Am I here?

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not here, you’re walking in a dream? But what is here, now, and tangible you think. Is it an unmanageable world of violent yahoos that you see on Russia Today TV tearing themselves apart, here, there and everywhere? What is here but your inner voice that turns your head like a tank top and fires into a crowd? The jolt wakes you up. You recognize you’re in your bedroom. You think this is only your own personal narrative. Perhaps it is. You’ve become a zombie with a passport to cross into all states of mind and, dare I say, being like Jerzy Kosiński.

FYI, Amazon comments that, “Jerzy Kosiński, author of Being There and The Painted Bird, is interested in doing two things in life: writing and skiing. His passion for writing justifies his existence as a human being and made him feel as though he had left something for future generations.

“Critics’ reviews of Being There meant a lot to him. He felt that reviews are the voice of the people rather than the voice of a single columnist. Modern classic now available from Grove Press, Being There, is one of the most popular and significant works from this writer of international stature. It is the story of Chauncey Gardiner—Chance, an enigmatic but distinguished man who emerges from nowhere to become an heir to the throne of a Wall Street tycoon and a presidential policy adviser, and a media icon.

“Truly “a man without qualities”—Chance’s straightforward responses to popular concerns are heralded as visionary. But though everyone is quoting him, no one is sure what he’s really saying. And filling in the blanks in his background proves impossible. Being There is a brilliantly satiric look at the unreality of American media culture that is, if anything, more trenchant now than ever.”

“Originally published in 1965, The Painted Bird established Jerzy Kosiński as a major literary figure. Kosinsky’s story follows a dark-haired, olive-skinned boy, abandoned by his parents during World War II, as he wanders alone from one village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, only rarely sheltered and cared for. Through the juxtaposition of adolescence and the most brutal of adult experiences, Kosiński sums up a Bosch-like world of harrowing excess”

Meeting the real Kosiński

Lying on the bed in my room, my brain speeds back over the past years. I’d grown up a lot, gotten a life along with a job at the National Book Committee, that in my mind wasn’t a total sell-out to the system. I was working for a good cause: reading, books, libraries, intellectual freedom. I was still writing. In fact, I’d given two short collections of new poems to my boss, Peter Jenison. He’d liked them a great deal and passed them on to Jerzy Kosiński, who called one day, introduced himself, and said in his clipped Polish accent, sounding a little K-G-B-ish, “Who are you, and where have you been?”

Dry-mouthed with an adrenaline rush, I said, “I’m a poet, trying to earn a living, married, and living in Brooklyn.” He said he’d read and admired the poems and already submitted the dual collection, Through the Plastic & Electric Kisses, to the Wesleyan University Press Series. These were dark collections, perhaps a shared view, a far cry (or scream) from my first published poems. This poem, Biafra, for instance . . .

“I imagine
the belly swells
because it feasts on the air
there being no bread or meat
till it bursts like a balloon
being blown up beyond the
tensile strength of the skin
to the point where the mind
withdraws behind pain’s mask
and a veil sweeps over the eyes
and the sensual world is so much air
evaporates into one last morsel
of hope then flickers and dies
in the reality of what it is
a nothing a darkness
surrounding the skull
where no one is listening
to the children crying
and the vultures beating their wings
over the square at noon
in the joyful expectation of something human.
Do you understand?”

And some radical theology from a longer piece called, Office Poem . . .

“If I could drive you from your brain, voyager,
towards the gold star, around the moon
in a red balloon, or in your skin
where the flesh is raw from fresh cut scars,
the brown mass pulsing, the black vote aching,
Kennedy bleeding from the mind,
would you believe me? Have you seen
the pick axe cleave the skull
and poets snap out, jacks from the box,
Pandora call the board to order,
read a role of heroes slated for medals in heaven,
the bread cast on the water, floating seawards to Mother?
Where shall I rest? Who’ll pull the nail
out of my forehead, cigar store Indian
extincted by buffalo hunters?
a genocide of ants and Jews
and partisans everywhere . . .”

I could imagine Kosiński liking this work. It was politically engaged, the experiences biting. He’d been there. He understood. And as a Guggenheim Fellow in Literature and a professor of English at Wesleyan’s Center for Advanced Study, Kosiński provided quite an endorsement for an unknown like myself. He told me that four poets acted as editorial advisors. If the first liked the work, he would pass it on to the other, and so on. Four wins and you’re in print. I wanted to jump out of my skin at that moment. I thanked Jerzy profusely for his effort on my behalf. I felt as if I were walking on air that day. I called everyone I knew and told them what happened, including my father-in-law, Sascha, who was a friend now, as well as a bibliophile, and proud of his son-in-law, the writer, who once chased him with a cake knife out of his and his daughter’s life. I guess even my mother-in-law thought her loans to us had paid off.

Eventually I got to meet Jerzy face to face at the National Book Awards in 1969, when his Steps won for best novel. He was tall, slender, tanned, intense, dressed to the nines, obviously enjoying his celebrity. He invited me for lunch at his East Side apartment. His life companion, the very svelte and attractive Katharina (Kiki) von Frauenhofer prepared a delicious repast. We impressed each other with our conversation on America, the war, politics, and the state of the world. I had been hugely nervous before meeting him. After all I was a kid from Brooklyn on my way to lunch with a world-class writer. Yet, when we began speaking, the fear fell away and I felt like I was speaking to a brilliant friend, a rather strange kid from Poland, who’d seen and done it all.

He wouldn’t admit to being the boy hero of The Painted Bird, or to what extent he personally survived the terrors of the Holocaust and the camps. Yet his telling of the events, in and out of the book, sounded amazingly authentic. He claimed, and quite fairly, that ultimately Painted Bird was fiction, a work of art pieced together from his own experiences and those of many others. And that the book’s ultimate goal was to translate that mutual experience into a single, searing story.

I told Jerzy of learning of the camps as a boy. In the fall of 1946, when I went back to school in Brooklyn, eight years old, my father brought home a set of four hard covered volumes, the deep blue covers embossed with gold titles. Their thick glossy stock inside contained a photographic history of World War II, from ‘39 to ’45, documented by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. A veteran had come to my father’s then thriving glove shop and sold him the set.

There was one or more photograph per page sometimes, or a two-page spread, and a factual paragraph or two beneath, explaining the scenes. I looked through those volumes day after day, hundreds of pictures and captions, in the then calm of our four-room apartment, my mother preparing dinner, cleaning, bringing order and love to our home as I plummeted into studying the dark side.

There were battle scenes in the books, on land, sea and air, close-ups of lost soldiers with that thousand-yard stare, and columns marching to and from battle. Beaten or victorious, enemies and winners often looked alike. There were planes exploding in air and paratroopers spilling like good or bad angels to earth and ships sinking in fire in oceans. There were beaches being stormed, dead soldiers swirling in the surf. There were shots of General MacArthur leaving and returning to Corregidor. There were photos of Ike and all the leading generals, on both sides, of soldiers and of the oppressed then liberated citizens of France, England, Germany, China, all the nations of the war. The photos made an incredibly comprehensive documentary that captured the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience.

By far, the images that burned deepest into my mind, like developing solution into the paper, were the photos of the concentration camps. There were scenes, piles of skeletal bodies, dead or left to die in camp yards or lime pits, and of beings still standing, walking in air like ghosts—all with a look of cosmic shock in their eyes, their bony fingers clinging to barbed wire like the pain of their memories. There were pictures of the actual ovens and shower rooms from Dachau, Belson, Treblinka and other death factories, from close-up and afar. Fortunately, there were pictures of the oppressors lined up and about to be shot by American soldiers who had taken the camps.

But mostly I remembered the looks of the Jewish people, ripped from their families and homes, packed into boxcars, wearing stars of humiliation on their arms or breasts, naked or dressed in the bold stripes of the prisons. There were pictures of Allied soldiers who were in tears at the awesome realities they discovered, survivors and liberators overcome by grief, as those of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I avidly read the detailed captions that chronicled the scenes, often as tears filled my eyes. I’d wipe them and go on reading.

These photos in their relentless black and white were probably the most profound and formative reading of my boyhood, after I had left Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn behind. Only the last two made biting observations the poked fun at our own racist obsessions. The images of the war were replaced eventually, ironically, by the black and white, then color pictures of 1950s-60s television. They blotted out those nightmares with America’s new dreams, the cheerful families, the heroic cowboys, the game and suspense shows, ball games of all kinds, the happy Hollywood reality in which we were now all living, shadowed somewhat by dramatic shows like I Led Three Lives.

But I never forgot the Jewish experience, the death and resurrection of a people. Nor did I forget the crematoriums of Japan’s two cities, and amazingly, how they and the cities of the world, rose from the ashes, one by one on a back to life. And perhaps it was the resurrection myth of my Catholic upbringing, so drilled into my head, that gave me hope as I grew up, and left an empathy and sadness for humanity for what it was capable of, for better and for worse. Some piece of that belief grew in me, as it must have in the minds and hearts of my generation, to shape a resistance to war that would prove to be a historical landmark.

I believed Jerzy was moved by my remembrance and by own hope, but I don’t think his experience had left him with any. Rather with feelings of hopelessness and despair for the brutal side of humanity that he witnessed not from books but from everyday life. These feelings were so deeply embedded in him that they persisted despite his literary and worldly success. Yet, despite the weight of his past, Jerzy had arrived in America in 1957.

Although he was broke, he had managed with a survivor’s drive to get himself into Columbia graduate school. He later married an older millionairess socialite, from whom he was eventually divorced. She later took her own life. Jerzy persevered to earn major awards and money for his books and screenplay (Being There). He even had a small but edgy role in Warren Beatty’s movie Reds.

Unfortunately, my own head swelled so with his endorsement and my imminent success that I thought I probably should seek a more prestigious publisher, like Random House. And here we cross the line to sheer lunacy, my judgment having been corroded by all those joints, hashish, blackbirds, coke and smoke that I’d imbibed in the 60s.

Without telling Jerzy, I called Wesleyan Press and told the editor I wanted to withdraw the manuscript. I’ll never forget this good man. He begged me not to. He said it had already gotten past two poets and more than likely would be approved by the other two. I insisted. He begged. Why, even in this manic ardor, couldn’t I at least have kept the manuscript there and submitted dually to Random House? I mean the publishing police weren’t going to come to my house and arrest me. To this day, my destructive honesty amazes me. After wearing the editor out, he finally said, okay, he’d withdraw the poems. And thereby I flushed the opportunity of a lifetime into the void.

I submitted the work to Jason Epstein at Random House, super star that I thought I was. He demurred politely not too long after. So did Doubleday. Wesleyan was gone. And so was a golden opportunity. I had managed to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory. I felt like a fool to call Jerzy. Years later, when I was out of a job, I did call Jerzy, and asked him for a letter of recommendation. He must of thought I was crazy, which I probably was and perhaps still am.

Yet, he said to me, “Well, write the most glowing letter you can about yourself. Send it to me and I’ll type it on my stationery and sign it.” Instead, I wrote some mawkish, self-pitying crap that since I’ve totally repressed, and for good reason. I mailed it to Jerzy. I never heard back. Chalk it up to another victory for my demons. This time I wasn’t afraid of financial failure as I was with going to Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. This time, it was the proximity of actual success that must have scared the living crap out of me. Instead, I let my fear get the better of me.

Years later in 1991, I heard of Jerzy’s suicide. I was on St. Marks Place in the East Village. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was stunned. I walked across that boardwalk of the 60s—filled with drug paraphernalia, posters, old clothes, leather shops, memorabilia and the dope sellers to help you forget it all. I passed through the crowds of old hipsters and skinny ghosts, the curious and corrupt, the bright-eyed and dead-eyed, the potheads, acidheads, boneheads and tourists fresh off the bus from Amerika. And I remembered Kosiński, his face, his speed rap, those piercing eyes. And I was crushed by the weight of his falling star. I evaporated into the dusk on a bus up Third Avenue to nowhere, tears in my eyes.

I was shocked equally in 1996 when James Park Sloan wrote a biography of Jerzy titled Lying: A Life Story. Sloan claimed, and I am paraphrasing, that Jerzy was a pathological liar and control freak. According to Sloan, Kosiński, born Jerzy Nitodem Lewintopf in Lodz in 1933, was the son of well-off, intellectual Jews. He learned as a boy that he had to live a Gentile identity, which his father invented for him and for his family, in order to survive World War II and the Holocaust. Sloan claimed that irreparable damage was done to Jerzy’s psyche, having to constantly play the Catholic Jurek Kosiński and to hide his true identity like his circumcised penis. Discovery was death. The metaphor of Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, Sloan wrote, was from a medieval Polish legend. If a captured crow is beautifully painted and released to go back to its flock, the other crows will attack and kill it because it is different.

Sloan’s theory was that Kosiński simply lost the idea of the truth, because it was so dangerous to possess. Surviving depended on acting and lies. And so Jerzy became a great storyteller and actor. I wondered for a moment if he lied about liking my poems to curry favor in some way with my boss or myself. Frankly that felt like the vortex of my personal demons again, and I had no desire to enter it. I let it be.

Sloan went on to say that the many selves Kosiński created in his novels, one more beautiful than the last, made him unique and suspect, whether in school or Poland or later at Columbia. When his novels attained international fame, his personas were questioned. It’s my observation that unconsciously Jerzy had become a kind of “Painted Bird” in America as a result of being captured by his success. His celebrity glittered and separated him from the dark crows of the flock. Their anger was gathering. Strident rumors of plagiarism and ghostwriters rose for at least a decade. The birds were circling for the kill, as in Hitchcock’s film.

According to Sloan, Jerzy’s propensity to live the large lie was also responsible for his bizarre behavior, “ranging from megalomania to brutal sexual coercion,” and then to the later accusations of fraud and plagiarism. Sloan accused him of being so convincing that his supporters, including Yale University and the New York Times, believed his side of the accounts for 25 years.

Then in 1982, the Village Voice had published evidence that Jerzy had a raft of “editors” or ghostwriters with whom he collaborated to novelize the story lines he provided. According to the article, he could not write English well enough to put his words on paper. The differences in style from book to book, the Voice claimed, could be explained by the use of different editors. The Voice had also publicized the 1975 discoveries of Barbara Tep (Lupack), a bilingual doctoral candidate whose unpublished doctoral thesis revealed that often long passages of Jerzy’s books were more or less directly translated from Polish sources not known to English readers.

On the other hand, one of the Kosiński “editors” in a letter to the Los Angeles Times in 1996, addressing Joan Mellen’s review of Sloan’s biography, had these words to say . . .

“I met Jerzy in the late 1960s, and was asked by him to edit his National Book Award winning novel Steps, and then Being There. I did this; no more and no less. In later years, the Village Voice tried desperately to pump sewage out of me, urging to say that I’d ghost-written for Jerzy. I refused summarily because I had only edited for him. And become his close friend . . .

“He dazzled, confounded, invented, and fantasized. I never paid attention to the hoopla and tinsel, the surface Jerzy. I never cared whether he was a Jew or not. What mattered was that I was a Jew and saw into his essence. I saw that before and beyond it all, “Kosiński was a tormented, ultimately broken man who managed to crawl from under the iron-shadow of Nazi Europe and survive in body, but not in spirit.

“Whether he personally was the ‘hero’ in the Painted Bird is not the point. In this shattering novel, Kosiński invokes the terror and suffering of a million and a half murdered Jewish children. Mellen’s use of the word ‘cozily’ to describe Jewish survival in war-time Poland is nothing short of obscene.

“Kosiński had many enemies. During the years I knew him, he told me that the Poles were out to kill him because of the Painted Bird. And he did have detractors. Like James Joyce, he was envied because he’d created a modern masterpiece. Like Freud, he was hated and feared because he wrote about the despicable species of which he was a part.

“He was always ill in spirit and physically. In the end, he succumbed. I will continue to remember him, to admire him, to mourn him, to love him. And to loathe the evil and indifference in the men who robbed him of life.”

That’s quite a heartfelt (and unsolicited) defense from a purported ghostwriter. Choose your side and choose what you wish to believe. When I think of Kosinki’s work, I think of a consistent, sobering vision of a corrupt, brutal mankind. Perhaps there was collaboration, perhaps he borrowed. But for me, the work coheres. Ultimately, even if he did have ghostwriters or editors, he was the “producer” of his oeuvre in terms of conceiving the stories, if not being the sole writing hand. And a producer with an amazing vitality and a brain that worked at warp speed. Perhaps he just did it differently than any writer before, like a Michelangelo assigning a raft of painters to bring his sketched visions to life.

I see in his work that Painted Bird stare, that intensity of a winged being that knew its vulnerability too well, and is now snuffed out. At his own hand no less, he swallowed barbiturates, then wrapped a plastic bag over his head to asphyxiate as he languished in the bathtub. His suicide note, written in his own hand with typical Kosiński irony, read . . .

“I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call the time Eternity.”

I’m sure that the accusations of his critics in addition to his heart problem (chronic arrhythmia) were weakening his strength as a human being and writer, not to mention as a skier, polo player and sexual commandant.

I suspect that the word “weakness” wasn’t in Jerzy’s lexicon of survival. He wouldn’t allow life or death to take him. He’d had enough. He’d stay in control of his situation to the end. That part of Mellen’s theory I agree with. Life had managed to drive Jerzy crazy enough to take his own life, after a continent of brutes had failed to. But then, by and large, writers are crazy, whether they are big names or small, great or trivial, successes or failures. It comes with the turf. The demons surrounding the angel muse conspire against us and, sooner or later, if we’re not careful, overtake us. You could posit as Don DeLillo did in his novel Names that craziness is the state of being today’s writers are shooting for. One of his characters says . . .

”In this century the writer has carried on a conversation with madness. We might almost say of the twentieth-century writer that he aspires to madness. Some have made it, of course, and they hold special places in our regard. To a writer, madness is a final distillation of self, a final editing down. It’s a drowning out of false voices.”

“A drowning out of false voices” is certainly an ironic coincidence of words, seeing how Jerzy drowned out everything but his legacy in the bathtub. Yet it does certainly fit the profile, not only of Jerzy but also many other contemporary writers, on into the twenty-first century, who destroyed themselves with booze, drugs, fast cars, fast lives—and where senseless violence and untempered hatred are the norm. Yet, through his sparse prose contrasted to his vivid imagery, Kosinki’s novel is a story of mythic proportion, even more relevant to today’s society than it was upon its original publication.” And I now feel perfectly here, present, etcetera.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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2 Responses to Am I here?

  1. Victor Caruso

    Great article Jerry. I knew you at the time, but never was told about your relationship with J and those poems, which were beautiful. Vic

  2. Re Victor Caruso: Thanks Vic, I love those poems myself. They’re from a larger memoir I wrote years ago. Art never ages.
    Love,
    Jerry.