Jerzy Kosinski Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 1) - Essay

Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–

Polish-born novelist and sociologist, Kosinski now lives in the United States. He is the author of The Painted Bird. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

[Steps] leave no orifice unexploited. It goes beyond guilt, ignores love. One must question its morality.

Yet any such judgment is complicated by Kosinski's remarkable talent. Steps is—the locution is unavoidable—a beautifully written book. It is precise, scrupulous and poetic. But its very coolness is shocking. One expects gore and hysteria in the presence of murder and torture. There is none. Kosinski gives us no hysterical chopping and hacking, but rather measured surgical strokes of refined evil….

Kosinski's power and talent are not in doubt. I can think of few writers who are able to so persuasively describe an event, set a scene, communicate an emotion. Nonetheless, the use he has set his power to is in doubt. His purpose is serious, I am sure, but he misreads our tolerance. He has created what never was on land or sea and arrogantly expects us to take his creations, his self-consuming octopus, his other monsters, as emblems.

Geoffrey Wolff, "Growing Poisonous Flowers," in New Leader, October 7, 1968, pp. 18-19.

One measure of Jerzy Kosinski's quality is that he arrived in the US in 1957 without a word of English and by 1968 he has written four books in English: two works of non-fiction, published under the penname Joseph Novak, and two novels, The Painted Bird (1965) and now Steps. A better measure of his quality is that this achievement is irrelevant. Both his novels (I haven't read the Novak books) are admirable in themselves, and the second one pushes into extraordinary inner chambers, echoing and appalling. These days any impatient juvenile can show his impatience with the traditional novel by giving us loose pages in a box or omitting description or omitting everything else. In Steps Kosinski breaks with the traditional novel in a traditional way: he makes his book so scorchingly personal that it is unique.

Stanley Kauffmann, "Out of the Fires" (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1968 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), in New Republic, October 26, 1968, pp. 22, 41.

Calling [Kosinski] "remarkable" refers to more than his writing in English. Language is a trick; like any other trick, it can be learned. No, what is more impressive about Mr. Kosinski is that even writing in a second language, he has managed to develop a voice distinctly his own. The content of [Steps] is pure existential pessimism, its events charged with the sort of violence that we associate with Sartre and the other writers of that school. But the tone, the style, the fundamental voice that we hear in this prose are new.

Bruce Cook, "The Real McCoy," in National Observer, October 28, 1968, p. 21.

Kosinski's first piece of fiction, The Painted Bird, apart from being a brilliant work in its own right, offers some clues to his literary intentions. The Painted Bird is organized as an autobiographical recollection of the sufferings endured by a six-year-old boy who in the fall of 1939 was sent from a large city in Eastern Europe, "like thousands of other children, to the shelter of a distant village." Written with a rapacious intensity, The Painted Bird charts the boy's wanderings from village to village: hunted, beaten, starved, violated….

About Kosinski's powers for graphic evocation there can be no doubt, but finally one wonders whether there is not in [Steps] a numbing surplus of brutality. The Painted Bird comes to seem too close to that which it portrays, too much at the mercy of its nightmare.

Irving Howe, "From the Other Side of the Moon," in Harper's, March, 1969, p. 102-05.

Steps works in a series of fairly brief but highly potent scenes, each complete in itself, unconnected to the preceding or following episodes. Or so it seems. Then the internal rhythms begin to work and a pattern emerges. Mr Kosinski has the rare, and extremely valuable ability to write with bare-bones precision. Narrative of action is built from short, stabbing sentences; narrative of description is minimal. 'It was an imposing household and the dinner party flawless'—two perfect adjectives to speak paragraphs of description.

Roger Baker, "Off-beat Ideas," in Books and Bookmen, July, 1969.

The episodes [in Steps] range from the believable (the rape) to the ghoulishly outlandish (genital mutilation by soldiers, his own revenge-murder of peasants' children by feeding them crushed glass). It is not so much a vision of hell as a meticulous depiction of it—a log of atrocities made more horrible for their lack of specific causal contexts that might in part "explain" them and thus isolate if not mitigate them.

In this sense, it is less Goyaesque than reminiscent of the painting of Bosch or, for contemporary literary comparison, the stories of Hubert Selby Jr. in [Last Exit to Brooklyn]. Mr. Kosinski's prose—he writes entirely in English—is perfect to his purpose, efficient, detached, lucid as a gem, wholly in command….

"Steps" is a powerful and profoundly disturbing book; it seems itself gratuitous in its brutality. Yet this is where its particular power lies, coiled to strike like the serpent. It charts a territory where the factors that determine moral qualifications are out of control, a territory from which we can learn nothing except that human possibility encompasses hell, the proof of this being man's ability to imagine it. The imagining is the first step; the rest may or may not follow. But the possibility—and the possibility that we cannot anticipate the point at which choice is irretrievably relinquished—is established.

Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Log of Atrocities" (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), in New York Times, October 21, 1969.

Steps deserves a large audience; it is a valuable psychological and sociological document and a timely and effective warning. Its value as literature is less impressive, but far from negligible. Trained in social and political science, Kosinski has written some nonfiction on collective behavior. These interests are very visible in Steps, which is focused mainly on the psychodynamics of sadism and violence.

Howard M. Harper, Jr., in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1971 (© 1971 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 213.

Like his first two works of fiction, Jerzy Kosinski's third novel [Being There] traces the adventures of a young man through a mad world—mad in its absurd sanity, its hyper-sanitary approach to the murky ambiguities of character and action. All of Kosinski's work, both fiction and nonfiction, has been this attempt to explore morality, first by a plunge into the exotic grimness of the World War II holocaust, then by a cold observance of the habits of daily American life. Kosinski sees morality (and if he does not see it, he searches for it) as a point of view, a way of observing. In particular Kosinski sees character as the tutorial agency through which everything and everyone is employed in the business of life….

What is different in Kosinski's third novel is his great display of humor, wit and gentle satire.

Martin Tucker, in Commonweal, May 7, 1971, pp. 221-23.

I, for one, am completely mystified by the extraordinary critical response to Jerzy Kosinski's fiction. His first two novels, The Painted Bird and Steps, were internationally acclaimed. Such diverse talents as Irving Howe, Hugh Kenner, Arthur Miller, Anais Nin and Louis Buñuel expressed their admiration. Steps won the 1969 National Book Award. Last year Kosinski was honored by the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Kosinski is a writer of some talent. His prose is lucid, concise and, for the most part, unpretentious. His imagery is rarely labored. He develops scenes with a minimum of effort. But an efficient prose style does not necessarily guarantee great or even good fiction….

Both of Kosinski's novels lacked a unifying thread … [and] there were so many "strong" scenes and so few ideas that I eventually lapsed into a state of complete indifference. Perhaps I'm being awfully unfair here, but, unfortunately, Mr. Kosinski has failed to convince me that his rage is all that deeply felt.

Ronald De Feo, in Modern Occasions, Fall, 1971, pp. 622-24.