Jerzy Kosiński (name bestowed upon him by his father while they were hiding from the Nazis, original name: Josek Lewinkopf) (June 18, 1933 – May 3, 1991) was a Polish-Jewish English-language novelist, who acquired American citizenship.
Early life, teaching, and marriage
He was born in Łódź. As a child during World War II, he survived under a false identity in a Roman Catholic Polish family in eastern Poland. A Roman Catholic priest had issued him a forged baptismal certificate.
After World War II, Kosiński was reunited with his parents and earned degrees in history and political science in Poland (at the University of Łódź). He worked as an assistant at the Polish Academy of Sciences (Institute of History and Sociology), and in 1957 emigrated to the United States.
He graduated from Columbia University, and was a fellow of Guggenheim (1967), the Ford (1968), and the American Academy (1970).
In the USA he was a lecturer at Yale, Princeton, Davenport University, and Wesleyan. In 1965 he became an American citizen.
In 1962 he married the eighteen years his senior American steel heiress Mary Hayward Weir, who in 1968 died of brain cancer. He later married Katherina von Fraunhofer, a descendant of Bavarian aristocracy.
Kosiński is perhaps best known for his novels The Painted Bird (1965), Steps (1968), and Being There (1971). Almost all of Kosiński's novels were on the New York Times Best Seller list, and they were translated into over 30 languages, with total copies estimated at 70 million in 1991.
The Painted Bird
The Painted Bird describes the experiences of a boy (of unknown religious and ethnic background) wandering about a surreal Polish countryside and hiding among cruel peasants. The novel is presumably a metaphor for the human condition: alienation in a dehumanized, hostile, and thoroughly evil world.
“For years Kosiński passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience during the Holocaust,” wrote D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University. “Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosiński confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences.” (from Myers' review of Jerzy Kosiński: A Biography by James Park Sloan)
The question of poetic license
It was "described by Arthur Miller and Ellie Wiesel [sic] as one of the most important books in the so-called Holocaust literature." Wiesel wrote in The New York Times Book Review that it was: "One of the best... Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity" - claims an advertisement by Barnes & Noble.
“When Kosiński's Painted Bird was translated into Polish - wrote Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, Adjunct Professor of Civil Engineering from Virginia State University, and author of a 1998 book on the subject of Polish Jewish history - it was read by the people with whom the Lewinkopf family lived during the war. They were scandalized by the tales of abuse that never happened. They recognized names of Jewish children sheltered by them during the war - children who survived thanks to them, now painted as victims of their abuse. They were bitter and offended by Jerzy's ingratitude and obsession to slander them.” According to Pogonowski, The Painted Bird - due to its "pornographic content" - became Kosiński's most successful attempt at profiteering from the Holocaust.
Irena Tomaszewska, author of a 1994 book Żegota – The Rescue of Jews in Wartime Poland, in a 22 page Report published by the Polish-Canadian Congress wrote that Kosiński's falsification of history resulted in the "gradual shifting of responsibility for the Holocaust from the Nazis to the Poles." (quote in Polish only)
Norman Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University, a son of Holocaust survivors and a controversial figure himself, commented on Wiesel's review by stating in his controversial yet highly acclaimed book The Holocaust Industry: "Long after Kosinsky was exposed as a consummate literary hoaxer, Wiesel continued to heap encomiums on his "remarkable body of work."
The American Jewish writer Howard Weiss reflected on Holocaust literary hoaxes: "Presenting a fictional account of the Holocaust as factual only provides ammunition to those who already deny that the horrors of Nazism and the death camps ever even happened. If one account is untrue, the deniers' reasoning goes, how can we be sure any survivors accounts are true ..." ( from an essay published by Weiss in the Chicago Jewish Star)
However, though some readers assumed it was based on the author's experiences during World War II, the book was in fact published and marketed as "fiction." Most of the events depicted are now widely considered to be fictional.
Richard Kluger, reviewing it for Harper's Magazine, wrote: "Extraordinary... literally staggering ... one of the most powerful books I have ever read."
And John Yardley, reviewing it for The Miami Herald, wrote: "Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. A magnificent work of art, and a celebration of the individual will. No one who reads it will forget it; no one who reads it will be unmoved by it. The Painted Bird enriches our literature and our lives."
Some readers accused Kosiński of anti-Polonism. Dr. Dariusz Ratajczak, Polish lecturer at Opole University's Institute of Historical Studies wrote at length about Kosiński's Slavic “Untermensch” in his 1999 collection of essays entitled Niebezpieczne tematy (Dangerous subjects). Ratajczak was suspended from teaching for explaining Holocaust revisionism and was brought before the Polish court.
Others argued that The Painted Bird is a misinterpretation of the metaphoric nature of the novel. In newer editions Kosiński explained that his characters' nationality and ethnicity had intentionally been left ambiguous in order to prevent that very interpretation.
Steps (1968), a novel comprising scores of loosely connected vignettes, won the National Book Award in 1969.
Being There was made into a 1979 movie directed by Hal Ashby, starring Peter Sellers. The screenplay was written by Kosiński and the award winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones. It won the 1981 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Film) Best Screenplay Award, as well as the 1980 Writers Guild of America Award (Screen) for Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium. It was also nominated for the 1980 Golden Globes Best Screenplay Award (Motion Picture).
Controversy: claims of plagiarism
According to Eliot Weinberger, an American writer, essayist, editor and translator, Kosiński was not the author of the book. Weinberger alleged in his 2000 book Karmic Traces that Kosiński was not fluent in English at the time of its writing.
In June 1982, a Village Voice article by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith accused Kosiński of plagiarism, claiming much of his work was derivative of Polish sources unfamiliar to English readers. (Being There bears a strong resemblance to Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy — The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma — a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz). They also alleged that Kosiński wrote The Painted Bird in Polish, and had it secretly translated into English. The article also claimed that Kosiński's books had actually been ghost-written by his "assistant editors," pointing to stylistic differences among Kosiński's novels, depending upon his free-lance editors for "the sort of composition that we usually call writing." New York poet, publisher and translator, George Reavey, who in American biographer James Sloan's opinion was embittered by his own lack of literary success, claimed to have written The Painted Bird for Kosiński. Reavey's assertions were ignored by the press.
The article presented a different picture of Kosiński's life during the Holocaust — a view which was later supported by a Polish biographer, Joanna Siedlecka, and Sloan. The article asserted that The Painted Bird, assumed by some to be semi-autobiographical, was a work of fiction. The article maintained that rather than wandering the Polish countryside, Kosiński had spent the war years in hiding with a Polish Catholic family and had never been appreciably mistreated.
Reaction to article
The Voice reporters offered the testimony of several free lancers formerly in Kosiński's part-time employ, including Barbara Mackey, the assistant who worked on The Devil Tree. When she was contacted by the Washington Post Book World, however, for a follow-up story, she insisted, "I did nothing but editing," and went on to criticize what she called the Village Voice's "shoddy journalism." Furthermore, she continued, the article's authors asked her "leading questions," asserts one anonymous webpage featuring claims proven false about Kosiński's wartime experience.
In a Publishers Weekly article, Les Pockell, the editor of Passion Play and The Devil Tree, said that the charges were "totally ludicrous. It's clear no one in the article is asserting that he or she wrote the book." Because Kosiński was "obsessive" about his writing, Pockell continued, "he retained people to copy edit." Pockell told the Los Angeles Times Calendar that he felt the article's authors "played upon the ignorance of the general public about the conventions of publishing," and "to turn Kosinski's working methods into something sinister makes one wonder about their motives," alleges the same anonymous webpage.
Austen Olney, editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin, wrote in a letter to the Village Voice:
"I have been marginally involved with the three Kosinski novels published by Houghton Mifflin and can attest to the fact that he is a difficult and demanding author who makes endless (and to my way of thinking often niggling) corrections in proof. I have been sometimes overwhelmed by his flamboyant conceits and his artful social manipulations, but I have never had any reason to believe that he has ever needed or used any but the most routine editorial assistance. The remarkable consistency of tone in all his novels seems to me sufficient evidence that they all come from his hands alone."
Terence Blacker, an English publisher (who published Kosinski's books) and author of children's books and mysteries for adults, wrote in response to the article's accusations in his article published in The Independent in 2002:
"The significant point about Jerzy Kosiński was that ... his books ... had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself. The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty's Reds. He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect. All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy."
John Corry, a controversial figure himself wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times in November 1982, responding and defending Kosiński, which appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that "Kosiński [sic] was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign."
Kosiński's defenders also assert that these accusations ignore the stylistic differences apparent in the work of almost any artist over a period of more than a few years.
Kosiński himself responded that he had never maintained that the book was autobiographical, even though years earlier he confided to Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, that his manuscript "draws upon a childhood spent, by the casual chances of war, in the remotest villages of Eastern Europe.". In 1988 he wrote The Hermit of 69th Street, in which he sought to demonstrate the absurdity of investigating prior work by inserting footnotes for practically every term in the book. "Ironically - wrote theatre critic Lucy Komisar - possibly his only true book... about a successful author who is shown to be a fraud." (from the same article)
TV, radio, film, and newspaper appearances
Kosiński appeared 12 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during 1971-73 and The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, was a guest on the talk radio show of Long John Nebel, posed half-naked for a cover photograph by Annie Leibovitz for the New York Times Magazine in 1982, and presented the Oscar for screenwriting in 1982.
He also played the role of Bolshevik revolutionary and Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's film Reds. The Time magazine critic wrote: "As Reed's Soviet nemesis, novelist Jerzy Kosiński acquits himself nicely--a tundra of ice against Reed's all-American fire." Newsweek complimented Kosiński's "delightfully abrasive" performance," alleges the quoted anonymous website.
In 1979 Kosiński told a reporter: "I'm not a suicide freak, but I want to be free. If I ever have a terminal disease that would affect my mind or my body, I would end it."
Kosiński committed suicide on May 3, 1991, by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates and his usual rum-and-Coke, twisting a plastic shopping bag around his head and taping it shut around his neck (a method of suicide suggested by the Hemlock Society), and lying down to die in water in the bathtub in his West 57th Street New York apartment.
His parting suicide note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity."
De l'Oiseau à l'Ermite
«Cet ermite s’y connaît plus en déguisements que tous les autres oiseaux de son espèce, bariolés ou non. Cet oiseau prouve qu’il est possible de changer de déguisement même après la mort (…). C’est une grive ermite mais seulement tant qu’elle est en vie. Dès qu’elle meurt, son plumage change à tel point de couleur, et de manière si imprévisible, que personne, pas même ses proches, ne savent qui elle était de son vivant. C’est bien pratique quand on veut disparaître sans laisser la moindre trace, n’est-ce pas?»
Un auteur qui insiste : «Exiting is for me very important» mais un livre qui s’achève dans une voie sans issue (NO EXIT), ça fait penser à un seppuku littéraire.
Un héros – Kosky – sachant qu’en ruthène, sa langue natale, kos signifie oiseau moqueur – un oiseau donc, nouvel albatros que «souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage, etc.», qui «attend les autres oiseaux. Viennent-ils simplement pour se moquer de lui ou pour le dépecer?»
L’auteur – Kosinski – d’un succès mondial, L’Oiseau bariolé (1966), sachant que «l’oiseau bariolé est la métaphore de l’autre, de l’original que l’on déteste, et fait allusion à un jeu (…) consistant à capturer un oiseau, à peindre ses plumes de diverses couleurs criardes et à le relâcher parmi les siens. Lesquels, restés noirs ou gris, ne supportant pas cette différence, tuaient le bariolé à coups de bec. C’est une belle image, par anticipation, de l’hostilité que devait provoquer plus tard Jerzy Kosinski, malgré (ou à cause de) tous ses déguisements, toutes ses ruses » (Michel Braudeau dans le Monde du 29 janvier 1993).
Que ce soit l’opposition (K. v. K.) ou au contraire l’analogie (K. & K.) qui signifient, «l’écriture parle, même si l’écrivain se tait». Kosinski est peut-être l’Oiseau, dont l’enfance est celle d’un juif errant en Pologne pour échapper aux persécutions, maltraité, torturé par des paysans au point qu’il en devient muet. Mais... «Norbert Kosky a-t-il perdu l’usage de la parole pendant la guerre ou bien est-ce, pour lui, le seul moyen de réduire au silence cette parole qui lui permettrait, s’il le voulait, de décrire l’indicible?»
Pourquoi faut-il que Schulz ait écrit Ptaki (Les Oiseaux), sa toute première histoire, en 1933, année de naissance de Kosky? (de Kosinski aussi). Que, la même année, John Mansfield publiât aux Etats-Unis The Bird of dawning (L’Oiseau de l’aube)? Qu’Helena Powska, compatriote de Kosky, ait écrit L’Oiseau bleu, une nouvelle qu’elle qualifie d’autofiction, «ni vérité ni mensonge. Tout tourne autour d’un événement – ni réel, ni fictif – mon aventure avec un certain Norbert K., un exilé ruthène que j’ai connu à New-York...»
Et pourquoi ces deux auteurs, l’auteur et l’auteur de l’auteur, K. et K., ont-ils chacun écrit neuf et non dix romans... «Le neuf est l’un de mes chiffres sacrés», disai(en?)t K.
Kos. v. Kos. : si Kosinski avait sans conteste le pouvoir d’en finir, littérairement, avec son auteur-personnage, sans en laisser l’occasion à celui qui disait pourtant, en parlant du suicide : «Je suis persuadé que, dans mon cas, une telle mort résoudrait tout ce qui n’est pas résolu», une autre fin court dans ces pages : celle de l’auteur-homme lui-même, qui se la donna par asphyxie, à l’instar des Virginia Woolf, Paul Celan et Hart Crane qui peuplent les notes de bas de page de l’Ermite.
C’est que tout est souvent, dans ce livre, inscrit en bas de page, l’au-delà du Neuf comme le passé de l’«oiseau traumatisé» qui, par cet acte final, a transformé sa vie en œuvre d’art et donné le coup de grâce aux démêlés de Kosky avec la réalité et la fiction.
L’incapacité du 9ème livre de Kosky à «raconter une simple histoire» est peut-être à rapprocher de la mort volontaire de Kosinski dont la cause réside, d’après sa deuxième femme, dans une dépression due à «son incapacité grandissante à écrire» (les paroles de Katherina von Fraunhofer sont citées par M.B., L’Humanité du 6 mai 1991, «L’Oiseau traumatisé»).
L’Ermite, testament de K(osinski) ? Lire ce roman, c’est accéder directement à un cerveau et assister en temps réel au fonctionnement d’une mémoire et d’une pensée - d’un inconscient – dont les arabesques se dessinent dans le gras des citations et les petits caractères des notes essentielles, dans les SS (non les §) qui séparent les paragraphes... Une encyclopédie en tout cas, un livre qui fait le tour de la question et dont l’auteur a peut-être le dernier mot.
«Tout ce que j’ai à dire, je l’ai déjà dit dans mes romans. Ma fiction appartient à tout le monde ; moi pas.» Dixit, exit Kosky-Kosinski.
Una creación de Jerzy Kosinski
"El escritor polaco al que nos referimos ha dejado en muchos de sus trabajos un testimonio de gran valor que seguirá influyendo en las generaciones futuras como un grito de libertad y respeto recíproco."
Se trata de la fascinación que produce el lenguaje sibilino. Lo vemos en filosofía a través de textos extenuantes de factura incomprensible plagados de neologismos, frases tortuosas y razonamientos circulares. Lo comprobamos en ensayos de economía que parecen fabricados para mofarse del lector inundados de lenguaje críptico, contradicciones permanentes y modelos econométricos inconducentes.
Karl Popper ha escrito en su colección titulada Conocimiento objetivo que “la búsqueda de la verdad solo es posible si hablamos sencilla y claramente, evitando complicaciones y tecnicismos innecesarios. Para mí, buscar la sencillez y lucidez es un deber moral de todos los intelectuales: la falta de claridad es un pecado y la presunción un crimen”. Por su parte, Wilhelm Röpke consigna que “cuando uno trata de leer un journal de economía en estos días, frecuentemente uno se pregunta si uno no ha tomado inadvertidamente un journal de química o hidráulica” y, más recientemente, el sonado escándalo que produjeron Alan Sokal y Jean Bricmont quienes luego de pasar por los referatos del caso y publicar en la revista académica Social Text, declararon que se estaban burlando debido a los disparates conceptuales e imposturas que contenía el trabajo.
Kosinski fue permanentemente agredido por ramificaciones slalinistas en la universidad de su Polonia natal donde después de infinitos calvarios se doctoró en sociología mientras trabajaba como instructor de ski hasta que logró escaparse a Estados Unidos donde trabajó como conductor de camiones de día y en horario parcialmente nocturno de cuidador de un predio de estacionamiento. Al mismo tiempo, estudiaba inglés hasta que pudo aplicar a una beca de la Ford Foundation que obtuvo para estudiar en la Universidad de Columbia donde también se doctoró en psicología social y escribió dos libros de gran éxito editorial: No Third Path donde muestra la inconsistencia de pretender una tercera vía entre la libertad y el totalitarismo y The Future is Ours, Comrade en el que invita al levantamiento de sus coterráneos contra las botas comunistas. Fue profesor de prosa inglesa y crítica literaria en las universidades de Yale y Princeton, recibió el premio de literatura de la American Academy y del National Institute of Arts and Letters y presidió el capítulo estadounidense del PEN Club. Sus múltiples novelas fueron best-sellers, una de ellas -Being There- se llevó al cine y obtuvo el Best Screen of the Year Award.
Es a esta novela a la que hacemos breve referencia en estas líneas. Alude a un jardinero analfabeto conciente de su ignorancia en los temas que le preguntan y repreguntan audiencias fascinadas por lo que consideran un léxico repleto de sabiduría que estiman hace referencias metafóricas al cuidado de jardines. Muchos fueron los reputados personajes que se hipnotizaban con lo que no entendían y afanosamente buscaban soluciones políticas a los enredos que ellos mismos habían generado. El cuadro de este escrito de ficción resulta que puede fácilmente trasladarse a la no ficción, esto es, a lo que se vive hoy en muchos ambientes políticos en los que los figurones del caso presumen conocimientos que no tienen ni pueden tener puesto que éstos se encuentran dispersos y fraccionados entre millones de personas. Las pretendidas directivas de gobernantes megalómanos, concentran ignorancia al cerrarle las puertas a los procesos abiertos y competitivos compatibles con la sociedad abierta.
No tiene desperdicio la entrevista del jardinero con el presidente estadounidense quien concluye después de la reunión: “tengo que admitir que lo que acabo de escuchar es lo más refrescante y optimista que me han dicho en mucho tiempo” a raíz de la descripción de las estaciones de verano, otoño, invierno y primavera que había realizado con la mayor inocencia aquella persona que no tenía contacto alguno con el mundo exterior como no sea a través de la televisión.
Todo el clima de los burócratas instalados en Washington DC se traduce un una sátira a la política cuyo establishment en verdad ha perdido contacto con la realidad. Las reflexiones de quien se ocupa de cultivar un jardín están formuladas de modo literal pero, como decimos, los receptores del mensaje, acostumbrados a complicar las cosas, lo entienden como consideraciones alegóricas.
Kosinski intenta con éxito subrayar la simpleza de las cosas y el afán de los burócratas por estrangular los hechos hasta convertirlos en fenómenos irreconocibles e imposibles de abordar. No son capaces de entender que, igual que en un jardín, de lo que se trata es de cuidar, preservar y no desnaturalizar ni pervertir en el contexto de una superlativa presunción del conocimiento que ubica a los gobernantes en una posición de pretendida omnisciencia (y omnipotencia).
Este encuadre que efectúa el autor comentado, puede extenderse a otras áreas como el arte moderno donde también los impostores encajan construcciones que igual que la música confunden el ruido con melodía al exhibir adefesios que en nada reflejan standards de excelencia, con la complicidad de algunos snobs y timoratos que declaran que son obras “demasiado complejas” como para que las entienda una mente normal.[...]
Alberto Benegas Lynch
— El Diario Exterior
Jerzy Kosinski, The Art of Fiction
The following conversation with Jerzy Kosinski, which does not contain the customary interviewer’s headnote, is a much expanded version of the one that appeared in The Paris Review in 1972. At that time Mr. Kosinski was traveling abroad and could not be reached when the transcribed text, prepared by interviewers Rocco Landesman and George Plimpton, was ready for his review.
Interviewer: If you had continued to live in Eastern Europe and written in Polish or, as you were bilingual, in Russian, do you think your novels would have been published? And if so, would they have been popular?
Jerzy Kosinski: It’s not even a matter for speculation. I would never have written in Polish or in Russian. I never saw myself as a man willingly expressing opinions in a totalitarian State. Make no mistake about it: all my generation was perfectly aware of the political price paid for our existence in the total State. To be a writer was to become a spokesman for a particular philosophical dogma. I considered this a trap: I would not speak for it; nor could I publicly speak against it. That’s why I slowly moved toward visual expression: while officially studying social psychology, I became a professional photographer. Of course, there were some other reasons for my apprehension about becoming a writer. Which language would I choose? I was split, like a child who belongs to two different families; studying in Polish at the university, but at home—my parents, even though Polish, were both Russian-born and -educated—all that mattered was Russian tradition and Russian literature.
I: Given the dimensions of the political trap, could you express in photographs anything you felt?
K: Within the limits of photography, I could contrast collective behavior with individual destiny. Thus, my photographs often portrayed old age, which knows no politics. They showed the solitude of a man alone in an empty field or on a crowded street, and the State buildings and Party memorials, ridiculously monumental, inhuman in their grandeur. My photographs pointed out an independent, naked human being who, even in the total State, was still willing to be photographed naked. I even produced some nudes of rather attractive nonsocialist female forms. It ended on a very unpleasant political note however; at one annual meeting of the Photographers’ Union I was officially accused of being a cosmopolitan who sees the flesh, but not its social implications. My membership in the union and my right to have my photographs published or exhibited nationally or abroad was suspended for an indefinite period. For the same reason, I was also suspended at the university, but then reinstated thanks to my uniformly good grades—and the personal intervention by the dean and the rector, both scholars of “the old guard.”
I: Who accused you?
K: First, the Party members of the Photographers’ Union. The same politically oriented State setup as the Writers’ Union, you know. These unions control work assignments and permits, exhibitions, grants, awards, etcetera. They are geared to policing; that is what they’re there for. Then my case was picked up by the Party cell of the Students’ Union at the university. By then it was all very serious. One’s whole life depended on an outcome of such an accusation—and of the review of one’s total conduct that followed.
I: Can one defend oneself?
K: Within the limits of the totalitarian doctrine; there is no defense against the supremacy of the Party that claims to be “the arm of the people.” When I was growing up in a Stalinist society my guidelines were: Am I going to survive physically? Mentally? Am I going to remain a decent being? Will they, the Party, succeed in turning me into their pawn and unleash me against others like me? Since I could not avoid being in conflict with the Party, the unions, the whole totalitarian routine imposed on everyone, my real plight had to remain hidden. I avoided having close friends, men and women who would know too much about me and could be coerced into testifying against me. Still, the accusations, the reprimands, the attacks, continued. I was twice thrown out from the Students’ Union and twice ordered back. From week to week, from meeting to meeting, it was a very perilous existence. Until I left for America I lived the life of an “inner émigré,” as I called myself.
I: An inner émigré?
K: Yes. The photographic darkroom emerged as a perfect metaphor for my life. It was the one place I could lock myself in (rather than being locked in) and legally not admit anyone else. For me it became a kind of temple. There is an episode in Steps in which a young philosophy student at the State university selects the lavatories as the only temples of privacy available to him. Well, think how much more of such a temple a darkroom is in a police state. Inside, I would develop my own private images; instead of writing fiction I imagined myself as a fictional character. I identified very strongly with characters of both Eastern and Western literature. I saw myself as Pechorin, in Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time; as Romashov, the hero of Kuprin’s The Duel; as Julien Sorel, or Rastignac, and once in a while as Arthur of E. L. Voynich’s The Gadfly, facing the oppressive society and being at war with it. I wrote my fiction emotionally; I would never commit it to paper.
I: Paddy Chayefsky said once that he felt these sort of oppressive strictures were really quite important in producing fine literature. He felt that a straitjacket was essential to a writer.
K: Easily said. One could as well argue the opposite and make a point for the Byronesque kind of expression, with its abandonment, its freedom to collide with others, to express outrage—for Nabokov’s kind of vitality. Or we can make a point for a man who chooses a self-imposed visionary straitjacket, perhaps the best one there is. Look at Stendhal, Proust, Melville, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor. For every Solzhenitsyn who manages to have his first novel published officially (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch), there are probably hundreds of gifted writers in the Soviet bloc who create emotionally in their “darkrooms,” and who will never write anything. Or those very desperate ones who do commit their vision to paper but hide their manuscripts somewhere under the floorboards.[...]
— The Paris Review