From the Paris Review Interview Archives: Jerzy Kosinski Entertains the Peasantry

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09/21/2010 3:09 PM |

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Today’s epic procrastinatory traipse through the Paris Review‘s newly comprehensive online interview archive continues with this selection from the Summer 1972 issue—also featuring poetry by Allen Ginsberg and fiction by Harry Mathews, James Ivory, Michael O’Donoghue and George W. S. Trow—in which editor George Plimpton and Rocco Landesman talk to Jerzy Kosinski about Communism, emigration, and other heady, geopolitical and philosophical issues very much on the minds of the internationally minded literati of the time. Here, in The Art of Fiction #46, Kosinski draws a surprising comparison between contemporary highbrow talk shows and rural oral culture:

INTERVIEWER

But listening to you telling stories on various TV and radio talk shows—Carson, Cavett, Long John Nebel et al.—and then finding some of them in your novels, one wonders whether it is true that you test your stories on the listeners. If you do, how much do you change them according to audience reaction?

KOSINSKI

As a novelist, I am, first, a storyteller. I remember how in the Soviet Union I and several other students of social psychology were assigned by the university to lecture at a collective farm, traveling to and from the farm by train. There were always peasants taking the train to a farmers’ market on the way, and they invariably listened in on the students’ conversation. One of us would begin a tale; as the train approached the market station, the drama would increase, the narrator piling one dramatic incident upon another. The peasants, openmouthed, usually swallowed every word, laughing, crying, or gasping with terror. The train would stop at the market, but afraid to miss a word, they seldom moved. As the train pulled away from the platform and began to pick up speed, the story would end abruptly. Only then would they become aware that they had missed their stop. At the end of the week, the student whose storytelling had caused the largest number of peasants to miss the market stop won the game. Well, I use the talk shows as a trainful of passengers willing to listen to my story, even if they miss their stop. Mind you, not an easy task: commercials break any story more often than a train’s stops. No wonder—in this country we watch the conversation, a TV host once reminded me graciously. But usually I don’t use the TV popular audience’s reaction—mostly, an easily evokable laughter—as a yardstick, even though one of my novels, Being There, is about that very audience.