Writers ordinarily resent autobiographical speculations about their fiction; not Jerzy Kosinski. When The Painted Bird, his first and most famous novel, was published in 1965 he remarked, ”Every incident is true.” The assertion was implausible, given the book’s relentless violence and the odds against a 7- year-old boy surviving such ordeals. The suggestion that the horrors witnessed and committed in his novels came from personal experience gave him an aura of mystery and danger as he moved through Manhattan society.
So perhaps it was fitting that the last act of Jerzy Kosinski’s life could have been lifted from the pages of his books. On May 3 he was found, by his wife, naked in a half-filled bathtub with a plastic bag wrapped around his head, an apparent suicide.
The circumstances of Kosinski’s death underscored the enigmas of his life and career. Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1933, the only child of prosperous Jewish parents, Kosinski was, like the narrator of The Painted Bird, sent off to the country to escape the Nazis. After the war he received advanced degrees in history and sociology and, using what he later claimed were bogus letters, wheedled his way out of Poland in the late 1950s to study at Columbia University.
In retrospect, the praise heaped on The Painted Bird and Steps, which won the 1969 National Book Award, seems excessive. Both books appear tailor-made for the sexual candor and nihilism that flourished during the 1960s. As a refugee from both Nazism and Communism, Kosinski won sympathy that may have blinded critics to these novels’ flatness of voice and voyeuristic brutalities. Even as he exposed the Holocaust, Kosinski gave the impression of exploiting it.
He turned his 1971 novel Being There — a fable about a TV-addicted simpleton who rises to political power — into a screenplay for the 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. And, during the 1970s as president of the American Center of PEN, an international writers’ group, he campaigned energetically for the release of imprisoned authors. But his fiction declined markedly, and his self-portrait as a man who had done and would do anything / led to questions about his integrity, artistic and otherwise. Of the body and the bathtub, at least, there can be no doubt.