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The rise and fall of Jerzy Kosinski



The Pinnacle
Fifty years ago Jerzy Kosinski stepped off a plane at Idlewild Airport. The 24-year-old from Poland arrived in New York with little money and few contacts – two of his early jobs were parking lot attendant and movie theatre projectionist – but he swiftly rose to a pinnacle. One from which he would precipitously fall.

Fall indeed. Many today would ask: Who is Jerzy Kosinski?

Foremost, he was a writer.

His first novel, The Painted Bird, published in 1965 (eight years after Kosinski's arrival), was heralded as a classic by the likes of Elie Wiesel and Arthur Miller. Widely translated, it received France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger.

Steps, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1969.

Being There (1971) was made into a film starring Peter Sellers. Kosinski's screenplay was cited as best of the year by The Writers' Guild of America and The British Academy.

His next five novels were best sellers.

He served two terms as president of P.E.N., the international organization of writers and editors.

There was an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and teaching stints at Princeton and Yale, but Kosinski's renown extended beyond the written word.

He was a 12-time guest on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."

He played a small but significant role in the movie Reds, directed by his friend Warren Beatty (he got billing over Jack Nicholson).

He would have been at the Beverly Hills home of another Hollywood friend, Roman Polanski, on the night that Polanski's wife Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by members of Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter" family; but, on his flight from Paris to Los Angeles, his luggage was unloaded by mistake in New York, which delayed him by a day.

He posed half naked for the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

Away from the public spotlight, at dinner and cocktail parties held in New York penthouses, Kosinski was on a first name basis with the famous – Henry Kissinger, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, theatre critic John Simon, Senator Jacob Javits – and also with those anonymous bankers and industrialists whose decisions drive the world's economy. He was often the center of attention, for he had the gift of beguiling.

His appearance was striking. His face was framed by a dense mass of tightly-curled black hair. His eyes, under wizard-like brows, were large, black and bright. His nose had the hook of a predatory bird's beak. His mouth, unusually long and thin, seems, in photographs, to be clamped shut like an oyster shell.

But that mouth opened, and out came exotic stories told in an exotic accent. Accounts of his adventures in the cryptic world of communist Poland and the Soviet Union, chilling tales of his childhood in Nazi-dominated Eastern Europe, stories about his visits to sex clubs that catered to every desire.

Kosinski was a kind of emissary, one dressed in suit and tie, bringing dispatches from life's underbelly. Yet he did it with a raconteur's wit, and he always retained a sense of mystery. Did he participate in the sexual circus he described or was he just an observer? In all his stories, what was truth, what was made up?

Despite his free-wheeling lifestyle, Jerzy Kosinski had a wife. She did not accompany him on his night time prowls (other women did), but it was entirely due to her that he was in a room entertaining the affluent and powerful.

Before the marriage he had been an academic studying social psychology and had written two books of anti-communist essays under the pseudonym of Joseph Novak. Mary Hayward Weir, the widow of an industrialist, admired his writing, which led to their first meeting. She employed the young man to catalogue the books in her library.

When they married Jerzy was 29, Mary 47.

Kosinski was suddenly part of a world that included a Park Avenue duplex, homes and vacation retreats in Southampton, London, Paris, Florence. There were servants, a private jet, a boat with a crew of seventeen. And, of course, those parties.

The marriage ended after four years (two years later Mary died of brain cancer). Though his life of opulence was over, he had published The Painted Bird, and thereafter his writing provided him with a substantial income. He traveled extensively, skied, played polo.

Shortly after Mary Weir's death, Kosinski began a relationship with Katherina (Kiki) von Fraunhofer, a descendent of Bavarian aristocracy. After 20 years together, they married; four years later, in 1991, Jerzy Kosinski committed suicide. He was 57.

The Fall
Eight years before he got into a bathtub and put a plastic bag over his head, the writing career of Jerzy Kosinski had been fatally damaged. The first blow came in the form of a Village Voice articled entitled "Jerzy Kosinski's Tainted Words."

Three major accusations were made.

One was that Kosinski didn't deserve credit as the author of his books. Someone came forward claiming that he had written The Painted Bird; others said that Kosinski wrote it in Polish and that the translator had not been acknowledged. As for the seven episodic novels that followed, it was alleged that Kosinski provided the ideas but editors did the actual writing; the books were, in effect, ghostwritten.

Another accusation was plagiarism -- that Kosinski filched the concept and structure of Being There from a 1932 Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolega Mostowicz. The third accusation was the most damning. Kosinski had always insisted – at parties, in interviews, in writing – that he was the boy in The Painted Bird (which, he said, was not strictly a novel but was "auto-fiction"). This nameless boy, who has black hair and black eyes and is thus suspected of being a Jew or a Gypsy, is six when World War II breaks out. He wanders from village to village. In the first printing the locale is central Poland, but in every subsequent edition it is Eastern Europe. For four years he is witness to and victim of horrific cruelty and barbarism – committed not by the Nazis but by peasant villagers, who are superstitious, ignorant and brutal. After being thrown into a pit of excrement, in which he nearly suffocates, the boy loses the power of speech. At the end of the novel he regains it.

Poles who read the book were highly indignant about how they were depicted (for 23 years the novel was banned in Poland). Then accusations from Polish researchers began to emerge. Kosinski's story was a lie. He had not suffered atrocities at the hands of Polish peasants. Instead, he and his family had lived through the years of Nazi occupation not only in safety, but in comfort. And their protectors? – Poles.

Documents, personal accounts and even photographs were produced. In the Polish version, the Jewish Lewinkopf family, to escape the Nazis, moved from Lodz (where the Lodz ghetto and the nearby Chelmno Extermination Camp would claim hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives) and changed their name to Kosinski, a common Polish one. They lived in the homes of Poles and their true identity was concealed by Poles. They carried on their lives as Catholics. Jerzy was baptized and received Holy Communion; he served as an altar boy. The Lewinkopf/Kosinski family was in fearful hiding, but not in a potato cellar or barn. They even employed a maid.

The Poles branded Jerzy Kosinski a Holocaust profiteer because the novel, which drew critical comparison with The Diary of Anne Frank, was immediately granted the status of a chronicle of the Holocaust.

But Anne Frank was in that attic. If you take away the authenticity of The Painted Bird, what is left?

Truth
Truth can be elusive. The information about Kosinski's rise and his years of success should be fairly accurate, since it is a matter of public record or comes, undisputed, from multiple sources. But the accusations that precipitated his fall present problems. I encountered so many contradictory and questionable "facts" that everything I read became suspect. I began to believe nothing.

Kosinski – the man who, according to both friends and foes, liked to operate from behind smoke and mirrors – was no help in clearing up matters. One example: When he writes about his relationship with Mary Weir, what emerges is a picture of a devoted couple separated only by her tragic death. Why does he omit the fact that they divorced? Could it be that he did not want his marriage to a wealthy socialite 18 years his senior to be perceived as a career move? Reading Kosinski on his personal life, I constantly sensed I was being steered in a direction that suited his purposes.

I consulted two highly-respected texts. Contemporary Authors, published by Gale Research, relates the story of how Kosinski, as a boy, lived through the experiences depicted in The Painted Bird, while American Writers (edited by Jay Parini) bluntly states that Kosinski lied about his wartime experiences; he was safe with his parents. Two teams of "experts," working with the same information, came to opposing conclusions.

At this point I decided to take a different approach in this essay – a personal one. Though my emotions will come into play, they will be in response to Kosinski's work, not to the man. I'll rely on simple logic, and for my texts I'll use the novels he wrote (or didn’t write).

The easiest accusation to tackle is the one about plagiarism. I believe that a Polish novel entitled The Career of Nikodem Dyzma exists, but I find no indication that it was translated into English. So I cannot compare it to Being There. Still, how could a novel written in Poland in 1932 correspond closely to the adventures of Chauncey Gardiner (a.k.a. Chance the Gardener) in New York in the 1960s? Television had not been invented in 1932; Chance is a product of television. He moves into the lofty realms of corporate wealth. Being There remains strikingly relevant to the media-driven America of 2007. Kosinski may have borrowed the premise of the idiot whose simpleminded utterances are interpreted as profundities, but he had to considerably shape this premise to fit his purposes.

Did Kosinski write his novels? I came across no solid, unassailable proof that he didn't: only people making those claims and others refuting them (some being editors stating that they did nothing more that normal editorial work on his books). We do have Kosinski's admission that he was not only very receptive to editorial advice, but that he actively solicited help. He would send copies of a novel-in-progress to friends, asking them to mark places that "didn't sound right" (he lacked confidence in his command of the English idiom). He was a compulsive reviser. In his 1972 Paris Review interview there is a facsimile of a galley proof page of Passion Play with Kosinski's handwritten changes. A note states that, between the first and third set of galley proofs, he shortened the novel by one third, cutting over 100 pages. This can be seen as a sign of insecurity. But insecurity is no fault – not if it motivates the writer to work hard to get it right.

I find Kosinski's novels to be stylistically similar. The prose is detached, flat, terse, and it has an emotional remoteness that is unique. The voice of the novels comes across as that of one person.

Next we move to the thorniest accusation. Even though documents, personal testimonials and even photographs have been produced by Polish researchers which "prove" that Jerzy Kosinski spent his boyhood in safety, I had my doubts. Documents can be forged, personal accounts can be fabricated, old photographs of a black-haired boy do not constitute evidence. Could resentment about how Kosinski depicted the Polish peasant have led to a campaign to discredit his book?

On the other hand, those who see The Painted Bird as a realistic portrayal (the words "brutal truth" are often used in reviews) may be predisposed to accept as true that which isn't. We expect monsters when we think about Europe in the throes of World War II, and Kosinski provides them in abundance. That these monsters are not jack-booted Nazis would seem to undermine the Holocaust connection. The explanation given by his supporters is that Kosinski's broad theme was the victimization of the powerless; if the evildoers in this firsthand account were peasants in Poland, so be it. Kosinski's comments on the novel's title corroborate these arguments. He states that he witnessed, as a child, a favorite entertainment of villagers. They would trap a bird, paint its feathers vivid colours, and then release it. When the painted bird returned to its flock the other birds attacked and killed it.

The first time I read The Painted Bird, I was unaware of these complexities. I believed that the book was a fictionalized account of events which the author had actually experienced. But as I moved from one gruesome scene to another I lost that belief. A gut feeling grew, and a strong one. These things never happened.

In chapter four a miller gouges a plowboy's eyes out with a spoon. In chapter five a mob of women attack a character named Stupid Ludmila; one of them pushes a bottle filled with excrement up her vagina and kicks it so that it breaks; then they beat her to death. In chapter six a carpenter is devoured by rats.

Any one of these horrors might be accepted as the truth, but the stringing together of one after another (and many more follow) is highly suspect. I came to believe that I was reading the fantasies of a sick mind.

All this is done artfully. Kosinski establishes a pervasive sense of dread; he builds up to each event with deliberation; he describes it with imagery that penetrates deep into the reader's consciousness. I am not questioning the power of the writing. I am questioning its morality. Detractors have called the novel pornographic, contending that it excites a form of lust. Some act out that lust, in basements with bloodstained concrete floors. Marauding armies seem to be infected with it. Leaders of countries have conducted reigns of terror based on it. It’s a deplorable but undeniable part of the history of man. And, as a confirmation of its existence in the here and now, there are writers and filmmakers who make millions by providing grisly fare to a public that wants to vicariously enjoy it. Kosinski recognized that his novel had this appeal. In an interview conducted seven years after the novel was published, he talks of readers who "pursue the unusual, masochists probably, who 'want' sensations. They will all read The Painted Bird, I hope."

But, as befits the man, Kosinski's literary ambitions were extravagant. If The Painted Bird was to be considered a serious work of art, he knew that its sensationalistic aspects must be overshadowed. What redeeming element could raise it above its parade of repellent scenes? How could he get a reputable publisher to consider the novel? The solution was something an expert dissembler like Kosinski was well-equipped to carry off. What greater significance, what greater validation could he bestow upon the novel than to claim it to be the truth?

At parties held in Mary Weir's penthouse, Kosinski told stories of his childhood during the war. Since these parties were well-represented by the artistic set, people in publishing were present. It is easy to imagine Kosinski taking a senior editor aside -- suddenly serious, his black eyes intense – and confiding that the stories weren't fabrications, that they had actually happened to him. And more, much worse than anything he had spoken of. But he had written about these things. It was something he was compelled to do, to tell it all.

Executives at Houghton Mifflin promoted the book as a true account of what the author endured, and it was widely accepted as such by critics, most of whom gave it extravagantly glowing reviews. With his first novel, Kosinski had reached a pinnacle.

Stripped of its authenticity, The Painted Bird is still a Holocaust novel. It is not about the acts of peasants but about the damaged psyche of Jerzy Kosinski. I believe that as a boy he hid in comfort, but he was still hiding from monsters. Hiding from the trains that took Jews to extermination camps, where they were herded into ovens. Of these things he surely knew, and they haunted his thoughts.

The cover of my Bantam edition of The Painted Bird shows a detail from the Hell panel of Hieronymus Bosch's "The Last Judgment." The painting is crowded with grotesque tortures that fascinate and repel. But was Bosch ever in hell? Did he witness what he depicted? We are seeing the same type of sickness that afflicted Kosinski, though Bosch's was religiously motivated. There is no indication that Kosinski had any religious beliefs. He may have worshiped power. It would have been one of the childhood lessons he absorbed into his blood and bones, along with lessons about the need to lie, the need to hide. But power was most important. It is the prevailing theme of his work. Steps, his second novel, is composed of brief, disconnected episodes that portray variations on the relationship between victim and victimizer. Brutality is present, though not nearly to the intensity as in The Painted Bird. In Steps the means of subjugation are mainly psychological.

The Painted Bird can be seen as an exercise in power. It is an attack on the reader's sensibilities. It is also an act of seduction, for Kosinski entices the reader into complicity with his dark inner world. As the miller twists the spoon in the plowboy's eyes, we are made both victim and victimizer.

Eternity
The 1982 Village Voice article and the swirl of controversy that followed it marked the end of the literary career of Jerzy Kosinski. The string of novels that he was producing every two or three years came to a halt. One more book, The Hermit of 69th Street, was published six years after the article appeared. It was long (over 500 pages) and was about an author besieged by false accusations. It quickly sank into obscurity.

Whatever Kosinski felt inwardly, he did not live the life of a hermit. He devoted much time and energy to social and humanitarian causes. He worked for the creation of the Jewish Presence Foundation, aimed at "empowering" Jews. He also was involved with the establishment of AmerBank, the first Western bank chartered in post-communist Poland.

He still had money; he still traveled; he still had friends. It is fitting that Kosinski’s last night was spent at a crowded party in an Upper East Side townhouse. Fitting because that's where his life of fame and fortune began.

The party was given by the author Gay Talese. According to The New York Times, Talese detected no signs of depression. "Last night, he was moving in and out of the crowd as I've seen him on so many occasions."

Kiki told police that she had last seen her husband at 9 p.m., before he left for the party. The next morning she found him in his bathroom (they had separate bedrooms and bathrooms). He was naked in a tub half-filled with water, a plastic shopping bag twisted around his head. She said that he had been depressed about a heart condition. He had left a note in his office. In it were these words: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity."

In researching his death, I again came across conflicting reports: the seriousness of his heart condition is definitely in doubt; some accounts of his suicide include barbiturates washed down with alcohol.

In the end, I don't understand Jerzy Kosinski. At some level, he must have judged his life as successful. Using his talent, wits, boldness and determination, he went far, if you consider the boy growing up under the most menacing of shadows. Was he happy? There is so much darkness in his novels, I wonder how much brightness there was in his life (inside him, in the place he kept hidden). I am left with a sense of pity, which I'm sure he would not want me to feel. He would prefer respect. And I can grant him that.

In the last moments of his life he again displayed an indomitable will. For Jerzy Kosinski, old age, with its frailties and loss of independence, was something he chose not to deal with. He 'chose.' He acted. He would not be a victim -- even of Time.

Phillip Routh

— Arts & Opinion


Littératures Testimoniales et Expérience Concentrationnaire



Comme le signale la quatrième de couverture du présent ouvrage, nombreux sont les textes, les œuvres et les films qui s’efforcent de témoigner de l’expérience concentrationnaire alors même qu’elle a souvent été qualifiée «d’indicible». En 2000, Linda Pipet publiait d’ailleurs une étude intitulée La notion d’indicible dans la littérature des camps de la mort (L’Harmattan). Philippe Mesnard décide de prendre le contre-pied de cette notion puisqu’il s’agit pour lui de penser «en termes de possible et de dicible ce qui souvent est renvoyé à l’exception, à l’impossible, à l’indicible». S’appuyant sur un corpus tout autant littéraire que cinématographique, il se donne pour objectif de «dégager différentes configurations, c’est-à-dire différentes possibilités formelles ou esthétiques auxquelles recourent les survivants pour exprimer leur témoignage». Son ouvrage est ainsi composé de quatre parties, chacune correspondant à une de ces configurations.

L’Ecran De La Transparence
Dans cette première partie, Philippe Mesnard se penche sur les rapports que «le réalisme testimonial entretient avec [la] violence» des scènes de gazages. Il s’appuie d’abord sur Vie et destin, roman de Vassili Grossman publié en 1955, plus précisément sur une scène où l’un des héros meurt dans une chambre à gaz. S’intéressant aux points de vue adoptés, l’auteur met à jour «la logique de transparence qui surdétermine tout projet de ce type» dans la mesure où ce qui est mis en œuvre cherche à gommer les frontières entre texte et réalité et va jusqu’à «laisser penser que le texte dit la vérité de la réalité».

Il s’intéresse ensuite à L’Univers concentrationnaire, texte atypique de David Rousset, qui oscille entre essai, document et récit et qui constitue en quelque sorte l’avant-texte de son roman publié deux ans plus tard, Les jours de notre mort. Comparant les scènes de gazages de ces deux ouvrages, Ph. Mesnard remarque que Rousset est passé d’une dimension mythique à une dimension épique faisant de l’écriture un «au-delà de l’expérience».

L’auteur, et c’est là un des intérêts de l’ouvrage, ne limite pas son étude aux textes et se propose d’analyser aussi les images. S’il commence par noter que «la mémoire du génocide des Juifs s’est formée sur un manque iconographique», il constate aussi que ce manque a été — apparemment seulement — comblé par de nombreuses images diffusées par des reportages, des films ou des expositions après la guerre. Il n’a été qu’apparemment comblé car ces images n’étaient en fait que «la répétition lancinantes de quelques types d’images variant peu d’une photo à une autre». De plus, ces images se trouvaient au centre de tensions entre différentes dialectiques (valeur indicielle / valeur iconique par exemple) qui problématisent leur réception. Enfin, et toujours concernant l’image, c’est le traitement cinématographique des camps de concentration et du génocide qui est interrogé. Ce que constate Ph. Mesnard, c’est que depuis La Dernière étape, première fiction sur Auschwitz, jusqu’aux œuvres les plus récentes telles que La Liste de Schindler, les films se sont fait les miroirs des réalismes dont ils étaient issus (réalisme socialiste ou réalisme hollywoodien). Ainsi, en dépit de leur exigence de vérité, ils ont raté ou trahi le rapport testimonial à l’événement.

L’auteur conclut cette première partie en mettant en relief l’actualité du réalisme propre aux œuvres étudiées puis en soulignant la réception attentive dont il continue de bénéficier à travers notamment «les nouvelles orientations autobiographiques du témoignage».

La Question Symbolique
La deuxième partie s’intéresse au retour et à la circulation de certains topoï, de certaines expressions à l’évidente dimension symbolique dans la littérature de témoignage. Ces usages linguistiques, nous dit Ph. Mesnard, «renseignent sur la façon dont l’expérience et la réalité concentrationnaires nous parviennent sous une forme testimoniale, et nous touchent. » Après avoir évoqué le topos de la fenêtre à travers une courte analyse du récit d’Anne-Lise Stern, et démontré que le topos est, en général, constitutif «de la mise en forme au tout premier stade de l’expérience testimoniale», l’auteur propose un petit catalogue des lieux communs et autres topoï présents dans les témoignages. Ces lieux communs rattachent l’individu à la civilisation et constituent ainsi «une résistance spécifique à l’anéantissement». Ils permettent aussi de «contenir et d’entretenir l’émotion […] tout en empêchant d’y sombrer.» Deux topoï font l’objet d’une analyse plus précise: l’enfant et les flammes. L’enfant dans les camps devient, selon les témoignages, une figure de vulnérabilité ou un modèle de résistance. Quoi qu’il en soit, l’enfant «désigne une position d’énonciation type» en offrant une vision décalée sur le monde et en établissant un rapport particulier aux émotions. Il s’interroge ensuite sur les flammes, «devenues un symbole de l’extermination», sur la signification et la valeur qui faut leur accorder. C’est en considérant ces dernières comme une métaphore «qui déforme le monde réel pour le restituer sous une forme non pas compréhensible mais intelligible grâce à l’usage de symboles hautement culturels» que Ph. Mesnard arrive à penser ce topos.

Toujours à propos des symboles très présents dans les récits relatant l’expérience concentrationnaire, l’auteur en distingue deux versions: celle «transcendante» chez un écrivain comme Elie Wiesel qui emprunte à la théologie juive ou chrétienne de nombreuses références et celle «laïque» que l’on retrouve notamment chez Primo Levi.

Enfin, Ph. Mesnard se penche sur des témoignages rédigés en yiddish par des témoins qui, pour la plupart, n’ont pas survécu. Ces récits, qui ont dû être enterrés pour être sauvés, constituent tout autant des témoignages, des archives, qu’un acte de résistance. L’auteur différencie ceux qui se présentent comme des documents bruts et qui n’ont, en ce sens, que «peu d’autonomie, peu de distance vis-à-vis du réel» et ceux qui portent une dimension littéraire comme Le chant du peuple juif assassiné de Yitskhok Katzenelson ou Au cœur de l’enfer de Zalmen Gradowski, textes dans lesquels on retrouve de nombreux topoï.

Des Dispositifs Critiques
Cette avant dernière partie entend aborder les œuvres qui échappent aux «cahiers des charges réalistes ou symboliques». Ces œuvres, souvent hybrides, puisqu’elles empruntent à différents genres, les combinent, jusqu’à en fonder un nouveau, mettent «l’accent sur le rapport entre ce qui a été vécu et le langage requis pour en témoigner».

Pour illustrer cette configuration, Mesnard commence par s’appuyer sur quelques unes des nouvelles extraites du Monde de pierre de Tadeusz Borowski, nouvelles qui avaient provoqué, à leur parution, de nombreuses polémiques dans la mesure où l’auteur avait été accusé de faire preuve de cynisme en refusant la victimisation, les descriptions horrifiques, en affectant parfois une certaine froideur. C’est que l’écriture de Borowski «répond au souci permanent de transcrire la réalité en témoignant en même temps de ses propres limites». Après la distance, c’est l’atténuation qui est envisagée, notamment à travers Être sans destin d’Imre Kertész où les euphémismes et les litotes tiennent le pathos en respect. De nouveau, l’auteur revient ensuite aux images pour trouver des équivalents cinématographiques aux dispositifs et procédés analysés dans les textes. La Passagère d’Andrzej Munk et Shoah de Claude Lanzmann sont ici étudiés. Les essais, comme ceux de Cayrol, de Levi ou de Semprun, trouvent légitimement leur place dans cette partie consacrée aux dispositifs critiques puisque, répondant à une volonté de sortir du narratif, ils conduisent à «une réflexion plus abstraite, voire plus universelle». Cette troisième partie se conclut sur l’intéressante problématique liée à la transcription, par des auteurs qui ne l’ont pas vécu, de cette expérience qui les hante cependant. C’est logiquement que la lecture de W ou le souvenir d’enfance de Georges Perec nourrit largement ces pages. Cependant, on regrettera que l’œuvre de Patrick Modiano, auteur pourtant de plusieurs romans représentatifs de cette tendance, ne soit que trop brièvement abordée.

Les Ecritures Absolues Du Pathos
Il s’agit là de la dernière et de la plus courte des quatre parties de l’ouvrage. La problématique en est la suivante : «Aujourd’hui, comment faire avec l’émotion que suscite la violence subie dans les camps et l’ampleur du génocide des juifs?» Ces œuvres qui fondent leur représentation sur l’émotion comportent un risque, nous dit l’auteur: celui de «recourir à des images extrêmes, de les accumuler, de les amplifier pour, à la fin […] paralyser le jugement du destinataire […]». Ces textes comportent un autre point commun, dans leur diversité, c’est d’avoir été écrits par des auteurs dont aucun n’a été déporté, confirmant le fait que «ceux qui sont passés par les camps n’envisagent pas en général de mettre en spectacle la souffrance».

Seront ici envisagés la pièce de théâtre Holocauste, mise en scène en 1998 par Claude Régy, l’imposture de Bruno Grosjean-Dösseker (écrivain non juif qui n’a aucun rapport avec le génocide alors que son texte relatant la déportation d’un enfant d’un ghetto de Pologne à Majdanek est présenté comme un témoignage autobiographique) publiée en France en 1997 sous le titre Fragments. Une enfance 1939-1948, ou encore du texte polémique de Jerzy Kosinski intitulé L’oiseau bariolé.

Cet ouvrage, il faut le noter pour conclure, est une véritable somme sur le sujet abordé. Philippe Mesnard a à cœur, dans sa volonté taxinomique, d’envisager l’ensemble des productions artistiques et testimoniales sur l’expérience concentrationnaire, considérant dans son étude les récits, les nouvelles, les poésies, les pièces de théâtre, les photographies ou les films s’étant penchés sur la catastrophe. De plus, la visée didactique de ce travail en fait un livre clair et accessible, rapidement appelé à devenir une référence sur la question.

Arnaud Genon

— fabula


Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, Novel and Film:
Changes Not by Chance



A Polish-Ruthenian Jew, born in 1933 and looking very much like a Gypsy, managed to survive the Holocaust and eventually succeed as an intriguing yet controversial American writer. Highly intelligent, trained to dissimulate and adapt, he saw strength rather than weakness in the revision of his works even after their publication. Regarded by critics as a naturalist, existentialist, and/or postmodernist, Jerzy Kosinski both fascinated and challenged readers for nearly thirty years before his death in 1991. One example of his artistic elasticity involves the novel Being There and the script he later wrote for an award-winning film of the same title which appeared in 1979. Unlike most cinematic adaptations of novels, Being There allows us to witness and judge the original writer's reconception of his own work for a different genre, and although the two pieces are consistent in tone, three thematic shifts reveal Kosinski's evolving attitude toward American culture and visual media: racial tensions receive more attention than Cold War politics; a minor character, Benjamin Rand, gains importance as a symbol of American capitalism; and the revised ending implies that the Fool may actually be a saint.

Before examining these changes, however, let me set the scene: Kosinski's career was complex and multi-faceted. A contemporary and friend of Roman Polanski-they were both born in Lodz, Poland, in the early 1930s-Kosinski wrote many novels which focused on establishing individual identity within differing cultural milieus. After emigrating to the United States in his mid-twenties, he began writing sociological works about conditions under Soviet rule, but he soon turned to fiction. Unlike many other writers of his generation, he tried to diminish the importance of nationality when exploring human behaviour. His art offers what one of his favorite philosophers, Paul Tillich, called "boundary situations." Kosinski believed that we cannot trust the forces which shaped our childhood, that we can only define our "selves" when confronted with deviance, often in terms of violence and/or sexuality. Religion and mores provide comforts which we can ill afford in an age when those same forces launched terrifying experiments in the name of progress and righteousness. Kosinski's creative tactics were also unusual; in many of the novels, his analyses of modern cultures and what he dubbed the "Master Charge" attitude toward life and love led him to abandon plot structures in favor of a picaresque approach. His work troubles rather than comforts; it invites us to decide what we believe and why.

Before his suicide at the age of 58, he had written nine novels, two of which had been extensively revised and republished, two works of non-fiction, and numerous essays. He was president of PEN for two years and helped to effect the release of both rightist and leftist writers from prisons in Iran and Eastern Europe. And his biography, imagination, outlook, and compositional tactics place him both within and beyond the title "American writer." Kosinski was, as his colleague Kurt Vonnegut might say, "unstuck" in space, if not in time. He dealt with human situations which are independent of locale, nationality, and, occasionally, even sexual identity. Regarding art as a dynamic, he responded to critical input as well as to his own incisive perceptions of reality and politics. His novels often depart from the conventions of characterization, plot, and transition; he regarded his art as fluid, and he crafted ambiguous denouements, thereby inviting us to a mental strip tease. We reveal ourselves through our interpretations and reactions. Being There, novel and film, exemplifies these traits.

"Being There could have, as a prime concept, innocent man versus the media-the Byzantine, more or less, versus the simple," Kosinski told Michael Schumacher. The origins of the story are based in reality, however. In an unpublished account sent to me by Mrs. Katherina von Fraunhofer Kosinski, his widow, the author recalls visiting the home of a retired New York businessman when he was married to his first wife, Mary Weir. Secluded for years, the ageing man allowed Mary to look at some of his furniture since she wanted it to be donated to a museum rather than sold after his demise. Leaving his wife for a few minutes, Kosinski encountered a well-dressed gardener who was fascinated with television and who claimed to have lived in the house. Kosinski described him as "Peaceful-no anguish, calm, sweet, pure at heart, innocent".

Praised for his "marvelous balance" as "a truly peaceful man" in the novel, the main character, a gardener named Chance, and later dubbed "Chauncey Gardiner," is at peace with himself. And to the reader, all things seem possible-except sex. Eschewing all but the most fundamental physical descriptions, Kosinski invented a protagonist who is productive only in the sense that he is a gardener. In a press release for the play adaptation of Being There staged in Poland, his widow revealed information which Kosinski provided about his intentions:

With Chauncey, I tried to develop . . . not necessarily a childlike character but a character who would combine the qualities of an ideal child-absolutely sinless-without any desire to err, to sin or to step into any situation that in any feasible way could possibly change him. . . . But, Chauncey Gardner [sic] as a child had to grow up. His innocence had to be broken. . . . He had to encounter reality in the most unpleasant form for the reader, not for him. . . . Sex is an instinct of life and in my novel it was detached, as Chauncey Gardener [sic] was detached from his situation."

Chance serves others as a mirror; although portions of the novel are written from the protagonist's point of view, we sense little discrimination behind those narratives. People continually interpret Chance's behavior and pronouncements according to their own needs. Through his imitations of their speech and mannerisms, they see themselves reflected and are free to manipulate those reconstructed images. Chance remains mysterious, offering both affirmation and confrontation, lacking any secret or selfish intent.

The basic plot of both the film and the novel reveals Chance as content to live within the boundaries of a house and garden owned by someone Kosinski simply refers to as "Old Man." he is sketchily defined, and his relationship with Chance remains nebulous. Chance has never faced Tillich's boundary situation; interpersonal contact, much less conflict, is an unknown. Chance is incapable of moral choice because he's never had the opportunity. As the modern-day, mythic equivalent of the abandoned child raised by animals, Chance learns only from the radio and TV.

The novel tells a simple story in clearly marked sections, using a male-based Cinderella fairy tale motif built on the Genesis story of a man placed in a garden. The prose is direct, lyrical, and, at times, allegorical. Chance is handsome and well- mannered; he spends his life alternately watching television or tending his trees and plants. He has been sheltered from direct contact with all but a few human beings by the Old Man, and we know little about Chance's heritage other than that he was born "by chance" to a feeble-minded woman-or so the Old Man tells him, and he must agree to stay within the house and garden or be sent to an institution. Incapable of normal mental activity, either because he has inherited his mother's I.Q. or because he has been isolated-readers can't be sure-Chance nonetheless considers his own difference from plants, a difference which involves self recognition in a mirror, the ability to "reason or dream," and the freedom to choose on an elementary level, issues omitted from the film. When the Old Man dies and Chance cannot prove to the estate lawyers that he has a right to remain, he dons the Old Man's clothing and wanders into the city, taking a suitcase and, in the film version, his precious remote control; changing channels is the only active decision Chance makes. Soon, the chauffeur of Elizabeth Eve Rand, the wife of a rich, dying entrepreneur, backs her car up, trapping Chance's leg, and he is transported to a second mansion for treatment as Chauncey Gardiner, Eve's misinterpretation of his identifying himself as "Chance, the gardener." EE (her nickname in the novel) is attracted to him, not realizing his sexual inadequacy, but by the end of the novel is interested in another man. Before this, however, his presence in her life exposes others, including the President of the United States, to Chance's innocence and naivete, which they variously interpret either as cunning or as wisdom and reserve. He becomes a national sensation after being interviewed on a television talk show and is being considered as a candidate for a seat on the board of the First American Financial Corporation. Placed where he does not belong yet possessing a pure heart and a pleasing appearance, the fool is taken for the wise man. And by confining the action of the novel to seven days' time, Kosinski makes sure that we witness only the miracles, not the crucifixion.

Being There is unique in the Kosinski canon and blends mythical motifs with a contemporary situation; instead of conflict or sexuality, Kosinski's typical concerns, the thematic concentration falls on television, a medium which Kosinski viewed as dangerous since it insulates people from direct encounters with others, deters self-reflection, and implies a false sense of control. In an interview with David Sohn after a speech which received standing ovations from the participants at the 1974 NCTE Convention (National Conference of Teachers of English), Kosinski clarified his views: "For me, imagining groups of solitary individuals watching their private, remote-controlled TV sets is the ultimate future terror: a nation of videots". Believing that human conduct depends on human contact, Kosinski, who earned a Master's degree in Sociology, recognized the social implications for a generation that spends a significant part of the day accepting someone else's version of reality. Orwell's 1984 resonates.

After a few experiments of his own involving children from the ages of seven to fourteen, Kosinski revealed to Sohn, [C]hildren who spend five or six hours watching television every day . . . are terrified of each other; they develop secondary anxiety characteristics. They want to watch, they don't want to be spoken to. They want to watch, they don't want to talk. They want to watch, they don't want to be asked questions or singled out. . . . So they grow up essentially mute. . . . Instead of coming of age, they're coming apart. . . . More and more parents leave their children in front of the TV as baby sitter, assuming that watching shows is safer than walking in the real streets. . . . But is it?"

As for adults, even though he was a frequent guest on late-night shows himself, Kosinski reports that "One of the TV talk show hosts once said to me that 'this is the only country in the world where people watch conversation every night,'" and his comment about Nixon is incisive: "We have become so accustomed to the presence of . . . recording devices that even the Occupant of the Oval Office did not realize how incriminating his own recording set-up was".

By extension, Kosinski also said that film was inferior to fiction since the viewer's imagination is channelled and controlled. One of the ironies of Being There is that Kosinski himself eventually chose to write a film script for the movie based on a book which denigrates visual media. Obviously, he changed his mind.

The working title for this novel was Dasein, a reference to Heidegger's "dasein" which Kosinski described as "a philosophical term, difficult to translate, which could mean the state in which one is and is not at the same time." He added, however, "One has to be careful with titles. If I had kept to that initial code name it would have connected the book, possibly, with the philosophy of Heidegger," a consequence Kosinski did not desire. He often manipulated and reinterpreted theoretical precepts, and Being There also exploits the link to Sartre's Being and Nothingness. In his last work, The Hermit of 69th Street, Kosinski mentions Heidegger only once, but Sartre is quoted several times, and one passage refers to his notion of "making-myself-be". Kosinski "s concept of "being there," however, is more strongly linked to the theologian and Rabbi Abraham Heschel than either of these writers. Kosinski often referred to Heschel's comments on "being-there" and quotes a lengthy passage of Heschel in his "No Religion Is an Island," written a few days before his suicide:

There are two ways of facing and inspecting human being: from within or from without. . . . I suggest that although it is possible and legitimate to ponder being in general or the being of all beings, it is futile and impossible to ponder human being in general-the being of the human species-since my understanding of, and my relation to, my own being always intrudes into any reflection about the being of the human species. There is only one way of comprehending man's being there, and that is by way of inspecting my own being.

Kosinski also called Being There "a very Heschelian novel". There is no evidence that Kosinski read David H. Hirsch's The Deconstruction of Literature which blasts Heidegger as "part of the ideational context . . . that led to Auschwitz". We should take the title Being There as an admixture of components, then, while realizing that Kosinski regarded himself as "a perfect storyteller, a storyteller that tells a story in a language which evokes no emotion" but which, I assert, invites meaningful participation.

In 1971 when the Times of London named Being There "the book of the year," Peter Sellers contacted Kosinski, pretending to be the real Chauncey Gardiner and demanding restitution. For the next seven or nine years, depending on which Kosinski story one chooses to cite, Sellers encouraged Kosinski to transform the novel into a movie, starring himself, of course. At first skeptical, the author became convinced of "Clouseau's" being able to portray Chance. Kosinski explained:

I asked Peter, "How would you portray Chauncey Gardiner?" . . . And Sellers said, "I would not act him. . . . I would be myself". . . I said, "All right, show me." And so he did. He picked up the water hose, and I have never seen anyone picking up anything as calmly, as purely, and [with] no anxiety. . . . He became pure, and I said to myself, Kosinski stay away from casting, you know nothing about it.

Granted complete control over the script, Kosinski eventually agreed. The resulting film, directed by Hal Ashby and starring Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas, won the British Film Critics Award for best film of 1980, best actor awards for Sellers from the National Board of Review and the Golden Globe, and an Oscar for Melvyn Douglas, in competition with Robert Duval for Apocalypse Now. The performances are superb, and many critics regard this as Sellers's best work (it was his last film.) Released during the 1980 presidential primaries, Kosinski's piece achieved a political relevance which surely added to its critical and public success.

Twenty-three years later, Kosinski's criticisms of television and the videot culture may seem thin in light of some quality programming as well as the increasing importance of the Internet in our lives, but when one considers its historical context, the movie still resonates.

Filmed in Washington, D. C., and at the Biltmore mansion in North Carolina, the cinematic version attains a visual impact which supersedes the novel's brief descriptions and is, artistically, the stronger work. Kosinski obviously departed from his usual refusal to delimit specifics when the genre shifted to the visual. (In his youth, Kosinski won awards as a photographer, and the medium remained an avocation throughout his life.)

Short clips from television programs of that time often match the action (or non-action) of the film, enhancing the story line and adding an intriguing layer to the presentation. Chance's short attention span is also emphasized as he changes channels every thirty seconds or so. As we watch the screen, we watch Chance watching another screen and relive that frustration when the one in charge of the remote seems to control our minds as well. Today, as in Chance's life, the household with multiple televisions has become the norm. Rather than interact with family and friends in deciding what to watch, we isolate ourselves with our own remotes, avoiding even that minimal conflict.

Rapid changes in selecting channels, however, are skillfully contrasted with extended and sometimes frustrating takes that lack action or apparent direction, reminding one of Beckett's Film. The cumulative effect of both extremes, however, results in a suspension of judgment and a subtle humor. By the end of the film, we think we know the "truth," but Kosinski's new ending blasts even that certainty.[...]

Mary Lazar

— shenet.org