Jerzy Kosinski

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Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–

A Polish-born American novelist and sociologist, Kosinski is a controversial artist, drawing both praise and condemnation for fiction heavily laden with sex and violence. Despite the sensationalism of his subject matter, he is a serious artist, making a strong statement on themes of communication and morality. He won the National Book Award in 1969 for Steps. He has written under the pseudonym Joseph Novak. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Gerald Barrett

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Kosinski's novels consist of many … episodes, self-enclosed stories that reflect two of the novel's most traditional interests, the telling of interesting tales and the description of how something is done. His stories of psychological manipulation strike, unfortunately, a responsive chord in us all, just as his descriptions of how to make and use the hardware of our culture is closer to us than, say, a description of how to catch and cook a whale.

But rather than Moby Dick, Cockpit will remind the reader of The Confidence Man, Melville's unfinished story of a man of many disguises who manipulates people for complicated reasons. (pp. 356-57)

[A] quality found in all of Kosinski's novels [is] a dispassionate rendering of the human condition, sometimes for the sake of possible correction, sometimes for the sake of simple understanding. One of the most fascinating outcomes of reading the modern parables that make up Cockpit is our insight into the ambiguities of the self. The very title, Cockpit, serves to point up man's ambiguous state. An actual airplane cockpit, the heart of a controlling mechanism designed to destroy people, appears only once in the entire novel, but one finds it a number of times in disguise. From that high perch, Tarden [the protagonist] can look down upon the rest of mankind; he considers himself to be free because everyone is his potential victim. He can act rather than be acted upon. On the other hand, the word "cockpit" is a sexual pun which ultimately suggests Tarden's entrapment in the human condition, part of which is death. (p. 357)

Tarden's romantic career simply establishes a modicum of logic, causality, and believability that is needed in order to draw the reader into the experience and meaning of the forty or so episodes and memory fragments that make up the novel. Although Tarden is involved in all of them, time and space are in flux because placement within Cockpit's structure is governed by memory, another ambiguous cockpit which simultaneously offers a means of survival, a human identity, and a loss of control over the self.

Tarden's first concern is for his survival, and he chooses to involve himself in the lives of others in order to stir his blood, giving him the energy to live. He is amazed that so few notice themselves and the things around them, and he makes use of this knowledge to stimulate himself…. Tarden reflects his own ambiguous state in his use of people and their lives as mirrors of himself. With Tarden, images of auto-eroticism flow hand-in-hand with images of the manipulation of others. (p. 358)

Early in Cockpit, Tarden learns that memory is "much more accurate and explicit" than photographs, and, in spite of his desire to be free, to be in control, he is excited because he has no control over his memory…. Memory gives Cockpit its energy, its freshness, because no matter what Tarden does, his memory of the past bursts from him and plays havoc with his programmed freedom.

According to Kosinski, the act of remembering operates in uncontrollable spurts with little linkage. He once suggested that one...

(This entire section contains 604 words.)

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can create a montage of memories in much the same way that one can create a montage of celluloid shots. He noted that "the cinematic image has become the key to modern perception." InCockpit, the Eisensteinian theory of montage, shot A plus shot B creates a shot C of the imagination, is what the author counts on to structure both the novel and our recognition of its truths. (pp. 358-59)

Gerald Barrett, "Montage," in Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1976), Summer, 1976, pp. 356-59.

Lee T. Lemon

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Because Jerzy Kosinski has given us several important novels, the temptation is to talk about Cockpit as if it were significant. I could say all the things that other reviewers have said and will say—Cockpit is a metaphor of modern life, a study of the depersonalization that threatens from within and from without, a biting satire on what the cold-war-detente state makes of its brightest, a warning of the danger that threatens our lives and our sanity, and so on. But I would not believe it because Cockpit just does not work. Despite the overall slickness of presentation, the reason is at least partly technical; it is a failure in that crucial area where a failure of technique is also a failure of theme.

One of the sounder clichés of modern literary criticism is that a genuine work of art earns its meaning. That is, it not only presents a set of values, it places them in situations where they are harshly, definitively, tested. The writer builds into his work a counter-voice, a set of powerful and carefully wrought forces antagonistic to those the author is testing. Technically, the problem is one of balance: a protagonist needs a worthy antagonist; values need effective opposition, even if that opposition must eventually lose; ideas need struggle in order to test their ramifications….

Nowhere [in Cockpit] is there a worthy antagonist for either the protagonist or his values. The result is a document with all the fascination of a trip through a carnival freak show, but with neither social nor human significance. (pp. 172-73)

Lee T. Lemon, "Freak Show," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1976, pp. 172-73.

William Plummer

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Jerzy Kosinski's second novel, Steps (1968), is made up of a series of vignettes set in Poland during and after WWII, and in "the West." Always the setting is exotic; always we sense, in Thoreau's phrase, that we are immersed "in dreams awake." The protagonist-narrator of Steps is alternately the dark-complected boy of Kosinski's first novel, The Painted Bird (1965), and that same boy as an adult. He is variously a waif, soldier, photographer, waiter, day laborer, servant.

In whatever guise, he is—when not merely the witness to enormity—that agent of a malignity so darkly inscrutable that, by comparison, Shakespeare's Iago seems the Man from Glad. The only absolute in the world of Steps is the self of the protagonist-narrator—an utterly solipsistic Self for whom the Other is no more than an occasion for the fulfillment of outrageous fantasy….

The vignettes have to do with murder, disease, rape, sodomy. Some register only slight readings on our internal Richters; most achieve palpable hits….

Yet the rehearsal of the details of the vignettes testifies only partly to the power of Steps. Each is a two-handed engine, and it remains to say something about Kosinski's language….

Apart from his genius at deconstructing and recodifying the grammar of our tainted desires, Kosinski knows to keep his language plain and unobtrusive…. The language is deliberately antiseptic, devoid of reference; it awaits possession, demands inhabitation by the reader's Self. Monotone, Kosinski knows, stimulates prurience and ensures complicity.

Steps was (and remains) powerful because it was not "literary." It offered none of the usual facilities and reliefs, there was no beginning-middle-end, no story at all, no likable character to feel for and with, no recognizable narrative voice, no conventional moral center. Its vision was not developmental but incremental; it did not grow to a point but hammered its point over and over again, It was a better book than The Painted Bird, even though the images in the first book were as stunning, because its knife-thrust form better suited its obsessive interests.

Yet The Painted Bird—a bildungsroman complete with sentiment and moralizing—enabled the achievement of Steps. The reader knew Steps was not literature because he knew (or felt he did) that Kosinski's own experience was that of the boy in The Painted Bird…. Kosinski had been there, we felt. He had suffered and survived. He was the exemplary modern artist—authentic, not literary.

It was dismaying, therefore, to read Being There (1971), the third novel, for it was not only slight but recognizably a "moral" fable to boot….

Every writer must be allowed a bad book or two, but what was most disturbing about Being There was Kosinski's option for that musty "literary" tandem—instruction and delight. In spinning his cautionary tale, he had forsaken his more serviceable, certainly more subversive allegiance to the repulsive and the outrageous. (p. 77)

The next novel, The Devil Tree (1973), was an out-and-out disaster, even with the critics who admired Being There. Interestingly, the new novel discovered Kosinski trying to make rhetorical hay out of the sissified generation he so despised. (pp. 77-8)

Cockpit (1975) reads like the out-takes of Steps. The novel is narrated by Tarden, a former intelligence agent for something called "the Government." Tarden would no more be welcomed on Walton's Mountain than would the protagonist of Steps, but this time Kosinski added a new wrinkle. The predatory intentions of his protagonist are implemented not so much by physical force as by the gathering and manipulation of "intelligence." In a typical episode, the narrator happens to see a woman slip and fall before an oncoming taxi. He shoots three rolls of film of her being hit, dragged, and removed. After the accident he offers two different sets of photographs to the cabbie and the woman, each set establishing the recipient's innocence. Time and again in Cockpit Tarden insinuates himself into similar positions of trust; repeatedly he gains access to privileged information through both primitive and sophisticated means—rifling bureau drawers, penetrating data systems. The new mode of Selfishness serves to put friends and strangers at one another's throats.

Despite mixed reviews, Cockpit may have retrieved some of Kosinski's old audience. But it is the new book, Blind Date, that seems more telling about Kosinski's progress….

The new novel revolves around George Levanter…. Like most of Kosinski's works, the novel moves freely back and forth in time and is, as usual, really a collection of vignettes—but with a difference. Blind Date is tonally the least integrated of Kosinski's fictions.

The title episode is familiar stuff: the "blind date" refers to a particularly brutal mode of rape practiced by one of Levanter's boyhood pals and tried out successfully by Levanter himself. The rape is as potentially appalling as any in Steps, but Kosinski has added a new element: Conscience. The Kosinski hero is no longer the unbridled Self viewed externally and chronicled in monotone but rather an ordinary man whose range of antisocial desires and social and moral checks mirrors our own. He is a sympathetic character who, by his own anxieties, relieves us of taking an active role in the vignette. Thus, the reader's part is reduced to voyeurism, to taking keyhole delights.

Levanter's odyssey is, of course, marked by violence, yet the violence is no longer gratuitous. It is enervated by purposefulness. (p. 78)

The handling of sex and disease no longer constitutes a radically disturbing statement about the life force but degenerates to kinkiness. Levanter picks up a gorgeous hitchhiker in Switzerland who, it later turns out, is a transsexual; Levanter is her first man. In a similar episode in Steps the reader is jolted by the intimations in the situation of masturbatory narcissism. In Blind Date, Levanter is torn: "He was crushed to think of the helplessness of her condition, yet he knew that at the moment he must consider himself"—a dilemma that would never have arisen for the rapacious protagonist of Steps. (pp. 78-9)

Towards the end of the novel, Levanter discovers a woman from the early pages—a woman who has never achieved orgasm. In an episode that pales beside Norman Mailer's famous story, "The Time of Her Time," or Harold Brodkey's "Orra Perkins's First Orgasm," Levanter brings her to ecstasy. But what is most interesting is the effect on Levanter himself: "A sudden current ran through her like lightning; then just as suddenly, the tension that gripped her dissolved. He lost the feeling of his own shape; in the ultimate moment, when his vision shrank, he heard her whisper, Yes!"

What is extraordinary here is that the heretofore utterly solipsistic, rapacious Kosinski hero is subordinating his own to another's pleasure and, in the process, producing the first truly erotic occasion in Kosinski's fiction. For the goal of Eros, the heretofore great dread of the Kosinski hero, is the dissolution or transcendence of self and the merger with another. Still more stunning, Levanter "lost the feeling of his own shape" through performing oral sex and receiving no physical stimulus himself.

It must be that Levanter, like all the great lovers since Isolde's Tristan, is in love with love itself. To say the least, the Kosinski hero is a much different man from his counterpart in the early works. It is obvious that Kosinski has become an altogether more palatable author. His new geniality, however, has cost him much of his power. (p. 79)

William Plummer, "In His Steps: The Mellowing of Jerzy Kosinski," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1977), October 31, 1977, pp. 77-9.

Anatole Broyard

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Jerzy Kosinski calls George Levanter, the hero of his novel "Blind Date," a "small investor." But to me he is more like a claims adjuster in the ambiguous morality of the modern world. Among other things, Levanter is a skier and, as the West declines, he finds sport on its slope….

When Levanter rapes a beautiful young girl whom he might legitimately have won, he does it simply because it is admissible in his morality. [Here] one feels that the author is dealing in cynical homiletics. There is a considerable proportion of sexual activity in "Blind Date," and most of it can only be understood as a search for something other than pleasure. Levanter is obsessed, for example, with a prostitute who kills an anonymous chauffeur who seems intent on killing them with his driving. She stabs him in the neck with a sharpened comb and later his blood, which spattered over Levanter and herself, serves as an aphrodisiac. I hesitate to try to explicate this passage. To ascribe it to simple sadism does not do justice to Kosinski's sophistication, yet it seems far fetched to interpret it as the just deserts of a reckless driver.

Kosinski is a poet of morbidity. We meet a young woman in a baby carriage who is almost all head and no body and it goes without saying that Levanter desires her….

Kosinski means to shock. He wants very much—too much, perhaps—to make a statement of some sort about ethics and values which belong to man and man alone. As a result, "Blind Date" sometimes verges on being a jeremiad. Levanter rarely turns up any of the benign aspects of the new morality whose dangerous Don Quixote he appoints himself.

In his two best books, "The Painted Bird" and "Steps," Kosinski was admired for the intensity with which he evoked a world that had broken loose from its moral moorings. In "Blind Date," Levanter's cool detachment, all too reminiscent of Clint Eastwood, tends to congeal not only the passion of the author's vision, but his high seriousness as well, so that incidents meant to evoke horror often come across as merely lurid. Without the melding intensity, Kosinski's discontinuous panorama sprawls and disintegrates.

In his mistrust or dislike of the ordinary, Kosinski runs the risk of pretentiousness, the social disease of much current fiction. The resources of art can go a long way toward softening an author's assault on the reader's credulity, but the author of "Blind Date" seems to have lost faith not only in morality, but in art as well. Like blind anger, "Blind Date" simply asserts itself, with little attempt at persuasion. The author's prose is stoical, his structure random, his characterizations incurious. (p. 14)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 6, 1977.

Tom Paulin

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Kosinski's fantasy world is a place of such barren superficiality and murderous frustration that it often reads like the case-history of a vindictive neurotic. For all its dreams of positive action and complete power, Blind Date is an ignorant account of [a] drab hell…. The trouble is that he actually believes he's writing fiction…. (p. 194)

Tom Paulin, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 10, 1978.

Peter Ackroyd

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There are certain great moments in fiction, when the vast mists of the world suddenly part; Blind Date has one of them: 'Levanter could not speak. Mute, dispirited, he started the engine. Without pausing to look back, Jaques Monod walked away. As he started to climb the steps to the house, the last rays of the setting sun wrapped him in their glow.' I haven't come across such a potent combination of effects since I last opened an American novel, but the mixture here of name-dropping, cheap romance and rather precious fictionalising succeeds mainly by being worse than anything that has come before it. Ragtime turned this particular tone into an industrial process. It consists of saying as little as possible in the largest possible space—while at the same time convincing the reader that he is part of an amazing and genuinely historical experience. But the flatness of the writing here is peculiarly un-American; Kosinski himself is of European origin, and so he tries hard to avoid the flashiness of his contemporaries. He provides the emptiness, but without the rhetoric.

The tone of the book is unsettling: at one moment we dive into the wide-eyed breathlessness of conventional romantic fiction (where girls are girls, and 'Levanter studied the shadows her lashes cast on her cheeks …'), and at the next we're in the City of the Night where Levanter, the 'hero' of the novel, cuts through the undergrowth like a chainsaw…. It is always easy to load one character with … many meretricious blessings, but it's difficult to make him interesting as a result. Characters fade in a novel unless they are comprehensible or sympathetic: Levanter is a creature of fantasy and, like all fantasies, he becomes quickly and irredeemably boring….

Kosinski must realise this in part, since he has divided the novel into a number of separate but unrelated episodes, so the reader can switch off at any point without actually missing very much…. But none of it really adds up to much, and the narrative flaps and crawls along the ground as the fictional puppets are introduced alongside Charles Lindbergh, Monod, and even Svetlana Alliluyeva. Kosinski has clearly included everyone and everything he can think of, on the principle that bad writing abhors a vacuum—even when it is one of its own making. But when real figures jostle beside fictional characters, narratives become troublesome and ambiguous; fantasies can be disastrous if the line between life and art isn't carefully measured and maintained.

In fact that line is blurred only for suspect purposes, when the imagination is not strong enough and life is not real enough. And in order to confer a solid identity upon Levanter, this creature of his imaginings, Kosinski has had to create a two-dimensional world which will act as a support. One dimension stretches into some fantasy of sexuality and virility, where all the usual cliches are brought into play, and the other wanders out into some half-real world where Levanter meets important people and thereby becomes important himself. It is the usual alchemy of false writing.

And so the novel founders on unreality; since Kosinski doesn't recognise, let alone acknowledge, the ambiguities that surround his central figure, Levanter simply becomes a vehicle for grey fantasies and brutally prurient acts….

Living people—that includes you and me, who have to read the stuff,…—are diminished and cheapened by a book which treats everyone as an object of prurient fantasy. The fact that Kosinski drags in real human suffering almost as an after-thought—he deals at some length, and inexplicably, with the Sharon Tate killings—only makes his attempts at significance and 'meaning' all the more gratuitous and unpleasant. Death is the easiest merchandise for a bad writer. And Blind Date makes Mein Kampf seem like a miracle of good taste.

Peter Ackroyd, "Prurience," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 26, 1978. p. 20.

Xana Kaysen

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I have been mulling over the sense of dreariness [Kosinski] provokes—a dreariness quite separate from that conjured up by his venomous outlook on life. He presents a brutal, anarchic world, where only the man who takes things into his own hands is commendable. His famous flat tone has been interpreted as an emblem of the flatness of modern life. The trouble is that the symbolism fails; the books refuse to produce the overtones that dozens of reviewers (and the author) have hopefully and earnestly sought to find. My own feeling of dreariness came from reading badly written, sadistic hocus-pocus, and not from being overwhelmed by a convincing view of life-as-crap.

To begin with mechanics, Kosinski's prose, which is so easy to read that it is unnoticeable, turns out to be a string of clichés….

The writing is simple enough and clear enough to read with minimal attentiveness; the brain can hop from verb to verb undisturbed by extraneous words…. These novels could be read almost without thinking, but for the jerkiness of the story line. The books do not have plots. They consist of a series of vignettes taken in haphazard order from the protagonists' lives. One may find Levanter, the hero of Blind Date, sunning himself in France in one paragraph, and disemboweling somebody in London the next. The movement from one situation to another is abrupt and disturbing, and is similar to the movement of the TV camera in police adventure serials. In fact, the atmosphere of the books, particularly Cockpit and Blind Date, reminded me of the type of TV show that deals with five unrelated disasters in twenty-two minutes.

This comparison should not be surprising. Both Kosinski's novels and cop shows feature a loner good guy bucking the system, and both portray the system as a bureaucratic malevolence embodied by superior offices—the Supreme Court, Party officials, or simply the constraints of civilization. The police officers complain that they are restricted by the law; if they didn't have to spend time reading criminals their rights and gathering acceptable evidence against them, our cities would be safe. Kosinski takes this argument one step further by placing his heroes outside the law. They can cheat, forge checks, kill, and blackmail with impunity, because their cause is right.

The clichéd phrases and the narrative technique of eliminating motivation and sequence seem to me to be stylistic efforts to keep the reader worrying about what will happen next and to deflect any possible concern for why things happen, or for what anyone thinks about what happens. If Kosinski is not interested in those two questions, why then does he write?

Kosinski has an idea about the world that he is eager to communicate. He believes that life is a series of encounters with a vicious but disinterested "fate" or "chance" and that each encounter offers a man (never a woman) the opportunity to take control of events. This idea of control includes a violent, manipulative drive for power…. The message appears to be that by emulating fate, that is to say, amorality, one becomes a real man….

The book most likely to have been read by anyone who has read Kosinski is his first, The Painted Bird. This story of a child abused by adults, rats, winter, and war is apparently an autobiography. That fact is well known, and Kosinski has never taken any pains to keep it a secret. If he was ill-treated even a tenth as much as the child in the book, he has good reason to take a dim view of people. But there is something suspicious in the way he wields his suffering…. I believe that a good part of Kosinski's success with the critics comes from their dual wish to placate, or somehow "make it up" to him, and to prove that they can take what he's dishing out. His popular success, on the other hand, is probably due to his readability and his sex-and-violence themes….

But the morals of this Moralist are not good. He is a misanthropist, who gleefully expects the worst of everyone, and like most misanthropists, he majors in misogyny. Kosinski's heroes move from one faceless woman to another without establishing (or looking for) either friendship or love. Only the women who are unfaithful, unobtainable, or deformed are fleshed out….

On more general moral issues, Kosinski seems to think in a manner similar to the CIA. He has an obsession with cleaning things up, even when there are no ostensible messes, by means of secrecy and electronic arrangements (there is a great deal of bugging and taping and picture taking in his books) and by imposing his idea of Right, with force if necessary. In fact, his heroes are one-man CIAs, suspicious, alert, looking for a way to provoke a mix-up in order to kill in the name of justice. This would be a believable, if depressing, symbolic spoof of the modern world, but for Kosinski's lack of distance from it. With a straight face, he presents his Robin Hood heroes making the world safe for democracy. There seems to be no realization on the author's part that his creations are vile. (p. 18)

I don't like to venture into the land of dream interpretation criticism, but what is omitted in the novels means as much as what is chosen, and, beyond that, there are no "unloaded" choices. Kosinski's pretense that he has dispensed with an outlook on his characters only means that he doesn't object to them. He has refrained from "injecting the moral" because the moral is there, clear as day. These books are not unbiased reports from an eyewitness in Hell; they are propaganda for one of mankind's most disreputable ideas: might is right. Kosinski has modified this slightly into: might is right when used for Our Cause, and is a moral outrage which must be punished when used by Them. The trouble with this, as everybody knows, is that using Their methods tends to blur whatever differences there may have been between Us and Them.

The purpose of art may not be to make us feel good, but surely it is obliged to extend us in some way. Kosinski's books are numbing, diminishing, anti-human. They are dreary in a pointless way. What they give rise to is the feeling that all is indeed wrong with the world if a writer who is so inhumane can be touted as a humanist. (pp. 18, 22)

Xana Kaysen, "Kosinski: Rapist as Moralist," in New Boston Review (copyright 1978 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Spring, 1978, pp. 18, 22.


Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 1)


Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 15)