One of the pleasures of this project is listening to the history that my subjects have lived and witnessed. One of the difficulties is weighing how much to include, and my general rule has been less not more. When I interviewed master ceramicist Eva Zeisel, for example, I learned that she had been involved with novelist and essayist Arthur Koestler and figures in his masterwork Darkness at Noon, which George Orwell drew upon when writing 1984. The material wasn’t relevant to what I was writing about. Now, almost two years later I can’t resist quoting the following passage from a review of a new biography of Koestler.
“Koestler was not interrogated in Spain [while imprisoned by Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War],” writes critic Louis Menand, “but he learned a great deal about the treatment of political prisoners in the Soviet Union from an old friend, Eva Striker. Striker was, [the biographer] says, the chief cause of Koestler’s ‘lurch to the left’ in Berlin in 1931. Not long after converting Koestler to Communism, she moved to Russia to take a position as the director of design in a porcelain factory near Moscow. In 1936, she was arrested and thrown into the Lubyanka, then transferred to a prison in Leningrad, where she was placed in solitary confinement and charged with plotting to assassinate Stalin. She was abruptly released after eighteen months, when her interrogator was himself arrested and imprisoned. She met up with Koestler again in Vienna, and as Koestler acknowledged in The God that Failed, he used many details of her prison experience, including communication by rapping on cell walls, in Darkness at Noon.”
When concluding my interviews, I ask all my subjects what they would change if they could do one thing differently in their lives. “I don’t know,” responded Zeisel, turning to her daughter. “Jeannie what would I do differently?”
“Would you have decided not to go to Russia?” asked Jeannie.
“No, I would just as well go to Russia.”
“Even with prison?”
“Even with prison.”
“Why? Why would you choose to go to Russia, even with the prison?”
“Because it was part of my adventurous life.”