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Andrzej Żuławski: Literature as a Way of Living

(Like Hemingway, he doesn’t leave his desk
without an idea for the next day.
Like Mamet, he seems more interested
in words than in images.
Enter the Polish author who
 is, first of all, like himself)

(Michele Salimbeni with Sergio Lacavalla) – To be a good writer, suffering is necessary!, Dostoevsky once said, thus expressing the need to sense his life into his own literature. Just like him, Andrzej Żuławski—not always suffering, but nevertheless living life to the full—conveys into writing the existential experiences of himself as an intellectual suspended between the literary visionary images of his run-to-an-extreme cinema and those emerging from his cinema-like literature. Since 1961, when his first o-niej-andrzej-zulawskicollection of poems appeared, and 1966, when he wrote “Kino”, his first novel, and then up to “Niewiernosc” [1] in 2001 and to his two books of 2002, “O Niej” and “Jako Nic”, Żuławski’s work is an unbounded, twenty-volume-and-forty-year-long world of words interspersed with movies of strong literary origin. “After all, I write novels from the films I could not make,” he says, soon adding how he mostly feels himself like a writer who is in films. It is writing—the one Żuławski inoculated twelve movies with, highest and unique movies whose masterpiece (“Mad Love”, 1985, played by the young muse Sophie Marceau) is a delirious and sharp, baroque and blunt transposal of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”—, it is writing which grows from the movie criticism [2] pursued in youth, and gets polished over the literary and philosophical studying and practicing.

Dostoevski, or, indirectly, his influence, reappears with the theme of double from “The Double” in films such as the debut full-lenght one “The Third Part of the Night” (1971), “Possession” (1981), “Boris Godunov” (1990) and “Blue Note” (1991). And again the Russian author is revitalized in ‘the set within the set’ of “La femme publique” (1984). Then Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is staged within “Mad Love”, and the entire romantic literature (but also plenty of surrealism) invades all the filmography of the Polish writer, born in Lwow on November 22, 1940. His literary cinema is traceable, for example, in a novel such as “Lity Bor” (1991), which contains the story of the unsuccessful attempts to film “The Landlady” (again Dostoevsky), and a novella by Rudnicki.

Literature, cinema and life: utter osmosis without boundaries.
He speaks a lot about writing. And it’s something he usually does with no one.

You have written unceasingly for over forty years incorporating all your personal experiences into the flow of your ink. In your novels, life is brilliantly grafted on to art and vice versa. “Books aren’t written from nothing,” you wrote. How does your biography get reworked into a literary form?
It isn’t truly biography. I’d rather speak of Self-Novel. Of course not all the books I wrote are such. There are some essays, other books that are completely different, and even others with a different protagonist. But the most important part of my work is that one. What is—otherwise—the good of living if you cannot love music, literature, painting, cinema, all that is silly called art? What’s the meaning of life if life itself can’t be used?

“At least a line a day should be addressed against oneself”—again from your writing.  Could you go over this concept?
The biggest risk is to fall in love with oneself, to be happy with oneself, so that you become, I think, an unbearable self-indulgent character who is very happy to be himself/herself. I’m not at all happy of being myself, but at the same time I’m not displeased with it. It is the way it is. I never asked to be given birth. But I’m here. If this is my thought I’ve got to put it down . . . And this sort of line against oneself is a ‘life line’, it’s salvific. I don’t want to become an insufferable man of letters like those who crowd France, for instance.

Andrzej Żuławski: I write very quickly because I think for a long time and very slowly. Some of my books I thought about for five, six years before sitting at my desk to write them”

In the introduction to a French edition of your novels you say: “I write because I’m a director. I shoot because I’m a writer.” What are the main relationships between cinema and literature?
It’s a huge question. We often talked about it, but I’d simply say that cinema changed literature, it came into literature and it provoked not so much a revolution as an evolution toward something different from literature as it was before the invention of cinema. At the same time, there’s no cinema without literature because the script itself has to be written.

Finally into your writing lab. You always just write in ink. What does an option like that represent in these technology days? And does it have an influence over your style?
We don’t write with our eyes. Those who write with their eyes are the same who write on their computer, and that is immediately perceivable. Literature of all times has been made in a very sensual, physical way. There is a profound connection between the gesture of drawing a letter, a word, a sentence, and your hand, the paper and its texture, the pen scratching on it and making a noise. It sets all your senses in motion. Those who write on their computer just use their eyes. I confirm it: writing is physical!

What are your writing rituals? How many hours a day do you spend writing? Do you methodically write every day, whether inspired or not?
I write very quickly because I think for a long time and very slowly. Some of my books I thought about for five, six years before sitting at my desk to write them. After ruminating over everything like cows do, I sit down. At this point I know what I must do and I do what I want. My rituals are very simple. I get up in the morning and have a coffee. I sit at my desk and start working until the moment I know what I could still write, but I also know I could do it better the day after. You shouldn’t empty out yourself completely, but leave your ideas flowing.

When reading your novels, one thinks of the Surrealists’ automatic writing and spontaneous prose. Kerouac encouraged to write in excitement, apace, until you get cramps in accordance with the laws of orgasm. An interminable writing as in semi-trance. Is this something close to your own method and how important is the revision in your writing process?
Revision is important. It was important for a long time. For me it’s the moment when I retype the handwritten text. And my typewriter is not an electronic one, it is an old machine with the type bar striking the letters on the paper. It’s a sort of typography. All this allows control and objectivity. In other words, if you write your book on the computer and you make your revision on the computer, you don’t really retype it, you just move sentences, you cut and paste. It’s an entirely different thing. Whereas when you typewrite the handwritten text you become very focused and you manage the whole thing. I realized that the more I write books the less I edit, and this just because the job has been carefully done before. Then the third moment is perhaps the most important; it is when the book comes off you, and after that the proofs arrive from the publishing house and you must read them. And you proofread with a pen, this book weirdly seems not your own anymore, it’s the time when you begin looking at it not only with your own eyes, but through an external gaze: the world’s eyes.

You wrote over twenty books. Which is the one you feel most attached to?
No, I don’t feel particularly attached to one or another. They are so different from each other that it would be like asking whether one prefers potatoes instead of a cake, or else. A normal man loves all this. I’m attached to them all or detached from them in the same way.

Are there any writers you consider fundamental in shaping  your literary conscience?
Yes, undoubtedly so. Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Joyce, Hemingway, Singer, Gombrowicz, Thomas Bernhardt. There are many; for me literature is sort of a tree, and it’s amazing to be a little leafy branch of a big tree, not that this leafy branch should necessarily look like other ones.

Dostoevsky wrote of literary action as a reason to live. Would you say the same for yourself?
No, it is not a reason to live, we live despite our will, nobody asked us to come into this world, nobody asked my permission. But we write because we want to write. It can be different from writer to writer, but for me writing is not a reason to live, it is a way of living.

[1] Editor’s Note. Through the troubled relationship between a mature philosopher and a young woman, the book examines in depth the difficulties of living love with all its implications.
[2] Editor’s Note. “I was especially fascinated by his reviews about what he had seen on the screen. I’m sure he was definitely the most penetrating connoisseur of the cinema of our country,” said director Andrzej Wajda about Żuławski, who was his assistant.

© 2004 Leconte


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