Tag Archives: jerzy kosinski

Jerzy Kosinski and The Painted Bird.

30 Mar

(I’m not dead and I’m still writing. All the time. I just have a lot of irons in the fire. Anyway, still here. Have a new pre-strike entry coming and loads of movie/book stuff.)

Good title, great writing, horrifying novel.

Good title, great writing, horrifying novel.

In 42 points!

  1. I just finished Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. Yowzers.
  2. I’ve written on him before, on his award-winning Steps, one of the few works of fiction that I think could be categorized as evil. (My review is here.) It’s also a masterpiece of creep and menace, a one-of-a-kind collection of stories.
  3. The Painted Bird is his World War II novel. His Holocaust novel.
  4. And it is a catalog of atrocities. A road show of horror. An astonishing menagerie of depravity.
  5. Incest, rape, bestiality, mutilation. Check.
  6. The story is simple: a young child wanders the countryside of Poland during the war. He bounces back and forth between various villages. He is . . . ill-used by each and every one.
  7. Put another way: peasants spend the entire novel abusing, tormenting and torturing him.
  8. One widower hangs him from ceiling straps above a hungry dog. A farmer whips him twice a day for no particular reason. A group of children try to drown him in ice. A mob tosses him into a pit of excrement. And more and more and more.
  9. For most of the novel, the boy is under ten years old.
  10. Kosinski is breaking one of the unspoken rules of fiction, inflicting harm on a child. Most writers will only dip into this pool, but then pull back, or have the harm happen off-page, or have some type of comeuppance for the perpetrators.
  11. Um, not here.
  12. The boy also encounters strange peasant beliefs, backcountry anti-Semitism, and scorched earth poverty.
  13. (Some of the scenes reminded me of Bela Tarr’s last movie, The Turin Horse. A kind of end of the earth desperation.)
  14. The running commentary on peasant superstitions got him in trouble. For he isn’t just describing them, but rather arguing that the horrors of World War II were at least in part caused by the irrational beliefs, and tremendous suffering, of the countryside peasants. Superstition equals murder.
  15. How do I read this? How am I supposed to take this?
  16. The boy witnesses astonishing acts of cruelty to animals. The book is first and foremost an index of maimed and mutilated animals.
  17. Here’s a scene, where the boy is tasked with killing a rabbit before skinning it:

 

First I cut the skin on the legs, carefully separating the tissue from the muscle, anxiously avoiding any damage to the hide. After each cut I pulled the skin down, until I got to the neck. That was a difficult spot, for the blow behind the ears had caused so much bleeding it made it hard to distinguish between the skin and the muscle. . . .

I starting detaching the skin with added care, pulling it slowly toward the head, when suddenly a tremor ran through the hanging body. Cold sweat covered me. I waited a moment, but the body remained still. I was reassured and, thinking it an illusion, resumed my task. Then the body twitched again. The rabbit must have been only stunned.

I ran for the club to kill her, but a horrible shriek stopped me. The partially skinned carcass started to jump and squirm on the post where it was suspended. Bewildered and not knowing what I was doing, I released the struggling rabbit. She fell down and started running immediately, now forward, now backward. With her skin hanging down behind her she rolled on the ground uttering and unending squeal. Sawdust, leaves, dirt, dung clung to the bare, bloody flesh. . . .

Her piercing squeals caused pandemonium in the yard. The terrified rabbits went mad in their hutches, the excited females trampled their young, the males fought one another, squealing, hitting their rumps on the walls. . . .

The rabbit, now completely read, was still running.

  1. I’ll stop there. The passage only gets worse, ending with the young narrator stomped so hard he is bedridden for weeks.
  2. It’s strong writing. Muscular, vivid and evocative. And it’s a precursor to a Kalmuk raid on a peasant village full of slaughter and rape, equaled in ferocity only by Blood Meridian. I won’t quote from either here.
  3. I love Blood Meridian. Through it’s astonishing prose and mythic underpinnings, it somehow leaves me warm and inspired. (It also has a thesis, that war is god, and so the poetic and lyrical descriptions of bloodshed seem fitting.) McCarthy carries weird religious convictions, and is the direct inheritor of Melville. McCarthy cares about the horrors he’s cataloging somehow. Life matters to him.
  4. Kosinski leaves me cold and terrified. And also a bit disgusted. There’s something slick and sinister and overly sexualized to his work. He doesn’t seem to give a shit about anyone.
  5. My god, there’s a disgusting rape scene in every one of his novels I’ve read, but here there must be a rape every five pages. Kosinski was, by all accounts, quite the kinkster in his own life, although I’ve only stumbled across innuendoes.
  6. I’ve said it elsewhere, but every time I read one of his novels I have a startling feeling that he raped someone in real life.
  7. An unpleasant sensation.
  8. Kosinski carries no religious belief, weird or otherwise. And in its absence, without some type of spiritual or moral balance to the peasant superstitions and the repugnant violence, the novel feels like a shopping list of perversity.
  9. Why am I reading this?
  10. (I read the bulk of it in the emergency room of a suburban hospital, on Easter morning. How’s that for a sequence of non-sequiturs? I wondered, while reading it, if I were the only person on earth in this exact situation? And, why am I reading this?)
  11. Kosinksi alluded that the novel was, in essence, a true story. That he was the little boy.
  12. Which makes the novel that much more powerful, a survivor’s tale. Truth casts the atrocities as documented; writing about them gives the author some power over the experiences, and helps expiate guilt.
  13. Only, well, it probably isn’t true.
  14. Which makes the litany of dismemberment much, much harder to understand. As well as the chilly, amoral point of view.
  15. The Painted Bird has the most heinous murder scene I have ever read on page 55—I won’t write it out here), and I’ve read DeSade, Bataille and the gamut of horror fiction. The gamut.
  16. I shudder.
  17. A few more things.
  18. Kosinski isn’t a minor writer. He was a full-blown celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show. He was also a judge for a variety of writing contests, and the president of P.E.N. He won dozens of awards. He was feted. He was praised.
  19. Kosinski was close friends with Roman Polanski. By all accounts, he was supposed to attend the get-together at Polanski’s house the night the Manson family attacked. This strikes me as so fucking strange, and in a way I can’t explain, helps me understand his novels, even the ones he wrote before the murder of Sharon Tate.
  20. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it makes sense to me. Charles Manson is everywhere.
  21. Kosinski was critiqued for much of his later writing life. He was accused of all manner of malfeasance, including plagiarism, and paying unknown authors to write books under his name.
  22. Paul Auster, in one of his biographies, either alludes to this or outright claims it. (The book he says he wrote some of is Pinball.)
  23. Kosinski eventually killed himself. Here’s his suicide note: “I am going to put myself to sleep a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”
  24. How long did he consider those words? Is that supposed to be . . . funny? It isn’t.
  25. I won’t recommend The Painted Bird, but you will never forget it. You just can’t un-read it, either.
  26. The consistent vision of his books is one of moral decrepitude and fathomless evil. Self-analysis?

 

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National Book Award winners, part 21: 1968’s Steps, by Jerzy Kosinski.

16 Feb

(Took a long time with this one, as I explored Kosinski’s larger oeuvre; Kosinski is under my skin, and if you read him, he’ll burrow under yours, too.)

1.

In 1969, Polish émigré turned American celebrity Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award for his diabolical novella of short stories, Steps.

Steps is nestled somewhere between a novel, a collection of short stories, and a prose poem. But this isn’t quite right. It feels almost like a novel, or perhaps like a collection of short stories, or just maybe a prose poem. It’s such a singular reading experience I’ve never been able to get over it, and here I am reading it again.

The spirit of Baudelaire—not really his work—stalks these pages. Steps has no plot, few characters. It’s a series of beguiling impressions, knitted together with jagged violence and a detached—and supremely disquieting—narrative voice. Here’s a taste:

Work was scarce during the war; I was too thin to work in the fields, and the peasants preferred to use their own children or relatives on the farms. As a vagrant, I was everybody’s victim. To amuse himself the farmer with whom I was finally boarded would take hold of me by my collar, drag me up close and then strike me. Sometimes he would call his brother or his friends to share in a game in which I had to stand still—staring ahead with open eyes—while they stood a few paces in front of me and spit at my face, betting on how often they could hit me in the eye.

This spitting game became very popular in the village.

The flowers of evil indeed.

This passage reveals a lot—about the narrator’s passivity in the face of suffering and humiliation—and yet very little. Where is this taking place? How old is the vagrant? And so on.

2.

Kosinski haunts American letters with his controversies, his books both good and bad, and ultimately his absence.  He was a major writer for years. He appeared on television talk shows and in films. His books won awards. He was a judge on the P.E.N. committee.

And now he is a disturbed presence on the fringe, facing the long plunge into the abyss of forgotten literature.

There are reasons. Kosinski is accused of plagiarizing books written outside the U.S., and stealing work from writers he hired to help him. Neither charge has been fully substantiated, although there’s evidence in the works themselves for both. He’s also accused of lying about his wartime suffering, exaggerating his experiences. Worst of all, he’s been accused of capitalizing on the wave of Jewish survival novels in the shadow of Dachau, Auschwitz to make a name for himself.

There are rumors. Of a bizarre sex life[1]. Of an immense yearning for fame. Of a blank emptiness at his core.

His books are uneven. Being There is a lightweight Candide, a satirical parable of a simpleton gardener who manages, through his vague aphoristic speech, to convince others he’s a genius[2]. Blind Dates is a dastardly novel of corporate raiding—plus incest and rape and terrorism—amidst bizarre sexual encounters; it’s intriguing trash written in polished, chilly prose.

Intriguing trash could be a good descriptor of much of Kosinski’s work. He operates  in a sleazy, leering mode. And yet, there’s something wild and dashing about his books, even the bad ones, that make for fun reading. He has some of that magic many of the popular authors have. Reading his books creates and fulfills a craving, like eating popcorn. Or twizzlers. Or smoking crack.

Kosinski is the type of beguiling writer tht brought me to literature in the first place: frustrating, titillating, dark dark dark.

But Kosinski is a dark presence for other reasons, too. He committed suicide in a ghastly manner, ingesting lethal doses of booze and pills and then suffocating himself with a plastic bag. His suicide note could be a postscript to Steps: “I am going to put myself to sleep now a bit longer than usual. Call it eternity.”

How long did he think on those words before writing them down?

A harrowing tunnel through a disturbed mind.

A harrowing tunnel through a disturbed mind.

3.

Back to the work at hand. Steps flows from a haunted, landless twilight world, following disembodied voices in a surreal, disturbed land.

The prose is crystalline, taut. Here’s a sample, of a narrator discovering a naked woman kept chained in a barn:

A naked woman sat behind the grating, babbling meaningless words, staring at me with wide watery eyes.

I approached her. The woman moved, but she did not seem frightened. She stared at me, then began crawling toward me, rubbing her body, scratching and spreading her legs. I noticed her pock-marked face, her gnawed fingernails, her emaciated thighs stippled with bluish bruises. It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless.

Sex, violation, temptation, violence, apathy—it’s all there in this passage, and throughout the book.

It might be a work of genius. It might be a work of putrid exploitation. (I think it’s a little bit of both.) Steps is undeniably fascinating and strange, exhilarating to read and deeply unsettling. I can’t find an analogue. The films of Claude Chabrol but filmed by Bela Tar? Perhaps the movies of Gasper Noe, if they were just a touch more subtle?

I can’t figure out if Kosinski is using a disturbed narrative voice to unsettle the reader, or if he is himself unhinged, and this is the book where Kosinski’s derangement is exposed. Steps is, at its core, a potent dark work animated by sexual violence and moral passivity. The narrators—except for one lone example—don’t give a shit about the horrors around them, and often take part in the mayhem.

There’s a story about a giant fat woman servicing faceless men. A retarded village woman kept in a cage. An office worker who uses his friend to screw a woman without her consent. An old man killed for no reason. Sections of it are absolutely horrifying. There’s a monstrous ego-centricism and a skewered eroticism.

The vignettes are set off by little bits of dialogue between a man and a woman. It’s never clear if the dialogue is all part of one ongoing conversation or bits of many.

How much of this is Kosinski and how much of it is fiction gives the book it’s humming energy. Here’s a passage, near the end, that might serve as a summary of his life’s work:

I envied those who lived here and seemed so free, having nothing to regret and nothing to look forward to. In the world of birth certificates, medical examinations, punch cards and computers, in the world of telephone books, passports, bank accounts, insurance plans, wills, credit cards, pensions, mortgages, and loans they lived unattached, each of them aware only of himself. 

If I could magically speak their language and change the shade of my skin, the shape of my skull, the texture of my hair, I would transform myself into one of them. This way I would drive away from me the image of what I once had been and what I might become; would drive away the fear of the law which I had learned, the idea of what failure meant, the yardstick of success; would banish the dream of possession, of things to be owned, used, and consumed, and the symbols of ownership—credentials, diplomas, deeds. This change would give me no other choice but to remain alive. 

Thus the world would begin and die with me.

Steps is the predecessor to Denis Johnson’s superb short story collection, Jesus’s Son, but its presence can be felt in other writers, from Roberto Bolaño’s odd, jarring violence and creepy pornography to the extreme fiction of Dennis Cooper, Michel Houellbecq (imagine being stuck in a conversation with these two at a party), even a faint trace of him in Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates.

Welcome Kosinski into your life, and he won’t easily leave.

4.

Steps beat out some very fine works of fiction from 1968.

Richard Brautigan continued his countercultural nonsense with In Watermelon Sugar. Gore Vidal published his soon-to-be-camp-classic Myra Breckinridge. John Updike released his spicy, erotic mini-masterpiece, Couples. Norman Mailer published his “non-fiction” novel, Armies of the Night. Frederick Exley’s fake memoir, A Fan’s Notes was released. Joyce Carol Oates, John Barth, Frederick Rogers all published novels.

And Philip K. Dick, at the time still rutting around in the world of pulp paperbacks, released his fantastic, one of the all time great novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Sheep is a better novel than Steps—equally crazed, just in a religious as opposed to sexual sense—but Steps feels right for the times. A sense of disembodied violence. A portent of impending doom. An unraveling of any moral consensus, these Kosinski delivers. And in the year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What can literature offer, Kosinski seems to be asking, besides titillation and despair?


[1] This is a terrible thing to write, but reading his books, with their repeated rationalizations on sexual assault, I kept thinking, “At some point, this guy raped someone.”

[2] It’s fine, but it would work better as a short story.