Jerome Charyn’s new book, JERZY, is a stark, engrossing novel about the rise and fall of celebrated author Jerzy Kozinski whose life was deeply affected by World War II, the Holocaust, the Soviet Union, literary awards, fame and by the film, Being There, that he wrote and that starred Peter Sellers.
With over fifty books to his credit, Jerome Charyn has been called “one of the most important writers in American literature” by Michael Chabon. In recent years, he has written about such legendary figures as Emily Dickinson, Abraham Lincoln and Joe DiMaggio as he “skillfully breathes life into historical icons” with his “resourceful imagination and always-colorful, punchy, provocative prose.”
Two of Charyn’s memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year and he has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. He was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player and was once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was privileged to visit with Jerome Charyn at his home in New York for this Conversation about JERZY.
STAY THIRSTY: What drew you to write a novel that explored the complicated persona and life of writer Jerzy Kosinski?
JEROME CHARYN: I had republished some of his novels for a small Swiss publisher and the more I thought about him, the more intrigued I became. He was like a hunchback with an invisible hump. I adored Steps when I read it. I thought it was the
saddest book ever
written about growing up in one of the East European wastelands after the war.
It was a merciless book, and most of all, he was merciless about himself. In
parenthesis, the title came to me first, Jerzy
Kosinski by Jerome Charyn, but I didn’t dare write the novel while his
widow was still alive. My French publisher began harassing me, and now I was
the one who felt like a hunchback with an invisible hump. Then the widow died,
and the hump disappeared.
STAY THIRSTY: Kosinski’s life encompassed everything from being a Holocaust survivor and refugee to becoming a bestselling literary phenomenon and celebrity to falling from grace. As you reflect back, what is the real meaning of Jerzy Kosinski’s life?
JEROME CHARYN: There is no meaning. He was a shadow within a shadow within a shadow. That’s the nature of the Holocaust. I would say the same thing about Roman Polanski, but he found a universal language – film – while Kosinski only had English to play with, and he never really mastered the music of the language on the page.
STAY THIRSTY: Kosinski was disparaged as a “ruthless social climber, sexual libertine, and pathological liar who may have plagiarized his greatest work.” True or false and why?
JEROME CHARYN: Before we answer that, we should all live through the Holocaust and see whether any of us is authentic or a ghost. He was a ghost.
STAY THIRSTY: The work of Kosinski’s that probably remains most alive in the public zeitgeist is the screen adaptation of his novel, Being There, starring Peter Sellers. What was the relationship between Kosinski and Sellers and what were their motives in deciding to work together?
JEROME CHARYN: Sellers loved the role of Chauncey the gardener, and saw the Shakespearean qualities that such a character had. It was the greatest comic role of his
life, far less flippant than Inspector Clouseau, but Kosinski
didn’t think Sellers was serious enough; also, he loved to devil people, and he
got incredible pleasure out of saying no to Peter Sellers. Finally, he
relented, and we have this wonderful film that is like a flower half dying and
half in bloom.
STAY THIRSTY: If you had the chance to ask Kosinski two questions, what would they be? And how do you think he would respond?
JEROME CHARYN: Question one: Why the fuck didn’t you write your novels in Polish? He would have looked me in the eye and said, dear boy, Polish novels don’t sell.
Question two: Why didn’t you acknowledge that you had other people helping you with your manuscripts? There’s no crime in that. He probably would have felt a kind of deep shame, that somehow he wasn’t good enough.
STAY THIRSTY: What was Kosinski’s relationship with Stalin?
JEROME CHARYN: Kosinski loved Stalin, because he was a murderer, like Kosinski himself would have liked to have been. Stalin was his own Little Father. He was dazzled when he met Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and she has an important role in the novel.
STAY THIRSTY: You have written about such giants as Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and Joe DiMaggio. How does Kosinski fit into your literary canon?
JEROME CHARYN: He fits or doesn’t fit because finally you are always writing about yourself and why not Jerzy Kosinski? He looked like a painted bird, wrote like a painted bird, and died like one.
STAY THIRSTY: Of all the famous and influential people you have written about, which one or ones do you admire the most and why?
JEROME CHARYN: I admired Lincoln the most. He started with so little, and was such an ugly man, but he spoke with the angels, and he had no vanity at all.
STAY THIRSTY: What is next on your agenda?
JEROME CHARYN: I am writing about Teddy Roosevelt, the Cowboy King, hoping to find his music and make it my own.
(Jerome Charyn photo credit: Klaus Schoenwiese)