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 scenes narrated by a nameless man familiar with war-torn Poland, the Holocaust, and the sinister...
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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...
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