The Tainted Bird
A new collection of Jerzy Kosinski’s interviews and speeches reveals an Everyman who worked on his own terms
Yet at the same time, Oral Pleasure shows Kosinski reluctantly conceding the limits of his reach. Echoing the newly retired Philip Roth, who now believes the novel’s readership (not the novel itself) is dying, Kosinski admitted that while his narratives were meant to connect with the public at large, he was destined to remain “a marginal writer who attempts to communicate with a marginal group of readers.” This is due in no small part to his self-proclaimed contentiousness. The writer’s main function, according to Kosinski, “is that of a detonator.” Only by determining what incites him, the writer, playing the role of “every man’s Everyman,” becomes an effective storyteller.
Kosinski’s claim to be an “Everyman” is precisely the problem. Beyond the more superficial provocations of his writing, there remains the nagging issue of categorization (fiction or nonfiction, novel or autobiography) that consumes and frustrates his readers. On the one hand, he claimed that his novels featured “archetypal characters and situations in an attempt to condense and crystallize situations common to all of us.” He chided that if he truly used ghostwriters, he would have produced a more extensive output. So, was it pure chicanery when he told Elie Wiesel, who reviewed The Painted Bird for the New York Times, that the book was essentially autobiographical? And was he being earnest or merely defensive when he claimed that “no text is ever completely original, because it is shaped by the ghostwriters who came before”? For a writer obsessed with authentic human experience, Kosinski strained mightily to muddle the distinction between fact and fiction in his own works. Or perhaps, as Sloan suggests, he gradually lost the ability to distinguish between the two.
This dilemma plays out rather saliently when considering Kosinski’s place as a Jewish writer and intellectual. His record of Jewish self-identification was rocky at best, but understandably so. Taken in by Polish peasants during the war (unlike the hero of The Painted Bird, he stayed with his family throughout the war’s duration), he grew up, on the one hand, concealing his true identity in order to survive. On the other hand, in the war’s aftermath, his father became increasingly outspoken about his Jewish pride, something the young Kosinski denied within himself upon arriving in the United States. Numerous American acquaintances initially thought he was either a gypsy or Polish Catholic, even anti-Semitic.
Kosinski did not publicly admit to his Jewish heritage until much later in life, and even then this information leaked out for a time unintentionally. Still, as alluded to earlier, Kosinski’s belated recognition of his Jewish selfhood put him in a unique position in relation to his American Jewish brethren, especially when it came to foretelling their woes. In a 1990 lecture at New York’s Congregation Emanu-El, Kosinski disparaged American Jews for allowing themselves to be defined by the Holocaust, thereby establishing a self-imposed ghetto instead of re-embracing “the Jewish ethos that celebrates life.” He added, caustically, that Jews “have chosen as their identity not their historical identity but an ID card with Auschwitz-Birkenau written on it in capital letters as large as we could possibly imagine.” In other speeches, he decried rampant anti-Polish sentiment within the Jewish community, arguing that rural Poles didn’t have to protect Jews during the war at all, given the consequence of death for doing so. At the time of these addresses—and even to the present day, one could argue—the Jewish community reacted negatively to his assessments.
Even if his words stung, they strove toward what Kosinski viewed as Judaism’s most beautiful and essential concept: the value of life. For Kosinski, the storyteller plays a critical role both to remember—“To a Jew,” he remarked in a 1988 address, “writing is essential to chronicling the past”—and to generate a sense of awareness. Episodic novels like The Painted Bird and Steps, which lack central plots in the traditional sense, crystallize the power of consciously experiencing each moment. He fled Eastern Europe for the United States to escape the former’s stifling forces of collectivization in exchange for the empowering individualism of American democracy, which enables each citizen to coexist with others while turning inward to discover what he finds spiritually meaningful.
This uplifting worldview turns rather sour in light of Kosinski’s gruesome suicide. A perennial enemy of passivity, he stated in a 1985 radio interview, “I see myself definitely as a participant in life because I love life, and I will be profoundly sorry when it ends.” But to what extent can his audience truly believe this? On the surface, there is something more sinister at play. To quote a chilling line from Steps, “When I’m gone, I’ll be for you just another memory descending upon you uninvited, stirring up your thoughts, confusing your feelings.”
Irrespective of the discrepancies between his life and fiction, between his inner storytelling gifts and uncredited stylistic assistance, his final deed constitutes the most haunting and troubling incongruity of them all. Paradoxically, it may also be the most fitting. By preventing an external force from shaping the contours of his life, he resembles the young protagonist of The Painted Bird who, after recovering from a horrific act of violence that left him mute, regains his agency and ends up “convincing myself again and again and again that speech was now mine and that it did not intend to escape through the door which opened onto the balcony.” Perhaps, in order to fully participate in life, Kosinski thought he must be willing to finish it on his own terms. It’s an act of twisted destiny that solidifies Kosinski’s status as one of modern Judaism’s most perplexing antiheroes.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Not far from her village near Lebanon, the Israeli novelist—who published originally in English—talks war and books