Why Olga Tokarczuk Likes to Read T.S. Eliot in Translation – The New York Times
“It’s fascinating to read poetry in its original form,” says the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, whose latest novel in English is “The Books of Jacob,” “but it’s just as fascinating to read it in a variety of translations. Suddenly the same text takes on new dimensions, as if it were growing in new directions.”
What books are on your night stand?
You really want to know? Currently: Mariana Leky’s “What You Can See From Here”; Sybille Bedford’s “A Legacy”; Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails”; Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”; “Things Mushrooms Are Better at Than You Are,” by Marta Wrzosek and Karolina Głowacka; Monika Ptak’s “Ayurveda”; Roberto Calasso’s “Literature and the Gods”; Caspar Henderson’s “A New Map of Wonders”; Monika Libicka’s “Gela: Or, A Gem from the Ringelblum Archive”; Yaniv Iczkovits’s “The Slaughterman’s Daughter.”
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I don’t think too many people have heard of Leonora Carrington’s “The Hearing Trumpet.” It’s an extraordinary surrealist tale — hilarious and terrifying — and one that everyone should read. I like surrealism and anarchism in art. I like provocations. Hers is a unique voice, full of light and gravitas at once, a truly revolutionary spirit. A bitter, dark sense of humor that perfectly suits our era, although this slim novel was published almost 50 years ago.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
Above all, whatever helps me write — books related to the topic, the historical period, which could be scholarly works and novels, as well as poetry and art books. When I’m writing, I’m not really interested in anything else.
I used to avoid reading great novels, the kind that make a real impression, since I was afraid they’d influence my style too much — that I’d succumb to their influence. I don’t feel that way anymore.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I think it’s the fact that literature is its own republic where people can live and work together and, maybe more than anything, communicate perfectly — in depth, empathetically, morally, intellectually and in a revolutionary spirit. Sometimes a knowing glance and a single phrase will suffice for that perfect communication. The constitution is made up of passages from great books, and the history of the republic is also the history of literature, all the classics and all the literary eras that preceded ours. The present day is a wild jumble of voices, all very different from one another, yet often unintentionally similar. Here trends prevail, sides are taken, elections occur in the form of literary prizes and best-seller lists. There is also an opposition, and even an underground. The strange thing is that fictional characters live alongside the citizens of this republic, where they have equal rights.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’ve always loved science fiction. You might say that’s what I was raised on. The most important authors for me were Lem, Dick, the Strugatsky brothers. I don’t like fantasy, with one exception: Ursula Le Guin, but she rises above genre. I’m not a huge fan of crime fiction and have read only Agatha Christie, nothing else, really. I don’t really read nonfiction, with the exception of biographies. I really think the best genre is just a good, solid novel.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
They’re always distinctive figures. Herr Doktor Peter Kien is a reclusive and eccentric bibliophile from a book I adore, Elias Canetti’s “Auto-da-Fé.” He’s a character who fascinates me, whom I find simultaneously alluring and repellent. I feel I have something of the oddball in me, too. Ijon Tichy is a character from the stories of Stanisław Lem, among the wildest works I’ve read. I grew up on the cosmic adventures of Iljon Tichy, who approaches the unlikeliest adventures in the cosmos any human mind has ever devised with prudent reserve. I think he was the first to survive a time loop, before Hollywood caught on to that idea. Everybody knows Pippi Longstocking, so I won’t describe her here. What an idol. She taught me courage and how to make my ideas a reality. Miss Marple is my idol for my later years. I adore her curiosity, her tenacity and her lovely self-deprecating sense of humor.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a voracious reader. I taught myself to read quite early on, and from that point forward, I read everything that fell into my grasp. Interestingly they didn’t need to be fairy tales. I loved to read encyclopedias and dictionaries. Fairly quickly I started reading novels — Verne, Lem, but also “Anne of Green Gables.” I loved science fiction. I have always liked books of fairy tales from other countries. Later I became fascinated with mythology. When I was 10, I was a real expert on Greek mythology, which for a while was a true obsession for me. I’ll admit I still read fairy tales.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
I’d have to say literature as a whole. I wouldn’t be able to specify one particular book like that. It wouldn’t be fair. Literature is a collective being, each of its parts — each book — complements the rest, threads in one presage threads in others, thoughts come up over and over again. I’d have to list at least a hundred titles.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? And what would you want to know?
It seems to me that the author plays a kind of secondary role in this whole business of literature. Authors are generally less interesting than their books. After attentively reading a book you shouldn’t really have any questions for the author, aside from the most banal: Do they write in pen or on a laptop? Do they write in the morning or the evening? Do they prefer coffee or tea? Dogs or cats?
Do books serve a moral function, in your view? How so?
I don’t know if I would call it a moral function, but literature definitely teaches empathy and compassion and how to see the world from other points of view. This is a great skill, and a gift that means those who read are smarter, more aware, more capable of understanding complicated matters than those who don’t read.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I have a volume of T. S. Eliot to which I add different translations of his poems as I come across them. It’s fascinating to read poetry in its original form, but it’s just as fascinating to read it in a variety of translations. Suddenly the same text takes on new dimensions, as if it were growing in new directions.
I also often return to my favorite philosophers and psychologists: Jung, Hillman, Adler. I read classical philosophers (I find them relaxing!). I’m always happy to go back to the classics. Every few years I read Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” — it’s interesting to see a book change with time, and that is one that must be read differently with age. I’ve done the same thing with Dostoyevsky and Flaubert. I’ve just started rereading Stendhal.