Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jerzy Kosinski was born in Lodz, Poland, on June 14, 1933, the only child of Mieczyslaw and Elzbieta Kosinski. His parents were Jewish and educated in Russia; his father was a teacher of linguistics at the University of Lodz and his mother a concert pianist trained at the Moscow Conservatory. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kosinski’s parents entrusted their six-year-old son to a friend who took him east, toward Russia. Caught up in the invasion, Kosinski was abandoned by his guardian and lived for the duration of the war in eastern Poland, wandering alone from village to village. The trauma of these years caused him to lose his voice; he did not speak again until he was fifteen. He was picked up by Soviet troops and placed in an orphanage, where he was rescued by his parents, who had survived the war. Of the sixty or so of Kosinski’s relatives alive before the war, all were killed except his parents and himself.
In Communist Poland, Kosinski was educated at the University of Lodz, where he received two master’s degrees, one in political science (1953) and one in history (1955). He was an assistant professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and at work on a doctorate in sociology when he defected to the United States in 1957. He worked at a parking lot in Manhattan and at other odd jobs, eventually receiving a Ford Foundation grant in 1958 that allowed him to study for a doctorate in sociology at Columbia University.
His area of study was the effect of socialism on the individual; although he never completed the degree, his experience in Poland and Russia interviewing officials and ordinary citizens gave him material for what became his first book, The Future Is Ours, Comrade, published by Doubleday in 1960 under the pen name of Joseph Novak. A version of the book appeared in Reader’s Digest, and Kosinski soon had a best seller. The book was followed by a second, No Third Path, published in 1962, also under the name Joseph Novak.
Also in 1962, Kosinski married Mary Hayward Weir, widow of the founder of the Weir steel corporation. He began to work on his first novel, The Painted Bird, drawing on his experiences as a child wandering through German-occupied Poland. The Painted Bird was published in 1965 to excellent reviews, and his career as a novelist was launched. He was divorced from Weir in 1966. In 1968, he published Steps, an experimental novel composed of brief...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Within six years, Kosinski had published three novels that marked him as a major force in American fiction. Of the six subsequent novels he published, two, Cockpit and Blind Date, further enhanced his reputation as a writer of the dark side of human life whose fictions dwelt on survival, disguise, scenes of violence, and kinky sex. Many of the scenes in both novels resemble events Kosinski experienced in his own life. His lasting achievement, however, centers on his powerful and disturbing voice, which warns of the danger of social conformity (sometimes he resembles a kind of latter-day Ralph Waldo Emerson) while extolling the need for the individual to create his or her own life. The self in resistance, the self in creativity—these are the hallmarks of Kosinski’s work that will outlast his extraordinarily troubled and creative life.
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Jerzy Nikodem Kosinski was born Josek Lewinkopf in Lodz, Poland, on June 14, 1933. His life was as incredible as any of his novels, which are, to some degree, autobiographical. In 1939, when he was six years old, World War II began. He was Jewish, and his parents, believing he would be safer in the remote eastern provinces of Poland, paid a large sum of money to have him taken there. He reached eastern Poland, where he was immediately abandoned; his parents thought he was dead. Instead, at this very young age, he learned to live by his wits in an area where the peasants were hostile and the Nazis were in power.
The extreme experiences of that time were given artistic expression in his first novel, The Painted Bird. Kosinski survived the ordeal, and his parents found him in an orphanage at the end of the war. The stress of his experience had rendered him mute, and his irregular, wandering life had left him unfit to live normally with other people. Finally, in the care of his family, Kosinski regained his speech, and, studying with his philologist father, he completed his entire basic formal education in a year and entered the University of Lodz, where he eventually earned advanced degrees in history and political science.
By that time, Poland was an Iron Curtain country with a collectivized society. Kosinski, after his youthful years of lone wandering, had developed a fierce independence and could not endure communal life in which the individual was under scrutiny at every step. He knew he could not remain without getting into serious trouble with the government, so he put together an elaborate scheme to escape. Making the cumbersome bureaucracy work in his favor, Kosinski invented a series of sponsors, all highly regarded scientists according to the documents he forged for them, to write him letters of recommendation, which eventually enabled him to get a passport to study in the United States.
Kosinski arrived in New York on December 20, 1957, twenty-four years old, with $2.80 in his pocket and a good textbook knowledge of English, though little experience in speaking the language. He lived any way he could, stealing food when necessary and studying English. By March, he was fluent in the language, and within...
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Jerzy Kosinski achieved immediate success with his first novel, The Painted Bird, which Kosinski claimed was an autobiographical account of his childhood experiences during the German occupation of Poland. The author spent the rest of his life defending those experiences, and the autobiographical content of his other books, against his critics and supporters.
There are two central questions raised by Kosinski’s work. First, were his novels merely records of his extraordinary life—and his life was without question extraordinary—as many have claimed, or are the novels a creative refashioning of his experience? Kosinski experienced enormous popularity as a novelist; his books sold in the tens of millions of copies. As one critic has noted: Can a writer who pandered to the crassest commercial standards of popular fiction by employing graphic sex and violence, conventional fictional types, and sensational contemporary events really have anything seriously significant to say to his readers? The search for answers to such questions has dominated the writing about Kosinski’s life and art.
There is no question that Kosinski’s life had a profound effect on his writing. The search for identity, with all that implies, is the primary focus of his fiction and began with his own quest occasioned by his profoundly unsettling experiences as a child. Most of his protagonists try on a series of personas, creating roles with which to attempt to cope with the perplexity of contemporary life. The most obvious of these is Chance, the central character in Being There, whose whole life is formed by his television watching. Chance is not unique in reflecting Kosinski’s fascination with popular culture and its effect in determining identity.
The implications Kosinski pursued regarding personality-shaping events make him, along with Albert Camus, one of the primary writers to deal with important postwar existentialist questions. His search for personal definition in a hostile and alienating world earned for him a prominent place among writers of the late twentieth century.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Novelist and sociologist Jerzy Nikodem Kosinski (kuhh-ZIHN-skee) was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1933. His father was a well-to-do philologist and a scholar of languages at the University of Lodz, and his mother was an accomplished pianist. With the radical disruption of the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939, Kosinski was separated from his Jewish parents and spent the next six years wandering about eastern Poland and living by his wits. He was finally reunited with them in 1945, but the traumatized boy had become a mute as a result of the harsh experiences of surviving on his own. Not until after a skiing accident in 1948 did he regain his speech, finish high school, and finally enter the University of Lodz in 1950. This wartime...
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When referring to his novel The Painted Bird in an "Afterword" published in its second edition, Jerzy Kosinski insists that he "remained determined that the novel's life be independent of mine." Yet scholars note that Kosinski's life closely echoed that of the unnamed boy in his first novel. Kosinski was born on June 14, 1933, in Lodz, Poland. His father, a scholar of the classics, and mother, a concert pianist, provided him with a sheltered childhood until Nazi Germany invaded Poland at the outbreak of World War II when Jerzy was six years old. In an effort to save his life, his parents sent him to live with a foster mother while they went into hiding. After his foster mother's death a few months later, Jerzy was forced to find shelter and food in various peasant villages in Poland until he was reunited with his parents at the end of the war. The traumatic events he suffered through during this period caused him to become mute when he was nine. In an interview with Barbara Leaming for Penthouse, Kosinski commented, "Once I regained my speech after the war, the trauma began. The Stalinist [system in Poland] went after me, asking questions I didn't want to hear, demanding answers I would not give."
Kosinski studied sociology and political science at the University of Lodz and earned a bachelor's degree in 1950. He also earned two master's degrees there, one in history in 1953 and the other in political science in 1955. While studying for his Ph.D. in sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, he and his family tried to gain permission to immigrate to the United States, but they were denied. Soon after, Kosinski created an elaborate plot to gain his freedom from his Communist-controlled homeland. He invented four scholars who he claimed were sponsoring research that needed to be completed in the United States. As a result, more than two years later, in 1957, he arrived in New York City—without finances or connections.
He soon learned English and continued his graduate studies at Columbia University. In his first book, The Future Is Ours, Comrade: Conversations with the Russians, a collection of essays written under the pseudonym Joseph Novak, Kosinski outlines the injustices of the Communist system. The work became an immediate bestseller. In 1965, he became a naturalized citizen, the same year his first novel, The Painted Bird was published, and it gained him more notoriety. Other successful novels followed, including Steps, which won the National Book Award in 1969 and Being There, which was made into a critically acclaimed film in 1979— earning him an Academy Award for best screenplay. Kosinski is also noted for his photography, which he exhibited throughout the world, and for his portrayal of Grigory Zinoviev in the 1981 film, Reds. On May 3, 1991, while suffering from severe heart disease and depression, Kosinski committed suicide in New York City.