Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography
By James Park Sloan
Dutton, 505 pages, $27.95
Since his suicide in 1991, the literary reputation of Jerzy Kosinski has continued to sink. At one time he was one of the most promising writers on the American scene, pounding out three hits in a row—the cult classic The Painted Bird, Steps (winner of the 1969 National Book Award), and Being There (filmed in 1980 with Peter Sellers in the starring role). With their grisly violence and a sexuality bordering upon the sadomasochistic, the books raised Kosinski into the ranks of America’s celebrity class. He appeared repeatedly on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, played the role of Lenin’s stooge Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty’s film Reds, posed for the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and presented the Oscar for screenwriting in the spring of 1982, watched by 600 million people.
Even as his star was ascending, however, Kosinski was all but finished as a writer. His last six books became progressively more trivial, self-absorbed, and unreadable; and there drew closer the day of his exposure as a literary fraud. In June 1982, the Village Voice revealed that Kosinski (for whom English was a second language) had made extensive use of translators and collaborators to write all his books, and then had concealed the fact. George Reavey, a poet who was embittered by his own lack of literary success, complained to anyone who would listen that he wrote The Painted Bird. But Reavey was only one of several who could have made the same complaint, and not only about The Painted Bird. Being There so closely resembled a prewar Polish bestseller called The Career of Nikodem Dyzma as to deserve the charge of plagiarism. Kosinski never fully recovered from the Voice’s expose. The remainder of his life, as he himself said, was spent running from it.
A fitting end, some might say, to a literary life that was built upon lies. For years Kosinski passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience during the Holocaust. Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosinski confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences. Upon accepting the book for publication Santillana said, “It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it is straight autobiography.” Although he backed away from this claim, Kosinski never wholly disavowed it. He described the book as an “auto-fiction,” explaining that it “draws upon a childhood spent, by the casual chances of war, in the remotest villages of Eastern Europe.” Although it is not “easily justified,” he said, it is nonetheless “convenient” to classify The Painted Bird as nonfiction.
And so it was widely received. Reviewing the book for the New York Times Book Review, Elie Wiesel said, “It is as a chronicle that The Painted Bird . . . achieves its unusual power.” Other critics described it as “semi-autobiographical” or a “testament,” praising its historical value. As late as 1976, in a preface to the second edition, Kosinski continued to prevaricate. He never said outright that the book was not an autobiography. The reason he rejected the label, he said, was that he did not wish to be cast “in the role of spokesman for my generation, especially for those who survived the war.” Even so, anyone who “bothered to refer to actual source materials” would find that he “was not overstating the brutality and cruelty that characterized the war years in Eastern Europe.” He even quoted a death camp commandant to establish that the theme of his book was true to the experience of all Jewish children under the Nazis: “The rule was to kill children right away.” And then he repeated the story he had told so many times before: to save him, his own parents had sent him away to live among strangers, just like the unnamed boy in The Painted Bird.
The trouble is, it wasn’t true. And yet the truth about Jerzy Kosinski, as set forth in this new biography by James Park Sloan, may be even more fascinating. For though he disclaimed the role of spokesman for his generation, he was representative of it in many ways. A creature of postmodernity, he suffered—and celebrated—some of the most destructive pathologies of the age. It was as if he were hellbent on acting out the rupture in human values caused by the Holocaust. That was the central theme of his novels, and of his own life.
Born five months after Hitler came to power, he was the only child of Moses and Elzbieta Lewinkopf, a Jewish couple living in Lodz, Poland. His father changed their name to Kosinski—a more Polish-sounding name—in 1939 when he moved the family 120 miles away to the eastern border of German-held Poland. Far from giving up his son to the care of someone else, Moses Kosinski took in and eventually adopted the son of another Jewish family in the region. Here the family waited out the war, passing as Gentiles. Jerzy was carefully instructed to deny he was Jewish if challenged. It was a lesson that took a lifetime to unlearn. After the war, Moses Kosinski threw in with the “reds” against the “white” Polish loyalists, and when the Soviets took control, he was rewarded with a party appointment. For Jerzy his father’s position meant a superficially trouble-free postwar existence: high school, photography, girl friends, jazz, cafe society, student-exchange trips to Russia, and the University of Lodz.
Unlike his father, however, he despised communism. Sloan ascribes it to personality—Kosinski disliked conformity, he says—but in reality his anticommunism seems to have been principled enough. His intellectual mentor, the sociologist Jozef Chalasinski, was a dissident who believed that Marxist orthodoxy was destroying any possibility of a Marxist humanism. Seeing that human values would never be restored to Poland as long as the Communists were in power, Kosinski left the country for the United States in 1959. He did not return for nearly twenty years.
His first two books were contributions to the literature of anticommunism. The Future Is Ours, Comrade (1960) and No Third Path (1962) were published under the pseudonym “Joseph Novak.” Inside accounts of the harshness of life under the Soviets, they were based on Kosinski’s own visits to Russia. Although he tries to make a case for behind-the-scenes CIA sponsorship of the books, Sloan has no hard information and is not to be trusted on this score: for him, anyone who is anticommunist simply must be a “John Bircher”; the only reason he can imagine for writing an anticommunist book is to further “propaganda efforts directed at the Soviets” while tricking Americans into “accepting high levels of funding for defense and intelligence spending.”
Sloan is generally helpless in dealing with ideas. A novelist and teacher of creative writing, he belongs to the vaguely leftist culture of American universities, and treats all writing as more or less fiction. Kosinski, by contrast, was a sharp-minded and lifelong man of the right. Although The Painted Bird made him popular with young readers, he scorned the student movement of the sixties. From firsthand experience he knew the falseness of the promise of “liberation.”
And yet he also yielded to its allure. Despite his contempt for the political ideas of the young and their so-called “counterculture,” Kosinski was an enthusiastic participant in the sexual revolution of the sixties and after. One of the most troubling features of the biography that Sloan has written is its attention to Kosinski’s sexual life, which is recounted in detail. To be indelicate, when in the film version of Being There Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) tells EE (Shirley MacLaine), “I like to watch”—provoking an infamous solo performance by MacLaine—he is not speaking for Chance alone. Kosinski frequented the sex clubs like Plato’s Retreat that flourished in Manhattan before the outbreak of AIDS, usually in the company of an attractive young woman not his wife. Married twice—to the eighteen-years-older steel heiress Mary Weir and to a descendant of Bavarian aristocracy named Katherina von Fraunhofer—he was spectacularly unfaithful. He sought out three-way sex (two men and a woman); he procured lovers for (and copulated in the presence of) his stepson. He duped one young woman into bed by claiming that he had no penis, and then nearly raped her.
What was the reason for this sexual adventurism? Sloan sets it down to a love of “sexual theater” that mirrored Kosinski’s compulsive need to lie and feign and pose in all areas of his life, compensating for “the hollowness at the core of his being.” This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. “There was a hollow space at the center of Kosinski that had resulted from denying his past,” Sloan writes, “and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.” On this theory, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against intense feelings of hopelessness and abandonment. He even appears somewhat heroic, because he restrained himself from crossing the border into all-out psychosis.
What this theory cannot explain, however, is Kosinski’s strong moral opposition to communism and persistent loyalty to political freedom. Naturally, his biographer would like to dismiss Kosinski’s political convictions as yet another compulsion. “If he had any deeply ingrained ideology of his own,” Sloan writes, “it was a sort of paranoid anarchism, with special emphasis on the plight of unusual and gifted individuals within ‘collectivities.’“ The evidence is otherwise. After the collapse of Soviet hegemony in Central Europe, Kosinski spearheaded the organization of AmerBank, the first western bank to be chartered in Poland. Friends worried that his best energies were being siphoned off into nonliterary projects, but Kosinski was committed to bringing capitalism and economic freedom to his homeland. Hardly the act of a paranoid anarchist.
Nor can the psychological theory account for the haunting power of Kosinski’s one great book—The Painted Bird. Strictly speaking, it is not a Holocaust book. Like the Vilna ghetto poet Abraham Sutzkever, Kosinski rarely mentions the German exterminators; but unlike Sutzkever (who reserves speech for the Jewish dead), Kosinski aims to exhibit the cruelty and backwardness of the Polish peasants among whom his six-year-old narrator, who is indifferently Jewish or Gypsy, must hide. The one passage in which the Holocaust is discussed (“Perhaps the world would soon become one vast incinerator for burning people”) is immediately followed by a longer scene in which the rape of a Jewish girl is described in brutal and excrutiating detail. The Painted Bird is notorious for its horrors: eyeballs are gouged out of sockets, animals are tortured, women are violated with bottles holding manure, men are devoured by rats. “The Germans puzzled me,” the boy says. “Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?”
This is the question that Kosinski’s whole life was given over to answering. That he died by his own hand suggests that his answer, finally, was No. And so Kosinski joined a line of Holocaust writers—Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi—who by committing suicide testified that the world was beyond repair. Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski’s own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust. It is perhaps the greatest example of what is coming to be known as a “second-generation” book: a contemporary report of the hell in which a survivor of the Holocaust must live, one generation after the event.
D. G. Myers is Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University and the author of The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880