Novelist and sociologist Jerzy Nikodem Kosinski (kuhh-ZIHN-skee) was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1933. His father was a well-to-do philologist and a scholar of languages at the University of Lodz, and his mother was an accomplished pianist. With the radical disruption of the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939, Kosinski was separated from his Jewish parents and spent the next six years wandering about eastern Poland and living by his wits. He was finally reunited with them in 1945, but the traumatized boy had become a mute as a result of the harsh experiences of surviving on his own. Not until after a skiing accident in 1948 did he regain his speech, finish high school, and finally enter the University of Lodz in 1950. This wartime experience plays a major role in Kosinski’s novels, where, as Kosinski had been, the protagonists are often victims who struggle to survive in a world gone mad. His books are replete with grotesque violence (military, psychological, sexual, and political) as they paint a brutal landscape of surreal, yet all too real, horror. In one way or another, they also portray the destructive threat of the collective whole to the integrity of the private, individual self.
It was Kosinski’s objection to the collectivist mentality of postwar communist Poland that led him to emigrate to the United States in 1957. Once there, he taught himself English in four months and enrolled in Columbia University as a doctoral student in the sociology of literary forms and languages. (He had already received M.A. degrees in political science and history at the University of Lodz.) Published under the name Joseph Novak, Kosinski’s first two works, The Future Is Ours, Comrade and No Third Path, were nonfictional, scholarly discussions of communist Russia and Poland. Yet he had become fascinated with the imaginative power he could muster with his new language and began writing fiction in English. He married the heiress Mary Weir in 1962. She died in 1968, before the couple had any children.
Kosinski’s first published novel was The Painted Bird. It consists of a series of scenes that portray a Jewish boy’s experiences in war-torn Poland. Typical of Kosinski’s fiction, it is disjointed in style and nightmarish in imagery. The book relies on the author’s early life as it portrays the physical and emotional violence against humanity manifested in the war. The innocent young protagonist is confronted by ultimate evils as he faces hard-core reality in which brute force and cruelty come to be seen as forces of both destruction and survival. By the end of the book, the boy has been hardened by the experiences into a survivor who perceives violence as a means to power and dominance. Finally, the book seems to ask, are victims–in their capitulation to terror and in their weaknesses–any less evil than their victimizers? Kosinski’s next novel, Steps, which won the National Book Award in 1968, carries the author and reader a step beyond The Painted Bird as the protagonist struggles to define his adult self to make sense of an existence where no sense exists except, perhaps, in the feeling of revenge and the act of victimization. Made up of a series of dreamlike vignettes and scattered dialogues of a man and woman before and after they engage in sex, the book is written in the author’s usual plain, monotonous style. Violent glimpses of murder, rape, sodomy, and disease, along with the feeling of futility and the impossibility of commitment, convey a vision of the miasma of contemporary life. One pulsing throb of cruelty and pain after another, it seems, is what the survivor must deal with (and be defined by).
With Being There, Kosinski further explores the idea of selfhood, or rather its absence. The protagonist, Chance the gardener, is a sort of a nonentity whose personality is based solely on what he sees on television; he is a blank slate which, by its blankness, intrigues others who are desperate to define their purpose for existing. They pour themselves out onto the slate, seeing form where there is none; they see a color, a texture, a meaning where there is only a reflection of themselves. Kosinski’s social and political satire of an empty culture and its confusion of image with reality is clear. Indeed, the very title of the novel (which was made into a film in 1979) also calls attention to the thematic question that lingers throughout this and Kosinski’s other works: What does it mean “to be”? Is “being”–is the recovery of reality–possible in an existence where actual being has been subsumed in empty facades, in mere images which, pathetically, are celebrated as “the real thing” by the multitude?
Again, in The Devil Tree, Kosinski presents a Kafkaesque world. The narration is plain and understated, and scenes are sporadic and disconnected. The postmodern protagonist is portrayed as totally rootless, drifting through emptiness and lacking in values or purpose. Meaningless sex and drugs emphasize the quality of a restless life of boredom that plagues contemporary times. In The Hermit of 69th Street, Kosinski wrote a difficult novel full of detailed footnotes and replete with quotations from numerous writers. Set in Hollywood and New York, it incorporates many modern allusions (the Charles Manson murders, for example). Yet in spite of the challenging style that merges fact and fiction and digresses from the narrative line, the author once again portrays his writer/protagonist as a victim (indeed, he is a survivor of the Holocaust) who must deal with printers and readers, who are often addressed directly in the text, and being (the fact of self-definition) itself.
The 1980’s saw a controversy in Kosinski’s career resulting from charges that he used “freelance editors” to assist him in compiling his novels. It was claimed, for example, that The Painted Bird was written in Polish by Kosinski and then translated into English by literary assistants; it was also said that in the writing of succeeding novels the author relied upon the editorial judgment and skills of others to an unorthodox degree. Kosinski admitted employing proofreaders but strenuously denied (as did his publishers) that he was given any help in the actual composition of his works. Because so much of Kosinski’s fiction incorporates grotesquely fantastic images of violence, both physical and psychological, critics also accuse him of callously subjecting his readers to his own perverted (even pornographic) fantasies. Such critics see his vision as one so personal that, in the celebration of his own ego, the author distorted reality. On the other hand, Kosinski’s work is also seen as honestly brutal, his fiction exposing contemporary life for what it is (or has become): cruel, passionless, and devoid of spirit. His characters find themselves lost in the flux of violence, both past and present, and barraged by empty words and images to such a degree that they are unable to sense where they are, why they are, who they are, and, indeed what, finally, reality itself is.
Kosinski died, apparently by suicide, on May 3, 1991. On numerous occasions, he had asserted that were disease to “affect my mind or my body, I would end it.” He was found asphyxiated in his New York apartment shortly after developing a cardiac condition that reportedly left him unable to work. Perhaps a case of life imitating art, Kosinski’s demise mirrors the ethos expressed by Norbert Kosky, protagonist of the stylistically audacious but thematically provocative The Hermit of 69th Street. “Do you know the worst of all vices?” Kosky muses, “It is being over 55.” Many of Kosinski’s closest protégés, including novelist and social critic Gay Talese, confirm that Kosinski approached his inevitable aging with trepidation, and perhaps he wished to abscond with what he perceived as his dignity and autonomy intact. In any event, Kosinski’s life and work continue to fascinate and startle readers and critics alike, as the lines between them remain so enigmatically blurred. They perpetually lead one to wonder where autobiography ends and art, or even myth, begins.