Jerzy Kosinski Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 2) - Essay

Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–

A Polish-born novelist and sociologist, Kosinski now lives in the United States. His most recent work is The Devil Tree. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

[Jerzy] Kosinski's full range is exhibited in his first novel, The Painted Bird, which includes among many other instances such Grand Guignol as a man being eaten alive by rats and a cuckold gouging out the eyes of his wife's lover.

Kosinski is a witness to the horrors he lived through as a child in wartime rural Poland: he presents them as mirror-images to the coincident horrors of the Nazi ascendancy, and as proof of universal guilt. But, whatever his life has been, his books keep an eye on the audience, they read like slick and cynically selected anthologies; like the film Mondo Cane; like Andreyev…. Appropriately, The Painted Bird ends in a crude blare of socialist realism, with hymns of praise to the liberating Red Army and To Gavrila and Mitka, tender and guideless Heroes of the Soviet Union. After such guilt, such redemption.

Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 759-60.

[Kosinski's] first and still his best-known novel, The Painted Bird (1966), was an extraordinary work of combined fantasy and realism, a fairy-tale horror story about the experience of a gypsy or Jewish refugee child wandering in a nameless wartime landscape, threatened on the one hand by the German occupying army but tortured and persecuted on the other by the simple, sadistic peasants with whom, in his passage from nightmare to nightmare, he is forced to seek shelter. Steps (1968) was an essentially cinematic novel in the New Wave fashion, a book composed of fragments of experience or splinters of consciousness, having to do with a young man's odyssey through yet another Grand Guignol world in which, all standards being dead, violence and perversity register on the mind as unjudgeable increments of the given, mere data in the mechanical procedure of being. Both these novels won Kosinski large critical acclaim and important literary prizes … because they represented brilliant attempts to create not merely new but exceedingly bold effects in a form in which the possibilities for adventure have for many years seemed reduced, and recent experimental efforts have so often resulted in a purely technical cleverness or the haphazard production of mere grotesquerie….

[His] vision is primarily philosophical. He is interested not in making a satirical indictment of modern society—although satire is an abrasive secondary feature of his point of view—nor in attempting to explore in the French manner the various possible ways of dramatizing individual consciousness. He is concerned rather with understanding the nature and meaning of the human condition, the relation quite simply of human values to the terms of existence in an essentially amoral and surely anarchistic universe.

This may suggest that to the extent that Kosinski can be placed in any line of literary derivation or influence, he belongs in the tradition of classic European modernism. He may have learned something of value from those of his contemporaries who are working experimentally with the novel form, but his greatest teachers have evidently been Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and perhaps Dostoevsky, men who have possessed not only unusual creative power but the ability to deal directly with concepts of being—in the largest sense, with ideas—and to use ideas in their fiction as concrete modes of dramatic action….

It is not surprising … that … Being There, should take the form that is most natural for the novelist of ideas, the form of parable, the metaphorical and analogical statement of an idea—in this case, one that happens not only to be powerful in itself but to have the widest conceivable relevance to the condition of society at the present time. Once again, as in The Painted Bird, he is concerned with the innocent and helpless victim—there a lost child, here a man with the mind of a child—who is destined to become the object of what Henry James saw as the worst human atrocity: the usurpation by others of the privacy and integrity of the individual self. But where The Painted Bird was primarily a parable of demonic totalitarianism, of that form of Nazi bestiality which is not a politics but a violence of the soul and blood, Being There has to do with totalitarianism of much subtler and even more fearful kind, the kind that arises when the higher sensibilities of a people have become not so much brutalized as benumbed, when they have lost both skepticism and all hold on the real, and so fall victim to those agencies of propaganda which manipulate their thinking to accept whatever the state finds it expedient for them to accept….

It is just this diabolical possibility that creates the dramatic situation of Being There. Like Orwell in 1984, Kosinski has imagined what might result if existing social conditions were developed to their logical conclusions, and he has chosen for a protagonist exactly the sort of man who would exemplify those conditions in their full absurdity and horror. There is a deadly appropriateness in the fact that this man, who is initially called simply Chance, actually is a mental defective, a man totally without history and public identity who, as the story proceeds, is literally created as a person and personage because of qualities attributed to him by others….

It is to Kosinski's great credit that in treating material of this kind he avoided the temptation, which might have been overwhelming, to fall into the stereotypical antiutopian stance made fashionable by Huxley and Orwell. He never provides a direct view of the sociological horror that is so clearly his true subject. Instead, he allows the tragicomic story of Chance to create, through its power of metaphorical suggestiveness, the effect of that spiritually anesthetized world in which such absurd events might well become commonplace. And Chance's story is so straightforwardly told, so barren of adornment, that these very qualities preserve it from the charge of implausibility….

For Being There exists simultaneously on the levels of fiction and fact, fantasy and contemporary history. It is a novel ingeniously conceived and endowed with some of the magical significance of myth.

John W. Aldridge, "The Fabrication of a Culture Hero," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 24, 1971; used with permission), April 24, 1971, p. 25.

Jerzy Kosinski's Being There … may be one of the best books of the year. It is simply conceived, splendidly executed, and thematically important…. Somehow, perhaps by the very simplicity of the style, Kosinski convinces his readers that the implausible is plausible. Perhaps, though, the major element in the plausibility of Kosinski's parable is our passionate desire to believe that our most critical personal and social problems can be solved simply by the natural man of good sense and good will.

Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1971–72, p. 369.

[The] fiction of Jerzy Kosinski … has tracked the impact of that brutal worldwide event, of the power of incessant violence to sear the mind, to distort—perhaps forever—man's power and capacity to recapture any moral balance. Kosinski's brilliant fiction, like the works of Nietzsche, stand as a vivid warning to mankind, a warning to be heeded lest we too, like Dionysus Zagreus, suffer the fate of being torn apart. The moral descent of Kosinski's protagonists portrays the failure of both community and communication….

The world of the Kosinskian hero has a closer parallel to the dark irrational universe of Kafka—man trapped in a world of dissolving meaning, in which there are few fragments to shore up against his ruin….

In the earlier Russian studies [The Future is Ours, Comrade and No Third Path], which precede his fiction, [Kosinski] acted as "recording" center for the experiences of others. In one sense, [the Russian studies] are political case histories. As observer, Kosinski sought a position of detachment and neutrality as he attempted to describe objectively the dailiness and human routines of Russian life. This neutrality was the pose of the social scientist whose cumulative facts eventually explode in a devastating account of Russian life. Both the "recording" point of view and the intense distrust of Russian motives provide an underlying approach to Kosinski's fiction, and ultimately to his vision of man's spiritual desperation….

The domination quality of Kosinski's fictional vision in The Painted Bird is his vivid rendition of violence. He portrays the power behind this violence as a manifestation of instinctual depravity in man…. Continued violence cannot derive its opposite—strength and peace must flow from the roots of the individual…. In The Painted Bird, no basis for faith and hope is nourished by the violent quality of life. The unfolding human cycle is not marked by love.

In Kosinski's second novel, the landscape of violence is retained. In Steps, there is an extraordinary increase in the author's stylistic power, and the dramatic evocations of his prose makes a comparison with Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness" almost inevitable. Like the Conradian prose of that tale, Kosinski's words are weighted with a brooding portent. Differing from his previous books, Steps is marked by a cold lucidity and a finely disciplined poetic atmosphere. Like the work of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, Steps is a uniquely modern document, a genuine "sign of the times." Its import as an artistic vehicle may, indeed, have a serious effect on the future of the novel as a literary form….

[In Steps, what] takes place before the reader's sight is not gratuitous or hallucinatory as the nightmarish events of The Naked Lunch or The Soft Machine. In both of the Burroughs novels, the reader is not threatened by a sense of complicity because the fictive events are filtered through a nightmare reality. In Kosinski's novel, the aesthetic distance is closed and the reader does not have the safety and comfort of a mere spectator at unspeakable events…. [Kosinski] offers to the reader the entire burden of coherent response. That burden of recognition, the intimation, is inescapable. The tragic devitalization is everywhere present in the individual frames or episodes of the novel….

[The] central image of "steps" is … elusive because it has no internal reference in the book…. With its own strange imprecision, the image hovers over the narrative journey, elliptically guiding the reader through an uncharted corridor. The journey exists out of datable time, but with its peculiar presence grounded in the time of memory. The immediate actuality of the novel exists in what Kosinski himself calls "the divide between past and present" which emerges out of the mind's capacity for recollection and expectation….

If one accepts the novel as the sole document for interpretation, the moral evolution of man is an unrelieved blackness. It is the point of despair from which no writer can rise for further artistic development: he is destined to continue repeating the agony of the steps downward and to the repetitious dramatization of "the death of man." But here one needs to separate the faceless, nameless narrator from the author. The narrator has felt the pulse of the world, so seemingly bereft of grace and he has descended into tragic devitalization. The author, still possessed of moral passion and visionary hope, retreats from the violence, from the devaluation of the human spirit. Convinced that Jerzy Kosinski is both a serious and a profound writer, one searches the novels for signs of this affirmative spirit, the belief that man can retreat from a violent devitalization.

It is only when one turns to the epigraph of Steps [taken from the sacred book, The Bhagavad Gita] that one can discern a glimmer of the author's intent…. The moral equipoise which Kosinski seeks is the ascendent step, a direction opposite from that which he fictionalizes, a new world in which the control, peace, and happiness of The Bhagavad Gita is restored to the life of man. For Kosinski and for his reader, the moral imperative is clear, but the journey back of life remains uncharted.

Daniel J. Cahill, "Jerzy Kosinski: Retreat from Violence," in Twentieth Century Literature, April, 1972, pp. 121-32.

When Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird" first appeared in 1965, one could not easily judge whether it was, in the language of the blurbs, a searing indictment of humanity, or whether the real horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe had somehow served as the occasion for the excesses of a peculiarly sadistic imagination. The evidence of Kosinski's two subsequent novels was not reassuring. "Steps" is scarcely a novel at all but rather a series of discontinuous erotic jottings, sometimes brutal, generally deficient in feeling, and finally repetitious. "Being There" is the sketchy design of a fantasy that even with denser novelistic realization would strain credulity beyond limit—the four-day metamorphosis of an illiterate mental defective into one of the most powerful and admired men in America.

Kosinski's latest novel ["The Devil Tree"] unfortunately demonstrates even more clearly the thinness and abstraction with which he conceives both humanity in general and fictional characters; his imagination here slips again and again into unpleasant self-indulgence or sheer slackness. Like "Being There," this book is built on a fantasy of power. Jonathan James Whalen, the protagonist, is sole heir to one of the largest fortunes in America. In a very brief span, he manages to flunk out of Yale, run through several mistresses on three continents with a few memorable whores in between, pick up and painfully kick an opium habit in Rangoon, then return to take over his father's vast conglomerate….

Now, fairytale fantasy versions of contemporary life may be perfectly engaging if … they are imagined with verve. "The Devil Tree," however, is a dismal disappointment because from beginning to end it is a loose web of stylistic and cultural clichés. Kosinski's prose, with its series of short sentences occasionally embellished by an elaborate simile, runs readily to the characteristic vice of "simple" styles, which is to fall into the hackneyed formulas of mass journalism and pulp fiction….

Kosinski has been hailed by some enthusiasts as an heir to Kafka and Céline, but the modernism of "The Devil Tree" is the most derivative kind imaginable. In essence, it is a rehashing in pop-psychological vocabulary, occasionally spiced by sadistic violence, of many familiar notes from underground long since articulated far more profoundly by the masters of modern literature. Like Dostoevsky's anti-hero, but with none of his psychological dynamism, Whalen is "pushing [him] self to extremes in order to discover [his] many selves," pursuing an illusory dream of absolute freedom, desiring a connection with people but despising anyone imperceptive enough to like him.

Robert Alter, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1973, pp. 2-3.

[With] The Devil Tree, Kosinski once again tests some of the best possibilities left to the novel in our time.

Two themes dominate his new book, both intensely American: power (as expressed through money and sex) and self-consciousness (acute awareness of one's psychic convolutions, plus pleasure in this awareness). No native-born American could have dealt with these themes in quite this way; here they are seen right from the "inside," very knowingly, by a mind that was, in origin, Eastern European and Marxist. This double view, since Kosinski is an artist, not a tractarian, is dramatized in the structure and style of his art.

The structure resembles that of Steps—prismatic, seemingly fragmented. Kosinski snips his serial narrative as a film editor might do, eliminates the irrelevant and the implied, and rearranges the (usually) brief pieces in an extraordinary design, a design that plays—sometimes frighteningly—with time; that exposes and underscores tensions; that subtly suggests the hand of an author in the protagonist's own plane of existence. Not Kosinski, not a Divine Force, but dynamics drawn from the protagonist and his society seem to govern the action and dictate the structure. The result is a mosaic of fiercely charged molecules, in continually unpredictable and continually gratifying patterns. The whole gives us a sense of ordained compression….

Samuel Beckett said somewhere that he writes in French because in his second language he has no style. In that respect Kosinski is like him: Language is utilitarian to him, planned, locked into place, without luxury or lift, with care for rhythms to avoid monotony but with no concern for voluptuousness or pang. Even the most passionate moments are put with a clarity that shows clarity to be the aim. The prose—not the structure or theme—is Brechtian: to hold you but to hold you off, so that you will not so much feel as see. He flays back the skin of his protagonist and bares the nervous system, allowing you to see how it tingles and why it is related to you.

Stanley Kauffmann, "A Double View," in World, February 27, 1973, pp. 42-3, 46.

Jerzy Kosinski's prose is in itself so remarkable—terse and hard-edged but still supple and fluid—that it seems impossible he could ever fail or bore his readers. His theme in his fourth novel is again the mysterious relationships between the self and what is not the self, which in Kosinski can never be comfortably described simply as "the outside world." Reading him is both a startling experience, like suddenly finding yourself in front of a distorting mirror, and a rather frightening one.

The Devil Tree, like Steps, Kosinski's 1969 National Book Award—winning novel, is composed largely of brief elliptical scenes, often monologues and dialogues, but it has a more conventional narrative structure….

The implication is that capitalism is self-destructive, that it destroys those who serve it, that it is in fact a "dead" system. All this may or may not be true, but The Devil Tree does not make a convincing case that it is so, and it is difficult to see Whalen's disintegration as symptomatic of the disintegration of the world around him. I often had the uncomfortable feeling that there was something about American life that I was supposed to believe before I could begin to understand the book. Partly, too, Kosinski's slightly disembodied structure makes it difficult for him to realize fully his vision of capitalism….

Kosinski is one of our most valuable and exciting writers, and The Devil Tree will undoubtedly find a wide and appreciative audience, but it is not a fully integrated work, and one finishes it with a sense of expectations unfulfilled.

Alan Hislop, "Company Men," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, March, 1973; used with permission), March, 1973, pp. 70-1.

[Taken] straight, [Kosinski's] The Devil Tree fails to make one care about its hero's difficulties. Read another way, as a novel about the materials of contemporary "alienation," the stuff our culture offers to replace an authentic sense of self, it's more interesting. Whatever else he lacks, Whalen [the protagonist] has power—he is sustained by possessions, the objects, sensations, and people his money can buy. He has measured out his life in racing sand boats, skin-diving gear, gliders, Fords with twelve-cylinder Italian engines, tape recorders, calculators, multi-channel TVs, porn movies, highstyle whores, encounter groups, French chefs, and private bodyguards, and we may well wonder why he's so unhappy….

As an ideological statement, the book makes some sense. An epigraph from Proust—"When we think we are lying our words foretell an imminent reality"—readies us for a fiction in which deceit, cruel practical jokes, sexual sadism, and social bullying figure as the private life's version of the essential criminality of the public world, with its piratical capitalism, police brutality, petty fraud, and where the drug traffic and child rape are the order of the day….

Presumably Kosinski is thinking about how the "legitimate" political-economic order, founded on aggression, declines into the petty violence of postcapitalist reality, where the heirs, bored by the indulgences of material freedom, re-enact the acquisitive experience in more visibly and literally destructive ways, all in the name of "self-realization." Whalen's yearning for risk in a society dedicated to abolishing even inconvenience makes a useful comment on the politics and pleasures of the young. But if this is the point (and it may not be, for all I know), I wish Kosinski had found a better way to make it.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), March 22, 1973, p. 29.