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.
For a young man who had already learned how to maneuver his way through a Communist butcuctacNew York offered degree, by 1962 he had published 0 ntk- Communist books (under married ary Weir, heiress to an enormous steel-mill fortune. He had also begun the high-voltage, high-wire act he lived for the rest of his life: as a witness to the Holocaust, a spokesman for the Polish- American community, a freedom fighter in exile, a night-prowler in Manhattan's sex clubs, an ornament at the parties of the 1960s jet-setters, a seducer of college girls, a man of letters, and a conversational storyteller without equal. It was, in fact, a dinner conversation with a publisher -- in which Kosinski stunned his listeners with fabricated stories about the war -- that led both to the publication of The Painted Bird and to the continuing confusion about its truth. Elie Wiesel (whose Night genuinely is a lightly fictionalized account of a childhood during the Holocaust) gave the book a glowing review in the New York Times only after being falsely assured by Kosinski that it was fundamentally an autobiography.
His second novel, the 1968 ,Steps, won the National Book Award (though perhaps only in belated recognition that his first novel should have) and still has its admirers -- as does his third, the novella Being There, which Sloan confirms owes far too much to Dolega-Mostowicz's 1932 Polish bestseller, The Career of Nikodem Dyzma. ("Nikodem" was Kosinski's own adopted middle name, and Polish acquaintances told Sloan how the young Jerzy loved the book.) Though his later books received consistently bad notices from reviewers looking for a fulfillment of the promise of The Painted Bird, Kosinski's six remaining novels had excellent sales for "serious fiction" -- all but the last making the bestseller list: The Devil Tree (1973), Cockpi(1975), Blind Date (1978), Passion Play (1979), Pinball (1982), and The Hermit of 69th Street (1988).
Ksinski may have been like homas Mann's fictional con-man Felix Krull, a self-creating parvenu who knew how to make the most of his opportunities. But he was also one of those oddly gifted people for whom inexplicable opportunities just seem to come along. How does a penniless emigr on a suspect visa manage to get a contract from Doubleday to write a book in a language he barely knows? How does an unknown graduate student, parking cars for spare change, manage to meet, charm, and wed one of the richest widows in America? Kosinski always seemed to be there at the right time, managing in some marvelous way to know virtually everybody who was anybody. It wasn't just the actors and politicians a celebrity writer can meet if he tries hard enough. Kosinski had luck's magic foresight: When Polish-American leaders were casting about for someone to guide the little-known Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla around New York, they happened to light at the last minute upon Kosinski, and Wojtyla happened later to become Pope John Paul II.
Sloan presents Kosinski as a character recognizable even to basically honest people: the get-ahead young man who cuts a few corners, tells a few lies, early in his career, and then -- discovering the endless tangled series of lies he has to keep telling to support his earlier lies -- lives the rest of his life in dread of the truth's coming out, as it finally did in 1982.
But Sloan misses, I think, the joy of the liar in his lie, the love of risk and the pleasure in making the unbelievable believed. Kosinski kept his Hollywood friendships after 1982, and kept his expansive life. But he had lost the possibility of being believed. From his first novel, he gradually made the lionized young writer's typical turn to a novel about himself writing a novel, and on -- in his enormous and almost unreadable last book, The Hermit of 69th Street -- to the vacuity of a novel about himself writing a novel about himself writing a novel. The storyteller at last ran out of stories. Kosinski spent his last years trying to rope investors into an unlikely scheme for establishing a Polish-American investment bank.
There was finally something strangely mismatched in the man, something incommensurate -- a small life lived big, perhaps, or a big life lived in such a small, mean way that it was stripped at last of joy. On the night of May 2, 1991, for no immediately pressing reason and with little warning, Kosinski climbed into his bathtub and tied a plastic bag around his head. The Painted Bird survives him. ,
J. Bottum, who writes regularly on leterary matters for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is associate editor of First Things.