share


Interview with Magdalena Tulli

This interview appeared in Po co jest sztuka? (What Is Art For?), a 2013 collection of interviews with Polish writers compiled by Grzegorz Jankowicz, a Polish literary critic and editor, and published by the Musem of Contemporary Art in Kraków.

—B. J.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— On the cover of the first edition of Dreams and Stones is Paul Klee’s 1928 painting ‘Page from the Book of the City.’ Was that your choice?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— It was the choice of my first publisher. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I like it, it was very beautiful, very spacious actually. It’s a wonderful picture. I think that was the first time I’d seen it.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— The buildings in the picture look like pictograms – as if the artist were emphasising the idea that an image is a linguistic sign, but that a word is also an image. Would you agree with such an interpretation?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— Yes, I believe that the word builds the image. That’s what it’s for. All words, with the exception of the words: yes, yes, no, no. As you know, the Bible says that everything beyond those words is from the Evil One. And so any games involving literature are dangerous. We’re taking a risk, but we want to play the game. You think there are innocent words beyond those two? There are none. Even the word ‘or’ is poised to construct an image, though it may be an abstract one. And if we take the word ‘because…’ There, you see. Let alone the whole rest of the dictionary. As for me, I don’t get upset by words, I use them for what they’re for, what is stronger than them. For making an image.

There’s one hitch. I don’t have complete control over the images I show. If a bloody-minded reader comes along, he’ll just go ahead and make his own images out of my words. It might even be something that I wouldn’t want to sign my name to.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— In one passage in the novel you suggest that words and thoughts acquire a visual form in our minds. ‘Beneath the vaults of skulls there extend boundless expanses where no human has set foot and which contain things in plain view yet which cannot be touched. Whereas that which is tangible endures in places trodden by feet yet closed to thoughts.’ So the tangible world, trodden by feet, touched, perceived with the senses, is separated from the world of thoughts?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— What do you think? What you just quoted is a literary fiction. Of course, fiction is rarely pure invention. We invent things about the world, so there has to be something that’s to the point. After all, we’ve never seen anything aside from this world. You ask about distinctions. In Dreams and Stones I ramp them up to the point where they snap. There are others too that aren’t wound up like that. Not in physical reality, of course. And not beneath the vaults of skulls, they’re not in there either. They arise somewhere at the meeting point. That’s exactly it, the meeting point. It’s that which determines whether the tangible world can be separated from the world of the imagination. It can’t, of course.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— Visual metaphors keep recurring in your description of the city. At the beginning there appears an emblem – the tree of the world – that we recognise from the iconography of various religions. Next, you compare the city to a machine, whose description calls to mind a theatrical staging. A moment later it transpires that the images of the construction of the city are merely a film that sooner or later will come to an end. The visual arts provide the tools with which you present the existence and functioning of the city.

A

Magdalena Tulli

— Yes, throughout that book the tree and the machine, these two metaphors of the world, provide the dynamic for the action. Two metaphors for the same thing, like two themes in a respectable sonata, yes? It’s precisely that that gives the plot of Dreams and Stones its tension – those transformations, those modulations. The newsreel is of lesser importance, it appears only on the margins of the action, like a caricature of propaganda offering a sham commentary on what we see in the foreground – in other words, as a comic character. Just like the newspaper with its photographs, which also figures as a comic character.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— I’d like to ask you to comment on one passage from the novel: ‘This city is built of a twofold kind of imagination to which the two rail networks correspond. One extends toward Moscow and St. Petersburg, the other toward Paris and Lausanne.’ What kind of imagination is this?

A

Magdalena Tulli

Dreams and Stones is a book full of metaphors, but the metaphors are not there to embellish the sentences. That particular metaphor replaces a longish chapter on the history of Poland during the partitions, including emigrations after the uprisings, a chapter that would in any case have ended with a metaphorical punchline about the flight of hope in two directions.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— You write that every name, like every coin, has two sides. A coin can’t be only half-spent, keeping the front or the back for oneself. Setting in motion a name in its entirety thus produces contradictory effects. Each thing named possesses two opposite meanings that are at odds with one another. Does that mean that a description – for example the description of an image – is a space of perpetual conflict?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— Everything in the world is the space of perpetual conflict. The conflict ends when we exit the world. But to provide a proper answer to your question, I have to agree with you. The passage you quoted, though it’s a literary fiction, has a reflex in reality. Words mean now one thing, now another. Why? Because of the emotions. This can be seen particularly in the course of long-standing disputes. Each side of the argument pulls the word toward itself, tries to impose its own meaning on it, disregarding the meaning its opponent seeks to place on it. The word may long ago have become empty, hollowed out, while each adversary tries to fill it with what is most useful for him. That’s why lingering disputes are hardly ever resolved. It’s not words that are the cause, though, but emotions. They’re what lead us to manipulate words. There’s nothing wrong with emotions. But we need to remember that emotions are a terrible force that can send the entire dictionary every which way.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— Does a description always conceal the thing? Can it sometimes make an image be present?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— If we’re talking about what we call the world, then we can only see the image, create our own description. We do not see the thing itself at all, and this is not the fault either of the image or the description. The world has no eyes, it doesn’t see itself. From that perspective it’s an empty void, because all of us living creatures have eyes. But if we weren’t there? What would it be then?

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— A crucial sentence in the novel reads: ‘The city is a work of the eyes.’ Does that mean that those who look can be said to create the reality around them?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— Yes, they do. It’s just that in fact we don’t finally know from what. Because of course they don’t create it out of nothing. Something created out of nothing is advanced stuff, mythical I’d say, if it weren’t for sensational new items from the domain of quantum physics. But even knowing what we use to make what we make – even such knowledge is unattainable. Something flows through us, but what is it? I’d really like to know. Something flows, and in my opinion that’s all that can be honestly and unsentimentally said about the nature of the world. The revelations of quantum physics indicate nothing to the contrary.

 

Dreams and Stones is filled with jokes about certainty of any kind. Because at the time I was writing it, I’d begun to see any sort of certainty as irresistibly amusing.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— In the first edition of Dreams and Stones the final paragraph was printed in a particular way: the lines are not justified but centred; each is a little shorter than the last, till finally only one word remains: ‘endurance.’ This kind of formatting has been used by concrete poets to make the typographical text reflect the object or person being described. This formatting was removed in subsequent editions of the novel.

A

Magdalena Tulli

— I removed it, though I liked it. It gave a pleasing cadence to the very emotional ending. I don’t want to claim credit for the idea. Like the Klee on the cover, it came from the first publisher of the book. I appreciate a good idea. But I’m not all that attached to ideas, including my own. Except perhaps the absolutely most important ones, to which everything else is subordinated.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— The opening sentences of Moving Parts concern the creation of worlds. You write that they’re conjured out of thin air, to ‘delight the eye with their shimmer as they ascend toward the light, trembling like soap bubbles. Then they’re swallowed up by darkness.’ What worlds are these? And why is the sense of sight privileged here?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— You’ve touched on several issues all at once. The beginning of Moving Parts is sardonic, right after that come the words, ‘there is no one to save them’, which reveal the bitter joke. The one who conjured the world out of thin air for amusement, and then immediately abandoned it, appears on the following page; he’s lying in bed while all around him are empty bottles and used needles. It’s him, this someone, who holds the strings of all the other characters. If he’d thought a little less about himself and a little more about others, events would have taken a different course. There’d be less violence and humiliation in the story. The figure known as the ‘narrator’ – a person hired under false pretenses to carry out an impossible task – could be any one of us, because each of us is the narrator of our own story, with no control over its ending. You ask what worlds these are. They’re the worlds we live in. There’s also an element of literary fiction in this, because we don’t see the creation of worlds, or the metaphorical elements, because they don’t rise like soap bubbles. But the truth is that they’re swallowed up by the darkness. In the final sentence I return to this, and write that no one has ever prevailed against darkness.

 

Why is the sense of sight privileged here? I don’t know. It privileged itself. Literature refers to sight more than to the other senses. This arises from the nature of literature, and from the way our minds work.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— In Flaw there’s a striking scene: a policeman pauses in front of the window display of a photographic studio (he does this every day) to stare for a while at the picture of a woman (‘Here everything is in its place; in the middle is a large photograph of a woman in a white fur coat. With the passage of years, she has not aged in the slightest and is still just as beautiful and just as unattainable.’) We understand that the woman in the picture is the object of his fantasy. The policeman salutes and moves on. In the window there’s also an assortment of wedding pictures – faded traces of a former intimacy. It would seem that for you, photographs are a melancholy trace of a world that is past or inaccessible.

A

Magdalena Tulli

— These photographs are a representation of the whole muddled-up contents of human relations – impermanent, fleeting. The impermanence of life brings melancholy – I’m not the only one to think so. That’s just how things are with us. Why? It’s obvious. Sympathy for ourselves is our God-given right. But there’s something else about those photographs. At some point they’re all removed and replaced with a single photograph – one that’s been cut out of a newspaper. A portrait. And it occupies not just this one window display, but all the others too. The muddle of human relations is forced to disappear. It has to make room for the one right thing. And since the one thing that’s right is made of concrete, that doesn’t leave the slightest room for life.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— The narrator of the story ‘Bronek’ from Italian Heels rebels against the paralysing force of photographs. She can’t accept that in photographs showing oppressors and victims, the victims come off looking worse. The narrator emphasises that these photographs have a special pedagogical value, yet nevertheless she fantasises about taking them all home, hiding them from public view. Why?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— The narrator doesn’t emphasise that the photographs have a special pedagogical value. On the contrary, she mocks such a view. She mocks it painfully, with rage, tears in her eyes. The observation that victims come off unfavourably in photographs is highly tongue-in-cheek. That whole piece is about boundless humiliation being captured on photographic paper and put on public display. The narrator wants to take the photographs down to prevent them from being misused as supposed tools for the betterment of youth. It’s hard for me even to talk about the powerful emotions I felt because of what’s being done with those photographs. They’re at Wannsee, by the way.

 

I think anyone who feels that these are pictures from his own album will understand. As for those who don’t, how can it be explained to them? For the moment that’s beyond me.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— I’d like to return to Flaw, in which a crucial role is played by observation, watching from a window, spying on scenes that are playing out on the street. These scenes have a particular character (the people being spied on are refugees), while looking itself, which makes the window into the frame of a picture (at some point you actually write: ‘In the passe-partout of the window, images of confusion appeared’), is not innocent. Flaw is a kind of social education of the eye needing to be sensitised to the mistreatment of outcasts. Is literature capable of influencing the way we watch and see as effectively as the visual arts?

A

Magdalena Tulli

— Watching in Flaw is characterised by indifference. The descriptions of watching are there to show what happens when one looks through a glass pane, or through a metaphorical pane of feeling superior or better protected by Providence, feeling entitled, believing that some things don’t concern us. This is an illusion. Everything concerns us. Everyone has a body, inside, everyone can be struck down and die in despair. Chance can also be kind, but it’s still no more than chance. If we lead a more or less happy life, we can’t take the credit and there’s no guarantee for the future.

 

But can literature affect our readiness to see? Can it affect anything at all? I don’t want to say that it can’t. I simply don’t know. Can the visual arts truly affect anything? They can thrust an image in front of us. Literature can do that too. Up to that point I’m certain; any further and one enters the realm of fantasy.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— Would you agree with the notion that the path you’ve followed from Dreams and Stones to Flaw and Italian Heels was a path from words (as the foundation of the world) to the image broadly conceived, and to watching, observing (as the basis for a novel)?

A

Magdalena Tulli

Dreams and Stones is different from my other books. Of course each one is different, but Dreams and Stones differs fundamentally from the rest. There’s no plot in the usual sense of the term. There’s a story, but it’s driven by an entirely different form of propulsion. To make something like Dreams and Stones, to make it function, make people willing to read it – and they were willing to, very much so in fact – when I think about it, it seems an almost impossible thing to me. But I wrote it, and I’m the author of that almost impossible thing. The next book after Dreams and Stones, In Red, is very much about plot, about images, probably more than anything else I’ve written. From the beginning I’ve had access to both kinds of driving force. Moving Parts and Flaw use a mixed propulsion. Of all my books, only Italian Heels is driven by regular gasoline. And you say that using ordinary gasoline is the crowning point of the long path I’ve taken? I’m not sure.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— I’m curious to know whether the visual dimension of Italo Calvino’s prose, which you’ve translated into Polish, was important for you. In a letter to François Wahl on 1 December 1960, Calvino wrote that ‘the only thing I’d like to teach others is a certain way of looking, which is to say, of being in the world. In its essence, literature is incapable of teaching anything else.’ Elsewhere he wrote that the point of departure is always the image.

A

Magdalena Tulli

— I didn’t know that. He wanted to teach a way of seeing? As concerns me, he succeeded. Though of course it’s not the only thing I’m able to do.

 

I’ve only translated one tiny little book of Calvino’s, Amerigo’s Long Day, about democracy. The hero is a member of an electoral committee. The narrator describes what this man sees, hears, thinks, and feels on election day in northern Italy in the mid-1950s. It’s a very interesting work. Does the visual play an important part in it? When I think about Calvino’s imagery, above all I see Invisible Cities. But it’s true, imagery plays a part in this story too. Literature doesn’t function without imagery. So you and I can collectively categorise literature among the visual arts.

Q

Grzegorz Jankowicz

— What is art for?
A

Magdalena Tulli

— Well, well – I didn’t expect that. You like to bring out the big guns? All right, I’ll try and answer. Above all, not what for, but why. Because we have a need for meaning that the world cannot satisfy, and a need for beauty which it could satisfy if it weren’t for the fact that it’s constantly renewing itself. That produces a truly heady cocktail which drives us to search for something in the realm of feelings, thoughts, images and sounds.
 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Bill Johnston is the translator of all Magdalena Tulli’s books in English. He has also translated numerous works of poetry and prose by other writers; his translation of Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone (Archipelago Books) won the PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award in 2012. His most recent translation is Tomasz Różycki’s mock-epic poem Twelve Stations (Zephyr Books, 2015). He teaches at Indiana University.

Magdalena Tulli is one of Poland’s leading writers. Four of her novels – Dreams and Stones, Moving Parts, Flaw, and In Red – have been published in English, all by Archipelago Books. The Los Angeles Review of Books has described her prose as ‘astonishing in its beauty and leaps of imagination’. Her most recent works, both more immediately personal, are Włoskie szpilki (Italian Heels) of 2011, and Szum (Noise), published in 2014; the latter will appear in English later this year. She lives in Warsaw.

Grzegorz Jankowicz is a Polish critic, essayist, editor and translator. He is a member of the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the Jagiellonian University. He has translated into Polish the work of authors including Ronald Firbank, Alberto Manguel, Gerard Mannix Flynn, Richard Rorty and Slavoj Žižek.


READ NEXT

Interviews

Issue No. 11

Interview with Alice Oswald

Features

Interview with Magdalena Tulli

The Ghosts of Place

Fiction

January 2016

Eight Minutes and Nineteen Seconds