#29 = Volume 10, Part 1 = March 1983
An Interview with Stanislaw Lem
I conducted this interview in Krakow, Poland, in May 1981, at Lem's house on the
outskirts of the city. The meeting was arranged by phone through another Polish
writer who is the translator of my fiction into Polish.
I was travelling with Jerzy Kutnik, a young Polish critic who teaches
contemporary American literature at the University of Lublin, and who served as
my guide and interpreter during the three weeks I spent in Poland lecturing and
reading from my work at various universities and for the Polish Writers' Union.
We arrived a few minutes late, having had difficulties finding a taxi. I had
visualized Lem's house to be a huge, ultra modern mansion (there are a few such
houses in Poland), but instead we found ourselves in front of a rather small and
unpretentious house, even according to Polish standards. I had expected
something more imposing, especially for a writer of such international renown.
But speaking of the incongruous, as we did later in the interview, parked in
front of the house was the latest model of a Mercedes Benz—450 SL, I
We were greeted by Stanislaw Lem himself at the gate of the little garden which
surrounds the house. He looked exactly the way I had envisaged him: short and
plump, jovial and energetic, in his early 60s. He wore gold rimmed glasses, a
heavy wool cardigan with leather patches at the elbows, corduroy pants, and
heavy yellow walking shoes.
We went directly up to his study on the second floor after being briefly
introduced to his wife, an extremely attractive woman, perhaps a few years
younger than Lem. I took a quick glance around the house as we walked in.
Somewhat messy, or rather, no, not messy, but cluttered with objects in every
corner: gardening tools, tennis racquets, skis, boots, etc.
In Lem's study I was struck by the mess on the large desk: piles of books,
papers, magazines, and all kinds of objects, and abandoned on top of all that, a
small portable typewriter. Around the room, covering the walls from floor to
ceiling, bookcases full of books, papers, magazines, in no discernible order,
except for one large bookcase facing the door in which the books were neatly
arranged, and beautifully bound—Lem's own books in many different editions, in
Polish and foreign translations. Stacks of magazines on the floor, some in
English, French, Russian. I noticed on the desk the latest issue of Newsweek,
quite difficult to obtain anywhere in Poland. On top of one of the bookcases, a
large photograph of the Polish Pope.
When Lem's wife brought in coffee and cookies on a tray, he pulled up a small
table on wheels which I had not noticed earlier. Lem sat on a very old and
rather uncomfortable looking chair, while Jerzy and I sat in small, but
comfortable armchairs, much lower than his antique chair.
We were a few minutes into the interview when I asked Jerzy to check and make
sure his Russian made tape recorder was working properly. And luckily we did the
tape was hardly audible. Lem immediately offered that we use his tape recorder,
a brand new German model.
Lem was charming, friendly, often breaking into laughter, and ready to talk
about anything. Not once during the two and a half hours we were with him did he
look at his watch.
Though Lem understands English fairly well, and French even better (which is my
native tongue), he preferred to do the interview in Polish. Jerzv Kutnik served
as interpreter, and subsequently transcribed the tape and prepared a rough
English draft, which I corrected and edited and which was eventually approved by
Lem in its present form.
When time came to leave, after Lem had signed copies of some of his books for us
(I left with him a copy of my latest novel, which he asked me to sign), he
inquired if we had a way to get back to the city, and when we told him we were
hoping to catch a taxi somewhere, he insisted on driving us back in his
Mercedes. Lem drives recklessly, like most Polish people. He sits very close to
the steering wheel, gestures as he drives, and curses the other drivers on the
road as he passes them. He left us in front of the Writers' Union building after
a cordial handshake.
Federman. Do you consider yourself strictly an SF writer?
Lem. As a matter of fact, I do not consider myself an SF writer. The question of
genres is simply unimportant for me, and very often I turn to different modes of
writing. I want to write about things that interest me and in ways that interest
me. One could simply say that I attempt certain mental experiments and try to
create certain situational models. I would also add that the conventions of
normal, realistic literature, or whatever you call it, are insufficient for me.
It is so because they usually limit one's field of vision to small groups of
people, while I am interested in the fate of humanity as a whole, even more so
than in the fate of individuals.
Federman. So even though your fame rests mostly on novels and stories that are
read as SF, you consider yourself a writer and not necessarily an SF writer. Was
this true from the moment you started writing?
Lem. When I began writing I did not think of myself as an SF writer, I did not
define my writing at all. I was not even certain as to what type of writing I
was doing. At that time, SF, as it was being written in the US, was practically
unknown in Poland. And when, in the 1960s, I wrote The Futurological Congress,
no one knew what futurology was going to be. Literary genres, as you can see, do
not mean much to me.
Federman. What about the role of science in your work?
Lem. What matters for me is what is called cognition. In other words, that which
is the concern of the theory of cognition. And the question of whether or not it
should be limited only to exact sciences, that is to say, natural sciences,
remains open. I am interested primarily in the line of junction, the border
between science and philosophy, and also in the fact that a certain species of
"brained animals" on Earth, I mean Man, has made science one of its main
preoccupations. I experiment in the sense that sometimes I examine real
possibilities of science and philosophy, and sometimes I imagine how other
thinking species would practice philosophy of science.
Federman. If I understand you correctly, you do not make any distinction between
science and philosophy?
Lem. Right. After all, the same psychic processes underlie scientific thinking
and imaginative thinking.
Federman. But then, do you read SF?
Lem. Well, not any more, because it is usually so bad, and because I am
disturbed by the name itself. There is something which I find personally
insulting in the name science fiction, which feigns some association with
science, while in fact it has nothing to do with science. For many years I read
SF hoping to find in that huge volume of SF works something interesting; but I
did not find anything interesting, and so a few years ago I stopped reading SF
Federman. In general SF takes itself very seriously. I mean, it has a tendency
to be too moralistic and therefore humorless.... What strikes me in reading your
books is the humor which seems to undermine this moralistic tendency. Don't you
agree that there is little humor in SF, or else that it is humoristic in spite
of itself, usually as a result of its naïvety?
Lem. Yes, you're quite right. SF in general is too ponderous. In fact, I was
thinking about that recently when an editor asked me to write something about
how I wrote my last novel—which, by the way, is still unpublished [it is now in
print—eds.]—and among other things, I concluded that there are certain
situations in which one cannot write, cannot examine a question, render a
problem other than in a humoristic way, or rather, ironically. Let me give you
an example. When the Chinese wrote, some time ago, about World War I, they
called it a civil war of the Europeans. From the point of view of the Chinese,
who are far away, it was indeed a European civil war. For us, of course, this
sounds funny and strange. But this is the kind of irony which results not from
somebody's intention to be ironical, but from a basic shifting of categories
because of distance. So when we speak or write about some distant epochs, or
worlds, or civilizations, or cultures looking at one another, getting in touch
with one another, an, element of misunderstanding and humor has to be present.
Federman. You mentioned your new novel.... What is the title of that book?
Lem. Wizja Lokalna, which means, Inspection of the Scene of Action, or
the Scene of a Crime.
Federman. Do you feel that when you use irony, which, I agree with you, is
indispensable to any form of fiction writing today, that it serves a purpose? A
critical purpose?—like criticizing a certain social or political system?
Lem. Yes, definitely. But I never want to do it in a way that would create a
concrete, a very concrete political or geo political situation, well defined in
time and in space. Or if you prefer, I don't want that political irony to be the
sole subject of what we call the model, the model that is given by a novel. This
is because such situations, such confrontations, and such problems are always
fluid; they change, and novels which are so deeply rooted die together with such
Federman. Speaking more specifically about SF, usually one can say that it is
either pessimistic or optimistic: pessimistic in the sense that it gives a dark
vision of life in the future (things will get worse) or in the past (things were
better); optimistic if it proposes the inverse. How do you situate your work in
Lem. In this spectrum there is no place for me because I do not think one can
consider the world in these terms. One cannot simply say that things are either
very good or very bad. Usually they are both very bad and very...well, fairly
good at the same time. That's one aspect. As for myself as a writer...in
choosing a subject I act a bit like a doctor leaning over a dying patient. As a
medical case, such a patient is completely uninteresting. He will die, and
that's it. The doctor will have to go to another patient. So that is why I
always give humanity another chance. But that does not mean that eventually
humanity will not commit suicide.
Federman. What you are saying reminds me of something Joseph Conrad once wrote
in a letter to H.G. Wells: "The difference between us, my dear Wells, is
fundamental. You don't give a damn about humanity, but nonetheless you think it
must be improved. Whereas me, I love humanity, but I know it cannot be
improved." I think I got it right. I suppose one could say that you stand at a
point mid way between Conrad and Wells when it comes to your vision of humanity?
Lem. Not a bad place to be. I am flattered that you are putting me in such
Federman. From what you have said so far, your work seems to contain a refusal,
a rejection of realism as well as a rejection of the specific, of the little
groups in favor of the large groups. This is not unlike the kind of fiction I am
associated with, the kind of fiction which is labelled "experimental." In other
words, you are using techniques similar to those of what is called in the US
"new fiction" or "innovative fiction" and which I prefer to call "surfiction."
Do you think of yourself as an experimental writer?
Lem. In a sense, yes. But this is chiefly because I hate to repeat myself and
others, and it is the main reason why I try to go somewhere beyond the norm. At
the same time, however, what interests me especially are certain problems which
sometimes, not always, can be formulated in a discursive manner. Those are not
problems dealing exclusively with language, or with the self referentiality of
language, as is the case in most experimental fiction in the US. As you can see,
I am not interested in so called linguistic poetry which creates an autonomous
world that does not refer to anything existing outside this poetry.
Federman. Yet, this is how I read your work, as being experimental, and I
believe this is how most writers with whom I am associated in America also read
you. For many of us, your work serves as a model. Let me be more specific. There
are two aspects of your fiction which I personally find fascinating and relevant
to my own work as an experimental writer. The first one is how often the
characters in your fiction, the central figures, are split not only into
doubles, but sometimes triples, quadruples, and so on—that is to say, into
multiple personalities. And the second aspect is the way you use the
incongruous, and use it in such a casual manner. I am thinking, for instance, of
the story in The Star Diaries where the astronaut is cooking a steak out there
in space, and the steak flies away. You know, it's the most banal, trivial sort
of thing. There is something totally incongruous about that, totally absurd.
Here you are in space cooking a steak while all these other marvelous things are
happening. Can you comment on that?
Lem. On this question of the inconguous. Well, it varies greatly, but it has to
do with a fundamental contradiction of space travel. For instance, in my last
novel, one of the protagonists notes that what resembles astronautics most
closely is a long term in prison. When you sit in jail you cannot go out, and
yet, if you try hard enough, and long enough, you can escape even from the most
severe prison, the toughest separate cell. But when you travel in space you
cannot escape from your spaceship. There is a contradiction there, a certain
dialectical conflict, an antithetical contrast. Though you are absolutely free
in space, at the same time you are imprisoned. It is when man has the most
freedom, because he is in cosmic space, and therefore free from Earth's
gravitation, that he finds himself totally prisoner of his spaceship. But
nonetheless, that situation, at least for me, must remain playful, even though
it contains a kind of inescapable truth, and must be presented from an
unconventional point of view.
With regard to the problem of the double. It is, as far as I can remember, a
joke. I mean, I never do it consciously [laughing]. When my characters split
into multiple personalities, as you say, it is usually to create humor, to
create a certain humoristic situation, and nothing more.
Federman. This brings us closer to the process of writing. Reading your novels
one has a feeling that not only are you having a great deal of fun writing, but
that there is an element of improvisation going on. Do you plan your books in
advance? Do you know exactly where you are going? Or do things happen by chance,
as you proceed?
Lem. I would not say there is an element of improvisation there. When I write I
write in wholes. I do not plan anything in advance, for I know it would not work
anyway. First I have only a vague idea, then I write one version, then another,
and so on. Which is, I admit, very wasteful because each time I have to start
from the beginning again. In a sense, it is like when you jump to do a double
somersault, or some other type of somersault. You cannot stop In the middle of
it—say the first part did not come off—and try to do it again. You have to fall
to the ground first and then start another one from the beginning. I simply
cannot write any other way.
Federman. Do you enjoy yourself? I mean is there personal joy in the writing
Lem. No, writing for me is drudgery. Hard labor [laughing].
Federman. Nonetheless, there are certain moments in your novels which are not
only funny, but so outrageously funny that one has a feeling the author is
trying to mystify the reader. Is that true?
Lem. This may happen, but it is not deliberate on my part. And besides I prefer
to let the readers, or the critics, decide for themselves, and get their
reactions afterwards. No, it is not premeditated. It's just that sometimes I get
Federman. The reason I raised that question is because there are scenes in your
work that are so preposterous that one wonders if they are not deliberately
pushed to the extreme of the grotesque simply for the fun of it. I am thinking
in particular of some of the scenes in The Futurological Congress. Do these
happen while you are writing, or do you plan these in advance?
Lem. There are no rules that govern my writing. Usually, so to say, my writing
process resembles (and that wouldn't be a bad comparison) the process of dipping
a thread in a liquid solution of sugar; after a while crystals of sugar begin to
settle on the thread, and it grows thicker and thicker, it puts on flesh, so to
speak. It works the same way with my writing. It is never linear. I don't write
simply from beginning to end. I constantly rearrange things. It is a bit like
shuffling cards, a bit of kaleidoscopic work—something to do with the theory of
combination. In other words, all tricks are permitted, even the most outrageous
Federman. When you say there are no rules governing your writing, does that mean
that you are not always in full control of what you are doing?
Lem. Well, yes and no. Let me give you an example. In my last novel there is the
following situation, which of course is grotesque. The main character is
travelling in a spaceship and he has a computer, a special computer in which
there are cassettes with the voices of various famous personalities of the past:
Einstein's, Bertrand Russell's, Shakespeare's. Whenever he wants to, he turns on
the computer and has conversations with these important people. So, for
instance, Shakespeare recites a poem to him, a poem, of course, which never
existed before. In sum, I indulge in absolutely everything, if I can. I think
that one has to be in control of all this, but at the same time the work itself
establishes its own rules. Every novel is a world governed by its own rules.
This is how I would put it.
Federman. Earlier you said that you do not read SF any more, but obviously you
do read a lot of classical and contemporary fiction? A Perfect Vacuum, for
example, is made up of reviews, articles about, supposedly, non existent books.
Nonetheless, when one reads these—and here my background in French literature
helps—it is obvious that among other things you are mocking the French nouveau
roman. and in fact one can detect which novels you are specifically mocking...
Lem. Yes. yes...I was....
Federman. So you have read many of these so called French new novelists?
Lem. Naturally [laughing].
Federman. Can you tell us which ones?
Lem. Well yes. Not only Robbe Grillet...[laughing]...but others too.
Federman. Again, in A Perfect Vacuum there is one piece which is definitely a
mockery of Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. You
read Joyce, of course? How
important is Joyce for your writing?
Lem. Let's put it this way...he is some kind of....In the landscape of
literature, Joyce is a separate peak, an isolated mountain. A very. very tall
mountain. But I think there is no sense in climbing it. Somebody has already
Federman. With which writers of the past or of the present do you feel an
affinity? Which writers have had an impact on your work?
Lem. What shall I say? I do not have special opinions of my own. That is why I
read a lot. But in any event, critics in many countries try to pin me down, to
connect me to some distant ancestors, like Voltaire, especially his
philosophical fairy tales. or to Swift. Well perhaps they are right. I cannot
say that I consciously refer to any kind of writing, which of course does not
mean that I fell down from nowhere, from the Moon.
Fedemum. So you do read contemporary fiction?
Lem. Not too much, because it is very difficult in Poland to get the best. I
mean relatively difficult, because we are still to a large extent isolated from
all this....Besides, I am of course limited by my knowledge of languages. I can
read in English, German, and French. In my personal opinion, of these three
literatures, which I know a little, American literature is in the best shape. As
for French literature, considering its past grandeur. it is in a state of
decline . . . decay.
Federman. I agree with you about that. But let me ask you, since you've
mentioned Poland. Has it been difficult for you to write, to be writing in
Lem. It is difficult to be writing here only in the sense of everyday, material,
worldly problems. I simply never think whether what I write can be published
here or not. I never let this question stand between me and the paper. So in
this sense, no, it has not been difficult. And besides, I think that the Polish
language is particularly good for some tricks that are vital for me. I mean the
use of neologisms. And that is why, perhaps, my translators in the West have
such immense problems translating my books, because those languages
cannot...are not flexible enough as far as neologisms go.
Federman. In other words, there has never been any form of censure on your
Lem. Well...only a little. I mean I had some problems in the 1950s which
later....Simply, some books had to wait at the publishers for...at the
beginning one of my books was delayed by five years, another by one year. But
not since then.
Federman. Because one senses in your writing that there is always this irony
towards bureaucracy, towards the stupidity of certain types of political and
social activities, have you ever felt any pressure in that respect?
Lem. No, not really. I believe that in a sense the loyalty of the critics worked
to my benefit. They knew that to criticize explicitly what my books are really
about would be to denounce them to the police. And so they wrote about something
else....They dealt with my books as though they were fairy tales.
Federman. In the ten days that I have been in Poland, I have met a lot of
people, and as soon as I mention your name there is immediate enthusiasm and
admiration. I have seen copies of your books in almost every home I've been in.
Are you aware of this''
Lem. [Smiling] To tell you the truth, no, not really....Well, a little, I guess.
But the books you have seen must be older books, because the situation right now
is such that my books have not been published in Poland for a long time...for
various reasons. And besides. I am on strike myself
Federman. What do you mean?
Lem. It had to do with a poet, Baranczak (considered a dissident in the 1970s,
but at present teaching at Harvard University, I believe), whose translation of
a novel by Ursula Le Guin could not be published here. I was at the time
Director of the collection in which this book was to appear. The only way for me
to express my protest was to stop publishing. For the last three years I have
not published anything in Poland. But now I am going to publish again. However,
since the printing process takes a long time, the books that I have already
submitted will not appear for six months, or perhaps a year. So I have this
feeling that I am not...that my books are not read....ln fact, I do not know
which of my books are available these days.
Federman. You mentioned earlier that your books have been translated into some
30 languages. Does that mean you travel a lot outside of Poland?
Lem. 33 or 34 languages. No, only when I have to, only then. Generally speaking
I do not like travelling, but from time to time my publishers insist....For
instance, for the past three years I have been turning down an
invitation from my Spanish publisher. In Germany they pressed me so hard that
last year I finally agreed and made a tour there. Publishers want me to do that.
But usually I do not like to travel very much. Once a year I go with my wife to
the Austrian Alps.
Federman. Have you ever been to the United States?
Lem. No, never.
Federman. Speaking of travel on a larger scale. How exciting is it for you now
that man has begun to explore space? Do you see a great future in space travel?
Lem. Well, I think we should not expect too much in the next few decades as far
as possible profits for humanity. But as for the dangers connected with the
militarization of cosmic space, these can be immense indeed. In fact, they may
completely exhaust the economy of the richest superpowers before we can begin to
profit from the exploitation of other planets.
Federman. I agree with you about the militarization of space, but do you think
that, at least, the exploration of space, and the new concepts we will gain from
such exploration may affect the way artists, and especially writers, will create
Lem. Yes, I think so. But not in an immediate and direct sense, because what we
call "the conquest of space" consists of tiny steps, not even the steps of an
infant learning to walk. Though we have already declared the conquest of space,
we are still in a very early phase. The only thing we have learned so far, and
which fascinates me personally, is that the Earth is the heavenly body which by
its lively blue color differs dramatically from all other planets, and that
seems like a tiny drop of life in this cosmic lifelessness.
Federman. Do you believe there is life, some form of life, elsewhere in the
universe, on other planets, in other galaxies?
Lem. I think there may be.... l always leave room for such a possibility, but at
the same time I keep wondering why, with all the fuss made about encounters with
other civilizations, nothing comes out of it. Unlike certain people these days,
I am pessimistic about the possibility of any change in this respect within the
next 10, 20, or even 50 years. I mean the possibility of an encounter with some
thinking brothers, some other civilization out there in space. I simply think
that the distances between individual spots of life in the universe are so
incredible that they constitute an insurmountable barrier.
Federman. And yet, in many places in the world today, and especially in America,
there are people who are convinced, and try to convince others, that the Earth
has already been visited by creatures from other planets. As you know, the topic
of UFO's has become very important and very serious. Do you have doubts about
UFO's? Doubts that we have been visited by beings from outer space?
Lem. Oh, yes, yes....
Federman. What is your feeling about the way the cinema deals with SF, the way
it presents the unknown in the universe?
Lem. Oh, it s so bad...horrible. I used to be interested in such films, but then
I stopped watching them. I am, of course, always ready to change my opinion if
something good comes along. But so far nothing like that has happened, and I do
not see any signs that it is going to change. The general rule seems to be that
things that are of the least intellectual and artistic value are the most likely
be made into a movie. The situation in the Western cinema is that the film
industry, the film producers, regard the public as a huge mass of fools who
should not be disturbed, discouraged, surprised, frightened by any really new,
original, unconventional depiction of the future, or of anything. This is not
only true of the cinema, but of most SF.
Federman. What about television? It is here to stay, no doubt about that. What
role is television going to play in our life? Do you think that television may
become a force, if it is not already, in changing the psyche of mankind?
Lem. I think so. It is difficult to say if television is mainly a negative force
or not. I think it may have both a very good and a very bad influence on us. It
is very probable that without television there would not have been that strong
reaction of the Americans against the Vietnam War. Reading about certain events
in a newspaper is one thing, and seeing those events, even as images on
television, is another. And the same is true of many other things. At the same
time, however, there is this process of infecting large masses of people with
violence, mass murders, all kinds of horrible scenes. So you can sit in your
room, drinking beer and eating something, and at the same time watch the most
terrifying things. Of course, it is very good to be informed, but all this has
very serious, dreary consequences for society. Television may be in the process
of transforming man into some sort of monster.
Federman. I want to go back to something you said earlier when I asked you about
the incongruous in your fiction, and which I think is extremely important. You
said that we cannot assume that in these other worlds that you invent in your
fiction the people must act like us, or that these people must have the same
psychology as ours. Do you think then that fiction, and your fiction more
specifically, has a role to play in teaching us something'!
Lem. Yes, it has, but chiefly in teaching something about man, and not
necessarily about unknown beings. Let me give you an example. In the new novel I
just finished, I invented a world in which there are creatures that reproduce
sexually but do not have exterior sexual organs at all. And so, a large body of
human, earthly notions are completely foreign to them. I needed to work with
this kind of situation to take a look at mankind from the point of view of such
creatures, for whom the role that sex plays in our lives is totally
incomprehensible. So I invented this world and these creatures to get a new
perspective on humanity.
Federman. In other words, however different the people you invent may be from
us, you are in fact always writing about us?
Lem. Yes, absolutely.
Federman. In The Star Diaries (I believe it is the second or the third journey)
[actually "The Eighth"—eds.] you have a representative of Planet Earth travel to
some Universal meeting far out in space, to present, plead rather, the case of
mankind for admission into the great Universal Brotherhood. But at the end of
the story mankind is rejected because of all the evil that we have committed
over the centuries, in fact as far back as the pre historic age. I find this
story to be a very forceful indictment of humanity. Do you see it this way?
Lem. From one point of view, yes, indeed. But I also do not think that we are,
as I humoristically showed in that story, such a criminal, ghastly exception
from the Universal rule. I mean that we are not the scum of the universe, the
Earth is probably not the worst place there is. No, I do not think so. I did it
on purpose in order to stress our criminal burden.
Federman. Earlier you said that your main concern is not with language only,
though obviously your books do show a concern for language and for
communication. In that same story, which seems to be a parody of a learned
meeting, an academic meeting, the language spoken by the various participants
often reaches a level of absurdity and nonsense. Do you think that our language
has problems? That the human language is in crisis?
Lem. Most probably so. But I want to make it clear that when I play all sorts of
linguistic games, these are usually subordinated to some purposes outside the
language itself. For instance, the academic jargon used in that story is to
create a certain atmosphere in which the decision about humanity, about the
Earth, about us as criminals, is to be taken seriously. I do not want to say
that language always defines some context, but I am strongly against linguistic
games that are not comprehensible to the reader.
Federman. Do you have a sense of who your readers are out there?
Lem. To tell you the truth, not really. I never think about that, or whether or
not someone will be particularly interested in what I write. Usually the foreign
editions of my books are much larger than the Polish ones. But I write in Polish
and mainly for Polish readers. Yet the reception of my books does not interest
me. My last novel is a good example. It is extremely difficult, and perhaps
cannot be translated at all. But this does not concern me, because I cannot
afford to think about my readers when I write. I barely manage with my own
intellectual powers to write books like a writer should. I believe that what
interests me will interest somebody else too.
Federman. But you assume that your reader is intelligent?
Lem. Oh, yes, of course. In fact, as I said, I assume that if something is
interesting for me it will also be interesting for others. Let me add, however,
that the writing process very often is for me a process of self education. After
I have written a novel I am wiser than before. Someone else might also want to
use this opportunity to learn.
Federman. Some ten years ago or so in America many people were proclaiming the
death of the novel. How do you see that?
Lem. The novel has been sentenced to death and taken to the graveyard an
innumerable number of times. That was not the first time. The genre, I believe,
is in a sense immortal. That is, there will always be people interested in
reading a story. But it is an entirely different matter whether or not
innovations in the novel will be possible. Today people talk about the
exhaustion of possibilities, they say that everything has already been done and
one can only produce insignificant versions, or variants, and so on. I basically
disagree with this. If it were to be true, I would destroy my pen. I would not
Federman. Do you write poetry?
Lem. I began by writing poetry. But now my poems are exclusively parodies,
pastiches, and they are strictly connected to my prose. In a way they are not
even my poems, but poems written by a computer, an extraterrestrial or
Federman. How many books have you written?
Lem. Some 33 or 34 books, I do not know exactly.
Federman. When did you begin to write?
Lem. Let me add first that in my opinion the first five, at least, are very
bad....I began to write in 1950...1949.
Federman. When do you work?
Lem. I usually write from five till eight in the morning. It is the only time
when there is absolute quiet, no phone calls...nothing....That's the best time.
An interruption is the worst thing for me.
Federman. Do you write every day?
Lem. When I am writing a longer piece, yes. But it is more complicated than
that. For instance, I spent four years writing the last novel. I write one
version and get stuck, enter into a blind alley. So I put it aside and try once
again from the beginning. I wrote this book in 11 versions. But even after the
11th version I got lost completely and had to put this novel away for a whole
Federman. So you do a lot of revision and rewriting?
Lem. No, not at all. I throw the whole thing into the wastebasket right away. My
paper consumption is immense. To write 220 pages of this novel I used probably
something like four or five thousand pages.
Federman. This last novel seems to have been difficult for you to write, but
normally how long does it take you to write a novel?
Lem. That varies. It depends, first of all, on whether or not the writing is
going well, whether or not it comes off. I have many things that are in pieces,
things that I never finished and abandoned along the way. I resumed some of them
later, others not. So I cannot really tell you how long it takes me to write a
novel. The only thing I can say is that the worst books, those I wrote when I
was young, were very easy to write and did not take much time.
Federman. Do you work on one book at a time, or do you work on several projects
at the same time?
Lem. Usually I work on one novel at a time, but at the same time I write shorter
things, essays and so on. Not long ago I was writing a forecast for the Polish
Academy of Sciences about the progress of biology in the next 60 years. In this
essay—this is funny but also very typical of the way I work—I used some
material, some fantastic ideas from the novel to include in the forecast. These
ideas turned out to be very helpful in writing this essay. So you see, I take
things out of my fiction to use in my essays, and vice versa.
Federman. That's very interesting. I often steal from my own essays, or from my
fiction when I write essays. I have invented the term "playgiarism" to describe
this process. I suppose it also applies to you.... Have you ever done
Lem. Well, in 1947, I came with my family to Poland after Lvóv had become part
of Russia. I was studying medicine then. Our financial situation was rather
difficult, and I translated in parts a book on cattle breeding from the Russian.
I know Russian fairly well. But that had nothing to do with literature. Though I
should perhaps mention that a few years ago I wrote some essays which could not
be published in Poland at the time, so I wrote them in German and they were
published in Germany. But now they can be published here. and so recently I
translated my own essays into Polish.
Federman. You know German and Russian fluently. What other languages do you
Lem. Yes, German and Russian.... In writing, passively, two other languages:
English and French. But let me explain. I learned English the way Tarzan did in
those stories from the jungle. During the war I could only read English. There
was no one around who spoke English. So I can write. with mistakes, and read
that language, but I do not really understand spoken English. As for French I
know that language fairly well. I believe that a writer should know some
languages other than his own. It gives him another soul, so to say.
Federman. You were living in Poland during World War II. Can you say a few words
about what you were doing during the war?
Lem. During World War II, I was living with my parents in Lvóv. There was the
Ukrainian minority there and the situation was even worse than in the rest of
Poland. I worked as a car mechanic, then I had to go into hiding for almost a
year under an assumed name. More than half of my family was killed by the
Germans. So obviously it influenced my...my life and my work. Recently I wrote a
long story, entitled "Provocation," which deals with what is known as the
Holocaust, that is to say, the extermination of the Jews by the Germans. It is
one of those fictitious reviews, like the ones in A Perfect Vacuum. It is a
review of a non existent book by a non existent German scientist. Hence the
title. I decided that this book should have been written by some German author.
Thus I did not write the book for him, I reviewed it instead. By the way, some
historians here were taken in. When the story was published they thought that it
was a real review of a real book. I am telling you all this because there is
this anthropological theory going around which is designed to justify the causes
of the extermination, not only of...well mostly the Jews by the Germans. For me
this is a fantastic hypothesis from a period of anthropology. In other words, it
belongs to SF too: This is the way I see it. and my personal experiences are
reflected in this story.
Federman. Has it been translated into English?
Lem. Not yet. I just wrote it this year.
Federman. Please go on with this fantastic hypothesis.
Lem. My opinion is that the whole matter of what the Germans call Bewältigung
der Vergangenheit—that is to say, the overcoming of the past—is a crucial
question today. I think that no one—and this is the opening argument of this non
existent book—no one can forgive the Germans for what they did, for no one has
the right to do so. Those who died are the only ones who could do so, but of
course they are not here any more, and so they cannot speak. I am convinced
that it is basically impossible to overcome such a past, and I think it is not
the right way for Germany, for its culture, for history, and for humanity as a
whole. And because I am sure the Germans do not think so, I wrote this book, or
rather the review of that book myself for them. It amazes me that in Germany,
but also in France, and even in the US, there appear more and more books whose
authors maintain that there were no death camps, that those things did not
exist, did not happen at all. The intention and the motivation of those who
write such things are a great mystery to me.
Federman. As a survivor of the Holocaust myself, I have been less concerned and
less obsessed with telling the story of what happened than with what it means to
be living in what I call the post Holocaust era. I suppose that is also your
concern and your obsession?
Lem. Yes, indeed. I believe that this Holocaust has not yet ended. That is to
say, yes. in a sense it ended with World War II; but it keeps re appearing in
various forms and versions here and there. What about Cambodia? Strange efforts
to make a people happier by exterminating half of the nation. All this is an
extension of the Holocaust.
Federman. Would you say then that your work, your work as an SF writer
especially, fits into the post Holocaust era?
Lem. Yes, certainly. I would even go further and say that the boom in SF since
World War II may have something to do with this post Holocaust era in which we
live...in which we survive.
Krakow, May 1981
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