Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052
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.
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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 side of New York City. Steps won the National Book Award in 1969, and Kosinski became renowned for both his literary accomplishments and his newly achieved celebrity status.
His third novel, Being There, was published in 1971. In 1973, he published The Devil Tree, a novel that explored rootlessness, corporate greed, and the drug scene of contemporary America. The book seemed to strain for effect and was not well received. It was Kosinski’s first literary setback, and he labored to correct it, rewriting the entire novel and issuing the revised version in 1981. In 1973, Kosinski was elected president of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN). In 1975, he published the novel Cockpit, narrated by Tarden, a former spy on the run from his former organization, living alone in New York and acting out scenarios of vengeance on those whom he feels deserve it.
With Blind Date (1977), Kosinski established himself as a major writer whose novels charted the dark side of human life—the price of survival for Kosinski’s protagonists becomes perpetual aloneness, disguises, and the willingness to wreak vengeance on those who would victimize them. Not to be an avenger is to risk being a victim. The grim scenes from his fiction contrasted dramatically with the image of a sociable, witty, and entertaining person he projected on many television talk-show appearances. In 1979 he published Passion Play, a novel in which the protagonist, Fabian, a polo player who is definitely not a team player, wanders across America in a motor home complete with two polo ponies. Along with the familiar enemies this Kosinski protagonist must face—conventional morality, deceitful lovers, rival polo players—Fabian confronts his own aging and his recurring fear of the loss of his energy to write, even to live.
It is this sense of having lost his creative power that dominates Kosinski’s next novel, Pinball (1982). Although Kosinski received in this year the Writers Guild of America Best Screenplay Award for the film Being There, the reviews of Pinball suggested that Kosinski’s power as a novelist were indeed declining, as Fabian in Passion Play had feared. Pinball’s protagonist, Domostroy, is a failed musical composer whose classic works, numbering the same as Kosinski’s published novels, are remembered and respected by his fans, but Domostroy cannot write another. His source of inspiration has dried up, and he lives by playing the piano in a rundown ballroom.
In 1982, The Village Voice published an article that attacked Kosinski on a number of charges, including having had Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assistance in publishing the Novak books, having written The Painted Bird in Polish and having it translated into English, and having hired editorial assistants to write his novels for him. The charges were never substantiated, and several newspapers and magazines refuted them, but the article so disturbed Kosinski that he devoted his next and longest novel (also his last), The Hermit of 69th Street (1988), to the notion that all serious writing incorporates prior writing. The novel’s protagonist, Norbert Kosky, is a writer who is falsely accused of not writing his books. This long and rambling book, filled with quotations from other writers, becomes a compendium of the art of writing as well as a kind of vicarious victory over Kosinski’s detractors.
The book prompted a baffled and negative critical response, and Kosinski began working on a revision of the novel for paperback issue. Kosinski was exhausted by the writing and revision of The Hermit of 69th Street. His wife, Katherina von Fraunhofer, whom he had married in 1987 after a long companionship, said that during this time he was writing seven days a week. Depressed and increasingly ill from a chronic heart condition, Kosinski committed suicide in his Manhattan apartment on May 3, 1991.