Interviewer: You have looked at the world from both ends of its ideologies — Soviet totalitarianism and American capitalism. Also from both ends of the class ladder. When you first arrived in this country, with no English, you were scraping ships, cleaning bars, parking cars, chauffeuring in Harlem. You were a truck driver and lived in the YMCA. By 1962, in four short years, you became a known author, you met and married a woman who was one of the largest taxpayers in the United States… At which end of your experience of fear or freedom, rich or poor, did you find the greatest sense of being alive?
Jerzy Kosiński: At both ends – and in between. As I have no habits that require maintaining – I don’t even have a favorite menu – the only way for me to live was always to be as close to other people as life allowed. Not much else stimulates me. I have no other passions, no other joys, no other obsessions. The only moment when I feel truly alive is when, in a relationship with other people, I discover how much in common we all share with each other. Money and possessions – I care little for the first, hardly for the second – were never necessary to experience life as I live it. As greatly as my wife, her wealth, and our marriage contributed to my knowledge of myself, of America, and of the world, they contributed just so much – no more, no less – as all other moments have contributed to my curiosity about myself, others, society, art – and to my sense of being alive.
Of course I’ve always known moments of loneliness when I felt abandoned, rejected, unhappy – but in such moments, I also felt alive enough to ponder my own state of mind, my own life, always aware that at any moment this precious gift of awareness of the self might be taken away from me. That state of awareness has always been, to me, less a possession than a mortgage, easily terminable.
Interviewer: Do you find you are becoming less dispassionate as you grow older?
Jerzy Kosiński: More compassionate, more attentive to the voice of life and more forgiving of its various failures, in myself as well as in others, but also more critical of a society so cruel to the old, sick, infirm. And I begin to perceive certain periods of my past, like certain skiing tricks I used to perform, as not available to be reproduced by me anymore. From now on, they will reside in me only as memory – and as a play of my imagination. Nostalgia and sentimentality – this is new.
Jerzy Kosiński: Yes. Once, I considered it merely a mood undefined. To be sentimental was not to be clear about oneself or others. Now I feel it as a minor but necessary shade, a mixture of regret and of desire.
From Gail Sheehy’s illuminating 1977 interview with Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosiński.
This piece was originally published in Psychology Today with the heading, “The Psychological Novelist as Portable Man,” a hysterically pretentious title that mischaracterizes what is otherwise a candid and illuminating piece. It’s certainly worth a read, and can be found alongside other insightful discussions in Tom Teicholz’s 1993 collection Conversations with Jerzy Kosiński.