How to Talk about Polish Books You Haven’t Read
#language & literature
You’re talking about Polish literature, and obviously having a great conversation. But suddenly somebody brings up a Polish book you haven’t read. You really need to seem like a learned person here… Sweat pours as you think how unseemly it would be to admit you don’t know it… Fear not! Culture.pl has the answers.
A learned, cultured person
In 2007, Pierre Bayard, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris, published a delightfully witty essay titled How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Like the title promises, it deals with the subject of how to have a conversation about books you know little or nothing about. The author starts out by saying that every now and then one is confronted with the need to talk (or write) about books one hasn’t read, be it in professional or social situations. He adds that such uneasy occurrences are a consequence of the endless amount of writings out there – it’s simply impossible to know all of them.
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But sometimes admitting that you don’t know a particular book might not be advisable (if you want to come about as a learned, cultured person) and one may want to drop a little white lie instead. Bayard provides guidelines how to do this, arguing also that there’s nothing wrong with misleading your interlocutor in this way since confabulating about books is a creative and cultured activity… In this article, Culture.pl follows in the footsteps of the French professor but narrows down the question addressed in his essay only to Polish literature. Basing on five techniques given or inspired by Bayard, we provide a guide dedicated to talking about Polish books you haven’t read. We promise you won’t be left speechless no matter which Polish book is being discussed…
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Form your own opinion
When talking about a Polish book you haven’t read, it certainly helps to have an opinion about it. Then you can always participate in the conversation by giving your take on the subject. But how does one come to an opinion about something one isn’t familiar with? In order to do that, you can rely on intermediaries. For example, Polish film directors are known for making marvellous screen adaptations of Polish books. The Oscar-winning Andrzej Wajda alone made a few. He adapted the Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Władysław Reymont’s novel The Promised Land, Poland’s national epic Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, and the classic short story Maids of Wilko by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz.
Photos of Andrzej Wajda by Jerzy Kośnik – Image Gallery
Another director known for his adaptations of Polish literature is Filip Bajon who made film versions of Stefan Żeromski’s acclaimed novel The Spring to Come and the play Śluby Panieńskie (Maiden Vows) by Aleksander Fredro. These adaptations will acquaint you with the book they’re based upon in a shorter time than it takes to read the book itself. There are plenty of other films based on Polish books that let you do the same thing.
Also, you can read about a book rather than read the book itself. For instance, reading one of Culture.pl’s articles devoted to a particular literary work is guaranteed to take up much less time than reading the work itself. Here’s a taste of our article about Jacek Dukaj’s science fiction novel Extensa:
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It turns out that our planet, along with the entire universe, is ruled by Them — representatives of a higher civilisation who look on humans in much the same way that we look on ants. The tool that gives these Aliens power over the cosmos is the 'extensa' of the title, the product of a highly advanced technology, a kind of substance whose theoretical foundations have been known for years as the Einstein-Rosen-Podolski paradox. According to this mental experiment, which was formulated in 1935, elementary particles can exert influence on each other even at distances of hundreds of light years.
Both an article and a screen adaptation should provide you with enough insight to come to at the very least a passing opinion about a particular book. Consequently you should be able to have a short conversation about it with everybody involved being none the wise that you haven’t actually read it.
Position among other books
Bayard says that the ‘main stake in the game that is talking about literature’ is orientation in the interrelated system that’s made up of all books. You don’t have to know what a given work is about if you know how it relates to other titles. For example, let’s say you are participating in a conversation about the novel Trans-Atlantyk by the highly-celebrated 20th-century writer Witold Gombrowicz and would like to say something about it that hides the fact you’ve never even seen a copy. In this case, you can casually mention how Gombrowicz’s famous book relates to Jan Chryzostom Pasek’s Memoirs. After all, Gombrowicz heavily drew on Pasek’s style to give his novel the flavour of a so-called nobleman’s tale, a literary style modelled on the telling of stories at the social gatherings of 17th-century noblemen. If you add another sentence about how this shows that Pasek was an influential writer whose work outlived its own epoch, you should be in the clear, with everybody listening nodding in agreement and respect…
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Similarly you can also talk, for instance, about Adam Mickiewicz’s pivotal work Ballads & Romances, published in 1822. All you need to know to get through it popping up in conversation is that it was the first of its, Romantic and folk-inspired, kind:
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Folklore was discovered for Romantic Polish literature by Adam Mickiewicz. Ballads & Romances (1822), a volume which the poet called a ‘collection of folk ballads and songs’, introduced the readers to the world of spiritual and material folk culture, a world previously unknown to high art. This work revolutionised the era’s literature and became a manifesto for Polish Romanticism...
From ‘Leksykon Literatury Polskiej: Romantyzm’ by Marian Uriel, 2000, Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, trans. MK
So, talking about how Polish books relate to one another should see you through conversations about them even if you haven’t read them.
About the author
Another way to talk about a book you know nothing (or close to nothing) about is to talk about its author. It’s fairly easy to direct a conversation about a book toward the topic of its author without raising suspicion. Once you’re in that area, all you’ll really need to know to perform is one juicy piece of information. For example, when talking about a rather long book by Olga Tokarczuk you could never find the time for, you could say that in 2018 she received the Man Booker International Prize and that this award is one of the most important distinctions of its kind in the world.
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Olga Tokarczuk has become the first Polish writer to win the Man Booker International prize, which goes to the best work of translated fiction from anywhere in the world. More than 100 novels were submitted for the 2018 award, and Tokarczuk’s Flights saw off works by two former winners – South Korea’s Han Kang and Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai.
From ‘Olga Tokarczuk's 'extraordinary' Flights wins Man Booker International prize’, The Guardian
You could even broaden your statement by adding something general about there being many outstanding contemporary women writers in Poland. Here you could name-drop, for instance, the acclaimed Dorota Masłowska, saying that she’s especially valued for the unique literary style which draws on modern slang.
Talking about Polish authors’ awards is generally a good strategy because it lets you seamlessly link to Poland’s Nobel Prize in Literature winners. If you’d like to pursue that thread, you may want to remember that Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska are all shining examples of the Polish language’s wins of that most important award. For extra knowledge points, you can say that yes, Isaac Bashevis Singer may have written in Yiddish, but it’s worth remembering that he was originally from the Warsaw area too. Don’t forget that you can prep your conversation arsenal with plenty of impressive information about all these authors by perusing Culture.pl.
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Use a quote
When talking about a book you haven’t read, it’s always good to know at least one quote from it. Then you can always deliver the quote and come about as a highly cultured interlocutor. But how does one learn a quote from an unread book? Well, it’s not that hard to find quotes from books that appear outside of their original context. Take Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for example. The timeless novel by the Polish author has been adapted for the screen and in one of the most memorable scenes of that adaptation (directed by Francis Ford Coppola), Marlon Brando utters the famous quote from the book: ‘The horror! The horror!’ Remember that and you’ve remembered a key part of the book…
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Also, there are plenty of publications out there devoted to quotes. Not only dictionaries but also articles. Culture.pl, for instance, has a few. One is even devoted to Joseph Conrad’s aforementioned classic. In it you may find the following, tasty quote pertaining to one of the book’s main characters:
The article explains that not only is this a quote from the Heart of Darkness but that it was also used by T.S. Eliot as an epigraph for his poem The Hollow Men. By using this piece of erudition, you can create the impression that you’re familiar with the quote’s source and also divert the conversation to another literary work, doubly boosting your status as a learned speaker. Then let the others speak their part on The Hollow Men, and see if you can tell how many books they’ve read.
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If you’d like to find out more about quotes from Polish literature check out Culture.pl’s articles like 27 Perverse Quotes by Poland's Most Subversive Author (devoted to Gombrowicz) or Mud & Mammon: 10 Polish Quotes About Money.
If everything else fails, you can always creatively invent things about a book. In order to succeed with this strategy, you must maintain a certain level of ambiguity. You might as well want to refer to something you’ve overheard during your conversation. For example, if somebody makes a remark about the crime story Blinded by the Lights by Jakub Żulczyk, you may want to say that you just love the dramatic ending of that novel. Given that it’s a crime story, there’s a more-than-high probability of a dramatic ending, and if that shouldn’t be the case (although in reality it is) you can always say, as Bayard advises, that you got confused and were actually thinking of a different book.
On a higher level, you may want to invent entirely new books for the purposes of your conversation. This is something that might work when discussing a very prolific author. Say, somebody starts a conversation about a book by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski that you haven’t read. If you know that this author published literally hundreds of writings, you can risk inventing a title by him (perhaps use The Return to the Old Village) and shifting the conversation to that subject. There’s a high chance your interlocutor won’t have a clue that you’re talking about an entirely fictitious book. After all, Kraszewski wrote so many books that it’s only natural that somebody might not know one of them. And since you’re guaranteed to be the only one to be familiar with this title, you’ll have your moment to shine. Just say a few sentences about how it’s rooted in Polish folklore or history (like so many of the writer’s works) and you’ll be fine.
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In general, when talking about books you haven’t read, bear in mind that you have one major thing working for you. As Bayard puts it:
jan chryzostom pasek
isaac bashevis singer
józef ignacy kraszewski
In other words, people won’t be keen to put you on the spot, simply because it’s inappropriate. So all you need to do is keep calm and just keep talking.
In conclusion, hopefully you’ve found this guide useful, but we at Culture.pl must stress that you only use its tactics in self-defence. When you’re not attending demanding cocktail parties where you endlessly have to show off your literary know-how, do try spending your free time with more Polish books. There are plenty you will adore once you’ve actually read them, not just the ones we’ve mentioned here. And you never know – maybe next time, you’ll be the one who starts the conversation.
Author: Marek Kępa, May 2019