Jerzy Kosinski Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 6) - Essay

Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–

Kosinski, a Polish-born American novelist and sociologist, won the National Book Award in 1969 for his second novel, Steps. The strong and often shocking visual effects and the minimal dialogue in Kosinski's fiction reflect his belief that speech is superficial and can only retard collation by the silent observer of the symbols, "rationally unrelated in subject, tone, and emotional content," which the subconscious mind comprehends and employs to arrive at "truth"—the "dream-like, nightmarish reality which shocks, astonishes, and is [then] easily accessible." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

"The Painted Bird" and "Steps," are fables of bestiality, plague and spiritual famine beyond the reach of human redemption. In these novels human nature is conceived as a blight. Silence and death are the only escapes from life's intolerable conditions. Sensation—the felt heartbeat, the tasted kiss—is hateful because it gives evidence of life, and life is an enemy. Kosinski, writing with gorgeous precision, uses his sanity and imagination as instruments of revenge in these earlier novels. "Being There" seems to mark a change of course. The prose is still lucid and exact, but it moves more tenderly, it seems to spring from the sweet sadness of loss rather than from hatred. If the world of this fable has sunk so low, it has declined from some better place, some place of the spirit against which Kosinski measures us. (pp. 95A-B)

Geoffrey Wolff, "The Life of Chance," in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 26, 1971, pp. 94-95B.

["Being There"], like its hero, barely exists…. (p. 133)

The trouble is that all [its] symbolic superstructure, and the manipulative fun it invites, rest on a realistic base less substantial than sand…. [The] texture of events is thin, thin, preposterously thin. The rich and powerful may be stupid, but they would not mistake a comatose illiterate for a financial wizard. A hermit might be innocent, but his body would know how to achieve an erection. Fortune may be arbitrary in bestowing her favors, but she is not totally berserk. (pp. 133-34)

There is not enough leverage even to spring a laugh. No two things are incongruous, because hardly anything in "Being There" is there.

You could say that this is an immigrant's impression of America, an "other planetary perspective." But compare Nabokov; also an immigrant, from the same Slavic hemisphere as Kosinski, he … came up with a portrait—not only in "Lolita" but in the background of "Pnin" and in the poem "Pale Fire"—of the United States grotesquely and tellingly acute in its details. Mr. Kosinski's portrait expresses little but the portraitist's diffident contempt for his subject—the American financial and political Establishment. He does not enough hate it to look hard at it; the result is not even a cartoon. Stylized also were the nameless villages of the Polish marsh in "The Painted Bird," but those scenes were in Kosinski's blood, and the plausibility gaps were filled with an experienced terror that redeemed the parade of Grand Guignol episodes from being merely sensational. In "Steps," an adult man's erotic explorations were interwoven with these same horrific villages, and incriminated in the same sinister cruelty. Perhaps the intention of "Being There" was to transfer this sinisterness to an America befogged by media and ruled by stuffed shirts. The result is feebly pleasant—a dim and truncated television version of those old Hollywood comedies wherein a handsome bumpkin charms the world and makes good. Unlike Kosinski's other novels, "Being There" is not painful to read, which in his special case is not a virtue. (p. 134)

John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1971 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 25, 1971.

For Jerzy Kosinski, emigrant professor of criticism and commentator upon collective behavior, the greatest act of artistic despair had to be The Painted Bird, a realistic portrayal of a boy's flight from the medieval torture chamber of Poland during World War II, as harrowing a vision of human degradation as any imagined in Dante's Inferno. Though not American in origin or locale, the novel penetrated American consciousness with razor ease. There was neither pity nor tragic cartharsis in The Painted Bird, and no amount of subsequent critical speculation could obscure the parable implicit in its American success: the horrors so vividly, almost lovingly, described remain as pertinent allegories for the maniacs stalking our own bleak landscape, for Southern lynch mobs, itchy-fingered National Guard troops and, most insidiously, politicians and generals who would insist upon annihilating millions of human beings to satisfy their obsolete concepts of international game psychology.

Kosinski's next book, Steps, continued the author's intense preoccupation with violence, casual, senseless violence, now presented in a rosary of stark, self-contained vignettes that had at their terminus the broken cross of two lovers after the sensual fact. Again, there was an insistence upon a return to the Middle Age's view of man as a sin-ridden beast, a Freudian creature without will or the possibility of messianic redemption. Its impact was totally negative, and helps explain, at least in retrospect, much of our modern nihilistic art. Being There, on the other hand, failed to justify its own existence, a neat schemata of a novel rather than a full-blooded performance. Its uni-dimensional hero, and his grotesque fate, suggested that his creator was no longer able to confront the frightening dead-end of his own savage aesthetic.

Happily, Kosinski's newest novel, The Devil Tree, represents something of a recovery. Though hardly as powerful as his first two works, it does strive to deal with the American apocalypse at its Protestant core, giving us Jonathan Wright, the young lost soul who inherits his parents' vast fortune, and their more massive discontent. His continual efforts to come to terms with a strong death instinct and his energetic intellectual and emotional gropings towards self-discovery, including a sad search for sexual identity, provide a precise human analogy for his nation's own current dilemma. Even his remoteness from the reality he wishes to explore and manipulate parallels the historical schizophrenia dividing the country at large under Nixon.

The strength of the novel lies in its cool willingness to shift voices, to let the vision of America move from myth to memory as Jonathan desperately seeks out people from the past who might supply some insight into his parents' failures. His father's ruthless rise to corporate power, which had made him a stranger to his son, and his mother's drug-greased slide into suicide, which had made her childishly dependent upon the same only child, have left him with little more than paper money, and the inordinate power that money commands in America's organizational heart. Lacking purpose, and not capable of embracing traditional ethical systems based upon dead imperatives, i.e. pioneer challenges, religious prerequisites and sociological mobility, Jonathan can only test the extremes of behavior, such as opiates, sexual perversions, encounter sessions and, eventually, logically, murder itself, hoping against hope to find in violence some substitute for absent meanings. He cannot and does not, of course, but his persistent labors offer, as does his nervous "love" relationship with another lost and confused spirit named Karen, what The Painted Bird and Steps never dared approach: the possibility of positive action, however superficial. In concert with its central moral dilemma, the novel does not end or conclude, it trails off. (pp. 131-33)

Edward Butscher, in Carleton Miscellany, (copyright 1974 by Carleton College), Fall/Winter, 1973–74.

Reading The Devil Tree one is aware of those things that Kosinski does with consummate skill: the mode that lies somewhere between Kafka and our own sense of daily reality; the flat, underplayed, uncomprehending style; the use of a kind of narrative parataxis, all of those short, unrelated bits of narrative, much of whose force lies in the art with which they are detached from each other. "The auditorium grew silent," one such section begins, "the lights dimmed; only one bright spotlight followed the frail man who walked slowly towards the marble podium. The all-male audience sat motionless, its gaze fixed upon him. The man stumbled on one of the steep steps leading to the podium, but promptly recovered his balance. No one moved." It is a unique fictional method, so starkly inimitable that anyone who had ever read anything by Kosinski would know who had written those lines. The narrative parataxis, moreover, is a marvelously expressive device for Kosinski's purposes in The Devil Tree: wishing to show the rootlessness of his central character, he is able to move him from Manhattan to Nepal without transition or modulation; wishing presumably to show the particular shallowness of his quest for sensation, he is able to show unfulfilled sex, unmotivated drug use, and unresolved encounter sessions by the rhythms and omissions of his narrative segments.

Kosinski evidently intends for his novel to embody American myth and American reality, American dreams and American limitations, which means that The Devil Tree aims in a somewhat different direction from Steps, which locates all of its scarifying brutality in no particular place, and Being There, which projects a fatuous extension of American power without much attempt to place that movement in the solid texture of American reality. What such a purpose requires is a certain consistency of mode. Yet the book moves among a variety of modes: at one time it is neopicaresque, the central figure a bemused invisible man in the world of petty functionaries; at other times it seems a rather unfocused and old-fashioned piece of satiric realism; and at still other times it is cut loose altogether from social fact, in a country of the mind like Kafka's Amerika. So it is that its import is diffuse, its ability to move the reader is intermittent, its parts are better than its whole, and its voice is greater than its vision. (p. 305)

Philip Stevick, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974.

A scrambled, fragmentary, fictionalized autobiography; a tract against totalitarianism in all its forms; an astonishingly imaginative odyssey through a nightmare landscape: these are but three aspects of Jerzy Kosinski's first and (thus far) best novel, The Painted Bird. (p. 370)

The focus of this episodic novel, of course, is on how the Painted Bird is affected, spiritually altered, by the dangers he must face and the torments he must suffer, observe, and even, occasionally, inflict. But perhaps it is not out of place here to offer a comment on how these scenes of sadistic torture affect the reader of Kosinski's novel, coming at him as they do at intervals of a dozen pages or so. It is not, I think, a simple matter. At the outset, for perhaps the first hundred pages, one reacts with loathing, disgust, terror. But the dint of passage after passage "saturates" the reader's mind with these emotions so that he can scarcely feel them anymore. And although towards the middle of The Painted Bird Kosinski gives the reader somewhat longer respites than usual between his horrendous scenes, one finds oneself less and less affected by pain and death, which have come to seem the rule rather than the exception. Superficially, it might seem that Kosinski's strategy has failed, that he has become unable to go on horrifying the reader as he had wished. In reality, the muffling of our sensations is precisely the effect Kosinski is after. After pages and pages spent vicariously experiencing the most degrading modes of brute suffering, and asking ourselves how any race of people with the slightest claim to being human could inflict or participate in such bestiality, we suddenly see how we ourselves have become comparatively indifferent. And we sense for the first time, perhaps, that the repulsive peasantry have had their emotional sensitivities blunted by years of pain and suffering just as ours have been by Kosinski's pages, that we and they are essentially one. And at this point in our reading the horror returns, mixed this time with bitter shame.

The phenomenological movement of the reader from horror and loathing, to indifferent acceptance of the violent tenor of life, to self-knowledge and shame in his own brutalization, is one of the two informing principles of this "picaresque," episodic novel. The other pattern, one common to far more conventional Bildungsromanen, works in terms of the growth and change of the protagonist himself, in his understanding of and ability to deal with the nightmare universe around him. The question that animates the Painted Bird from the beginning of the novel until nearly its end is the converse of the paradox which troubled Ivan Karamazov. Unlike Ivan, the Painted Bird sees nothing inherently wrong with the suffering of the innocent: suffering is so nearly universal that its presence raises no questions. (Could a fish question the presence of water?) It is not the virtual omnipresence of misery but its seemingly arbitrary visitations that arouse the narrator's growing intellectual curiosity: what principle is it that dictates that some men must die in grotesque pain while others are allowed to inflict it on them with impunity? It is a question to which the Painted Bird returns again and again, for the answer—if he could only find it—would give him the key to power over his fate. (pp. 373-74)

David H. Richter, "The Three Denouments of Jerzy Kosinski's 'The Painted Bird'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 370-85.

Kosinski attempts to make manifest through language that which is "otherwise unstatable." Often it is unstated because it is considered unsayable. His art breaks through many emotional prohibitions embodied in language in order to express much of what is pushed from consciousness. But his main achievement is to evoke a sensed world of latent meaning which is brought into apprehension by the liberated imagination. But even these moments of heightened self-awareness cannot define or contain the core of inner silence toward which they point. Finally, it must be recognized that Kosinski's metaphors are only possible configurations of experience, the essence of which remains hidden beyond words. The epistemological model of imaginative language that Kosinski shares with Brautigan and Sukenick does not intend to illuminate silence. It only testifies to the interplay of language with the silence beyond it. It is soon recognized, however, that if all language points toward its arbitrariness in view of the ultimate silence of the world, only the immediate silence that the writer confronts is infused with this latent meaning. (p. 353)

Charles Russell, in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974.

The self or "hero" in Kosinski's novels has been stripped completely of [the identifiable dimensions of the fictional anti-hero]; one cannot easily grasp the shape of these men, for they tend to exist only in their separate actions, either in their public events or in their private fantasies. They are formed only by the formlessness of the events and actions themselves that seem to imprison them totally. This "cinematic self," essentially different from the well-rounded, literary characters of earlier fiction, reveals the main feature of Kosinski's art. (p. 360)

The Painted Bird and Steps are remembered for their visual impact, the fully dramatized landscapes within which the reader sees everything and is told nothing. The fantastic visual sweep involves the reader almost as immediately as when he is viewing a film: we are stunned by the savage brutality while at the same time admiring the perceptual beauty of control that the writer has brought to his subject. Such a totally achieved visibility overwhelms us and achieves a profound sense of seeing a real world "newly," a nightmare landscape strangely beautiful within the sheer grip of its creator's evocative powers. This vision appears to our collective consciousness, to our primordial and emotional mentalities, and approaches those primitive springs of life itself which one can only call "mythic."

Being There and The Devil Tree contain no such landscapes. Visibility is murky and hazy. Contemporary American society provides what backdrop there is, yet even that yawns as a great void in which Chance, the retarded innocent, and Whalen, the walking cliché, flounder. They are zombies, souls which collective society has raped to the point of near-extinction, survivors of that greatest of modern horrors which Kosinski once defined as the theft of the self. Perhaps Kosinski has fallen in upon his own solipsism. These two books lack the richer texture of the first two. The world here is thinner, flatter as if Kosinski's fictional range were dissolving or shrinking. The cinematic self, brilliantly conceived at the heart of Steps, has here become all but invisible, and the fictional world it supposedly occupies is following in its vanishing footsteps. We may be left with only an echo in place of Kosinski's primal scream, and that would leave us nowhere except in a world of unrelieved silence. (p. 370)

Samuel Coale, "The Cinematic Self of Jerzy Kosinski," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974, pp. 359-70.

"Let's say I'm a protagonist from someone else's novel."

So suggests Tarden, the protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski's Cockpit. If Tarden is indeed a creature from some other writer's galaxy, that author is manifestly Dostoyevsky. For like his predecessor, Kosinski explores the classic antinomies of rationality—and of experience that defeats reason and mocks humanity….

Kosinski's terse, unstructured style has always created images of power and authenticity. Here he uses I-am-a-camerawork to fill the mind's eye, with scenes following one another like projected slides. Incidents are unobtrusively introduced until the reader seems to be a guest, then a participant in Tarden's intrigues…. Ironically, it is in such moments that the author's invited comparison with Dostoyevsky weakens. Though Kosinski ends with a paragraph from The Possessed, the brilliant Polish exile reaches the depths, not the peaks, of his Russian master. At Dostoyevsky's most pathological, he still illuminated his worst sinners, sometimes with anguished faith, sometimes with a grieving moral sense. Kosinski's protagonist views sex as a corrosive, never as delight or even consolation; for Tarden, all other characters exist as so many laboratory animals awaiting his stimulus.

Lacking a human dimension, the spy seldom grows large enough to tell universal truths. Instead, he becomes an extension of the tortured child of Kosinski's indelible first novel, The Painted Bird, and the deracinated hero of his second greatest work, Steps….

Jerzy Kosinski's work glistens with social observation and psychological apprehension. Not since Conrad has an Eastern European found so profound a voice in the English tongue. Such relentless talent, such flashes of genius, make the reader hope one day for a book that can look past retribution to seek a state of grace.

Stefan Kanfer, "Corrupt Conquistador," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), August 4, 1975, p. 63.

"Cockpit" exercises many devices familiar to readers of Kosinski's fiction: his theme-and-variations approach to narrative, his preoccupation with cruelty and freedom, the delicate connection between creativity and destructive acts. Even his title suggests sex, machines, combat in an arena.

Nevertheless, "Cockpit" is the least tolerable of Kosinski's novels, more of an extension than a development of what he has done before. The various episodes—and at least half a dozen of them are as good as anything he has done, marvelous short and self-contained tales—do not hang together as tightly as in his other stories. Whatever economy or structure Kosinski intended, they are in this, the longest of his novels, less evident than before. You will need a strong stomach to read it, although Kosinski is never coarse, as are so many lesser writers who lack his unflinching gaze at the beast in man. "Cockpit" is a book that Kosinski's admirers should read; the uninitiated should go first to "The Painted Bird" and "Steps."

Peter S. Prescott, "Superboy," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), August 11, 1975, p. 76.

The hero of [Cockpit] is a nameless refugee from some totalitarian regime who has mysteriously acquired vast funds and limitless freedom of motion, which he employs to humiliate and destroy certain arbitrarily chosen victims. As any sort of comment on society, the book is absurd. As a juvenile fantasy, however, a dream of revenge, of power exercised by the powerless, it raises a chill made stronger by the unanswered question, Who is the dreamer? (p. 85)

Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1975.