'Jerzy Kosinski': an imploded outlaw

March 10, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography," by James Park Sloan. Dutton. 512 pages. $24.95

Celebrity-hound, night-crawler and fraudulent novelist, Jerzy Kosinski was a self-invented mythomaniac who enjoyed his 15 minutes-plus of fame within New York literary circles.

Author of the evocative "The Painted Bird," about a deaf-mute child wandering Europe during the Nazi occupation, his reputation plummeted after the Village Voice exposed his works as a pasted-up melange assembled by a stew of translators and ghost writers.

Boasting of writing in English, Mr. Kosinski learned that language imperfectly. Claiming to have shared the experiences of his suffering little orphaned hero, he lived out the war cozily under the protection of his nurturing parents.

Sometimes he denied he was Jewish; sometimes he didn't. Finally, weary of himself, of running from the truth, Kosinski grew "tired of me," and took his life in 1991.

Yet Kosinski was a passionate man, a man of appetites sexual no less than literary. The story of the Polish exile who arrives on these shores virtually penniless only to catapault himself to a place among the highest echelons of American journalism, business and literary culture, is a fascinating one. Near the end of this troubling story, in the finest sentence of the book, biographer James Park Sloan points to "a hollow space at the center of Kosinski" while "his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star."

Nothing characterized Mr. Kosinski so much as this moral emptiness that allowed him to live as if anything were possible, not because he had faced death during the Holocaust, but as one more titillating experience.

This was Mr. Kosinski's real secret and Mr. Sloan is correct that it accounts for his lack of compassion, his scant acquaintance with loyalty, his lies, and what seems to have been his inability to care about anyone at all, except, perhaps, his mother, who collaborated with him in his deceptions about his wartime experiences.

He accepted the help of the CIA with his first two books, non-fiction works about Russia written under the pseudonym "Joseph Novak." But he was no more an American apparatchik than he was an apologist for the Polish dictatorship. His climb to notoriety was aided mightily by the fact that Mr. Kosinski believed in nothing.

Mr. Sloan does an admirable job of ferreting out the truth about Mr. Kosinski, a task made particularly difficult because the Polish translators and helpers and ghosts refused to help him - despite Mr. Kosinski's having abused them and denied them credit for their work, while paying them a pittance.

Nonetheless, he was "one of them." So persuasive in fact is Sloan's research, and his picture of this vain, decadent man (he rarely ate and took carrot extract to sustain his youthful appearance) that his claims for Mr. Kosinski's significance as a 20th-century figure seem dubious.

"Kosinski's was an exemplary twentieth-century life," Mr. Sloan writes, "a life entwined with both Hitler's and Stalin's." Rather, the picture that emerges is of a shabby opportunist in miniature, a sexual outlaw who through some fluke of plagiarism and help from the right people produced one affecting novel, "The Painted Bird," and a good deal of mayhem.

Joan Mellen is the author of 12 books. Her "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography, will be published in June by HarperCollins.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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