Jerzy’s many masks: A review of “Oral Pleasure:Kosinski as Storyteller”

Reviewed in this essay: Oral Pleasure: Kosinski as StorytellerEdited by Kiki Kosinski. Grove Press, 2012.

Years ago, when my reading tastes were largely defined by whatever contained the most explicit sex, I devoured the novels of Jerzy Kosinski. I had other sources—Henry Miller, Philip Roth, and Martin Amis—but there was something especially creepy and seductive about Kosinski’s work. His characters had a way of passively watching themselves do terrible and perverse things that to my impressionable mind gave them an existential glamour.

Kosinski is probably best known for two things: his disturbing 1965 first novel, The Painted Bird, about an orphaned Jewish boy who endures terrible abuse as he escapes from one Polish village to another during WWII; and the author’s shocking suicide in 1991, which followed an article in The Village Voice that accused him of having plagiarized nearly all his works and fabricated much of his biography. But during the years in between, Kosinski was one of the most talked about American novelists, charming the public with his many exotic personae including New York socialite, polo aficionado, sex guru, movie star. This is all on display in Oral Pleasure: Kosinski as Storyteller, a compilation of his lectures, interviews, and transcripts of radio and television appearances, edited by his late wife, Kiki Kosinski.

Oral Pleasure seems, in many ways, designed to present a portrait of Kosinski which is untainted by scandal. In the introduction, Kosinski scholar Barbara Tepa Lupack brushes aside all accusations with the suggestion that, above all, his life and work were concerned with “essential truth.” No one who takes literature seriously would refute the idea that the imaginative process can unearth truths that exist beyond fact. With Kosinski, however, this process may never have been limited to his written works. What should we think when he describes to a talk-radio host his experience of being hurled into a pit of excrement as a child in Poland? Is this what actually happened? Or is it an “essential truth” expressing how he felt about his childhood fear of being captured by Nazis?

The one subject in Oral Pleasure that comes across without a hint of insincerity is Kosinski’s opposition to totalitarianism. This stance was hard won. Regardless of his many disputed biographical details, Kosinski did live through Hitler’s occupation and 10 years of Stalinist Poland before arriving alone in New York at the age of 24. There is no reason to question him when he tells the magazine Index on Censorship, “I can say as a past citizen of a totalitarian country, not only do I hate these oppressive forces, but I also know how they operate, at home and abroad.”

I recently re-read Steps, Kosinski’s second novel, which won the National Book Award in 1969. It’s comprised of a series of vignettes that follow one man’s bizarre encounters: he seduces a peasant girl away from her village with his credit cards, he watches at some provincial carnival as a woman is penetrated by a horse. Years ago I vaguely considered Steps to be a profound comment on the hollow nature of existence. This time it read more as a comment on the hollow nature of whoever authored the book. Like Kosinski’s voice in Oral Pleasure, there’s a nagging sense that something is missing.