Jerzy Kosinski: Writing by Chance and Necessity

William Gallo

LIKE ALL OF JERZY KOSINSKI’S protagonists, George Levanter bristles with contradiction and ambiguity. Coursing through the velvet-lined hell of Kosinski’s sixth novel, Blind Date, Levanter blackmails a powerful captain of industry through a simple ruse and is in turn tricked into a woman’s messy divorce proceeding by a small town police chief. Morally outraged, he assassinates a pair of fascist thugs in the Swiss Alps, then escapes death himself when a luggage mixup in New York prevents him from being at the Bel Air home of Sharon Tate the night of the Manson killings. George Levanter turns the machinery of the Russian military to his advantage but later is turned inside out by a pair of temptresses- one a cunning prostitute, the other a dazzling transsexual. A self-proclaimed “small investor” moving through a chance universe, Levanter is at once victim and oppressor, tool and manipulator. For him chance is sometimes a benefactor, sometimes “the ultimate terrorist.” His “blind dates” -financial, moral, sexual, political- are with destiny itself. George Levanter seems to embody the wit and folly and irony of our century.

AND WHO IS HIS CREATOR, Jerzy Kosinski? A simple information file:
-Born in Poland in 1933 of Russian parents who fled the Revolution, he is separated from his family when the Nazis invade in 1939. For six years he wanders from village to village, scorned by East European gypsies who fear his hawklike face and penetrating eyes, survives the German terror by his wits. Shocked, he remains mute from the age of nine to 14.

-Reunited with his family, he is a promising student and becomes an expert skier. The authorities notice him quickly, and by the time he is 24 he has attained a professorship at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. A bright government career seems in the offing.

-But Kosinski has other ideas. A brilliant student of bureaucracy and the collective mind, he “invents” four fictional professors who recommend him for an equally fictional foundation grant in America. He arrives in New York on Dec. 20, 1957 with a Polish passport, $3.80 and a hidden cyanide capsule he never has to take.

-Within four months he speaks fluent English and moves on to university studies from parking cars and scraping paint from the hulls of ships. Within a year after his U.S. arrival he has “re-examined (his) life” and begun work on a study, in English, of the collective mentality called The Future is Ours, Comrade. It is published under the pen name Joseph Novak. Several of his Columbia University classmates recommend it to him.

A NOVELIST’S CAREER follows. His very first book of fiction, The Painted Bird, chronicling the terrors of a homeless child of war, wins France’s Best Foreign Book Award.

In 1968 he publishes Steps, a savage, anecdotal story about a man walking through the ruins of war and the reconstruction period, and he wins the National Book Award. In Being There he introduces Chauncey Gardiner, a mentally deficient gardener who, through the mass hypnosis of television, becomes a presidential advisor. The Devil Tree, exploring the visions and corruptions of American wealth, follows, then a novel called Cockpit and, in 1977, Blind Date.

-More than a footnote: In 1968 Kosinski’s wife Mary, the widow of National Steel Corp. founder Ernest Weir, dies of brain cancer. They have been married six years. And on Aug. 8, 1969 Kosinski finds himself still at New York’s JFK Airport trying to sort out his mis-tagged luggage, instead of in the death house on Cielo Drive where Charles Manson and company slaughter friends he had planned to join that day. Chance, it seems, has delivered him once again.

Jerzy Kosinski, now 44, sitting quietly in his Brown Palace suite, is a dark and serious figure. The extraordinary eyes which once enraged and frightened the gypsies of Poland still shine and dart about the room. And Kosinski- like George Levanter or Chauncey Gardiner — is a saint of ambiguity and paradox.

“I BELIEVE LIFE GOES on,” he says, “and that makes me a pessimist… what many people are unwilling to realize is that their daily life comes to them the way fiction does. They must imagine themselves in what they are going to do. They must make decisions in their lives — whether the man next door is a threat or not, whether they are in love or about to be betrayed by a lover, or whether they want to leave a relationship. And if so they will have to mobilize their energy. And that’s how I think my fiction comes to them — not pre-judged, relatively un-prepacked. You have to project yourself into it and you have to judge it, my characters, the way you judge people in your daily life.”

For Kosinski (and scores of other American writers), the novelist’s effort must be an adversary effort, a battle against passivity. “Yes. And I think that’s a very good role,” he says. “Anything that aims at engaging the imagination, that aims at decision-making, at the process of self-definition, is adversary to the popular culture.

“The popular culture says, in fact, the very opposite — Do what you do, your life is predestined, like the installment plan on your house. There’s not much you can do about it. Make your payments, live it, get sick, die, don’t make any trouble. It is the Master Charge of destiny. Try to get your high credit rating. Life is perceived as an accumulation of objects rather than as an accumulation of experiences or of human reactions. The consumer culture, the life of collectivity, tells us we are already written off in terms of the plot of our lives.”

BUT KOSINSKI SEEKS to shape the events chance leads him to. “Life comes to you in a moment,” he says. “That is certainly what my fiction claims. That each moment of your life can be perceived by you only if you are equipped imaginatively, equipped to dramatize your own role in it. To see yourself as a protagonist confronted by adversary circumstances.”

To be sure, Kosinski has faced them all his life. He traces his philosophy — based in chance and the necessity for self-definition — to the two cultures between which he is divided. “I came here 20 years ago when I was 24,” he says, “and I am aware of the social life in Eastern Europe, particularly during the war and afterward. It was extremely chopped up by wars, revolutions, uprisings, and by the steady need of people to confront themselves.

“Knowing that outer conditions at any time could be extremely hostile — they could force people out of their homes, break their families, cripple them — knowing that people are aware there of their inner lives. Here in America conditions are really no different in terms of human implication. I have the feeling that most Americans are mortal although they may not think so. Americans have not been excluded from the basic human condition.”

BUT IN AMERICA, Kosinski says, we have been smothered by two deadening blankets of popular culture. The first, he says, is sentimentality, which keeps us from self-awareness. The second, emanating from California, is what he calls “visual culture.” “People are not as simple as Doris Day, not as simple as ‘Taxi Diver’,” he says. “Not as remote as ‘Star Wars’. Most people are ambiguous, we are ambiguous to ourselves. But when we see these images come to us on a screen — strong, handsome, frenetic, big, publicity-oriented — we feel our own lives are without importance by comparison. But what does ‘Charlie’s Angles’ have to do with our lives? Nothing!”

Enter the novelist. “Fiction does not teach, it is not didactic,” says Kosinski. “Fiction dramatizes you from within, the visual culture pacifies you from without. The principle of reading is the closest to the principle of having one’s imagination revitalized. And that is life.”

Kosinski revitalizes himself through a unique regimen. He sleeps eight hours a day — four in the afternoon, four in the early morning; he eats little; in his tiny New York apartment he writes, and rewrites (each of his novels, published at regular two-year intervals, goes through 15 to 40 drafts); and he travels.

WHERE? “I GO TO SWITZERLAND for four or five months each year,” he says, “where I can ski and write away from the bombardment of New York. And I travel across the country here too. To Arizona, Nevada, to Chicago. I travel a lot in the Midwest, because I find people more receptive there, less hypnotized by the popular culture, closer to themselves and their experiences.”

Kosinski’s own experiences, like George Levanter’s in Blind Date, encompass heads of state, athletes, sexual desperados, authoritarian tyrants, ordinary Midwesterners, New York cabbies — all manipulators and victims of chance. But in his fiction, which is supposed to appeal directly to the reader, he chooses only those experiences with some public resonance.

“The real characters in Blind Date, for instance — Charles Lindberg, Jacques Monod, Kissinger, although he’s not named, a Soviet poet who may or not be Yevtushenko and then, of course, the victims of Manson. Why would I have them in the novel? Just because I have known them and they have been friends?

“To a degree, yes. But they are all a part of us. Charles Lindberg was/is as much a part of your chance and your life as mine. I use figures which are part of our contemporary reality to have them, by sheer appearance, to bring some philosophical points across.

“FOR INSTANCE, THE REASON the Manson killings are re-enacted in the book is not because my friends died there, but because it is a good reminder of how unpredictable our lives really are. And how Cielo Drive, in Los Angeles, where they all died, typifies our collective predicament. Movie stars, representing Hollywood! Woytek (Frokowski), representing the hopeful immigrant; Abigail Folger, one of the great heiresses of American life; Jay Sebring, who came from the industry of beauty; and, of course, the peaceful house, the ultimate luxury, the ultimate removal from society. And yet there you have it — Blind Date.

In his hotel suite Jerzy Kosinski, who once wandered the villages of Poland, is doodling on the flyleaf of his new novel. He draws a hawklike face and sketches above it a kind of rooster’s comb suggesting his own luxurious head of hair. “Just by chance,” he says, “here’s The Painted Bird,” and he pens in a field full of flashing lines. “Here’s The Painted Bird losing his feathers.” It is an ambiguity to cherish.

© 1977 Rocky Mountain News
Originally published Nov. 30, 1977
Reprinted with permission of the Rocky Mountain News