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CONGENITAL LIAR

11:00 PM, Mar 31, 1996 • By J. BOTTUM
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There's just no getting around the fact that Jerzy Kosinski was a toad. James Park Sloan's new biography, Jerzy Kosinski (Dutton, 505 pages, $ 27.95), is as fair an account of the Polish-American novelist as we are likely to get, and Kosinski still comes off as a liar, a cheat, and a world-class social climber.


He had charm, of course, as nearly everyone who ever met him testifies, the dangerous charm of the kind of man to whom the unpredictable always seems to happen, whose conspiratorial grin promises that, any moment now, things are going to get seriously crazy. But the only real question remaining about Kosinski is whether his books, and the fact that he was an anti-Communist in the days when it was still unfashionable in his hip New York literary crowd, are enough of a reason to salvage his reputation from the pit where it has lain since his suicide in 1991.


The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Being There, the good 1971 novella he converted into an even better screenplay for the movie starring Peter Sellers, apparently owes enough to a little-known Polish novel to warrant the charge of plagiarism. But his first novel, The Painted Bird (1965) -- a brutal and weirdly beautiful story of a homeless boy's wanderings through the six years of World War II in Poland -- may be the most successful attempt since David Copperfield to present a child's view of adult horrors. With his determined efforts to use his novels as an entrde to the high-toned life of the glittering classes, Kosinski proved that his stature as a "major novelist" was more important to him than his actual novels, and he took a long-overdue beating when the Village Voice revealed in 1982 that he used (and had always denied that he used) translators and private editors to polish the astonishingly bad English prose of his first drafts. But The Painted Bird nonetheless remains an indigestible, unforgettable, real book -- stronger than its author's endless fabrications, stronger than his wild charm, stronger than his foolish life.


To the born storyteller's impulse to sand the rough edges off a story and make it run a little smoother in the telling than it did in real life, Kosinski added the born liar's impulse to change his stories to fit his needs. There is virtually nothing about himself that he didn't tell in two or three irreconcilable versions, and James Park Sloan has done a masterful job ferreting out the facts of Kosinski's life, especially the long-suppressed details of his early years in Poland.

 

Born in 1933, Kosinski was not, as he often claimed, abandoned like the unnamed narrator of The Painted Bird when the Germans and the Russians invaded Poland in 1939. His father, Moses Lewinkopf, becomes in Sloan's account a determined and fascinating figure. Foreseeing the Nazi destruction of the Jews, he traded his savings for foreign currency, obtained offcial papers in the Polish name of "Kosinski," and kept the family on the move in the overwhelmingly Gentile and rarely patrolled sections of the countryside. They faced some harrowing moments, and the young Jerzy undoubtedly saw too much too young, but the father kept the family together and brought them all safe through the war.


One of those teachers" favorites-the preternaturally charming child of endless promise for whom excuses are always found -- Kosinski in postwar Communist Poland was constantly falling into schoolboy scrapes from which his teachers, his father, or his own luck always managed to extract him. Precociously beginning in high school his life-long, compulsive philandering, he continued in the Polish university system almost, it seems, for lack of anything else to do. After publishing some technical papers in Marxist sociology, he managed in 1957 to finagle a trip to the United States to study for his doctorate at Columbia.