According to my trusty Russian speaker (Nina), the title translates as Lottery, or maybe a slight adaptation of the word. In the novel it’s called a Lotterie.
As always I’m really pleased to see this particular novel given a new lease of life.
According to my trusty Russian speaker (Nina), the title translates as Lottery, or maybe a slight adaptation of the word. In the novel it’s called a Lotterie.
As always I’m really pleased to see this particular novel given a new lease of life.
In George Melly’s autobiography, Owning Up (1965), he describes how he became the victim of a violent assault outside a hotel in Manchester. He had been singing with Mick Mulligan’s Magnolia Jazz Band and at the end of the gig he was standing on the steps of the building, breathing the fresh air, while the rest of the band were still inside packing up their instruments. A group of young thugs approached – one of them had earlier been ejected by Mulligan for pulling a razor on him, and he and his mates were now looking for revenge. One of them had a bottle, which he started tapping with increasing strength against a brick wall. Melly writes, ‘When that breaks, I thought, he’s going to push it in my face.’ The assault began with a head-butt, making Melly’s nose bleed.
Melly, who says he was ‘anaesthetized by fear’, reached into his pocket for the only thing that might work as a defence: it was a book of Surrealist sound poetry, written by Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist. Melly briefly explained to his attackers what the poems were, and started reading aloud from one called ‘Ursonate’. The first four lines go as follows:
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi (… and so on)
‘Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off,’ writes Melly. (George Melly had a lifelong commitment to Surrealism, being a noted collector, critic and lecturer in the genre.)
I kept remembering Melly’s anecdote, which I interpret as evidence of how effective art can be when well deployed, all the way through my reading of China Miéville’s new novel, The Last Days of New Paris. Much the same thing happens.
The story, such as it is, describes the aftermath of an ‘S-Blast’ (Surrealist Blast, I assume) set off in Les Deux Magots in Paris, in 1941, during the Nazi occupation. The S-Blast unleashes a nightmare brigade of beasts and ‘manifs’ from the world of Surrealist art. These empower but also threaten the small band of Surrealists still hiding in Paris: La Main à Plume. Soon a violent three-way battle is convulsing Paris, between the ‘manifs’, the Surrealist fighters and the Nazi occupiers. The war, an extension of the Nazi strategic plan Fall Rot (‘Case Red’), continues until at least 1950, which is when much of the novel is set. The only surviving member of La Main à Plume is one Thibaut, who insofar as the novel has a leading character other than the narrator, is the leading character.
There is hardly any trace of story, but what there is describes the appearance of one Surrealist icon after another, which either attacks or is attacked or avoids being attacked. At the back of the book nearly all of these manifestations are carefully cross-referenced to the original artwork, or sketch, or pensée, by page number. (Thus, very early in the novel what appears at first to be two women crazily riding a tandem bicycle, soon turns out to be a ‘manif’ of Leonora Carrington’s Goya-like pen-and-ink drawing called ‘I am an Amateur of Velocipedes’. This is a bicycle-like machine with a female figurehead mounted on the handlebars – a reproduction of it is quickly discoverable online. An endnote exists. The narrator of the book, in a dialogue with an elderly Thibaut, carefully documents the source. No one can be left in any doubt about what it is.)
As the novel proceeds a whole bestiary of Surrealist oddities enters the book, each similarly traced to source by the narrator. Some are famous: Max Ernst’s painting of an elephant-like metal bin, ‘Celebes’, is one, and ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a collage by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, not only comes alive but takes a prominent role. Soon, the unstoppable carnival of spinning Surrealist images becomes dizzying.
I hoped and intended to like this novel, assuming it was a return to form for China Miéville after a period of some uncertainty. After finishing it, I felt Miéville should be congratulated on writing a unique novel. It is ambitious, obscure, unusual, difficult, provocative, fantastic, vainglorious, and not at all too long. His language is at its best bizarre, experimental, sometimes daringly impressionistic. I cannot recall another novel like it. All this is to its advantage. However, it also presents a congeries of literary problems, serious ones.
‘Weird’ is a word sometimes applied to Miéville’s work, often by the author himself. In fact, there is little about the novel that is weird. If you accept the conceit of the S-Blast, and the madness of war extended almost indefinitely, much of the novel reads like the catalogue of a Surrealist exhibition, or a Thames & Hudson book of art reproductions. We move from one ‘manif’ to the next, programme notes to hand, like captions to illustrations or narrative cards attached to the wall beside the piece of art. The reader is not given a story to follow, or the emotional lives of the characters to grow with. We know nothing of the lives of the characters outside the events in the novel – where do they live?, what do they do at the weekend?, how do they eat?, etc. There is as well a lack of comprehensible dialogue, no plot to speak of, and an extremely poor sense of place – Miéville writes ornately, but the ambience is thin. There is none of the evocative descriptive prose of (e.g.) The Scar.
And because it is a narrative totally lacking in atmosphere, sensuality, character, motivation, and much more, it becomes a struggle to maintain interest. This is the kind of book you press on reading not because you have found something to enjoy or be intrigued by, but because you are determined not to be beaten by its extraordinary flatness.
Like the Surrealist art that the novel describes, The Last Days of New Paris is not weird at all, but odd and fanciful. Surrealism developed from Dadaism, which was based bizarrely on anti-war feelings in the years 1914-18, and is full of fancy. Trains emerge from fireplaces or chug through someone’s beard, ants crawl across melting watches, lovers kiss with their faces shrouded, skeletal bones clutch an egg, a urinal is presented as an object of beauty and usefulness.
Miéville’s novel, by adding nothing to these fanciful works of art beyond making them move and cataloguing them, is full of fancy. It even becomes more fanciful still, because a novel is itself a work of art and this one should have brought something to the intriguing subject of Surrealism, more than being simply an illustrated list of examples.
The early work of J. G. Ballard (notably his stories in the collection Vermilion Sands) is wonderful proof that the images and feelings of Surrealism can be summoned and enhanced in English prose. Ballard, like Melly but seemingly unlike Miéville, was dedicated to Surrealism. Throughout his career he often cited its images and manifestos as being major influences on his writing.
Fancy is related to fantasy, but it is a slot lower. While fantasy literature draws on psychic archetypes and symbols, images of the dream state and the human wish for a sense of otherness, it also inspires imaginative ideas unconnected to the reader’s experience of reality. Fantasy often summons a series of pleasing or exciting or gratifying mental images, serving the reader’s need for the feeling of well-being not present in the real world – equally, it can suggest frightening or disturbing or warning images, again satisfying a need for excitement or menace or apprehension not often encountered in real life. Written well, fantasy is powerful stuff, ultimately based on reality and psychological experience. And yes, fantasy is often genuinely weird.
On the other hand, fancy is a whim, a surprising thought, an unexpected juxtaposition, an anachronism, a party piece. It treats the ridiculous with unfruitful solemnity. It lacks metaphorical depth. While fantasy can move, excite, depress or stimulate a reader, fancy gains only a reaction: at first it is one of amusement, or even of being impressed or astonished, but when fancy piles on other fancies, as in Miéville’s novel, then it is all too much. It becomes risible, annoying, irrelevant, even unsurprising – it provokes irritation, anger, a wish for better things.
An example from Last Days: It was one thing for the poet Paul Éluard to suggest fancifully that L’Arc de Triomphe should be turned into a giant urinal – it is quite another order of fancy for Miéville’s ‘manifs’ to tip the monument on its side, then have it streaming with self-generated urine. Self-generated urine? Where does that sort of image lead us, what does it mean, what on Earth was the author thinking? (P 54.)
A sense of the author’s abstraction, or distraction, recurs too often for comfort. Miéville is presently at the top of his game, and we expect him to be committed to his work and thus give a great performance. Far too often in Last Days there are lapses of style, grammar. The narrative is told in two tenses, the present and the past perfect – we switch between the two without apparent purpose. On pp 68 and 69 there are two such switches: from present to past perfect, to present again. This is a sign of something going wrong: either the author was not concentrating on what he was doing, or it was a meaningless stylistic mannerism he rather liked, or he didn’t realize he was doing it, or he didn’t care that he was doing it. Whichever of those four betraying signs is the one, it’s a no-win.
He has also not been well served by his copy-editor. She was not much older than Thibaut, he thought. She looked at him with urgent eyes (p 6). Who thought that? Who is ‘he’? The entire passage before and after this is in the third-person, and it is about Thibaut, but in the first of these sentences Thibaut appears to be thinking about himself. In the second: how can passive organs like eyes ever be ‘urgent’?
This sort of carelessness is a betraying detail – there are more than a few others, and it would be tedious to list them all. The four revealing conditions under which the author allows changes in narrative tense apply here too.
I found myself breaking a personal rule and began making pencil underlines of dodgy words and phrases. Like most of its kind the thing is obviously in pain. But that size, whatever its injuries or sickness, they will not help him (p 19). We expect better writing than this from a serious and successful author — we are entitled to expect better.
The expansive and dynamic early Miéville novels find few echoes here. The Last Days of New Paris is, I am sorry to say, a thinly achieved novel, apparently book-learned, lacking narrative and descriptive skill, lacking passion.
The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville — Del Rey, 2016, 205 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-0-345-54399-8
Owning Up: The Trilogy by George Melly — Penguin, 2000, 594 pp, ISBN: 0-141-39001-8
Tom Hunter, current director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, wants to open the prize to self-published novels. He is at present uncertain how this might work. One way he is mooting would be to throw it open to anyone, but charge each writer the same submission fee presently paid by publishers. Another proposal is to allow the panel of judges to call in self-published books. The two could or might be combined in some way.
But it seems to me that this begs the question of what a self-published novel actually is. For example, an ebook made available by a writer through Kindle is self-published — Amazon is only the distributor. Amazon does not act or function as publisher, and the writer remains the de facto publisher. So here is a definition that might be helpful:
Self-published works are not eligible where the author is the publisher. If the publisher is a company which has been specifically set up to publish the work in question, and/or the author is the person who owns the majority shareholding or otherwise controls the company, the work is ineligible.
That strikes me as a clear, uncontroversial and defensible statement of how self-published novels, intended to be submitted to a literary award, should be defined and regulated. It also accepts by implication that there is a difference between self-published texts and professionally published books. Although it is always unacknowledged by those who campaign for literary parity, here is the difference:
A book brought out by a trade publisher goes through various processes and tests before it is printed and distributed through bookshops.
None of these steps, or almost none, will apply to a self-published book. It is nothing to do with elitism (a frequent charge against people who know the difference). Writing is a profession. It has standards.
More than one hundred books are submitted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award every year — 113 were sent in for the 2016 prize. That’s a lot of reading to get through in a matter of a few weeks, and if the floodgates were opened and the commitment had to increase I believe it would become unworkable for most people. If self-published books were regulated as suggested above, then perhaps numbers would stay more or less where they are.
While on the subject of the Clarke Award, and knowing that no one can agree what it is actually “for”, it seems to me that over the thirty years of its existence it has tended to highlight well written centralist science fiction as well as more ambitious works which are pushing at the edges of the definition of the genre. Science fiction has always been a progressive form: it changes and improves and expands, and we look to something like the Clarke Award to reflect that unique literary spirit. In this it differs from fan-based prizes. Most of the people who have won the prize in the past have been serious about their writing, and the general tone of discussion has been, until recently, equally serious.
(Many congratulations to Adrian Tchaikovsy on his win! I hope it will have a significant impact on his career.)
Here is the cover for L’inclinaison, the beautiful new translated edition of The Gradual, from Gilles Dumay’s collection Lunes d’encre (published by Denoël in Paris). It has been translated by Jacques Collin, who also translated The Adjacent.
It is due to be published at the end of September.
Yesterday, I received my first finished copies of Gollancz’s hardcover edition (see below), which is due to appear on 15th September. Sounds like a busy month — the following events are coming up, in addition to the books being published:
Wednesday, 14th September. I shall be at Waterstones in Bath, 4-5 Milsom Street, Bath — interview and signing. 6:00 for 6:30pm. Contact the shop for more details.
Weekend of 17th/18th September. With many others of the Gollancz authors I shall be taking part in this year’s Gollancz Festival, largely based in Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross Road, London.
Saturday 24th September. I am taking part in a celebration of H. G. Wells’ 150th anniversary at Bromley Central Library (Large Hall, 4th Floor, from 11:15am onwards). There will be several talks (including mine), a chance to view selected items from the extensive Wells archive, and a walk around parts of Bromley associated with Wells. More info here.
Sunday 25th September. After a mad dash northwards I shall be giving a talk called Reality, Memory and Doubt at Brighouse Library, at 4:00pm. This will follow a free screening of the film of The Prestige, at 1.30pm. (Perhaps this is the moment to say that the “Lord Colderdale” mentioned in the film, and the book, has nothing whatsoever to do with Calderdale, the local authority which runs the library.) More details here, or if you call 01422 288060.
Ten years later, I think I have at last solved a small mystery. It concerns the actor Sir Michael Caine, whom I met in 2006 during the evening of the UK premiere of the film based on my novel, The Prestige. Never having had a film made of something I had written, not to mention never having been to a star-studded party at a film premiere, for me the whole evening was weird and weirdly memorable.
To recap (I have described this elsewhere): during the party, a stand-up affair in an uncrowded room, I saw Caine standing to one side and thought I should introduce myself. I thought Caine had done well in an underwritten supporting role in the film, bringing a kind of intelligent conviction to the scenes he was in. When I told him my name, it obviously meant nothing to him. I told him I had written the novel on which the film was based. The atmosphere suddenly cooled. He raised himself up, looked down his nose at me (he is surprisingly tall), and said, “I never talk to writers.” He immediately turned away and stalked off.
In all truth I think I was more amused than offended by this, although it was probably the one incident I remembered afterwards with complete clarity. I assumed that during his long career Michael Caine must have had many aggravating brushes with writers, some of whom are well capable of acting like arrogant shits. Even so, the mood at this party was low key and friendly, and one would think, wouldn’t one?, that in the cause of general harmony such past experiences can be temporarily set aside in the cause of good manners. Well, apparently not.
I have been recently re-reading the published Journals of John Fowles. In the second volume Fowles describes meeting Caine at the end of 1966 for the filming of The Magus. Both were then youngish middle-aged men, both had become suddenly famous and successful – Fowles was 45 (two best-selling novels, a film of The Collector already made), Caine 33 (starring roles in several films, including Zulu and the Len Deighton adaptations, and an Oscar nomination for Alfie). They met again and worked together the following year while The Magus was being filmed in Majorca. We shall probably never know what Caine thought of Fowles, but through Fowles’s unrestrained and often contentious journals we have the other side.
After their first meeting he describes “Mike” Caine as ‘a thoroughly unlikeable young man’ and ‘good at poker faced banter … but he’s got to give more than that.’ Although he later compliments Caine on his ‘exemplary behaviour between takes’, when he sees the first cut of the film he describes Caine’s performance as ‘excruciatingly bad, totally incredible as an English graduate’, and that ‘his failure pervades the whole picture, the one part we couldn’t afford to go wrong.’ (Later that day, Fowles reports that a large part of the cliff on which his house was standing has slipped into the sea. Maybe this informed his mood?)
I read all this when the Fowles diaries were first published, but because the comments appeared in a long book filled with similarly disparaging remarks about dozens of people (including, as it happens, me) I didn’t take much notice. However, reading it again last month I suddenly made the connection – Volume 2 of the Fowles Journals was published in 2006, just a few weeks before the film of The Prestige was released in the UK. Michael Caine had clearly come across these remarks: someone must have tipped him off, or he had found himself named in the book’s index, while browsing in a bookstore. Suddenly, it all made sense to me, and for a few moments I even felt forgiving of him.
The Journals, Volume 2, John Fowles. Jonathan Cape, 2006, 463 pp, ISBN 978-022-406912-0
A male hippopotamus escapes from a private zoo – it is shot with high-powered rifles and the marksmen pose with the body for photographs. The entrails are buried on the spot and the head and legs are sent to a research laboratory in Bogotá. This particular hippo was one of several who broke out of their enclosure — most of them were not hunted and are now feral in the surrounding area. The zoo was owned by one of the richest men in the world and was part of a heavily guarded private compound called Hacienda Nápoles (“Naples City in Italy”). As well as the zoo, the compound contained an artificial lake, numerous pieces of sculpture and life-sized models of dinosaurs and a mammoth. The compound was owned by Pablo Escobar, a drug lord, trafficker and terrorizing murderer – over the gate was a replica of the single-engined aircraft in which Escobar’s drugs were delivered to the USA. After Escobar was cornered and killed, and his cartel dismantled, his former fortress has been opened to the public
All of this is real, not fiction, but it provides the opening image of the novel The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Vásquez is a Colombian writer, born in Bogotá in 1973, but who moved to Europe after he graduated from university. He lived in France, Belgium and Spain, returning to Bogotá four years ago. Although Things Falling is his sixth novel, it is only the third to be translated into English (all of them by Anne McLean, who has won several awards for her work).
Vásquez pays tribute to his eminent predecessor, Gabriel García Márquez, but distances himself from magical realism, claiming that the genre requires the reader to reinvent history, or the truth. Things Falling is a realist novel, with a strong narrative voice. Even so, the style is leisurely, considered, evocative of landscape and feelings and character.
The story is about Antonio Dammara, a disaffected law professor living and working in Bogotá. He is seriously injured when he is struck by a stray bullet while in the company of an acquaintance from his youth called Ricardo Laverde. He has not seen Laverde in many years, who has aged badly and has become a withdrawn, enigmatic person. Laverde is killed in the drive-by shooting. After a long and painful recovery, which indirectly causes his marriage to start to fail, Antonio determines to find out the reason for the murder. This involves an exploration not only of Laverde’s past but of his own, growing up in Colombia while the country was held to violent ransom by the drug wars caused by Escobar and his cartel. His discoveries about Laverde’s life, the story of Elaine, Laverde’s American wife, and his only daughter, Maya, make up the substance of the book.
It is a highly unusual and ambitious novel, one of the best I have read recently.
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Bloomsbury, 299 pp, £16.99. ISBN 978-1-4088-2579-2
I normally avoid politics, but this is beyond politics.
Referenda in the UK are only advisory. They are not legally binding. The British Parliament is sovereign. The referendum last week was advisory.
Although the public voted in favour of leaving, the UK is not obliged to withdraw from the EU unless Parliament decides to do so. In fact it cannot. Parliamentary decisions cannot be constrained by non-parliamentary opinion. (Cf. the abolition of hanging in 1965, when around 85% of the British public were believed at that time to be in favour of retention.) Parliament is sovereign.
Before the referendum it was known that only a minority of sitting MPs were on the Brexit side. Because of the Tories’ tiny majority David Cameron would have had to allow a free vote — after that the question of leaving the EU would not have arisen.
But Cameron caved in to his Euro sceptics and the abominable Ukip, and committed himself to the referendum. He has paid the price. In the words of Polly Toynbee’s brilliant essay in today’s Guardian, “his place in history is assured only as the man who shipwrecked Britain.”
The country now has fallen into the hands of opportunistic but weak and inexperienced Tory adventurers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Nigel Farage, who runs Ukip, is a disgrace to our nation, a national embarrassment. The union with Scotland will certainly collapse. On the other side of the Irish Sea the Sinn Fein party of Northern Ireland want union with the rest of Ireland (which remains in the EU) – such a development runs a severe risk of renewed violence from the Protestants in the north. The British special relationship with the USA is faltering, even in the words of the mild and moderate President Obama. The EU is already urging Britain to speed up the divorce and get the hell out of the way.
Britain is becoming a pariah, a sort of offshore irrelevance, for now at least dominated by bigots and opportunists, armed with nuclear weapons.
I love Europe as it has become in the years after World War 2. I see it as a peaceful, tolerant, civilized, enlightened place, full of progressive technology, culture, ideas and art. It has pioneered Human Rights, the abolition of the death penalty, legislation on crucial environmental issues, the free movement of citizens, a gradual growth into secularism after centuries of dominance by churches.
The hated EU bureaucracy that these Tory adventurers have focused on is the same bureaucracy employed by every large state, the old UK included. Nowhere is perfect. Until this week, the inexplicable little marriage of convenience between mainland Europe and my island home was something that worked against all the odds, a bickering, annoying relationship between two sides who knew each other rather too well. The result was a paradoxical but stable and fruitful partnership, perhaps a model for all civilized nations to aspire to.
They could stop all this now. Parliament is sovereign — it cannot be said too often. If the MPs had the guts to defy the “advice” of the public, if Parliament trusted in its own beliefs, it could quash the referendum now, immediately, today, tomorrow, next week, before any more damage is done.
Of course it will not, and so we drift into a future that suddenly seems deeply unpleasant and dangerous.
With less than twenty-four hours to go, here is something that approximately half the population of the UK will not find funny.
See you on the other side …
Same book, same publication date (September 2016), two different approaches. The one at top is Gollancz’s UK edition; the other is Titan’s edition for the USA. I have been waiting a long time for the Gollancz cover to be finalized, partly my fault because at first I said I liked the original draft, then changed my mind. I was away travelling for much of May, and assumed things would happen while I was away. At last, mid-June, I think these two are now the ones.
The choice of cover illustrations is often a vexing one for the writer — at least I find it so. I am not bereft of visual imagination, but whenever I try to reconceive something I have written in visual terms I find myself irresistibly drawn to the mental images I formed when actually writing. As these are usually imprecise as to detail (they are a kind of imagined soupy mix of ideas and characters) they are not much help.
This is of course why publishers have art departments, who supposedly regard the work with fresh eyes, and commission images from that position.
I have always rather liked the traditional paper-wrapped books they use to publish in France: a kind of grey or beige or off-white, with just the title and the author’s name. Whenever I tentatively raise this idea, the publishers clearly think I’m a bit mad.
I have been reading this biography* of the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski, a figure of deep ambiguity, a man of endless contradictions and apparent deceptiveness. He was a liar, a plagiarist, a shameless social climber, a hater and abuser of small dogs, a manipulator of women, a constant user of whores, an annoying player of unfunny and sometimes dangerous practical jokes. All of this was routinely denied by Kosinski, while most of his strange and dysfunctional acts were known and witnessed by many others. I knew none of it myself at the time, while not seriously doubting it when I became aware of what had been said. Rumours and accusations followed his career (intensifying after his death by suicide, a quarter of a century ago), with many people coming forward to claim that they had actually written his books for him. Some successful writers attract hostility and jealousy – Kosinski suffered these in spades. Everything is described in detail in the biography. Whatever the truth, for me Jerzy Kosinski was a novelist I found inspiring and influential.
I first came across his work in 1968, when his second novel, Steps, was published in the UK. I had never read another book like it: almost every page was a shock, a revelation. This was partly because of the period – Steps seemed to fit naturally into the social upheavals of the time – but also partly because I was a young and beginning writer, trying to write and sell my own first novel. I was seeking a voice, seeking encouragement, seeking almost everything. I was dissatisfied with the conventional narratives of the novel, knew that there were ways to try to break out into more adventurous methods, but I was also stricken with a kind of stage fright, a nervousness about my own limitations.
Incautiously reading Steps was for me like suddenly throwing open a door without knowing what might be on the other side of the steep wall that contained it – there was what seemed to be a burst of light, revelations, openings, possibilities, a view of scenery I had not suspected was there, or ever could be. Steps consists of many short narratives, told in an icily clear, unemphatic voice. It is all description, with hardly any dialogue. It is written in a detached narrative voice, first person, unemotional, worryingly dispassionate – but the steps in Steps are violent, abusive, sometimes disgusting, dangerous, always unexpected.
I have not re-read Steps since that first time, but its images still haunt me. I soon found Kosinski’s only other book available then: it was in fact his first novel, The Painted Bird, published a couple of years before Steps. The Painted Bird is a more linear narrative, but also consists of a series of shocking scenes or events. As the Germans invade Poland in 1939, the middle-class parents of a young Jewish boy place him for safety with peasants in a remote part of the countryside. This arrangement quickly breaks down, and the boy endures the rest of the war alone and sleeping rough, fending for himself in a strange and hostile landscape. He witnesses, or endures, appalling events as the Holocaust goes on around him – what you read in Steps is mild when compared with The Painted Bird. Some of the material is so horrifying that it is almost literally impossible to read. Again, Kosinski’s narrative voice was hypnotically calm, but because of what I knew about the author’s personal background (from the brief author descriptions on the book jackets) I assumed it was an autobiographical novel. If so it was unlike anything of that sort I had ever read.
Most people made the same assumption. By the time his novels were published, Kosinski had social-climbed his way into the upper echelons of the New York literary establishment. A regular at dinner parties, he repeatedly told his horrifying anecdotes: parental abandonment, trying to pass as a non-Jew, the violence of ignorant peasants, mutilation by criminals and SS members, being struck dumb. When he worked these stories into a book the publisher, who had heard them from Kosinski’s lips, accepted it as a non-fiction work. Kosinski insisted it was fiction, and as such it was published. When people read The Painted Bird, thinking as I did that it was a novel heavily influenced by personal experience, Kosinski would say in public that “it was all true”.
Who really wrote his books is a question that I think will never be answered. There have been various allegations of plagiarism or cheating. Perhaps the most damaging of these was that one of his most successful novels, Being There (1971), appears to have been a rewrite of a minor best-selling novel, published in Poland in 1932. The plagiarism would be obvious to many readers in Poland, but the original novel was never translated into English. One George Reavey, an unsuccessful poet, came forward and claimed that it was he who had written The Painted Bird. Others said that Kosinski had worked in some mysterious (and undescribed) way with the CIA – his escape from communist Poland and entry into the USA was suspiciously easy and his political background was always undefined, but the thought of CIA spooks collaborating with him on a novel about the Holocaust is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. His first two books (non-fiction, about the Soviet Union, published with the by-line Joseph Novak) were dictated in Polish to a bilingual secretary. She then fleshed them out into readable English. It is no secret that Kosinski employed a private editor to work as rewriter and adviser on many of the novels, or that Kosinski produced many different versions of his manuscripts, bearing multiple changes with each appearance.
I knew none of this when I read Kosinski’s first two novels, nor, for that matter, when I caught up with his later books. The books existed, they worked as books. Of course, as an author I believe the name of a writer on a book is a sort of guarantee, a brand, a vouchsafing of true identity. But many books are published under pseudonyms, many books are heavily edited by third parties before publication. Were his actions just a matter of degree?
Knowing what we know about Jerzy Kosinski, or strongly suspect, adds something to the intrigue, not something that is particularly flattering, but it made him different, odd, disturbing. Anyway, the novels were for me a terrific stimulus. I often went to read sections of them when I was stuck on one of my own books, not to copy or imitate the style, but partly to try to renew that first revelatory discovery of Kosinski’s unique way of showing the art of the possible.
Reading James Park Sloan’s biography I frequently felt glad that I had never been part of Kosinski’s circle, that I had never met him. But then, suddenly, I remembered that I had met him once, very briefly. In 1983 he came to London to deliver the annual Scott Dawson Memorial Lecture to members of P.E.N. (of which Kosinski was a past president). It was held at the Royal Festival Hall, and the place was packed. In the interval I saw Jerzy Kosinski in the foyer, so I boldly approached him and asked him to autograph my copy of Steps. He looked at it, checked the print information, then said, ‘Have you any idea how rare and valuable this edition is?’
I said I did, and watched as he used a felt-tip pen to double its rarity and value.
* Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, by James Park Sloan. Dutton, 1996, ISBN 0-525-93784-6