Books by Jerzy Kosinski

ORAL PLEASURE by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Dec. 4, 2012

"Pieces that reveal a fine mind, a creative imagination and, sometimes, an idiosyncratic notion of fact."
A collection of interviews, speeches and essays by the late author, whose literary reputation plummeted after a 1982 article in the Village Voice accused him of plagiarism and employing ghostwriters. Read full book review >
PASSING BY by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Nov. 23, 1992

Posthumous gathering of minor articles by Polish-American novelist Kosinski (1933-91). Kosinski is ever serious and sometimes wry in these pieces (reprinted from Vanity Fair, Esquire, The American Scholar, etc.), some of which are only a paragraph long or two or three pages. Few extend themselves, but those that do are the best. Even the more lighthearted ones, about Kosinski's obsessions with polo and skiing, tend to a kind of hard mind-body focus that analyzes "being there" as a skier or as a man on horseback. Kosinski, of course, is famed for The Painted Bird (still banned in Poland) and other works about his horrifying childhood under the Nazis, and for his elegies for Jewish culture wiped out in the Holocaust—especially for the disappearance of Jewish culture from Lodz, his hometown. That Jewish culture specific to Poland—the one country on earth where prewar Jews could develop and insulate themselves without fear of pogroms—has not reappeared, and Kosinski sees no Polish interest in bringing it back to bloom, a tragedy he calls a second Holocaust. Meanwhile, he's often drawn back to his brief ten-minute role in Warren Beatty's Reds, which he views from several different angles. He doesn't like his highly praised acting, expresses no desire to go on as an actor in the collective artistic labor that is filmmaking, and regrets that his hero Chauncey Gardiner, of Being There, must now he thought of by most readers only as Peter Sellers, who played Chauncey in the film version. Most involving here are pieces on Kosinski's rarified fictional strategies behind The Painted Bird and Steps. Despite his intellectuality, Kosinski is not a gripping essayist—though there are some raisins in the cake. Read full book review >
PINBALL by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: March 1, 1982

Like Passion Play (1979), this enervating novel suggests that Kosinski has reached a creative dead end: recycling his familiar themes and situations, but without the stylish starkness or the sense of danger in his genuinely disturbing early work. And this time there are two alter-egos to embody Kosinski's artistic and sexual preoccupations instead of the usual one—both of them composers. Patrick Domostroy is a serious, once-famous music man suffering from "composer's block"; so now he plays for singers at "a pinball joint that tries to pass for a nightclub" in the Bronx—and, conforming to Kosinski cliche, he rejoices "at being able to follow his own ethical code of moral responsibility." (I.e., sex clubs like Plato's Retreat are okay.) But Domostroy's zonked-out life will change when sexy music-student/groupie Andrea moves in and persuades him to aid her in her obsessive quest: she yearns to uncover the real identity of "Goddard," the biggest recording star in rock history, whose face and name are a super-secret. Their plan? To send Goddard an incredibly smart, simpatico fan letter (and, later, nude pix of Andrea's torso) that will compel Goddard to track Andrea down. And, as it happens, Goddard reacts exactly as they hope and has little trouble tracking Andrea down because: a) Goddard, unbeknownst to the whole world, is really mild-mannered Jimmy Osten—the son of a respected classical-music-records executive (thus a Domostroy acquaintance); and b) Osten's black-pianist girlfriend Donna happens to be in Andrea's class at Juilliard. Soon, then, while the wearying coincidences pile up, the two couples cross paths, switching sexual partners (piano-bench copulation for Donna and Domostroy). And there's some final carnage when Andrea's secret motive for wanting to unmask Goddard is revealed. Still, as implausibly contrived as this feeble plot may be, it's the best thing about the novel, generating at least a speck of suspense and irony. Far worse are the lazy, pretentious textures which fill out the story: flashbacks through the characters' predictably kinky sex lives; Osten's and Domostroy's banal soul-searchings (lots of "innermost feelings," "innermost vortex of his psyche," and "true emotional destiny"); extraneous anecdotes (including a barely fictionalized retelling of the Jack Henry Abbott affair); self-indulgent material about record executives Goddard Lieberson and Boris Pregel, to whose memory the novel is dedicated; and the musical detailing, which, though hard-working, is stiffly unevocative. In short: Kosinski's weakest work yet, with some merchandisable sleaze and glitter here and there, but essentially as dreary as it is empty. Read full book review >
PASSION PLAY by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Sept. 1, 1979

When we disbelieve what others could do, we end up disbelieving what we could do ourselves. That's how we're punished for our failure to imagine." That's Kosinski's credo, so he continually tries to stir our imaginations by exploring perverse, violent, creepy behavior—and, at their best, his terse pageants of lust and cruelty do lure us in and catch us accepting or even being turned on by primal or decadent doings. Here, however, the combative and sexual escapades of Kosinski's latest cool brute—nomadic, immigrant polo-player Fabian, "an outlaw from the league of crusaders, inquisitors, and censors of sexual conduct"—never seduce, rarely fascinate, and frequently seem merely dull or laughable. Fabian's roving polo-field encounters (he travels around in a horse-carrier-van) include some violent, even fatal one-on-one duels, but the minutely described action verges on an inappropriate romanticism and dilutes the impact; moreover, Kosinski belabors the dubious metaphor of "Riding Through Life" mercilessly—with Fabian even writing controversial books about horsemanship that obviously parallel Kosinski's controversial books about life. And the erotic exploits here seem desperately debased, though they do move in a sort of progression from lust to romance: first there's kinkiness galore with a half-way transsexual (female from the waist up), then a threesome with a horse and a Southern-belle horsetrainer (she's a black passing for white), then a quickie affair with a fat girl who commits suicide when Fabian abandons her, and finally Vanessa—a riding-student heiress whom Fabian deflowers at a public-sex club and winds up loving tenderly and selflessly. It will probably be noted that Fabian is somewhat more humanized than other Kosinski outlaws, but the apparent attempt to make him a tortured hero ("The gall of life. . . fell on him with all its futile weight") is an unseemly, sentimental failure. If Kosinski wants to start getting sympathy for his alter-egos, he'll have to stop writing shock-a-thons to fit his thematic formula—which may be a good idea, considering the lumbering obviousness of this latest effort. Read full book review >
BLIND DATE by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Nov. 14, 1977

Once more, with horror, as another Kosinski-an, foreign-born American—George Levanter of "Investors International"—goes out on a taut, unconnected series of international "blind dates" with violence and debasement. We first meet a mysteriously sweet George at a Swiss resort, where he blows up the ski gondola occupied by an evil monarch's ruthless henchmen. This, perhaps, is "execution of justice" rather than crime, but when Levanter begins to reminisce—longterm incest with dear departed Mama, successful teen-age rape (and unsuccessful attempts to confess)—the morality of each bruising incident is buried in the dizzying accumulation of blind nature's unjust assaults. Whether Levanter is victim (blackmailed by corrupt cops in a Southern company town) or avenger (shishkebabing a Communist spy in a homosexual bathhouse) or voyeur (meeting a legless, baby-sized woman who hitchhikes), he is "removed from the act." That goes for the sexual act too, of course, with a fresh-from-the-operating-table transsexual or the perpetually aroused wearer of a "grope suit" or the true love/rich widow who dies of cancer. Because Kosinski is a master of secret-keeping and a master of enticingly neutral prose—never ironic, never flushed, never crude—he can guide us into dark places we'd otherwise avoid and elicit shudders we'd otherwise suppress in advance. Even the Sharon Tate murders reclaim their original horror: Levanter is the lucky houseguest who didn't show up. And the minor clashes, like the gratuitous humiliation of a Chinese laundryman, are almost as shocking as the flashes of freakdom, whoredom, and political terror. The bottom-line Kosinski question remains: notwithstanding his philosophical drift (Levanter's realperson acquaintances include Jacques Monod, believer in Life = Genetics + Chance), is this National Book Award winner really only a high-class pornographer, retailing an inventory of human abuse? Perhaps. But this latest inventory is quick to take hold and hard to shake off. Read full book review >
COCKPIT by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Aug. 14, 1975

Closer in character to Steps (its sexuality and violence) than anything Kosinski has done since, this is a vicious peepshow-parable about a world we reluctantly recognize now and then through the eyes of one of those distant narrators as cold as the frozen funds he's accumulated. He was once in the Service (of the U.S.), a Ruthenian-born academic with a mind like a memory bank in in a more hypersensitive body. With his assumed names, Tarden maintains several identifies and apartments and disguises in cities around the world. His missions take him everywhere but they are not as explicit as his self-appointed tasks: injecting a toxic substance in supermarket food containers which cause an epidemic or stealing the 18th century snuff boxes which will make him rich. More and more this voyeur-recorder (always looking for new carnal stimulation to which he's sometimes unequal) photographs his blatant sexual encounters until he's overcome by the "pointlessness" of it all and at the end he's alone with the debris of his existence as well as that which he observes all around him. The key is no doubt in the dosing words from Dostoevsky: "the world loves its abomination and does not wish to see it threatened. . . ." But what's to redeem it beyond Kosinski's curiosity-catching legerdemain and quick changes of invention? Even while Tarden is flashing backwards and forwards, the reader feels as if he's marking time. Read full book review >
THE DEVIL TREE by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Feb. 14, 1972

A novel about psychic attrition and fission by the author of The Painted Bird and most recently Being There which is about the dislocation and divisiveness of a young man, Whalen, while also featuring the emptiness of contemporary life. Whalen finally comes back home after his mother's suicide (a constant preoccupation) from unfulfilling romps in apparently not-so-exotic places like Katmandu and Mombasa to inherit one of America's largest estates. Having escaped the expatriate round of drugs and sex and encounter therapies, he is enmeshed in the equally vacuous scene of American corporation life ("This country's culture is antiseptic. . . . In America you've got to be as straight as a highway"). Ultimately he ends up in a mental institution overlooking Lake Geneva. The book is written in Kosinski's familiar non-chronologically ordered and spliced short sections, in an interchangeable first and third person, and in direct, declarative sentences without a word to spare which achieve the effect of a stylized oversimplification and heighten the tragic-ironic intention. All of this favors momentum while reflecting Whalen's most divided self. Some "people see exactly what they want to see. . . a spoiled rich boy dissatisfied with life" — others will see more but one questions whether they will be really disturbed or involved. Read full book review >
BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: April 21, 1971

After the literal horror of The Painted Bird and the inchoate horror of Steps, this is a seriocomic cryptofable, a commentary on 'being there' or rather not being at all, in which passivity is perhaps a kindlier fate than participation. The non-hero, non-entity is Chance who has spent many years walled off from the world gardening or watching television. When forced out, he permits himself to be programmed from one experience to another. He becomes the protege of people in high places; his few simple remarks are assumed to be momentous as well as prophetic re the state of the nation; a foolinnocent, he only watches as he always has and thus remains unspoiled and walks away from the contamination-corruption of others to contempler son jardin in serenity. Mr. Kosinski's quizzically amused and amusing small story rebukes here, affirms there, and exposes, just as blatantly as a commercial, the styrofoam composition of our society. As an envoi, who could say it any more persuasively than Mr. Kosinski's Russian writer: "One could make this fable clearer still: but let us not provoke the geese." Read full book review >
STEPS by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Oct. 15, 1968

What Jerzy Kosinski was saying, and portraying, in The Painted Bird (1965), his semi-autobiographical account of a six year old boy evading the Nazis across the Polish countryside, was agonizingly apparent. Steps however falter — you are never quite sure of his intentions nor is the publisher's "a self freed for pure violence and absolute sexuality" particularly solidifying. Violence, a blinding violence, stains the pages: a defenseless girl is sexually used by an entire village — communal rape occurs at least three times including that of a woman kept in a cage in a barn for just that purpose. "Absolute sexuality" is also achieved in one encounter after another. In various guises, the first person narrator appears in an equally inchoate fashion: he's an archaeologist on an island assaulted by predatory women; a skiing instructor hastening the death of a tubercular patient he makes love to; he is a lecturer in a Party commune and the willing victim of a trapeze artist; he attends a banquet where Party officers are all decorated — with condoms in gold foil; etc. etc. Traveling on and on through memory "broken and uneven" this has much in common with the experimental new fiction — it is discontinuous, startling, elusive; but is also fails, once again, to impose — not so much order — as substance on what is essentially a slipstream of sensation and movement. Read full book review >
THE PAINTED BIRD by Jerzy Kosinski
Released: Oct. 14, 1965

In 1939, a six-year-old boy is sent-by his anti-Nazi parents to a remote village in Poland where they believe he will be safe. Things happen, however, and the boy is left to roam the Polish countryside, trying to stay alive, looking for food, shelter, and a principle of Justice to accomodate what he Sees people do to each other and to him. To the blond, blue-eyed peasants in his part of the country, the swarthy, darkeyed boy who speaks the dialect of the educated class is either Jew, gypsy, vampire, or devil. They fear him and they fear what the Germans will do to them if he is found among them, So he must keep moving. In doing so over a period of years, he observes every Conceivable variation on the theme of horror, sadism, and bestiatity. A cockold miller gouges out the eyes of a ploughboy with the back of a spoon. He loses his voice in a pile of human excrement, almost freezes to death underneath-a frozen lake, and is 'hung by his Wrists atop a vicious dog. The boy learns Communism and the principle of revenge from two kindly Russian officers and reluctantly re-joins his parents. Kosinski appears now in the narrative voice with a tract on evil, the culpability of the peasants, the advantages of personal struggle in the country as opposed to anonymous annihilation in the city. The novel proper, without tidying-up, is purely and simply a panoply of horror, expertly wrought and disgusting. There is no more parable or symbolism here than there was at Buchenwald. Jerzy is a brilliant writer, but let the reader beware. It's very hard to take. Read full book review >