Even without such clarifying collisions with its raw, unadorned progenitors in the real world, Kiš’s prose at its best creates a nimbus of the ideal – it is generated, exhaled, by the perfection of his style – which he sets against the dark materials of his novels and stories. One source of the impulse to write about Kiš was my fascination with the effects he achieved by working out his unflinching themes in such wrought and artful language. To write a biography of so transparently autobiographical a writer could seem an odd undertaking: a painstaking labour to decipher what is perfectly obvious or, even worse, irrelevant. For Kiš is the opposite of those writers who disguise the real-life originals of characters or events in their fiction—and whose biographers can therefore usefully, or at least amusingly, detect and map the connections. The interest, for Kiš and for his readers, was not who underlay his characters, but how they were changed by being “transposed” (a key verb in his critical vocabulary) into fiction. Asked about the resemblances between the family in his novel Garden, Ashes and his own family, Kiš said “I am convinced that it is me, that it’s my father, my mother, my sister—that they are us as we should have been” if history had not crushed them. The candour of that statement, with none of the coyness or showing-off that mar most interviews with writers, was characteristic.

Danilo Kiš and the soda siphon – by my Open Society Media Program colleague Mark Thompson, on his recent biography of Kiš, Birth Certificate.

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