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Kosinski, Jerzy


KOSINSKI, JERZY (1933–1991), U.S. novelist. Born the son of Mieczyslaw and Elzbieta Lewinkopf in Lodz, Poland, Kosinski's early years were shaped under Hitler's regime. The only full biography (Jerzy Kosinski by James Park Sloan, 1996) reports that the Jewish family survived as Catholic "Kosinskis," avoiding the camps. Postwar schooling resulted in two master's degrees (social science and history) and notoriety as a photographer before Kosinski emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 as a doctoral student.

There, Kosinski soon attained success as a writer. Under the pseudonym Joseph Novak, he completed The Future Is Ours, Comrade (1960) and No Third Path (1962). After these non-fictional works, Kosinski coined the term "autofiction," blurring the boundary between autobiography and literature, and confusing critics and interviewers. He wrote nine novels, two of which were revised and reissued. The Painted Bird (1965), banned in Poland, earned the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France and received public and critical acclaim.

Often claiming that portions were autobiographical, Kosinski also insisted that The Painted Bird was a work of fiction. It remains a classic of Holocaust literature, combining historical realities – not his own experience – with myth and fairy tales. Thereafter, Kosinski considered enduring themes: identity, technology, consumerism, sexuality, politics, and violence. His experiments with stylistic and narrative structures garnered both acclaim and criticism. Steps (1968) received the National Book Award and Being There (1970) was adapted by the author for a film, starring Peter Sellers (1979), which won the British Film Critics Award and an American Oscar. Other novels include The Devil Tree (1973, rev. ed. 1981), Cockpit (1975), Blind Date (1977), Passion Play (1979), Pinball (1982), and The Hermit of 69th Street (1988, rev. ed. 1991). A collection of his essays, Passing By (1992), was published after his death.

As a writer and performer (as Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's film Reds (1981), the voice of Chaim Rumkowski in the documentary The Lodz Ghetto (1989), and a guest on tv talk shows), Kosinski continued to interest both European and American scholars/artists. Kosinski was president of the American chapter of pen (poets, playwrights, publishers, essayists, and novelists), from 1973 to 1975, and served on United Nations committees. He received the B'rith Shalom Humanitarian Freedom Award for his efforts in behalf of jailed writers. Kosinski also obtained a Guggenheim Fellowship (1967) and taught writing at Princeton, Wesleyan, and Yale. Charges launched by the Village Voice in 1982 that Kosinski relied heavily on collaborators/ghost writers have been largely dismissed by scholars, but the damage to his reputation was significant. He committed suicide in New York City, his home since 1957, in 1991.


B.T. Lupack (ed.), Critical Essays on Jerzy Kosinski (1998); J.P. Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (1996); W. Everman, Jerzy Kosinski: The Literature of Violation (1991).

[Mary Lazar (2nd ed.)]

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