Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan

Dutton 1996 486 pp. 24.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


James Park Sloan's biography of Jerzy Kosinski is a serious, absorbing, and ultimately important work. While unraveling the skein of fables that constitute Kosinski's account of his past, Sloan reflects on some of the more profound relations between art and life, fiction and fact.

Jerzy Kosinski first burst onto the American literary scene with an original and shocking novel based on his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland, The Painted Bird. Unknown to the American public, however, he was the author of a previous work, "Joseph Novak's" best-selling anti-communist report on Russia, The Future is Ours, Comrade, a book whose publication appeared to have been sponsored by the CIA. While this pseudonymous misdirection came back to haunt Kosinski decades later, misrepresenting his authorship, as well as his past, was a key feature of Kosinski's life, as well as his art.

The Polish Jew Jerzy Lewinkopf's well-to-do family found itself on the run from the Nazis early in World War II. Adopting the mother's maiden name, the Kosinski's fled to a series of tiny Polish villages, hiding their Jewishness and their wealth. To conceal his circumcision, Jerzy was told never to urinate in public (a common practice among rural children) and to deny his Jewishness. "His penis had indeed been damaged in the war-not physiologically, far from that, but in a crushing necessity to hide and protect it that permanently impaired his capacity for ordinary erotic pleasure ."

By age six, Jerzy's identity was itself a fictional construct, and Sloan traces in this primal experience an imprint of much of what Kosinski, the writer, was later to invent.

Following the success of The Painted Bird and his marriage to an heiress, Kosinski found himself catapulted into America's monied elite. Friendship with Johnny Carson led to numerous appearances on his show, where Kosinski embellished the legend of his past on a national scale. As Sloan reveals, Kosinski's tale of forging his documents to enter the U.S. was a fabrication, along with much of his story of his childhood. So long as he was able to compartmentalize his Polish and American friends, however, his inventions were safe: "the density of the real was a threat which Kosinski could not allow to intrude into the theatrical world of his own construction."

Even less known, however, was Kosinski's inability to write in English. As Sloan notes, "He was, quite simply, no Conrad." Employing a series of "editors" who were sworn to secrecy and searched before they left his house, Kosinski originated the plots of his novels, but allowed the prose to be edited to an extent that invites the suspicion that he didn't compose them at all.

Raconteur and jokester, Kosinski continued entertaining the glitterati with tales of his past, stories his audience took as gospel. However, they also noted that Kosinski was an exceedingly odd man. He was to have visited Sharon Tate the day of the Tate-LaBianca murders, and was briefly a suspect: "Kosinski, in short, struck [an acquaintance] as a suitable candidate to have performed the deeds of Charles Manson."

Even the plot of Kosinski's most celebrated novel, Being There, appears to Sloan to have been taken from an obscure Polish novel by one Dolega-Mostowicz. "Ultimately the text of Being There resembles the text of Nikodem Dyzma in ways that, had Dolega-Mostowicz been alive and interested in pressing the matter, might have challenged law courts as to a reasonable definition of plagiarism."

Following the death of Kosinski's heiress-wife from "brain cancer" (his cover story for her acute alcoholism), Kosinski married again. However, his marriage did not keep him from nightly participation in New York's sex clubs, among them the famous Plato's Retreat. Accompanied by girlfriends or prostitutes, Kosinski was fascinated by what he saw, and his role as more a watcher than a participant mirrored his childhood experiences of observing others live their lives.

Kosinski's career began to fade with the 1982 publication of a Village Voice article that revealed Kosinski's "unusual" compositional methods, and cast doubt on his version of his childhood. Stung, and recognizing the importance of his exotic reputation to sell his books, Kosinski retreated from public view. Yet, he himself appeared not to have a problem with his deceptions: "it is the witness who deceives himself, allowing his eyes to give my new character credibility and authenticity. I do not fool him; he either accepts or rejects my altered truth."

Sloan wonders, "Did Kosinski know the truth and consciously embellish it, or had he lost the ability to distinguish between the real and the products of his imagination? A thorough pursuit of the answer must include a careful examination of the concept of truth. Kosinski often remarked upon the fallibility of memory, which makes every life a fiction created by its own author."

As Sloan notes, Kosinski's life and work don't reveal him as a liar and a fabricator (though he was those) so much as raise the issue of how much of what we call narrative truth is just another story. As well, the reader is left to reflect on how much of Kosinski's inventions were conscious, and how much grew out of an internal division of his self brought on by childhood trauma.

If there is any weakness in this fine book, it may be Sloan's attempt to "Freudianize" Kosinski's experiences. Tracing Kosinski's search for a "substitute" father throughout his life, and his sexual attraction to older, motherly women, Sloan raises some diverting psychological issues without, however, being sufficiently definitive as to their import.

While literary history will no doubt see Kosinski as a writer of, at best, the second rank, Sloan's biography dignifies Kosinski's art and life as the occasion for a reflection on the nature of truth, the reliability of memory, the lingering effects of childhood, and the complex issue of Jewish identity. Kosinski, "actor, celebrity, and trickster, ... was both less than a writer and more." Don't miss this superb work.