Magazine article The New Yorker

Life as Fiction

Magazine article The New Yorker

Life as Fiction

Article excerpt

Life as Fiction

A novel about the novelist Jerzy Kosinski.

Kosinski's tales of wartime Poland made, and unmade, his reputation.

In 1982, Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish-American novelist and literary celebrity, appeared on the cover of the TimesMagazine, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Naked to the waist, his shoulder leaning against a stable door, he wore polo boots and tight white riding pants; horse tack dangled whiplike from his left hand. His skin was bronzed and glistening, his chest hairless, his expression opaque: stern, wary, perhaps a little confrontational. The accompanying article, a fawning profile by Barbara Gelb, labelled him "the ultimate survivor." Calling herself a "connoisseur of survivors," Gelb wrote that of all the Holocaust survivors she knew Kosinski was both the most damaged--"psychically and physically"--and the most candid about it: "starkly in his fiction, wittily in the drawing room."

In the nineteen-sixties, Kosinski had become famous in Manhattan literary circles for his astonishing tales about the brutalities he had suffered during the war. Abandoned by his parents at the age of six, he claimed, he had roamed the countryside alone, witnessing rape, murder, and incest, constantly fearing for his life. Kosinski turned those stories into his first novel, "The Painted Bird" (1965), which, for a time, was considered a major work of Holocaust literature. The book takes its name from an emblematic act of cruelty: a peasant, unusually skilled at trapping birds, paints his captives before releasing them, then watches as the rest of the flock, failing to recognize their former comrades, brutally attack them.

It was universally assumed that Kosinski was the painted bird of the title, and that the book, like the stories its author so often told about his life, was autobiographical. Elie Wiesel endorsed it as a chronicle of "unusual power"; others marvelled that Kosinski had written it in English, given that it was not his first language. Its successor, "Steps"--which David Foster Wallace later described as a "collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that's like nothing else anywhere ever"--won the National Book Award for fiction in 1969. Kosinski married the widow of a wealthy steel magnate and became friendly with numerous celebrities, including Peter Sellers, who starred in the hit movie made from "Being There," Kosinski's third novel.

But, just a few months after the TimesMagazine profile, an article in the Village Voice alleged that the stories in "The Painted Bird" were inconsistent and, perhaps, merely imaginary. It gradually emerged that Kosinski had not spent the war alone and at the mercy of Polish peasants; he and his parents went into hiding, living as Christians under assumed names. Furthermore, the expose accused him of employing assistants to help him write the novel and his other books. Sworn to secrecy, uncredited, and sometimes unpaid, the assistants claimed to have translated chapters of "The Painted Bird" from Kosinski's Polish original and even to have rewritten the bulk of his later manuscripts. Kosinski denied these claims, but he never recovered his prestige. In 1991, he killed himself, and many attributed his suicide to the decline of his reputation and career.

That is the outline of Kosinski's story, as well as it can be separated from the myths he wove around it. A comprehensive 1996 biography by James Park Sloan concludes that the Village Voice got it right, regarding both Kosinski's wartime experiences and the editorial assistance he sought and received on his novels. But the figure at its center remains as enigmatic as his expression in the Leibovitz portrait. Kosinski's motto, Sloan writes, was larvatus prodeo: "I go forth in disguise." Was he indeed a painted bird--cast out, forced to conceal his identity, abused, his encounters with others resulting only in brutality? Or was he also a bird painter, blending fact and fiction in his own life and the lives of others in a way that was deliberately deceitful, even sadistic? …

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