(Quotations appear in bold)
You entered this world in 1933, five months after Adolph Hitler came to power. It did not take him long to find your Poland. Your Poland could not hide.
…having spent my childhood and adolescence during the war and postwar years in Eastern Europe, I knew that real events had been far more brutal than the most bizarre fantasies.
—Jerzy Kosinski, from the Afterward to The Painted Bird
When the Germans came, your parents pushed you off into the sliced fields of Eastern Europe. There was hope for your survival if you wandered alone; at home, amidst other Jews, there was none. You wandered alone amidst the country folk. There was the kindness of strangers, some, but mostly it was the savagery of the era which educated you to life.
I was hurled into the very center of the brown filth, which parted under my body to engulf me.
—Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird (1965)
5.1.91, 6:14 p.m.
He tucks the invite into his coat pocket as the door opens. His wife Kiki walks in first. There is a chandelier in the apartment, and the paintings are disgustingly pop-Japanese above marbled floors. Down the hall, Nan Talese looks over someone’s formal shoulder and clicks a wave—proper hostess. As a young woman takes his coat, he eyes a passing tray: fresh salmon whittled atop barley bread, capers like watching eyes. He snatches and eats, nodding his way through the elite: politicians, moguls, writers. Through windows the size of walls, he sees the Central Park’s lamplights glowing over paths packed with people. Tuxedos swarm and laughter jitters, and the evening is too young for champagne. Fresh lilacs perch on the table. An aproned man pours sluices of Scotch.
The chimney-sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch, only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt, undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent crowing the musty-yellow streaks of light.
—Bruno Schulz, “Birds”
He recognizes most of them. They speak to him and he looks into the hole where his ice cubes begin their drift into water. Many think he’s charming, enamored with his childhood survival. Maybe tonight he’ll disappear again, in the pantry full of canned goods, in the depths of a Versace closet. He smiles himself around the room. He sees Mailer and Plimpton arm wrestling across a table, and Joyce Carol Oates taking notes. Little Tom Wolf bumps through with hat down, cursing his way to the bathroom as he wipes cocktail sauce from the creamy front of his suit. Someone says Sandy Duncan is expected; at this, he laughs. He places his palm on Kiki’s sequined back and whispers Sartre in her ear:
“Hell is other people.”
War is death’s feast.
—George Herbert, Obsolete Proverbs.
That I had survived was due solely to chance, and I had always been acutely aware that hundreds of thousands of other children had been condemned.
—Jerzy Kosinski, in the Afterward to The Painted Bird
You were a Gypsy and a Jew, the Nazis’ “half-human” cur. Your parents were smart to send you into exile bearing the badges of Catholicism—a miraculous medal, pendant of St. Christopher for your journey—to avoid the wrath of a world splitting at its seams. You learned early to claim gentile in a hurry. You grew smart, hiding and watching the world go wrong.
I like to watch.
—Peter Sellers (Chance the Gardener) to Shirley MacLaine (EE) in the film version of Kosinski’s novel, Being There
5.1.91, 7:31 p.m.
He and Kiki are in a cab trickling home through traffic. He watches the Broadway strip-clubs flash neon ass in passing, and Kiki speaks of plans. His finger touches the window. He thinks they should go to their favorite delicatessen for dinner, but Kiki is worried that their trip to Poland in a few days will arrive too soon, and thinks they should instead go home to sort and pack. He grazes a stray eyelash from her cheek. He blows it into a wish.
In their apartment, as Kiki pulls luggage out of closets and folds underwear into stacks on their bed, he listens to a message from Ula, his lover. He doesn’t bother to turn down the volume; his monogamy isn’t.
Ula is home when he calls her back. She’ll meet him at the deli, she always will. Kiki continues to pack. Dental floss, Q-tips, soap: they’re going on a trip together. It is spring in Poland. On her sidewalks, old women sell flowers, and swallows swarm and dart in the sky above. Two days.
I like to watch.
You wandered eastern Europe and watched: as soldiers tossed toddlers into a bonfire and shot the mothers’ knees as they crawled toward the crying pyre. You watched eyes gouged free, and living men devoured by rats. You survived by the minute. You avoided camps and cattle cars packed with wailing strangers. You were raped, and some say you raped. Eight years old, you were watching.
It is my understanding that, fictional as the material may sound, it [The Painted Bird] is straight autobiography.
—Dorothy de Santillana, Senior Editor, Houghton-Mifflin
And then you were nine:
We halted at the edge of the pit. It’s brown, wrinkled surface steamed with fetor like horrible skin on the surface of a cup of hot buckwheat soup. Over this surface swarmed a myriad of small white caterpillars, about as long as a fingernail. Above circled clouds of flies, buzzing monotonously, with beautiful blue and violet bodies glittering in the sun, colliding, falling toward the pit for a moment, and soaring into the air again.
I retched. The peasants swung me by the hands and feet. The pale clouds in the blue sky swam before my eyes. I was hurled into the very center of the brown filth, which parted under my body to engulf me.
Daylight disappeared above me and I began to suffocate […] Suddenly I realized that something had happened to my voice. I tried to cry out, but my tongue flapped helplessly in my open mouth. I had no voice…
—From The Painted Bird
During the war, you did lose your voice. For 6 years, not a word found your tongue. When the war finally ended, your parents unearthed you—a mute gnawing for family—in an orphanage stained by rain.
After the war, your father taught you to ski, his silent child. Skiing, you lost control and spun into a tree. Blood pocked the snow, and from the horror you awoke in a hospital, and you could speak: Speak.
My relation to my books is no different than my relationship to my skis. I am responsible. There is no metaphysical relation.
—Jerzy Kosinski, 1978
The tongue of man is a twisty thing.
5.1.91, 10:56 p.m.
In a dark movie theatre, he tastes his dinner of pickles and salad in burps. Ula’s hand is draped across his thigh like a crash-landed bird as the movie plays before them. Across the screen, Peter Greenaway’s film, Drowning By Numbers, splashes past. There are numbers painted inconspicuous throughout, and people drowning absurdly. His breath skips itself for a flash in the final scene, and Ula looks at his frontlighted profile. His sunken eyes are mesmerized, and his jaw lingers limp. She waits for him to inhale.
In the scene, three women watch a man who cannot swim drown in a sinking boat. The man begs for their help.
Ula looks at him. He still hasn’t breathed.
We live, as we dream—alone.
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
It is 1957. You are twenty-four years old. You chop photos and passports and glue yourself anew: fake documents enable you to slip out of Poland where you are on hotlists for political disruption. You arrive in New York City, gawking up her anvil towers and wondering about home. A Coney dog half-eaten lies crushed in the gutter.
Jangling in your anxious pocket is $3.80. Your tongue doesn’t work in English.
In the boiler-clogged basement of the YMCA where you find a place to live, you learn this language in 3 months by studying a Russian-English dictionary. You work as a movie-house projectionist and as a driver for a Harlem drug dealer. You haven’t a chance, again, not in hell.
But there are dreams. In them, the boiler room blows and you are sent flying to the top of the City. And in them, there is a woman who loves you. She waves the wares of an heiress; she is a millionaire, born into a family of steel. This is America, young and crippled beast, but sometimes her dreams float into truth. She is real with yachts and private planes. Within five years you have married her. You are rich beyond rich. You are writing and publishing. You play polo.
August 7, 1969: you’re on a plane from Paris to L.A.. You are going to your buddy’s house, fellow Pole Roman Polanski, for a hipster gathering. Polanski won’t be there—filming in Europe—but other friends will. You are excited, and during a quick stopover in New York to change planes you find that your luggage has been lost. You curse as the carousel turns empty and the baggage men wince. You send a telegraph to the Polanski home, telling your friends there’s a screw-up but you’ll be there tonight anyway, on schedule. But you don’t go to L.A.. You go instead to your New York apartment, and pissed off about the luggage, wait until morning. In the morning, there is news.
News: the police drag corpses through the living room of Polanski’s home where you should have slept the night before. They tag the sliced bodies of Sharon Tate and five other friends. Under bad graffiti, they find the telegraph you sent, and assume you are among the dead. They tag your name to the cold toe of a John Doe caught up in the Manson family’s bloodbath.
He who would travel happily must travel light.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars.
Kosinski: Among the East Europeans I know, I think I was no more, no less affected by the war than millions of others.
Interviewer: You sound like Polanski, who says that violence is horrible and traumatic only when you look at it from a particular point of view.
Kosinski: If you—or anyone else—had been surrounded by it for years, you’d perceive it also as human, natural—and expected. You get used to it.
—From a Paris Review interview with George Plimpton and Rocco Landesman, 1972
5.1.91, 11:42 p.m.
The waiter brings them tea after liquor. He’s feeling just drunk enough to work out the details with Ula. Yes, they should move to Florida together. It is warm there, and everywhere you look you find water—places to swim, to be submerged. Yes, they will join their lives together. And Kiki, his wife, sipping her own tea in a quiet apartment: no one ever said that life was clean.
They plan to meet tomorrow in Central Park. They will sort through the tangle of details, and watch the remote-controlled sailboats send ripples through the pond. He will bring binoculars in case the peregrines are stooping on the penthouse roofs. He and Ula like to watch the birds of prey perched so close to civilization’s cogs.
He was waiting for the peregrine…
The falcon had abandoned its natural home in the northern wilderness and taken up residence on top of the hotel. From this eyrie it preyed on the fat pigeons of the park. Along the cornice it would strut, cock a yellow eye down at the great misty rectangle (the eye sunk and fierce in its socket and half eclipsed by the orbit of bone), and down it would come smoking, at two hundred miles an hour, big feet stuck out in front like a Stuka, strike the pigeons in mid-air with a thump and a blue flak-burst of feathers.
—Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman
One of the villagers’ favorite entertainments was trapping birds, painting their feathers, then releasing them to rejoin their flock. As these brightly colored creatures sought the safety of their fellows, the other birds, seeing them as threatening aliens, attacked and tore the outcasts until they killed them.
—Jerzy Kosinski, Afterward to The Painted Bird, describing the origins of the novel’s title
You are becoming quite a character in your life’s impossible story. At a restaurant, you send a massive chocolate cake to the table of a fat stranger, Bon Apetit! Teaching at Yale, you invite Satanists and fake tap-dancers into your classroom, just to watch your students guess you serious. Your reckless driving is infamous. You hide in closets at parties, and wear spy-guy disguises. Warren Beatty calls to chat. Johnny Carson loves you on his show. There is a National Book Award, and an evening at the Oscars. It is rumored that you abuse small dogs.
To intensify life, one must not only recognize each moment as an incident full of drama, but, above all, oneself as its chief protagonist. To bypass that moment, to dilute it in the gray everydayness, is to waste the most precious ingredient of living: the awareness of being alive.
—Jerzy Kosinski, interviewed by Gail Sheehy, 1977
…canned foods, a drop-legged bed, nonalcoholic beverages, notebooks to write in and novels to read, cash, weapons… and an odd-looking, charred, one-quart can with holes punched in its sides and a wire loop for a handle …an item essential to survival without human help: a comet.
—Ingredients of the “survival kit” which Kosinski obsessively kept in the trunk of his car
Interviewer: But all the preparations against the future…
Kosinski: The future? So far all my plans have always turned out to be for yesterday.
—Paris Review interview, 1972
June 22, 1982. The expose you’ve been dreading is published in The Village Voice. Your work, it insinuates, has been largely written by editors and unknown poets. Being There is labeled a plagiarism of a virtually-unknown Polish novel from the 1930s. Many begin to say you weren’t witness to the horrors you claimed to survive, but rather borrowed the war’s hearsay atrocities for fiction. Your name is questioned between awards. Your life is called a work of your own imagination. You are troubled and embarrassed.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Map.”
…novels about childhood demand the ultimate act of imaginative involvement. Since we have no direct access to that most sensitive, earliest period of our lives, we must recreate it before we can begin to assess our present selves.
—Jerzy Kosinski, Afterward to The Painted Bird
His books were his children.
—Ted Field on Kosinski
5.2.91, 12:58 a.m.
In his apartment, he hears Kiki sleeping behind the curtain they use to divide the bedroom. He peeks behind it to make sure she sleeps. He takes off his shoes and his pants. He crumples his underwear and socks in a hallway pile. He walks barefoot to the kitchen. Coffee grounds and poppy seeds interrupt the pads of his feet as he pulls a white plastic bag from a drawer. The bag drifts with air and crinkles as he walks slowly to his study.
There are days when I see myself as a profoundly heroic figure, and there are days when I see myself as a decrepit figure about to die.
—Jerzy Kosinski, in an interview with Pearl Sheffy Gefen, approximately 80 hours before his death
There, he calls Ula. He is naked. They speak.
“Tomorrow,” he says, and hangs up.
He is naked. From the shelf next to his desk he gathers copies of each of the books he’s written. A dust bunny drifts to the floor. He reads his own author bio. He looks at his photograph. He sits naked in a chair and begins to write on the dedication pages. In The Painted Bird, he inscribes a long message to Kiki, then walks with the bag.
Drown him then, the voice appeared to say.
—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
In the bathroom, he reaches into the tub and turns on the water, hot. For a moment, he makes sure he’s drunk. He looks in the mirror. He is.
There is an episode in Steps in which a young philosophy student at the State university selects the lavatories as the only temples of privacy available to him.
—Jerzy Kosinski, from a Paris Review interview, 1972
The bathtub fills.
Finally, I learned that to stay buoyant for as long as I wanted, I had to keep my shoulders pushed back, my muscles relaxed, and my chest and abdomen expanded. After many trials, I managed to do nothing; i.e., I became motionless, inhaling only the minimum air needed to breathe and keep me afloat; throughout, the level of water never rose above my chin.
—Jerzy Kosinski, speaking of his flotation exercises
In the medicine cabinet, bottles of pills are stacked like votive candles. He unscrews one bottle and curls a cluster of sleeping pills across his tongue, then swallows them with tap water. He climbs into the tub, perfectly scalding. He turns the water off. He watches the swirling steam rise against the tiles. He pulls the bag over his face, and rings it in his fist until it is tight around his head. He sees the white of the plastic like a faraway ghost up close. He submerges himself in the prison of his own breath until, at last, the fantasy lifts.
I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity.
—Part of Jerzy Kosinski’s final note to Kiki, inscribed in a copy of The Painted Bird
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1980.
Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird. New York: Modern Library, 1965.
Kosinski, Jerzy. Biographical Exhibit. Lodz, Poland: Historical Museum, 2000.
Lupack, Barbara Tepa, ed. Critical Essays on Jerzy Kosinski. New York: G.K. Hall, 1998.
O’Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Noonday, 1955.
Percy, Walker. The Last Gentleman. New York: Noonday, 1966.
Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Fifth Series. New York: Penguin, 1981.
Schulz, Bruno. The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz. Trans. Celina Wieniewska. New York: Walker & Co., 1989.
Sloan, James Park. Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. New York: Dutton, 1996.
Teicholz, Tom, ed. Conversations with Jerzy Kosinski. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.