Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 15)
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, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Jerzy Kosinski's novels lie in the area between the post-war European emotional lucidity and the hip coolness of American mid-generation. His is a non-judgmental, morally permissive fiction, in which action is meant not as salvation, but as making the most of life. In Kosinski's novels, man does not have a character by which he is doomed; he adjusts himself to reality by denying his civilized self and his moral judgment. He forms a personality-free character in a personality-free world.
Kosinski's novels are agitated, ghoulish yarns, told in dispassionate, icy language. They are void of realistic linearity and of emotional temperature. The untitled "chapters" form the unconnected units of narration, space and time are fragmented, little actions follow like digressions, the plotless plot converges rather than continues; words do not burn, as in passionate texts, but are lucid and conniving.
Kosinski's characterless characters have no fixed personalities, yet they do have consistent ego. Like a Pirandellian hero (it was Pirandello who finally got rid of characters, as Joyce did away with recognizably continuous storytelling), the Kosinski protagonist exists from moment to moment. Continually creating himself anew, he never achieves a solidified, hard-core reality of a continuous hero. The story line is the unfinished and unfinishable business of life; thus, it is not accidental that every novel ends inconclusively, with...
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The heroes of [Kosinski's] novels are lonely and anonymous men, outsiders, never with an everyday profession. In Blind Date, the hero was called Levanter; in Passion Play, Fabian. These men have colorless stage names and they themselves are almost indistinguishable from one another. They are usually refugees or escapees from Eastern Europe….
Many authors keep such a distance from their books that it would be improper to look for a link between them and their protagonists. Not so with Kosinski. His novels are personal accusatory statements, and he clearly wants us to draw no line between his own reality and that of his fiction. In fact, it would be hard for him to hide behind the concept of "fiction," for his novels cry out, "This is how the world looks, and I am the sworn witness to the truth of it." (p. 216)
The Painted Bird, which established his name, is different from the later novels in that its hero is the child, not the man; but the child, too, is lonely, an outsider, anonymous. Describing a childhood in German-occupied Poland, the novel builds a platform from which the later novels took off. I don't doubt that it created the stir it did because so many Americans considered it their first real insight into life in Europe during World War II. In the same way, his following novels appeared to give readers here a shockingly direct feel of life under Communism or state socialism, the more...
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Jerzy Kosinski takes on some new subject matter—polo, horsemanship and public sex—in his seventh novel, Passion Play, yet these things are not really his new territory. What he presents are the further psychological adventures of the Kosinski hero, who is now as recognizable as the Hemingway hero used to be. But what is genuinely new in Passion Play is that Kosinski's hero grows older; and we are treated to the continuing struggles of the boy from The Painted Bird who became the man from Steps, as he jousts quixotically with (as usual) women and death, loses some of his hair, and enters into a crisis of middle age and lost youth.
There is no nostalgia in this. That's not in Kosinski's emotional kitbag. But in the book's final pages, and particularly in its final image, which I will not reveal here, there is an earned poignancy whose like I have not encountered in Kosinski's work since The Painted Bird.
This book does not really resemble that first novel, which made its author's reputation; it is more in line with his last three books, The Devil Tree, Cockpit and Blind Date. Passion Play is still episodic, though even here Kosinski seems to be charting new stylistic territory—he has become willfully lyrical, and he is much plottier than usual, though his plot creaks and squeaks badly at times.
It creaks for it seems he has turned to the connective...
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["Passion Play" gives] Kosinski the opportunity to engage in some virtuoso writing about sex and horsemanship, which is sometimes fun to read. He is very good at setting up the big scene, the sporting event, the spectacle…. But such scenes, more often than not, seem to intrude upon the narrative.
We know from the jacket copy and the Cervantes epigraph that we are in the presence of a modern knight-errant, and indeed the idea of a picaresque novel written by someone with Kosinski's skills has possibilities. But even in the opening scenes—Fabian's encounters with a female barber, a bunch of rowdy kids, a procurer of "foster daughters," a derelict—there is a leaden, arbitrary tone from which the book never recovers. (p. 18)
Ivan Gold, "Picaresque Sport," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1979, pp. 9, 18.
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Jerzy Kosinski's fictional persona easily made the transition from victim, in The Painted Bird, to victimizer, in Steps. Throughout the four subsequent novels, the cold blooded, impervious Kosinski hero changed little; CIA operative Tarden of Cockpit was as cruel as freelance secret agent Levanter of Blind Date. Passion Play, however, finds the persona somewhat mellowed. In his latest reincarnation, he is an aging polo player named Fabian…. The consuming aggression of past heros has been turned inward, modulated into a neurotic self-absorbtion with the body and sickness….
When not playing polo or pursuing sex, Fabian philosophizes. One example: "In the odyssey of landlocked man, the horse had been the oldest craft of voyage, the most prophetic ship through space. Man astride his mount—even that first man, the horse at full run, its hoofs cleaving soil and space—had been the original passenger through air, the traveler borne by the winds."
Critics have praised Kosinski for such passages; Time has even compared him to Joseph Conrad, another Polish emigré who wrote in English. Now it is true that Kosinski has produced one great work, The Painted Bird. In that first novel, he summoned through his vivid writing images of horror that no reader is likely to forget. Since then, he has done only passably well with the spare action writing of the detective novel. He doesn't...
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[Passion Play] displays a familiar mixture: a protagonist whose life is a series of disconnected steps leading nowhere, women who are more vagina than mind, existential meditations, and explicitly described physical torture. This time, however, the hero rides higher than usual. (p. 52)
Kosinski's undeniable prowess as a scene-maker has never seemed more evident than in the exciting polo matches and seductions in these pages. Ironically, though, the power plays and love games all remain quite cheerless. The onset of middle age and the discovery of his need for love apart from Eros clearly separate Fabian from Tarden, Levanter, and the other Kosinski ciphers, traumas in search of appropriate catastrophes, who have strutted and fretted their ways through earlier novels. The deepest irony seems to be that in Passion Play the hero on horseback remains incapable of expressing true tenderness toward any other beings but his animals. A reader draws back from such coldness of spirit, admiring the craft, dismissing the life. (p. 53)
Alan Cheuse, "Books: 'Passion Play'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 2, January 19, 1980, pp. 52-3.
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