July 21, 2013. Most of us are readers, or at least most of the people reading this blog, are readers. Since the modern world is rife with new novels, I often worry that some of the more spectacular writers of the past might become forgotten. One of them is Jerzy Kosinski, a writer I was introduced to in the 1970’s. The first book I ever read by him was The Painted Bird. If you have not read this book, then I would contend that your literary education is incomplete. Quite frankly, I’ve never read anything else quite like it. It is the harrowing story of a young boy who wanders through World War II Europe witnessing atrocities that no child should even know about. Kosinski seems to bring in every sexual deviation ever invented by mankind, and then adds a few more. The point of the novel, of course, is to hammer home that war–and people–is extremely cruel and there is little that can be considered noble about it. Even the title of the book comes from a twisted incident–and one wonders how true it is. The boy is with a professional bird catcher who paints one of his birds several colors and then releases it into the sky. But when the painted bird finds and tries to enter a flock of his own kind, they don’t recognize him, and instead attack and kill him in the air. This is but a mild example of a novel that I found both perverted and creative. If one is going to show the depravity of people during war, this book captures it as well as any does.
The reader might better recognize Kosinski by another of his titles, Being There. This one was made into a popular and award-winning movie starring Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener whose employer dies and he has nowhere to go. He puts on an expensive suit from his deceased employer’s wardrobe and goes wandering around Washington. Since he looks important, people assume he is important, even though he knows nothing about anything other than gardening. As the movie progresses he becomes more and more esteemed in everyone’s eyes because he has little to say and this is considered knowledge or wisdom by them all. It’s all a rather cynical take on humanity but both the book and movie present the whole matter in an ironic and humorous manner.
A third book, Steps, which I found unreadable, nonetheless won the 1969 National Book Award. Now things get interesting . . . . I have issued the complaint for many years that I believe book and literary journals often publish the work of known writers, and university professors, because of their positions in the world of writing rather than the actual quality of their submissions. In fact, I have seen absolute crap published now and then by journals who should know better because the writer had “credentials.” A good example of this in the book world is Steps. A writer like myself who possessed the same suspicion once copied the novel word for word, changed the title, and then submitted it to the 13 best publishing houses in New York. It was rejected by all of them. THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER! Of course, there are other stories like this but I’m not going to belabor the issue. There are, in fact, too many of them to bother with. The good news, folks, is once you become famous, you can publish any kind garbage you want! Isn’t that great?
To finish, Kosinski had his share of problems during his life. He was accused of plagiarism, and he was afflicted with ill health. He also had his problems with rich and aristocratic women, and committed suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. May he rest in peace. Whatever else can be said about him, he was a damn good writer.
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