(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.)
In 42 points!
- I just finished Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. Yowzers.
- 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.
- The Painted Bird is his World War II novel. His Holocaust novel.
- And it is a catalog of atrocities. A road show of horror. An astonishing menagerie of depravity.
- Incest, rape, bestiality, mutilation. Check.
- 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.
- Put another way: peasants spend the entire novel abusing, tormenting and torturing him.
- 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.
- For most of the novel, the boy is under ten years old.
- 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.
- Um, not here.
- The boy also encounters strange peasant beliefs, backcountry anti-Semitism, and scorched earth poverty.
- (Some of the scenes reminded me of Bela Tarr’s last movie, The Turin Horse. A kind of end of the earth desperation.)
- 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.
- How do I read this? How am I supposed to take this?
- The boy witnesses astonishing acts of cruelty to animals. The book is first and foremost an index of maimed and mutilated animals.
- 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.
- I’ll stop there. The passage only gets worse, ending with the young narrator stomped so hard he is bedridden for weeks.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- An unpleasant sensation.
- 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.
- Why am I reading this?
- (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?)
- Kosinksi alluded that the novel was, in essence, a true story. That he was the little boy.
- 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.
- Only, well, it probably isn’t true.
- Which makes the litany of dismemberment much, much harder to understand. As well as the chilly, amoral point of view.
- 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.
- I shudder.
- A few more things.
- 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.
- 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.
- I don’t know if that makes sense, but it makes sense to me. Charles Manson is everywhere.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.”
- How long did he consider those words? Is that supposed to be . . . funny? It isn’t.
- I won’t recommend The Painted Bird, but you will never forget it. You just can’t un-read it, either.
- The consistent vision of his books is one of moral decrepitude and fathomless evil. Self-analysis?