Stay Thirsty Magazine is honored to present an Exclusive excerpt from author Jerome Charyn’s new book, JERZY. Called “daringly imaginative” with “…beautiful, spare prose,” by the critics, publisher Bellevue Literary Press has described the story this way:
“Jerzy Kosinski was a great enigma of post-WWII literature. When he exploded onto the American literary scene in 1965 with his bestselling novel The Painted Bird, he was revered as a Holocaust survivor and refugee from the world hidden behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. He won major literary awards, befriended actor Peter Sellers, who appeared in the screen adaptation of his novel Being There, and was a guest on talk shows and at the Oscars. But soon the facade began to crack, and behind the public persona emerged a ruthless social climber, sexual libertine, and pathological liar who may have plagiarized his greatest works.
Jerome Charyn lends his unmistakable style to this most American story of personal disintegration, told through the voices of multiple narrators—a homicidal actor, a dominatrix, and Joseph Stalin’s daughter—who each provide insights into the shifting facets of Kosinski’s personality. The story unfolds like a Russian nesting doll, eventually revealing the lost child beneath layers of trauma, while touching on the nature of authenticity, the atrocities of WWII, the allure of sadomasochism, and the fickleness of celebrity.”
This Exclusive excerpt from JERZY is the first two chapters from the section entitled LANA, 1969 and is presented courtesy of the author and his publisher.
|JERZY by Jerome Charyn|
rothers and sisters, you cannot imagine how homesick I was. I did not miss the intrigue of Moscow and calls from the premier’s direct line saying how Svetlana had misbehaved again. I could not break with the nomenklatura. It was the curse of my red hair. I was noticed wherever I went. Citizens would bow and beg for the opportunity to kiss my hand. But I did not want to be their freckled princess. They had loved my father to madness, no matter what the Politburo said about him and his cult of personality. The nomenklatura were frightened to death that he might return from the grave one fine morning with his dark eyes—the dedushka of Moscow—and haunt them until they went screaming into their own graves. And so I lived under a kind of elegant house arrest—with a dacha that my Soviet brothers and sisters would have murdered their mothers to have as their own.
I adored our one-track railroad and the graveyard next to the station where I longed to lie down forever—I was mortally tired in a Moscow where I was watched at every step. I had to join the Party or my father’s minions would have eaten me alive. I was put on display like a museum piece, told whom to marry, whom not to see. I disobeyed them as often as I could. After their dedushka died, suffering a stroke and lying in his own piss until his minions found him, his eyes roaming like a brutal animal that could no longer bark, I thought I would be free of the whole Party apparatus. I began using my mother’s maiden name, Alliluyeva, but I was still Stalina to them, the dictator’s bad little daughter. I had no peace except when I was at Zhukovka with my old nurse, who died in 1956 and left me a little orphan of thirty years.
I am a selfish girl, no less brutal than my father. I felt abandoned, betrayed by poor Alexandra Andreyevna. What I missed most were the pared apples I would find next to whatever seat I settled in. The freckled princess cannot pare an apple for herself. You see, Alexandra Andreyevna had been my nurse ever since I was born. She had a marvelous appetite for everything—food, people, books. The personages in Gogol and Gorky were as genuine to her as my own uncles and aunts. She would converse with them and expect immediate answers. They wore the same flesh as I did, and could be just as devious. I would hear her scream at Gogol’s poor clerk for having lost his overcoat and berate Anna Karenina after she fell in love with Vronsky.
“ ‘Anya,’ ” she would cry, “ ‘Vronsky isn’t worth one hair on your head!’ ” But the problem is that she muddled the personages in Anna Karenina and War and Peace, mixed them into one big stew, and her greatest wish was to have Anna fall in love with that clumsy bear, Pierre Bazukhov. She had become a matchmaker in her old age, and was wiser than us all. Not even my father, who was a passionate reader until the end, could have equaled my nurse’s love of books.
I’m curious what she would have done with The Painted Bird. Would she have kidnapped the mute little boy from the Polish peasants and delivered him to Saint Petersburg? But Tolstoy’s counts and countesses were just as vicious as the Poles, and she might have left the little boy where he was.
It was the first book I was able to finish after I arrived in America. Brothers and sisters, you cannot imagine what it meant to have that book in my hand, to turn its pages. My father did not want me to study American literature, and there was little of it to find in Moscow—some Hemingway stories, a book or two by Dreiser, and that was half the repertoire.
“ ‘Do you want to become another herring with ideas? Study something useful, else you’ll become a parasite.’ ”
And so I studied American history and social science, and my professors, normally as meek as mice, sometimes managed to smuggle a short story by Mark Twain into the class—we devoured it with tears in our eyes. It was about the Mississippi, the cruelest of rivers, brown with mud, and we all imagined what that brown river must have been like. At first my professors and classmates were suspicious of me, the freckled princess who could have been Comrade Stalin’s own spy. Bozhe moy, I was imperious at times, with a bodyguard who accompanied me into the class.
I would dismiss him with a wave of my hand. “Boris, if you don’t leave at once, I’ll scratch out your eyes and tell my father that you provoked me.’ ”
But after Boris was gone, I did not behave like a tsarevna. I settled in, listened, and showed my eagerness to learn.
“ ‘Comrade Professor, we must have more American novels.’ ”
“ ‘And if the People’s Police find us with such books, Comrade Stalina, what should we do?’ ”
“ ‘Raise our hands and accompany them to the Lubyanka, where we will continue our seminar,’ ” I said and started to laugh. From then on we had our own conspiracy in class, and like little scavengers we looked about for American classics. We found nothing but s few brittle books with missing pages and broken spines. They were our hidden treasures. The strangest of them all was by William Faulkner, who had not yet won the Nobel Prize, given to capitalist dogs and parasites, as my father loved to say.
It was called The Sound and the Fury, and we did not understand a word. But the music of the language compelled us, and we took turns reading sentences out loud. If I fell in love with America, it was through the melancholy sounds of such a book.
We discovered Faulkner’s name in a forbidden encyclopedia, written by M. S. Morosov, a former prince who died in an insane asylum. Just because he was discredited, we clung to Prince Morosov’s words.
W. Faulkner is a recluse and a drunkard who owns a mansion in Mississippi
and writes about degenerates. His books are peopled with imbeciles
and near imbeciles and men who are mobsters or malignant farmers such as
Flem Snopes. Faulkner’s women are even more degenerate than his men. They
are a prime example of rural capitalism gone sour. Faulkner himself was an
airman who fought on the Canadian side during the internecine War of 1914-
1918, when the capitalists set about to kill one another. Faulkner was shot
down over France by a German fighter squadron and returned from the war an
invalid, like E. Hemingway. At first his writing found little favor in the greedy
warrens of Manhattan publishers. And when his novels were finally published,
they fell upon a deaf ear.
Faulkner could not support his family. He had to enslave himself to
the hucksters of Hollywood. But he was an abysmal failure as a crass writer
of scripts. He returned to Mississippi with his tail tucked between his legs and
eked out a living as a hunter and a guide.
His novels would only be of marginal interest to the Soviet reader,
but nevertheless they do reveal the chicanery of rural capitalism. Faulkner
writes in the so-called Southern tradition, with thick, thorny sentences
encumbered with patch after patch of purplish prose. And yet he has a
strange power to move and disquiet the reader with his mournful tone.
We had to decipher Prince Morosov, reach under his protective mask. He had a passion for Faulkner that would have made him an instant Enemy of the People. And so in the mirror world of Soviet critics writing about the West, he had to present Faulkner as a mediocrity and a parasite. But even that did not save him. He was carted off to the asylum with his encyclopedia, which we had to read in zamizdat, and supposedly he starved to death.
I had hoped that my stay in America would be one long feast of William Faulkner and other “degenerate writers.” But without my class to guide me, I could not get through his impossible webs. And it was worse than that. I did not understand this strange American idiom, this slang of bubble gum and corrosive candy. The culture here could not enter my heart. I had settled in Princeton because I was told that the countryside would remind me of my dacha at Zhukovka. The only thing Princeton had was a tiny railroad line, with a train that was called a dinky. This train amused me much more than the houses on my street, North Stanworth Lane. My lawyers and mentors—I had a million of them in America—had rented the house from a professor on leave, and it was in his library that I found The Painted Bird.
It transported me out of Princeton, and its nest of perfect little streets, into the
embattled lands of Europe, where I too was a war orphan, though my father was still alive in ’43 and ’44—he had abandoned me to save the motherland. But I had felt the same terror as that little boy. I wept after reading The Painted Bird—not like a woman in a new land, but like the spoiled little girl who wanted her papushka to bounce her on his knee and smother her in kisses with that wonderful smell of tobacco.
I could barely leave my “dacha” on North Stanworth Lane. I was imprisoned within its narrow walls—Svetlana Alliluyeva, the dictator’s daughter, who was one more herring with ideas, had become the most famous “defector” in the world. People stared at me wherever I went. They clutched at me, begged to have my autograph. Lecture agents bombarded me with offers, said I could make half a million dollars on a single tour of college campuses, churches, and synagogues. I declined their offers. I was like my father in this way. Once, when he had gone to visit his native Georgia after the war, the townspeople had put red carpets on the roads for their papushka, and stood beside the carpets, waiting for him. My father could not bear it. He canceled his tour and never returned to the Caucasus.
Each morning one of my lawyers’ secretaries would bring me a mountain of mail. People in Nebraska or Kansas—good people, kind people—offered to adopt me, have me become their own daughter. I answered each letter, thanking the families of Nebraska, and signed my name—Lana. That’s who I had become. Not Svetlana, the freckleface from Moscow, but Lana, the pioneer. Lana was an American name, no? I had the right to borrow it from Lana Turner, the beautiful blond witch of Hollywood films. Couldn’t I be a vamp and a witch even if I did not have all the Western wiles of seduction?
But I did want to meet a man. Jerzy Kosinski, who was also a defector. He had run from the People’s State of Poland. I studied his picture on the back of The Painted Bird. He had all the darkness of a defector—he must have been a Jew, like my Lyusia, Alexei Kepler, the only man I had ever loved. I met him in’42, when I was sixteen and he was a filmmaker of forty, with a beautiful wife into the bargain. But we looked into each other’s eyes and both of us were struck with the same lightning bolt. My own aunts dismissed my love for Lyusia as a fit of vanity, a schoolgirl’s crush. But that couldn’t stop me from seeing him. We had to meet furtively, like a pair of Georgian bandits on the run. He would wait for me outside my school, and I had to get rid of my watchdog, send him on some idiotic errand, while Lyusia and I sneaked off to an abandoned fairground and kissed wildly for half an hour. We fooled no one, certainly not my father. He raged for half an hour, swore he would kill me if I wouldn’t give up Kepler—“a parasite who feeds on schoolgirls.”
I was frightened for Lyusia’s life. I swore I wouldn’t ever see him again. I had my bodyguard stick to me like a leech. But it wasn’t much of a maneuver. Kepler would always find me. He was reckless at a time when few men were bold and would have risked my father’s wrath. I trembled each time we kissed. Kepler took me to the very walls of the Kremlin while soldiers rushed about in the middle of war. I’m grateful that my father didn’t have him clubbed to death or provide him with a one-way ticket to the Lubyanka. But he had my Lyusa sent to Stalingrad as a war correspondent, hoping that Kepler might get killed by a stray bullet or a bomb. But Lyusa was even more reckless than I could have imagined—he published a letter from a certain “Lieutenant L.,” which described our strolls through Moscow. My dear idiot had slipped a love letter to Stalin’s daughter into the pages of Pravda. He was summoned back to Moscow. We went to the movies together and kissed in the dark.
But even the craziest idylls cannot last. My poor Lyusa vanished from the streets of Moscow and ended up in a labor camp . . . and seeing Jerzy Kosinski’s wild eyes on a book jacket plunged me back to the war years and the sweetest moments I had ever had—both these men were cursed with wild Jewish eyes.
I wrote a letter to my band of lawyers, demanding that they find Jerzy Kosinski for Lana the tsarevna. I didn’t expect much from my little ukase. I went back into hiding, and broke my isolation long enough to meet one of my mentors at the Nassau Inn. People whispered and pointed to me. I delivered my autograph like a dutiful daughter and disappeared after a glass of wine.
Then, one morning, there was a knock on my door. Was it the postman with some poisonous letter from the KGB? No one in Princeton had my address.
“Go away,” I growled. Lana isn’t at home.”
This intruder of mine knocked again.
“If you’re KGB,” I said, “I’ll scream for the Princeton police.”
“Lana, let me in.”
“Whore, who told you my American name?”
“I’m Jerzy Kosinski.”
“And why should I believe you? What is Jerzy Kosinski doing in Princeton?”
“We’re neighbors,” he said with that guttural r of a KGB man, or a Polish exile. “I live next door.”
Bozhe moy, it was like one of Krilov’s fables—I read a Polski’s book, dream of him, and he appears outside my door.
I undid the latch and let him in.
Pah! I couldn’t even hide my disappointment. I saw a man with a weakling’s narrow shoulders, and wearing a velvet suit, like one of the dandies who paraded up and down the Arbat after the war.
He started to babble in russki. He must have thought he was serenading Stalin’s daughter in her mother tongue. His Russian was atrocious. I put a hand over his mouth.
“Please,” I said, “we’re not on Red Square.”
I was nervous, brothers and sisters, and a little forlorn. I’d had heartbreak, brawls with my father, and several months of bliss with Lyosa, but never so strange a year as the one I had in Princeton, with a dacha and a dinky and a neighbor next door.
could wind Khrushchev around my fingers. I’d grown up with him. He had been one of my father’s hatchet men in the Ukraine. And whenever he summoned me to the Kremlin, we would have a good cry.
“Svetochka,” he’d say, “you mustn’t misbehave. You’re a member of the Party. But you do not attend our congresses. You won’t march in our parades. And when I ask you to teach at the university, you tell me that you have nothing to teach.”
“I’m shy, Uncle Nikita. I could not talk in front of a class.”
He’d caress my forehead with his fat fingers. And I knew that no harm would come to me or my son and daughter while Khrushchev held the reins. But his own disciple, Leonid Brezhnev, had toppled him and brought back the cult of Stalin. Perhaps that is why Brezhnev was so harsh with me.
I was frightened every time the telephone rang. I would have let it ring until doomsday were it not for the spies that Brezhnev had stationed inside and outside my dacha—gardeners, cooks, babushkas, and other busybodies who reported back to the secret police. And so I listened to his monotonous attacks delivered in a voice that had no inflection or sense of flavor. He never shouted like Uncle Nikita. He dreamt only of the American cars with tailfins and long obscene noses that he loved to drive through Moscow or on deserted country roads at a catapulting speed; Muscovites were frightened of Brezhnev’s Buicks and would avoid the streets whenever he passed in his cavalcade; he was bored by everything but his cars and the Boss, as my father had been known in Party circles. And because of this I suffered; Brezhnev considered me a no-account who had sullied the name of Stalin, but I was also a magical personage, an oracle who might lead him back to the Boss.
“Citizen Alliluyeva, why have you forsworn your father’s name? Are you not proud to be the Boss’s daughter?”
“I am proud, Leonid Ilyich.” I was the tsarevna, after all, and could address the
new tsar as intimately as I wished, even though I trembled. “But I wanted to guard my
mother’s memory. It is not at the Boss’s expense.”
“But you must share your father with us, and not guard him as a secret. The Boss had one daughter. It is your duty to write a book about him.”
“I am not a writer, Comrade Brezhnev,” I purred as a tsarevna ought to purr. But it was a lie. I had written a memoir, but it took me months to find the shape. I settled on a series of letters to an unknown friend, scribbled in secret at my dacha during the summer of ’63. I was no Turgenev. I could not write little polished jewels about my mother, who had killed herself when I was six, or about the dedushka of Moscow who had driven her to suicide and mourned her for the rest of his life. My mother could not tame the wolf; she could only give him a softer face to wear for a little while. The wolf did not devour so many of his countrymen while my mother was still alive. She had been strict with me. It was papushka who carried me in his arms, who sang me songs. But after my mother died, the wolf returned to the forest. If he was wifeless, then his minions would have to be wifeless men. They could no longer bring their wives to his dacha or his apartment at the Kremlin or the Bolshoi. He had the wife of Molotov, his most loyal minion, sent to a labor camp—but she was one of the luckier ones. Polina survived. She had been my mother’s best friend.
Brothers and sisters, how could I have shown such a book to Brezhnev? He would have seized my children, sent me to live in the tundra like a convict. But when I ran off to America I did publish Twenty Letters to a Friend. It caused a scandal in Moscow. I was called “the blind Kremlin princess,” who had been raised in splendor and knew nothing of her own country, who had abandoned her children to become a mascot and a tool of the West. The Poliburo spread all sorts of lies—the CIA had plucked me out of an insane asylum. I was a nymphomaniac and an incurable liar. I had bartered my soul for dollari. I was a worthless bag of shit.
Jurek found me in this miserable state. Brezhnev wouldn’t let me talk to my children more than once or a twice a year. And when we did talk, they were guarded and morose. I could imagine Brezhnev’s own minions hovering behind them. My son, Josef, was already a grown man. He was cold and harsh. He must have thought I was a harlot who had lain with all the fatted calves in the West. My daughter, Katya, was much more gentle with her mamushka. But she was equally bewildered. How would I ever explain to her and Josef that I couldn’t breathe around the nomenklatura? I was a prisoner in one huge prison farm. Here I could breathe. But so what? I was still a freckleface, still Stalin’s daughter, even with my dollari. And I would never find the Russian countryside near North Wentworth Lane.
Jurek called me kretinka—little cretin—because my mind was sluggish in America and it took me a long, long time to gather my thoughts. But I wasn’t concerned. I laughed. Kepler had called me his kretinka, so it was a name of love.
I had American friends. Their limousines would arrive and carry me to extravagant dinners where I met ambassadors and their wives, who made me feel like a
tamed beast in a menagerie. They fed me crackers and I performed. But they were the
real menagerie. They were the ones behind a great glass wall. And I was the interloper who did not fit, la fille maudite, as the French ambassador might have said about some girl who had just escaped from a leper colony.
Jurek was my first foreign friend. I did not see America in his dark eyes. He could call himself a Gypsy or a Catholic with olive skin, but he was a zhid, like my Lyusia. And when he started telling me his baptism tales, I laughed in his face.
“My little altar boy. Shame on you, Jurek. You have as many legends as a KGB man.”
“But Lana dear, it is with legends that I survived.”
I could pinch his face, touch him—normal behavior in Moscow, where people are always touching. Noses and ears are the loveliest of handles. I once saw a child clutch her father’s nose for half an hour on the train to Zhukovka. But here, in America, people never touch until they’re under the bed covers. Bozhe moy, if a woman clutches a man’s nose on the streets of Princeton or at the Nassau Inn, she’s both a nymphomaniac and a fortune hunter. But I couldn’t help myself with Jurek. I liked to pinch his face. It didn’t mean a marriage proposal. I was, he said, the sister he had never had.
“I was also a sister once,” I told him. “I had two brothers, but both of them are dead.”
“And what killed them, Lana dear?”
“My father’s contempt. Had my mother lived, they might have lived. She
shielded them from my father and his black moods. He was crazy about me when I was a little girl. He couldn’t stop kissing me. If I had ordered him to jump out the window, well, he might have jumped. But he never did one thing for my brothers . . . did you have a brother, Jurek?”
“No—yes, not a real brother. His name was Henryk. My father brought him home from somewhere—an elf’s forest, I don’t know. He had blue eyes and blond hair. He came with his own nurse. Henryk was our camouflage, our protective cover.”
“To fool the Germans, eh? Show them that you weren’t a band of Gypsies.”
Jurek couldn’t smile like most men; his lips were much too thin, and he looked like a jackal whenever he smiled.
“Lana, why do I confess such things to you?” he said, with that jackal’s smile. “I never discussed Henryk with another living soul. It’s your freckles. I can’t resist them.”
We were sitting in our usual corner at the Nassau Inn—it was a cellar above ground called the Yankee Doodle Taproom; Jurek told me that Paul Revere and other patriots had once sat in our corner booth during the American Revolution. I wasn’t so impressed.
“Jurek, I’ve had enough of revolution and Yankee Doodle. Did Albert Einstein
ever sit at our table?”
“He wasn’t a complete imbecile, Lana dear. It’s the best table in the house.”
“Did he flirt with many women while he was here?”
“Thousands—no woman could resist his white mustache.”
We laughed in our own dark corner, holding hands like lovers. But Jurek was too lazy to seduce me—it’s more complicated than that. He was a little frightened of the tsarevna. He was in awe of Stalin. The Russians had saved his skin. His heroes
weren’t Patton and Eisenhower, but ordinary Russian soldiers, as I could tell in The Painted Bird. The Red Army had captured and slaughtered rebellious Kalmuks, who were even more dreadful than the Germans. The Kalmuks would wipe out entire Polish villages, raping women and children, robbing the eyes of old men, until the Red Army broke their necks.
And for a little boy liberated by Stalin and growing up in a satellite country ruled by Stalin, what else could he have imagined? Stalin was his little father, a god who had his own earthly paradise called the Kremlin. America was some afterthought, a secondary dream, a tiger he didn’t have to chase by the tail. And when my father died, Jurek must have mourned him as much as I ever did. It made him even more delirious over Moscow. He saw his future in my father’s land, as a pioneer in Russia’s great social laboratory. All of us believed in some craziness like that. He first visited Russia in 1951 as a student. Brothers and sisters, what could the pioneer have found in Moscow and the provinces? A bureaucracy even more crippling than the one in Poland. Fat commissars in fast cars. A morbid fear of foreigners. A grayness that was close to gangrene. From that point on he turned his attention to the United States.
A pioneer in a land of pioneers. What could be better? But Jurek’s face was as sad as mine. We couldn’t find our own hearts in this heartland. We were two of Stalin’s
children, laughing as hard as we could in a corner of the Yankee Doodle. I’d already had whiskey sours and white wine. But Jurek couldn’t drink wine. It was poison, he said. He drank buttermilk. And I was nibbling on a monstrous piece of strawberry shortcake, which was as close as I could ever get to a charlotte russe. We occupied what Jurek liked to call the conspirator’s table, since it was in the darkest and deepest part of the taproom, where not a soul could recognize me. He was a genius at finding hidden nooks and crannies. We were, he said, the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang—outlaws with allegiance to nothing and no one.
“Lana dear, let’s rob a bank. The guards in Princeton don’t even bother to wear a gun. And they can’t arrest you. You’re too much of a prize in the propaganda war.”
“But why go through all the bother? If you want a Buick, like Brezhnev, I’ll buy you one. It’s much, much easier to write a check. My lawyers say I have enough dollari to choke a hundred horses.”
Whiskey sours and shortcake must have been a potent cocktail. My head was about to fall off. But I wasn’t blind. Jurek’s Gypsy-Jewish eyes smoldered in the dark. I’d upset my darling bank robber.
“It’s not the same thing. We won’t wear masks . . . or carry toy guns. The tellers will ask for your autograph while they hand us the bank’s money. Lana, you’ll be on the cover of Time.”
Now I was the one who bristled. I grabbed his nose, but not with affection. I pinched it as hard as I could. “We are outcasts, my little Polish brother, in the land of
strawberry shortcake. I dream of literature and wine, and all you can think about is the
cover of Time magazine. But I love you, and if you wish to become a bank robber, I will join your Hole-in-the-Wall Gang . . . but no violence, with or without toy guns. And we must not frighten the tellers. I do not wish them to suffer heart attacks—I will not go to jail with a bad conscience.”
“Lana, please,” he said, “you are hurting my nose.”
I pinched it one last time.
“Well, bank robber, when do we begin? But I warn you. I will donate my share of the loot to a charity that fights tuberculosis.”
He smiled like a jackal. “If we give away what we steal, then it is not a robbery, but a bazaar. Besides, this isn’t Moscow, Lana. There’s no more tuberculosis in America. Tuberculosis has been wiped out.”
“Pah,” I said. “A country without tuberculosis does not have much of a soul.”
I could no longer find his face. He shrank into the dark like some local Dracula. And then he started to laugh and cry at the same time, and he emerged from the shadows without his jackal’s grin.
“Lana, you’re impossible. You’ll be the Kremlin princess until the day you die.”
“I suppose so. That is my sad fate.”
And both of us started to laugh and cry until the noise bounced off the walls and brought a little bedlam to the Yankee Doodle. Bozhe moy, now we no longer had a place to hide.