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December 11, 2017

Being and Not Being There

On this day in 1933 Jerzy Kosinski was born as Jerzy Lewinkopf, in Lodz, Poland. Kosinski's father changed the family name at the beginning of WWII in an effort to escape persecution as a Jew. As described later in Kosinski's international best-seller, The Painted Bird (1965), this plan went horribly wrong. When six-year-old Jerzy became separated from his parents he was given up for dead; he spent the next three years roaming the Polish countryside, witnessing and suffering such atrocities that he was struck dumb, recovering his speech only years later when, now reclaimed by his parents from an orphanage and enrolled in a school for the handicapped, he was jolted back to speech by a skiing accident.

Or so the story went, until a 1982 Village Voice article challenged it and just about everything else about Kosinski. The list of charges is lengthy, and some remain only half-substantiated -- or muddied by anecdotes about Kosinski's academic failings, sexual eccentricities and talk-show personality -- but a 1996 biography by James Park Sloan maintains that the main accusations are indeed true. These include the revelation that The Painted Bird, which Kosinski either promoted as an autobiographical novel or allowed to be so interpreted, was the furthest thing from personal experience: the Kosinskis remained together throughout the war, safe and even comfortable. Noting Kosinski's inability to express himself clearly in written English, Sloan says that he hired teams of editors to virtually ghostwrite his books, and that Being There, his 1971 hit, was not only polished by hirelings but Polish in origin, the plot stolen from a book published in the 30s back home.

When the charges first appeared, some close to Kosinski refuted them but others came forth with corroborations. Kosinski's literary reputation certainly went into a tailspin; when he committed suicide in 1991, some cited the allegations as cause. Some Jewish critics say that, whether true of Kosinski's youth or not, The Painted Bird is still a powerful and representative book; some Polish critics say that Polish peasants could not have committed such atrocities upon him or anyone. Some praise the book as a simply-told parable; others say that whether the writing style is Kosinski's or not, the atrocities found in it are all too representative:
    The miller, evidently annoyed by the cats' play, kicked the animals away and squashed the eyeballs with his heavy boots. Something popped under his thick sole. A marvelous mirror, which could reflect the whole world, was broken. There remained on the floor only a crushed bit of jelly. I felt a terrible sense of loss.
In Being There, much of the above seems to reappear as theme -- the almost-mute Chauncey Gardiner, the parable truths concocted from nothing much, the rise to fame in a world of spin and respin:
    Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encouraged her to continue and elaborate. Each time Chance repeated EE's words, she brightened and looked more confident. In fact, she became so at ease that she began to punctuate her speech by touching, now his shoulder, now his arm. Her words seemed to float inside his head; he observed her as if she were on television.

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