Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–
A Polish-born American novelist and sociologist, Kosinski is a controversial artist, drawing both praise and condemnation for fiction heavily laden with sex and violence. Despite the sensationalism of his subject matter, he is a serious artist, making a strong statement on themes of communication and morality. He won the National Book Award in 1969 for Steps. He has written under the pseudonym Joseph Novak. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Kosinski's novels consist of many … episodes, self-enclosed stories that reflect two of the novel's most traditional interests, the telling of interesting tales and the description of how something is done. His stories of psychological manipulation strike, unfortunately, a responsive chord in us all, just as his descriptions of how to make and use the hardware of our culture is closer to us than, say, a description of how to catch and cook a whale.
But rather than Moby Dick, Cockpit will remind the reader of The Confidence Man, Melville's unfinished story of a man of many disguises who manipulates people for complicated reasons. (pp. 356-57)
[A] quality found in all of Kosinski's novels [is] a dispassionate rendering of the human condition, sometimes for the sake of possible correction, sometimes for the sake of simple understanding. One of the most fascinating outcomes of reading the modern parables that make up Cockpit is our insight into the ambiguities of the self. The very title, Cockpit, serves to point up man's ambiguous state. An actual airplane cockpit, the heart of a controlling mechanism designed to destroy people, appears only once in the entire novel, but one finds it a number of times in disguise. From that high perch, Tarden [the protagonist] can look down upon the rest of mankind; he considers himself to be free because everyone is his potential victim. He can act rather than be...
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Because Jerzy Kosinski has given us several important novels, the temptation is to talk about Cockpit as if it were significant. I could say all the things that other reviewers have said and will say—Cockpit is a metaphor of modern life, a study of the depersonalization that threatens from within and from without, a biting satire on what the cold-war-detente state makes of its brightest, a warning of the danger that threatens our lives and our sanity, and so on. But I would not believe it because Cockpit just does not work. Despite the overall slickness of presentation, the reason is at least partly technical; it is a failure in that crucial area where a failure of technique is also a failure of theme.
One of the sounder clichés of modern literary criticism is that a genuine work of art earns its meaning. That is, it not only presents a set of values, it places them in situations where they are harshly, definitively, tested. The writer builds into his work a counter-voice, a set of powerful and carefully wrought forces antagonistic to those the author is testing. Technically, the problem is one of balance: a protagonist needs a worthy antagonist; values need effective opposition, even if that opposition must eventually lose; ideas need struggle in order to test their ramifications….
Nowhere [in Cockpit] is there a worthy antagonist for either the protagonist or his values. The result is a document with all the fascination of a trip through a carnival freak show, but with neither social nor human significance. (pp. 172-73)
Lee T. Lemon, "Freak Show," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1976, pp. 172-73.
Jerzy Kosinski's second novel, Steps (1968), is made up of a series of vignettes set in Poland during and after WWII, and in "the West." Always the setting is exotic; always we sense, in Thoreau's phrase, that we are immersed "in dreams awake." The protagonist-narrator of Steps is alternately the dark-complected boy of Kosinski's first novel, The Painted Bird (1965), and that same boy as an adult. He is variously a waif, soldier, photographer, waiter, day laborer, servant.
In whatever guise, he is—when not merely the witness to enormity—that agent of a malignity so darkly inscrutable that, by comparison, Shakespeare's Iago seems the Man from Glad. The only absolute in the world of Steps is the self of the protagonist-narrator—an utterly solipsistic Self for whom the Other is no more than an occasion for the fulfillment of outrageous fantasy….
The vignettes have to do with murder, disease, rape, sodomy. Some register only slight readings on our internal Richters; most achieve palpable hits….
Yet the rehearsal of the details of the vignettes testifies only partly to the power of Steps. Each is a two-handed engine, and it remains to say something about Kosinski's language….
Apart from his genius at deconstructing and recodifying the grammar of our tainted desires, Kosinski knows to keep his language plain and unobtrusive…. The language is deliberately antiseptic, devoid of reference; it awaits possession, demands inhabitation by the reader's Self. Monotone, Kosinski knows, stimulates prurience and ensures complicity.
Steps was (and remains) powerful because it was not "literary." It offered none of the usual facilities and reliefs, there was no beginning-middle-end, no story at all, no likable character to feel for and with, no recognizable narrative voice, no conventional moral center. Its vision was not developmental but incremental; it did not grow to a point but hammered its point over and over again, It was a better book than The Painted Bird, even though the images in the first book were as stunning, because its knife-thrust form better suited its obsessive interests.
Yet The Painted Bird—a bildungsroman complete with sentiment and moralizing—enabled the achievement of Steps. The reader knew Steps was not literature because he knew (or felt he did) that Kosinski's own experience was that of the boy in The Painted Bird…. Kosinski had been there, we felt. He had suffered and survived. He was the exemplary modern artist—authentic, not literary.
It was dismaying, therefore, to read Being There (1971), the third novel, for it was not only slight but recognizably a "moral" fable to boot….
Every writer must be allowed a bad book or two, but what was most disturbing about Being There was Kosinski's option for that musty "literary" tandem—instruction and delight. In spinning his cautionary tale, he had forsaken his more...
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Jerzy Kosinski calls George Levanter, the hero of his novel "Blind Date," a "small investor." But to me he is more like a claims adjuster in the ambiguous morality of the modern world. Among other things, Levanter is a skier and, as the West declines, he finds sport on its slope….
When Levanter rapes a beautiful young girl whom he might legitimately have won, he does it simply because it is admissible in his morality. [Here] one feels that the author is dealing in cynical homiletics. There is a considerable proportion of sexual activity in "Blind Date," and most of it can only be understood as a search for something other than pleasure. Levanter is obsessed, for example, with a prostitute who kills an anonymous chauffeur who seems intent on killing them with his driving. She stabs him in the neck with a sharpened comb and later his blood, which spattered over Levanter and herself, serves as an aphrodisiac. I hesitate to try to explicate this passage. To ascribe it to simple sadism does not do justice to Kosinski's sophistication, yet it seems far fetched to interpret it as the just deserts of a reckless driver.
Kosinski is a poet of morbidity. We meet a young woman in a baby carriage who is almost all head and no body and it goes without saying that Levanter desires her….
Kosinski means to shock. He wants very much—too much, perhaps—to make a statement of some sort about ethics and values...
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Kosinski's fantasy world is a place of such barren superficiality and murderous frustration that it often reads like the case-history of a vindictive neurotic. For all its dreams of positive action and complete power, Blind Date is an ignorant account of [a] drab hell…. The trouble is that he actually believes he's writing fiction…. (p. 194)
Tom Paulin, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 10, 1978.
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There are certain great moments in fiction, when the vast mists of the world suddenly part; Blind Date has one of them: 'Levanter could not speak. Mute, dispirited, he started the engine. Without pausing to look back, Jaques Monod walked away. As he started to climb the steps to the house, the last rays of the setting sun wrapped him in their glow.' I haven't come across such a potent combination of effects since I last opened an American novel, but the mixture here of name-dropping, cheap romance and rather precious fictionalising succeeds mainly by being worse than anything that has come before it. Ragtime turned this particular tone into an industrial process. It consists of saying as little as...
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I have been mulling over the sense of dreariness [Kosinski] provokes—a dreariness quite separate from that conjured up by his venomous outlook on life. He presents a brutal, anarchic world, where only the man who takes things into his own hands is commendable. His famous flat tone has been interpreted as an emblem of the flatness of modern life. The trouble is that the symbolism fails; the books refuse to produce the overtones that dozens of reviewers (and the author) have hopefully and earnestly sought to find. My own feeling of dreariness came from reading badly written, sadistic hocus-pocus, and not from being overwhelmed by a convincing view of life-as-crap.
To begin with mechanics, Kosinski's...
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