, so I have this dialogue. Sometimes I feel like some voice in me is against poetry, against exaggeration, against metaphors — for the sake of sobriety, of realism. I think I’ve internalized the voice of my father.

JG: You also write about his strong sense of morality. Do you feel you’ve inherited that as well? I must say that from this book I can’t definitively decide whether you should properly be called a moralist.

AZ: Well, no one should be bragging about his or her moral attitudes. I followed his model: in Communist Poland, joining the Communist Party was something that some people would never do, not for the sake of their careers. And my father never did. I never did. My family radiated this conviction. You know, he had his career, which was not so bad, he was the dean of a college, etc. But he never went beyond this. He never spoke — I write about this — he was a silent moralist, he never deemed it OK to be pronouncing himself in moral matters. It was something to do and not to talk about. So the main difference is that I talk, I’m a talker — but I’m a silent talker, because I’m rather taciturn as well. Well, not always…

JG: You recall how later in life he wrote an unpublished memoir, on yellowed typewriter paper, that he called From One Accident to the Next. It’s a title that suggests a kind of randomness in life. Whereas in your writing, there are all these patterns, there’s an associative logic at work that takes care to connect things, pieces of music, for example, with writing (I’m thinking of the passage where you link the openings of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rilke’s Duino Elegies), even if there may not be direct influence.

AZ: It’s like the structure of a poem, it’s the same thing you do in a poem, right? You have this intuitive feeling for which things fit together and which don’t, but there’s no rational way to explain it, it’s a matter of taste, of feeling.

JG: One thing that connects your father to literary writers is his compressed style of speaking. You call him an aphorist. Elsewhere in Slight Exaggeration you consider the aphorism as a literary mode — in particular you take up Emil Cioran and his pitiless aphorisms. The perspective varies. At one point you write that “poetry is defenseless against ironists, aphorisms are like sharp scissors, they can’t function without points.” But you also recommend that poets study Cioran’s Notebooks. The reader can find well-turned aphorisms of your own throughout the book. You seem at once attracted to aphorisms and suspicious of them.

AZ: Simone Weil used to say that atheism is necessarily the new religion because it purifies religion. For me, Cioran is like an atheist, not just in a strictly religious sense, but as a kind of nihilist. I don’t share this, but I can see its purifying power. I hate rhetoric, we poets hate rhetoric — but we don’t actually know how to define rhetoric in poetry. We know that it’s an artificial voice, a voice which comes too easily, which can be ascribed to the crowd. But writers like Cioran are totally anti-rhetorical. This acerbic irony helps to kill rhetoric, I think.

JG: In the book you write a lot about music, which you take very seriously. How does music fit in to your practice as a writer?

AZ: There are different levels. On a basic level, like many writers I have my periods of silence. And I notice that music doesn’t speak to me during these periods, or it does but in a very diminished way. When I have my good periods of writing it’s like an opening of everything — also of music. I feel like music is a cousin in the world of imagination, and it’s also for me a proof that I’m alive again. I have this mystical notion that there’s this kind of energy in music and poetry and painting, and while this energy has totally different ramifications and methods of expressions, at bottom there’s something common. I’m not a philosopher so I don’t need to have a name for it, but there’s this commonality of art, this common denominator, this energy. You know, painting is very important too, but in my everyday work music is more important because it’s there, it’s in my room.

JG: You mention Mahler and Mozart. Are there other composers especially significant for you?

AZ: There’s a long list. Many years ago I wrote the poem “Self-Portrait,” where I mention four composers: Bach, Chopin, Mahler, and Shostakovich. Of course, this is not to exclude Beethoven and Mozart but in a poem you can’t have a list of fifteen names. I chose four names which are still quite representative, I think, of what I need in music. Two days ago there was a very moving concert: an alto singer who has MS and cannot move but still can sing. She sang the second movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, and it was so moving, this woman who is so sick and still has her voice. This symphony is very dear to me as well.

JG: You talk about your “conservatism,” and since it’s such a fraught and easily misunderstood term, could you explain what you mean by it?

AZ: It’s not really political conservatism — in terms of political divisions I’m more on the left than on the right. My ideal is to be in the very center, but that’s very difficult. Right now we have this stupid national government in Poland, right-wing, and when I look at them, I’m a leftist. And I hate them. My conservatism is more aesthetic. I don’t share this enthusiasm for the avant-garde, which was so overwhelming one hundred years ago. So it’s not so much about social life, it’s more a defense of something we can call “the spiritual,” although I don’t know how to define it. It’s more in the mental sphere, the intellectual sphere.

JG: You write about “metaphysical feelings” or spiritual yearnings. One question is how one responds to such feelings or yearnings outside of traditional religious practice. How does one have a sense of the spiritual outside of formal religious tradition?

AZ: It’s hard to explain. One of the central notions for me is the seriousness of writing, which doesn’t exclude a sense of humor or irony well-applied. This seriousness is a kind of awe in front of the world, and the mystery that’s there. I also notice that my poems attract some religious people, who take me as one of theirs, and I don’t protest (unless they’re fundamentalists, I don’t like fundamentalists). There’s no church to which I go: my church is in my work and my ideas, there’s no building in Krakow which would be my church.

JG: It wasn’t entirely clear to me from the account of your boyhood in Slight Exaggeration: were you raised Catholic?

AZ: My family was lukewarm Catholic, like the majority of the Polish intelligentsia, whose families on the surface were Catholic, but not really. They were rather anti-clerical, which is not a contradiction: you can be religious and anticlerical, of course.

JG: Let me return to politics in a broad sense. You write about the dangers facing any writer: “the greatest misfortune is — was — embracing some fashionable or dominant ideology.” But you immediately add: “But we can’t escape at least partial asphyxiation.” How does a writer become inoculated, at least partially, against ideology?

AZ: Remember that when I was very young, I lived in a Marxist state, where ideology was on every fence, on every newspaper. It was a very good lesson about what ideology is, this way of thinking not controlled by the individual mind. As a teenager, I was not strong enough to resist inwardly. But then, and this is something I don’t actually write about, there’s a kind of education that helps you go outside of it: in my case it was not entirely individual, a big part of my generation underwent this process of leaving behind the ideological positions and being much more critical. This is what was happening in Poland in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was a rejection of ideology, and I can say that now I have my defenses, I can see ideology not only in Marxism but in the right-wing thinkers (well, not thinkers, because it’s hard to call this “thinking”), like in the present government in Poland. Building these big schemes instead of going from case to case: these are ideological positions. So this makes me an individualist. Not rejecting society, of course, but rejecting these huge simplifications.

JG: Allow me a mischievous question. Toward the end of the book, you write that a new book of essays “should begin with the author’s admission that he made errors in the earlier book, the conclusions he drew were premature, mistaken, and only now — so he thinks — is he on the right track.” Is there anything in Slight Exaggeration you now feel distance from, that you’d like to revise or qualify?

AZ: It’s a good question. There’s this paradox, when you write a new book, especially if it’s an essay, you think, Oh, now I’ll have a new tone, or, I’ll do something new, and you work under this conviction, and then you finish the book and you find that it’s actually like the other books. You have your voice, and it’s very hard to avoid speaking in this voice. But the simpler answer is no, I don’t revoke anything. It’s more like a feeling of accretion, in the sense of growing. I hope so. You never know if you’re growing or shrinking.

Adam Zagajewski’s Slight Exaggeration (2017) is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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