Dispatches | February 10, 2005

[By Michael P. Kardos]

A few days ago, in the used bookstore downtown, I found a paperback copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 novel Being There. I had seen the brilliant film adaptation starring Peter Sellers a number of years ago, but hadn’t yet read the book. In this slim novel I found an incisive parody of the American dream that, thirty-four years after the book’s initial publication, remained vital and devastating. I marveled at its sparseness and its refusal ever to acknowledge its own dark humor by winking at the reader.

At the back of the book—my copy is Bantam’s 12th printing, February 1980—is a fairly lengthy biography entitled “On Jerzy Kosinski.” Let me relate just a few of its many highlights:

—”When [Kosinski] was six, all but two members of his once numerous and distinguished family in Poland and Russia were lost in the Holocaust of World War II. Abandoned, suspected of being a Jew or a gypsy, he fled alone from village to village in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, surviving by his wits….”

—”At the age of nine, in a traumatic confrontation with a hostile peasant crowd he lost the power of speech, and was unable to talk for five years.”

—”In need of sponsors [this is years later, once Kosinksi regains his speech and becomes a promising scholar] and reluctant to implicate his family [the ones who hadn’t been lost in the Holocaust], his friends and the Academy staff, he created four distinguished—but fictitious—members of the Academy of Sciences to act in that capacity…. [A]s a prize-winning photographer, Kosinski had access to state printing plants, and he was able to furnish each academician with the appropriate official seals, rubber stamps, and stationery.”

—”Waiting for his US visa, expecting to be arrested at any time, Kosinski carried a foil-wrapped egg of cyanide in his pocket. ‘One way or another,’ he vowed, ‘they won’t be able to keep me here against my will.'”

I found myself thinking, with a biography such as this, who needs fiction? And in fact, a quote from Time magazine that precedes the biography states that Kosinski made use of “some of the strongest direct experience” that the Twentieth Century had to offer.

We now know, however, that the word “direct” should have been replaced with the phrase “utterly fabricated.” The biography at the end of Being There was not Kosinksi’s life at all, as one is led to believe. It is a fake bio. The same one, not coincidentally, as that of the supposedly autobiographical protagonist in Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird.

In 1982, the Village Voice exposed Kosinski, by this time a National Book Award-winner, as having such poor command of the English language that he couldn’t possibly have written the novels credited to him. While Kosinksi almost certainly had a hand in the genesis of such books as Steps, The Devil Tree, Being There and The Painted Bird, various ghost writers apparently penned the works credited to him. Moreover, Kosinksi might have lifted some plots straight from Polish texts.

It seem that Kosinksi’s role wasn’t so much that of “author” as, to use theorist Michel Foucault’s language, “author-function.” That is, Kosinski served primarily as a means of classification that is useful to readers, and economically important to an industry that benefits from the cult of celebrity. As does the protagonist in his fictional biography, Jerzy Kosinksi achieved the American dream, even if in truth his oeuvre came about by committee. He married an American steel heiress, consorted with the rich and famous, and his books became favorites with critics and the public alike.

At the Missouri Review, I read cover letters all the time in which writers highlight their unusual backgrounds—birthplaces of East Timor or Anguilla, prior careers as singers or lion tamers or CEOs or bounty hunters, and sometimes all of the above. I try not to doubt the veracity of such claims. And I understand their purpose in a cover letter: an attempt to present a persona, specifically that of somebody with authority gained from rich and varied life experience. This same sort of “biographical eclecticism” can be found in the author bios on many book jackets. The best example might be the back cover of the 1988 novel The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, which mentions that Douglas Adams “worked as a hospital reporter, barn builder, chicken-shed cleaner, bodyguard, radio producer, and script editor.” In pushing the author bio to its logical extreme, perhaps Kosinski simply had more moxie than most. Probably he believed in the emotional truth of his own biography, similar to how a work of fiction tells lie after lie in order to convey an emotional truth that runs deeper than the sum of its purported facts. And possibly he recognized the American public’s desire to see reaffirmed their belief in the possibility of a downtrodden immigrant risking everything to achieve the American dream.

James Sloan’s 1996 biography of Jerzy Kosinski notes that, as in his fictional biography, the writer’s family indeed sought escape from Nazi persecution. It just didn’t happen as dramatically as in The Painted Bird. Rather, the father of Jerzy Nitodem Lewintopf created a gentile identity for his Jewish family in order to survive. To put it simply, Kosinksi learned early on that survival depended on fabricating his identity. Once in America, Kosinski simply repeated the process.

In 1991, possibly stemming from his decade-long fall from grace, Kosinksi committed very real suicide. Not until 2005 did I read Being There, which tells the story of a man who rises from nowhere to the greatest of heights, by being taken for someone he is not. It’s a terrific novel, and ultimately I don’t care who wrote it. If Kosinksi himself were alive today, I’d shake his hand and tell him that he didn’t actually write one hell of a book. Then I’d ask him, “An egg of cyanide?”