Kosinski, Jerzy (Nikodem)

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KOSINSKI, Jerzy (Nikodem)

Pseudonym: Joseph Novak. Nationality: American (originally Polish: immigrated to the United States, 1957, granted U.S. citizenship, 1965). Born: Lodz, 14 June 1933. Education: University of Lodz, B.A. 1950, M.A. in history 1953, M.A. in political science 1955; Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, 1955-57; Columbia University, 1958-63, Ph.D. candidate in sociology; New School for Social Research, graduate study, 1962-66. Family: Married 1) Mary Hayward Weir in 1962 (died 1968); 2) Katherina von Fraunhofer in 1987. Career: Ski instructor, Zakopane, Poland, winters, 1950-56; assistant professor (aspirant) of sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, 1955-57; researcher, Lomonosov University, Moscow, 1957. After first arriving in the United States, worked as a paint scraper on excursion-line boats, a truck driver, chauffeur, and cinema projectionist. Resident fellow in English, Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University, 1967-68; visiting lecturer in English and resident senior fellow of the Council of Humanities, Princeton University, 1969-70; professor of English and resident fellow, Davenport College and School of Drama, 1970-73, and fellow, Timothy Dwight College, 1986-91, both Yale University. Actor in a 1981 film; photographer. Awards: Ford Foundation fellowship, 1958-60; Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France), 1966, for The Painted Bird; Guggenheim fellowship in creative writing, 1967-68; National Book Award, 1969, for Steps; National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature, 1970; John Golden fellowship in playwriting, 1970-72; Brith Sholom humanitarian freedom award, 1974; American Civil Liberties Union First Amendment award, 1978; best screenplay of the year award, Writers Guild of America, 1979, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1981, both for Being There; Polonia Media National Achievement Perspectives award, 1980; Spertus College of Judaica international award, 1982; Harry Edmonds life achievement award, International House, 1990. Honorary degrees: Albion College, 1988; State University of New York, 1989. Died: Suicide, 3 May 1991.



The Painted Bird, abridged edition. 1965; complete edition, 1970; revised edition, 1976.

Steps. 1968.

Being There. 1971.

The Devil Tree. 1973; revised edition, 1981.

Cockpit. 1975.

Blind Date. 1977.

Passion Play. 1979.

Pinball. 1982.

The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky. 1988.



Being There, adaptation of his novel, 1977; Passion Play, 1982.


The Future Is Ours, Comrade: Conversations with the Russians (as Joseph Novak). 1960.

No Third Path: A Study of Collective Behavior (as Joseph Novak). 1962.

Notes of the Author on The Painted Bird. 1965; in Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991, 1992.

Art of the Self: Essays á Propos Steps. 1969; in Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991, 1992.

Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991. 1992.

Conversations with Jerzy Kosinski , edited by Tom Teicholz. 1993.

Editor, Socjologia Amerykanska: Wybor Prac, 1950-1960 [American Sociology: Translations of Selected Works, 1950-1960]. 1958.


Film Adaptation:

Being There, 1979.


John Barth, Jerzy Kosinski, and Thomas Pynchon: A Reference Guide by Thomas P. Walsh and Cameron Northouse, 1977; "The Great Jerzy Kosinski Press War: A Bibliography" by Jerome Klinkowitz and Daniel J. Cahill, in Missouri Review, 6(3), Summer 1983, pp. 171-75; Jerzy Kosinski: An Annotated Bibliography by Gloria L. Cronin and Blaine H. Hall, 1991.

Critical Studies:

In the Singer's Temple: The Romance of Terror and Jerzy Kosinski by Jack Hicks, 1981; Jerzy Kosinski: Literary Alarmclock by Byron L. Sherwin, 1981; The Fiction of Jerzy Kosinski by Daniel Cahill, 1982; Jerzy Kosinski by Norman Lavers, 1982; "Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird As Holocaust Literature" by Yasuro Hidesaki, in Kyushu American Literature (Japan), 26, October 1985, pp. 37-46; Plays of Passion, Games of Chance: Jerzy Kosinski and His Fiction by Barbara Tepa Lupack, 1988; Words in Search of Victims: The Achievement of Jerzy Kosinski by Paul R. Lilly, Jr., 1988; Jerzy Kosinski issue of Notes on Contemporary Literature, 19(2), March 1989; Jerzy Kosinski, The Literature of Violation by Welch D. Everman, 1991; Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan, 1996; Jerzy Kosinski: Man and Work at the Crossroads of Cultures, edited by Agnieszka Salska and Marek Jedlianski, 1997; Critical Essays on Jerzy Kosinski, edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack, 1998.

* * *

Born in 1933, Jerzy Kosinski was the only son of Moses and Elizbieta Lewinkopf. He and his family left their native Lodz in 1939 before the formation of its notorious ghetto the following year. They lived, first, in Sandomierz and, from 1942 on, in the village of Dabrowa Rzecycka, where their main task was survival. They managed this through the protection of sympathetic Poles, by staying out of German-occupied Poland, by keeping out of sight, and by changing their name to the very Polish Kosinski. From the age of six to twelve the young Jerzy was asked to deny his name and his Jewish heritage and to serve as an altar boy in the local church. Perhaps this practice of living under an assumed identity helped him to imagine a life more interesting than the one he was forced to lead. After the war, in May 1947, the family finally returned to Lodz. Kosinski was educated there at both the secondary level and at the University of Lodz, where he took a degree in sociology. He continued at Lodz into graduate study, where he took master's degrees in sociology and history. In late December 1957 Kosinski went to New York City to begin doctoral work in sociology at Columbia University. He lived in New York for the rest of his life, marrying twice and becoming an American citizen in 1965.

Kosinski's first two books were works of sociology and political science written under the name of Joseph Novak. The texts contain compendia of Kosinski's research for his Ph.D. thesis, as well as vivid accounts of his travel in the Soviet Union. They were written mostly in Polish and translated by someone who never received formal credit for doing so. Kosinski's English was not yet good enough for writing a book, and his heavily accented speech and uncertain command of English grammar remained issues throughout his career.

As progress on his thesis stalled, Kosinski began to write tales apparently inspired by his life in Poland during the war. He had for years entertained listeners with such stories, and it was these narratives that his audiences took to be accurate accounts of Kosinski's fantastic survival. The Painted Bird, written with the unidentified editorial help of someone who could turn Kosinski's storytelling gifts into compelling English, was his first novel. It was mostly received with high praise as a contribution to Holocaust literature as well as a philosophical novel with roots in existentialism. But there was also controversy. The opening lines suggest an autobiographical account of how a small boy wandered through the countryside of an unidentified European country, having terrifying encounters with brutal peasants. But there were some readers who knew that Kosinski and his family had lived through the war in comparative safety. While some readers took the book's events too literally, it was clear to others that its horrifying images and surreal scenes came more from Kosinski's nightmarish imagination than from his actual experiences. Polish critics, reading the book in English, claimed that Kosinski had slandered the Polish people. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin, had insisted that Kosinski choose to call his narrative either fiction or autobiography, and Kosinski had opted to call it "essentially a literary work." This allowed most readers to treat The Painted Bird as a product of the imagination, freeing the author from the accusation of lying about his past. This episodic, vividly imagistic narrative sold well, particularly in paperback. Although clearly a Holocaust novel, it contains no concentration camps, German soldiers appear infrequently, and there is only an occasional train carrying Jewish prisoners. Responding to various concerns that had arisen about his book, Kosinski wrote a pamphlet entitled "Notes of the Author on The Painted Bird ," which he published himself, in an attempt to justify what he had written and to establish himself as a serious writer of fiction.

Steps (1968), Kosinski's next novel, received the National Book Award. It contains fewer references to the Holocaust than its predecessor, and its episodic structure is more terse and detached. Steps takes place in a post-Holocaust world in which the "death of God" has sanctioned all behavior, a world in which victims seek revenge on their enemies. The narrative voice belongs to a grown-up version of the boy from The Painted Bird, and the two settings include the peasant countryside already noted and an economically advanced country much like the United States.

In 1982 the Village Voice published a devastating exposé of Kosinski, accusing him of not actually writing his own works, of making up stories about his past, of sexual adventuring, and of relentlessly seeking celebrity. He never really got over this blow to his work and prestige. The Hermit of 69th Street (1989) was Kosinski's final attempt to justify his career and his methods, and it is the only one of his remaining novels that contains extensive references to the Holocaust. In it Kosinski justified himself to his Polish critics by claiming Poland's historical sympathies with the Jews, and he explored his newfound feelings of connectedness to his Jewish heritage, which he had denied or ignored throughout much of his life. The novel was not a critical success, however, and it sold poorly. On 3 May 1991 Kosinski took his own life through an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates.

—Michael Hoffman

See the essays on The Painted Bird,"Notes of the Author on The Painted Bird, " and Steps.