I'm reading a biography of Jerzy Kosinski
at the moment: he was a Holocaust survivor who wrote The Painted Bird
, a best-selling autobiographical novel about his horrifying experiences as a child in occupied Poland. According to Kosinski he spent years wandering around on his own, abused by almost everyone he came into contact with. The only problem is that, according to his biographer, James Park Sloan
, none of the sodomy and beatings he described in the book ever happened; rather, his resourceful father successfully concealed his family in a village of Catholic Poles, and afterwards, took a position of power in the new communist regime. Kosinski, meanwhile, received an excellent education, emigrated to the U.S. where he married a rich widow, became famous, appeared in a film
with Warren Beatty, and was then exposed as a fraud in an article in the Village Voice
. He wrote one more book, and killed himself. Shades of the fate of James Frey
, whose readers acted like so many shocked virgins when they learned he had invented a lot of his bestselling memoir. (Though, happily, Mr. Frey is still alive and with us.)
I love tall tales, and am fascinated by them, and those who tell them. What motivates people to tell such lies? How nervous do they feel as their profile rises and they receive more and more attention? Surely they realize they will be exposed one day? In the cases of Frey and Kosinski, ambition clearly has a lot to do with it, but the situation is not always that straightforward.
For example, the greatest teller of tall tales I ever knew was an Englishman in Moscow, a fellow who was tall, bald and emaciated like Max Schreck's Nosferatu. If you were to believe him, Nosferatu had lived a most remarkable life. Though he was not yet thirty, he had at various times been:
1) A veteran of Gulf War I
2) A bodyguard for Mel Gibson
3) An Olympic fencing champion
4) A marine biologist
5) A security guard at Disneyland Paris. It was while he was engaged in this task that he had one of his most amazing adventures. A sultan's daughter lost a box of priceless jewels near one of the rides; fortunately our hero located them. As a reward, the sultan gave him an enormous ruby.
Then there was the time his dad died and was resurrected ? but that story is too long and involved to tell here. Needless to say, Nosferatu's fantasy life eventually caught up with him. He was riding a tram out to his job (he was a 'security coordinator' at a nightclub popular with Moscow's expat crowd for its plentiful supply of cheap whores) wearing his favorite Russian paratrooper jacket. Unfortunately for him, a veteran from an actual unit of Russian paratroopers was riding on the tram at the same time, and started to make conversation. Russian paratroopers are notoriously tribal and violent: on the annual 'Paratrooper Day' police are instructed not to intervene if they see any of them smashing things or beating people up unless the situation is 'serious.' It's not surprising, then, that this one wasn't amused when he realized that his fellow vet was actually an Englishman who had never been near Chechnya or Afghanistan. Nosferatu had to leap off the tram while it was still moving to escape a beating.
I think Nosferatu wasn't so much ambitious as lonely and desperate for approval. No doubt there was some other, private stuff involved also. What intrigued me about his lying was that while he was telling something obviously false he seemed to be inside the story absolutely, and he would become very upset if challenged. But later, at the drop of the hat, he could contradict one of his myths as though it had never happened. Every day he was reborn, with a new myth, a new legend of himself, and he would set forth boldly, expecting the rest of us to acquiesce in his acts of self-creation.
But then there's another type of tall tale, ones told not for reasons of self-advancement or self-delusion, but purely for pleasure. For example, a friend of mine once persuaded a classroom of Russian teenagers that English schools were built next door to morgues, so biology students could practice on real subjects. The kids were horrified. When they realized they were being strung along they were angry, but only for a moment. They understood that he was just a man with an excess of imagination, weaving a dream to make their lives more interesting for a few minutes ? that he was embellishing reality to entertain them. And I am sure they will remember that lesson more than most of the others they sat through.
I love to tell this kind of Tall Tale, or indeed to be told one. Tall Tales while away the hours, make life less boring, and can be very funny. I particularly like the moment when the falseness of the Tall Tale begins to show, when the teller pushes it too far and you begin to doubt him. The only thing to do then is to push the lie to even more outrageous heights, to take off on bat-wings of dark imagination. That can be a moment of the greatest pleasure.
I will confess that I slipped a few Tall Tales into my book, Lost Cosmonaut. But should you have the good taste to read it, you will see that it is clear when I am making things up and when not. My Tall Tales do not undermine the factual elements of the book, any more than my friend's whoppers undermined the university prospects of the Russian teens.
There were many deep and profound aesthetic reasons for doing this, of course, but I also did it for fun, plain and simple. After all, if you have been following these posts then you will see I spend a lot of my time wandering around in wastelands, staying in rotten hotels, exploring psychosis and meditating on symbolical cockroaches. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy all that, but nevertheless, every now and then... well, I think you understand me.
Thanks for reading my dispatches over this last week. I hope we'll encounter one another again one day. For now, however ?