A CONTROVERSIAL NOVELIST
A controversial novelist, Jerzy Kosinski first stunned the literary world in 1965 with The Painted Bird--a graphic account of an abandoned child's odyssey through wartorn Eastern Europe--which some critics consider the best piece of literature to emerge from World War II. Kosinski's second novel, Steps, was equally successful and won a National Book Award in 1969. Other novels, all part of an elaborate fictional cycle, followed; though Kosinski labeled them fiction, his books parallel his real-life experiences, earning him the reputation of a writer who mingles art and life.
The only child of Jewish intellectuals, Kosinski enjoyed a sheltered childhood until he was six years old. Then Hitler invaded Poland, disrupting the young boy's family and irrevocably altering the shape of his life. As Jews, Kosinski's parents were forced into hiding, and eventually the child was entrusted to a stranger's care. Though he was soon placed with a foster mother, she died within two months of his arrival, and, until the end of the war when he was reunited with his parents, young Kosinski wandered from one remote peasant village to another, living by his wits. By the time he was nine, Kosinski had been so traumatized by his experience that he was struck mute. "Once I regained my speech after the war, the trauma began," he told Barbara Leaming of Penthouse. "The Stalinist [system in Poland] went after me, asking questions I didn't want to hear, demanding answers I would not give."
When the State refused to grant him and his family permission to immigrate to the West, Kosinski used the deceptive techniques he had mastered as a runaway to plot his escape. He was twenty-four, a doctoral student at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, when he undertook an elaborate and dangerous ruse. Inventing four academicians in four different branches of learning, Kosinski contrived to have them sponsor him for a research project in the United States. It took him over two years to obtain the passport and the necessary travel documents, but by the winter of 1957, he was ready. He arrived in New York City a few days before Christmas-- friendless, penniless, and with only a rudimentary knowledge of the spoken American idiom.
After his arrival, Jerzy Kosinski became an American success story. Quickly mastering the language, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program, launched a writing career, and married the rich widow of an American steel baron. A prize-winning photographer, Kosinski was also an amateur athlete and, according to the New York Times Magazine, "a polo-playing pet of the jet set." In 1981, he added a screen debut to his list of accomplishments, earning critical praise for his portrayal of the Soviet bureaucrat Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's film Reds. Despite the tremendous variety that characterized both his personal and professional life, Kosinski remained deeply committed to writing: "Fiction is the center of my life," he told Margaria Fichtner in a Chicago Tribune interview. "Anything I do revolves around what I write and what I write very often revolves around what I do."
To gather material Kosinski frequently prowled the streets of New York and other cities, sometimes traveling in disguise. "I like to go out at night," he told Ron Base in the Washington Post. "I like to see strange things, meet strange people, see people at their most abandoned. I like people who are driven. The sense of who they are is far greater."
Though Kosinski cloaked these experiences under a fictive mask, critics have said the autobiographical elements of his writing are unmistakable. "Mostly, in his novels," wrote Barbara Gelb in the New York Times Magazine, "he describes actual events as a newspaper reporter would, altering details only slightly to fictionalize them." Detroit News staff writer Ben Brown agreed, delineating the following similarities between Kosinski and his characters: "Like the boy wanderer in The Painted Bird (1965), Kosinski was an abandoned child, wandering alone through the rural villages of Eastern Europe during World War II. Like the emigrant photographer-social scientist in Cockpit (1975), Kosinski, also a photographer-social scientist, escaped from [Poland] by creating a hole in the post-Stalinist bureaucracy through which he could slide to freedom in the West. By view of his marriage ... Kosinski was surrounded by the kind of vast inherited wealth he gave Jonathan Wahlen in The Devil Tree (1973). And like Fabian in ... Passion Play  ... Kosinski is an expert horseman [and] an avid polo player." In fact, according to Ron Base, Kosinski "never strays far from his own life in order to discover his novels' protagonists, and given the life he leads, who can blame him? Everything including his past and present seems calculated to yield a novel every three years or so."
But Ross Wetzsteon believed it is not calculation, but necessity which motivated Kosinski's pen: "He [was] fated to become a writer in order to survive. To admit his past is real would be to allow it to cripple him; to admit his fiction is autobiographical would be allow himself to be devastated by the horror of its experiences. `I am not the person who experienced those horrors,' Kosinski is saying, but rather, `I am the one who conquered them."' And Kosinski, writing in Notes of the Author on "The Painted Bird," reinforced this point of view: "We fit experiences into molds which simplify, shape and give them an acceptable emotional clarity. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. If there were not these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. There is no art which is reality; rather, art is the using of symbols by which an otherwise unstateable subjective reality is made manifest."
The "subjective reality" that is "made manifest" in Kosinski's fiction is the ability of the individual to survive. "The whole didactic point of my novels is how you redeem yourself if you are pressed or threatened by the chances of daily life, how you see yourself as a romantic character when you are grotesque, a failure," Kosinski told Ben Brown in a Detroit News interview. Though the theme is recurrent, Kosinski approaches it differently in each book as Lawrence Cunningham explained in America: "At times, as in The Painted Bird, the individual is the victim of society, while in Cockpit, a Kafkaesque secret agent named Tarden wages a one-man war against the whole of society and those members of it who epitomize the brutality of that society. In Being There ... the hero of the novel betrays the whole of American society not because of his power or viciousness, but because of his simplicity, naivete and sheer ignorance of how the culture game is played." Notwithstanding these differences, Cunningham believed the novels share the same moral ambivalence: "In Kosinski's ... universe there is, at the same time, grand moral testimony to the worth of the individual and a curious shrinking from the common bonds of trusting humanity.... Kosinski is a survivor. If his experience has not permitted him to teach us much about human relationships, it has been, nonetheless, a vade mecum [or manual] of making it in this very tough world."
And what makes this "alien world" of Kosinski's so frightening, according to Elizabeth Stone, is the sharp chill of recognition it causes the reader to feel. "In the lives of Kosinski's characters, there is something of ourselves," she wrote in Psychology Today. "Kosinski's novels pierce the social skin and go deeper. They are all accounts of the self in extreme psychological peril, and they make sense the way dreams make sense. Whatever they say to the rational mind--about police states, political prisoners, and social evil--to the anarchic primitive troubled sleeper in all of us, the novels recreate the aura of nightmare paranoia, rouse fears of psychic petrification, depersonalization, engulfment.... His characters chronicle not only what, at its worst, the world is like, but also what, at our worst, it feels like. His thematic preoccupations are the dangerous deceitfulness of appearances: isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and violence in a Hobbesian world.... And what each novel probes is: given an infinitude of dangers--many of them dangers of our own perceptions--by what strategies can we survive?"
Not surprisingly, the survival techniques his characters employ are similar to tactics Kosinski himself used. One, according to Stone, is giving voice to experience--as Kosinski does in his writing, and as the nameless protagonist of The Painted Bird does when he regains his speech. Another is by cultivating invisibility and turning it into an advantage--which Kosinski does when he travels in disguise and which Levanter of Blind Date does when he rapes a girl from behind, thus preventing her from identifying him. Though Kosinski said repeatedly that he never saw himself as a victim, critics maintain that his characters--and even Kosinski himself--are obsessed with revenge. While he preferred to view revenge as a "defense rather than an obsession," Kosinski did not disagree. "My characters often defend themselves against entrapments by oppressive societies," he told Barbara Leaming. "I see revenge as the last vestige of the eminently threatened self. When I was a student at the Stalinist university and the party threatened me with prison unless I would reform or openly perform an act of self-criticism and repent, I warned them, `Don't forget, if I go down, some of you will go with me.' Revenge can be a positive force--the victim's final dignity."
In Kosinski's case, retaliation for the injustices he suffered under the Communist system came with the publication of his first book, a nonfiction collection of essays, written when he was a student in the United States for about two years. Described by Barbara Gelb as "a strongly anti-communist tract," The Future Is Ours, Comrade: Conversations with the Russians became an instant best seller and was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest. It was the first of two books that Kosinski would write on communism and, like the subsequent No Third Path: A Study of Collective Behavior, it was published pseudonymously. Kosinski's reasons for taking a pen name remain unclear. Kosinski told Ron Base, "I didn't think my spoken English was good enough [to publicly defend my sociological methods, my ethics and philosophy, he added in a note to CA.] So I published it under the pen name Joseph Novak." But earlier Kosinski had offered Washington Post Book World interviewer Daniel J. Cahill a different explanation: "When you're a student you're supposed to read serious books--not publish them. The pen name allowed me to conduct my studies uninterrupted by the controversy that my books triggered among my fellow students and professors. A side benefit of a pen name is that it allows you to recommend your own books, to those who don't know you've written them, as the very best on the subject--without ever feeling immodest."
One of the people who read the first Novak book was Mary Weir, the thirty-one year old widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir. More than fifty years her senior, Ernest died leaving his wife a fortune. "In addition to a Park Avenue apartment, there were houses in Hobe Sound and Southampton, a permanently reserved floor at the Ritz in Paris and a large suite at the Connaught in London, as well as a villa in Florence," reports Barbara Gelb. Mary Weir read The Future Is Ours, Comrade shortly after a trip she had taken to Russia and agreed so wholeheartedly with Kosinski's observations that she wrote him a fan letter. Kosinski, in a characteristic blending of fact and fiction, recounted the event in his novel Pinball. "Long ago," says Domostroy, one of its protagonists and, Kosinski told CA, an obvious stand-in for the author, "when I had received enough fan letters to know how similar they all were, I received one unusual one. The writer, a woman, said she knew me only from my work, ... but her analysis ... was so acute, as were her perceptions of ... the undercurrents of my life, ... that I was flat-out enthralled."
They arranged a meeting, but Mary, knowing that Kosinski had envisioned her as a frail, elderly widow, impersonated her own secretary to put him at ease. Himself a master of disguise, Kosinski was charmed when he discovered her trick, and the couple was married in 1962. In the Cahill interview, Kosinski described their life together and how it enhanced his art: "During my marriage, I had often thought that it was Stendhal or F. Scott Fitzgerald, both preoccupied with wealth they did not have, who deserved to have had my experience. I wanted to start writing fiction and, frankly, was tempted to begin with a novel that ... would utilize my immediate experience, the dimension of wealth, power and high society that surrounded me, not the poverty I had seen and experienced so shortly before. But during my marriage I was too much a part of Mary's world to extract from it the nucleus of what I saw, of what I felt. And as a writer, I perceived fiction as the art of imaginative extraction. So instead, I decided to write my first novel The Painted Bird about a homeless boy in the war-torn Eastern Europe, an existence I've known but also one that was shared by millions of Europeans, yet was foreign to Mary and our American friends. The novel was my gift to Mary, and to her world."
Although the book initiated Kosinski's career as a novelist, it came at a time of personal tragedy. Mary died of an incurable illness in 1968. "In a curious way," wrote Ron Base, "her death provided him with the ultimate freedom. Now he could draw on all the possibilities of his life without worrying about embarrassing wives and children." Though he did pursue these themes in a number of later books, his next novel is similar in setting and theme to The Painted Bird. "The protagonist-narrator of Steps is alternately the dark-complected boy of Kosinski's first novel ... and that same boy as an adult," observed William Plummer in the Village Voice. A series of seemingly unconnected, and often brutal, episodes, the book, according to Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, "is a piercing view of [Kosinski's] past as part of the world's present. For me, the title does not signify progress from one place to another or from one state to another, but simply action about experience: steps taken to accommodate experience and continuing reality to the possibility of remaining alive.... The book says finally: `Hell. Horror. Lust. Cruelty. Ego. Buy my hell and horror and lust and cruelty and ego. Life is--just possibly--worth living if we can imagine it better and imagine it worse."'
Steps won a National Book Award in 1969; however, Kosinski thought the attitude of the publishing world toward literature was changing. "Today that book would not win," he told Carol Lawson in a 1979 interview for the New York Times Book Review. "There is a heavy sentimental climate in the book community in New York." His assessment appears to have been correct: When, as an experiment, a young reporter retyped Steps and submitted it under a different name, he found that it went unrecognized and rejected by every major publishing house--including the one that had originally printed it. Undaunted, Kosinski reworked the incident and included it in his 1982 novel, Pinball.
Even at the time it was published, Steps aroused controversy. While critics generally agree that the book is beautifully written, several, including Geoffrey Wolff writing in New Leader, question its morality: "Kosinski's power and talent are not in doubt. I can think of few writers who are able to so persuasively describe an event, set a scene, communicate an emotion. Nonetheless, the use he has set his power to is in doubt. His purpose is serious, I am sure, but he misreads our tolerance. He has created what never was on land or sea and arrogantly expects us to take his creations, his self-consuming octopus, his other monsters, as emblems." Echoing this sentiment, Robert Alter wrotes in the New York Times Book Review that Steps "is scarcely a novel at all but rather a series of discontinuous erotic jottings, sometimes brutal, generally deficient in feeling, and finally repetitious." According to New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the problem is not just what Kosinski writes, but how he writes it: "Lacking a sense of the language, and thus lacking any style of his own, the author gropes for any passable cliche. It is just what happens in bad pornography."
Kosinski bridled at such comparisons. "Pornography views sex as physical, not spiritual," he told Barbara Leaming. "It does to sex what totalitarianism does to politics: it reduced it to a single dimension. But for me, as for all my fictional characters, sex is a spiritual force, a core of their being, indeed, the pro-creative basis for self-definition." Those critics who find his heavy doses of sex and violence gratuitous don't understand what he's trying to do, Kosinski maintained. "I am astonished again and again at how superficially people read books," he told Ben Brown of the Detroit News. "I know what I write. I know why I do it the way that I do it. There's no greater sense of responsibility than (my own). But I have a certain vision of literature I will not sacrifice for sentimental critics brought up on Fiddler on the Roof."
Among those critics who do appreciate Kosinski's writing is Arnost Lustig, who wrote in the Washington Post Book World that "Kosinski develops his own style and technique, trying to avoid the classical plot and trying not to get lost in a limitless and chaotic jungle without beginning, middle and end. His style is in harmony with his need to express new things about our life and the world we do live in, to express the inexpressible. Sometimes his way of writing and the structure of [Blind Date] reminds one of a steam engine where energy grows to the point where it either explodes or moves forward. Accumulating stories of different, sometimes ambiguous meaning, giving to himself as well as to the reader the same chance for interpretation, he traces the truth in the deepest corners of our outdoor and indoor lives, of our outer appearance and our inner reality."
A perfectionist about his work, Kosinski wrote slowly and rewrote extensively, averaging two to three years per book. For example, he rewrote Passion Play, his 1979 novel, almost a dozen times and then further altered it in three different sets of galleys and two page-proofs, where he condensed the text by one-third. Above his ten percent publisher's allowance, Kosinski had to bear the cost of such corrections. He did not, however, complain. "When I face the galley-proofs I feel as though my whole life was at stake on every page and that a messy paragraph could mess up my whole life from now on," he told Daniel J. Cahill. "As I have no children, no family, no relatives, no business or estate to speak of, my books are my only spiritual accomplishment, my life's most private frame of reference, and I would gladly pay all I earn to make it my best."
To that end Kosinski regularly and, he told CA, "openly" employed free-lance editors to help him review his manuscripts. The types of alterations his assistants made (collating corrections, checking galleys against retyped manuscripts, and watching for the inadvertent repetition of an action or a word) were purely mechanical activities in Kosinski's opinion. But Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice disagreed, charging in the June 22, 1982 issue that "Kosinski's ethics and his very role as author have been seriously challenged." While the Village Voice allegations covered a broad spectrum, ranging from complaints that Kosinski lied about his past to charges that his first two books were actually written and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the most serious accusations concerned Kosinski's unacknowledged dependence on his assistants. Fremont-Smith and Stokes alleged that Kosinski not only wrote The Painted Bird in Polish and had it secretly translated into English but, in his later novels, depended upon his free-lance editors for "the sort of composition that we usually call writing."
As proof, the reporters offered the testimony of several free lancers formerly in Kosinski's part-time employ, including John Hackett, now professor of English at the University of Texas, Barbara Mackey, now assistant director at the Denver Arts Center, and Richard Hayes, a former professor of drama at New York University and the University of California, Berkeley. While none of these people saw themselves as Kosinski's "collaborators," both Hackett, who worked on Cockpit, and Hayes, who assisted with a draft of Passion Play, insisted they were more than "mere" proofreaders, the former noting that he helped with the manuscript, the latter saying that he "invested [Kosinski's] language with a certain Latinate style." However when Mackey, the assistant who worked on The Devil Tree, was contacted by the Washington Post Book World for a follow-up story, she insisted, "I did nothing but editing," and went on to criticize what she called the Village Voice's "shoddy journalism." Furthermore, she continued, Stokes asked her "leading questions" and assured her that their discussion was off the record and that he would get back to her about permission to use her name.
A number of Kosinski's publishing house editors also came to his defense. In a Publishers Weekly article, Les Pockell, the editor of Passion Play and The Devil Tree, said that the charges were "totally ludicrous. It's clear no one in the article is asserting that he or she wrote the book." Because Kosinski was "obsessive" about his writing, Pockell continued, "he retained people to copy edit. It's always a situation of submitting recommendations to an author to approve or not approve, and the recommendations are always a reaction to the author's material." And Pockell told the Los Angeles Times Calendar that he felt Stokes and Fremont-Smith "played upon the ignorance of the general public about the conventions of publishing" and added that "to turn Kosinski's working methods into something sinister makes one wonder about their motives."
In a letter to the Village Voice, Austen Olney, editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin, said: "I have been marginally involved with the three Kosinski novels published by Houghton Mifflin and can attest to the fact that he is a difficult and demanding author who makes endless (and to my way of thinking often niggling) corrections in proof. I have been sometimes overwhelmed by his flamboyant conceits and his artful social manipulations, but I have never had any reason to believe that he has ever needed or used any but the most routine editorial assistance. The remarkable consistency of tone in all his novels seems to me sufficient evidence that they all come from his hands alone."
But perhaps the strongest reaction to the Village Voice charges came from Kosinski himself. While affirming the reporters' first amendment right to print the piece, Kosinski told the Washington Post Book World that "there is not a single factual thing in that article." Furthermore, he informed the Village Voice reporters: "Not a single comma, not a single word is not mine--and not the mere presence of the word but the reasons why as well. This goes for manuscript, middle drafts, final draft, and every f----ing galley--first page proofs, second and third, hardcover editions and paperback editions." Nonetheless, the controversy has taken its toll. Comparing himself to an injured victim, Kosinski told the Washington Post Book World, "Like any other assassination, the damage has been done."
In the aftermath of the controversy the New York Times published a 6,000 word feature article by John Corry, examining the origin as well as the nature of the various charges made against the author. "Jerzy Kosinski," he writes, "has become a man defined by rumors.... His works are being discredited by rumors because his life is being discredited by rumors. That he is a writer is almost incidental. He is an intellectual, a creative person, under ideological attack. The ideology was born in Eastern Europe, and so were the most damaging rumors. They have been around for seventeen years, only now they have grown more insistent."
Despite the shadow that Stokes and Fremont-Smith cast on his writing career, Kosinski's acting debut remains an unqualified success. Critics were delighted by Kosinski's portrayal of the Soviet bureaucrat Grigory Zinoviev in Reds. Observes the Time magazine critic: "As [journalist John] Reed's Soviet nemesis, novelist Jerzy Kosinski acquits himself nicely--a tundra of ice against Reed's all-American fire." Newsweek complimented Kosinski's "delightfully abrasive" performance, comparing him to "an officious terrier gnawing on the bone of Marxist-Leninist dogma."
In a London Times interview, Kosinski explained how Warren Beatty, who not only directed but also starred in the film as John Reed, elicited the performance: "[Beatty] hired as extras for members of Zinoviev's committee recent Soviet emigres who had moved to Spain. They hadn't learnt foreign languages yet. They spoke only Russian. Being Soviet, they didn't like me because I was a Pole and I've lived in America for 25 years. They thought I was a very bad actor. And they regard Zinoviev in the blind way of Soviet propaganda as a Jewish cosmopolitan who, although he helped Lenin to power, was executed by Stalin in the 1930s purges, probably justly. [In such an atmosphere] I was thrown back on my Soviet past; I felt frightened and disillusioned. And Warren Beatty/John Reed would come in with his naivete and his sweet American smile telling me, as Reed, that he wanted to see his wife and, as Beatty, about the problems he was having with the film. And I, both as Zinoviev and as Kosinski, sat there saying: What do you know of the troubles of life? What do you know of authentic pain and grief and anguish.... The hostility transferred itself to my acting."
Ironically, Kosinski's initial reaction to Beatty's invitation was to turn the offer down. "But then," Kosinski told CA, "Barry Diller, the head of Paramount called me and asked me about my decision. He said, `You used to be known to seek new exploits, and to go after a new experience so you'll have something to write about. You have never played in a movie. Why don't you want to do it?' I mumbled something about being uncertain about portraying someone else--without creative control, which as a novelist I retain in my own work. Then Barry said, `Well, think again. As an actor you can certainly afford to turn such a chance down. But should you--as a novelist?' I reflected. `Tell Warren I'll be on the set tomorrow,' I said, mentally already packing my bags."