Analysis of Jerzy Kosinski’s Novels

The themes and techniques of Jerzy Kosinski’s (1933-1991) fiction are adumbrated in the sociological studies he published within five years of his arrival in the United States. As a highly regarded Polish sociology student in the mid-1950’s, Kosinski was granted permission to travel widely in the Soviet Union to interview people about their experiences in collectivized living. It was assumed by the authorities that he would write a thesis praising communism, but, in fact, he found it abhorrent; his notes provided material for No Third Path and The Future Is Ours, Comrade, indictments of the system that he could never have published had he remained behind the Iron Curtain. The studies are diaries of his travels and consist mainly of his interviews with the people he met, people from every walk of life, some of whom were thriving in conformity within the system while others were in trouble because of their opposition to it. The interviews are not arranged chronologically; rather, each is located at the point where it can best support the theme under discussion.

This arrangement is typical of the structure of Kosinski’s novels. The protagonist, who often has a great deal in common with Kosinski himself, is a loner, able to travel freely through all walks of life. Because he is secretly at war with his society, he is unable to stop and settle or to have more than a fleeting relationship with each person he encounters. The brief scenes in the novels are not arranged chronologically, but each vignette is one more stone in a mosaic; taken together, these vignettes constitute a powerful statement of Kosinski’s recurring theme.

139436342That theme is exactly the same as that of the sociological studies on collective life: the struggle of the individual to retain his or her individuality in a mass society. Central to Kosinski’s novels are the ideas of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who profoundly influenced the existentialists. Heidegger said that one has no control over what is given one in life—where and when one is born, whether one is healthy or the reverse, intelligent or the reverse—that it is all a matter of chance. It is one’s responsibility, however, to make the most of the particular life one is given. Daily life, petty responsibilities, the routine of work and family life, all have the effect of dulling one to the passage of time, and with it, the passage of one’s opportunity to make the most of one’s brief life. It is soothing, in a way, to be lulled and numbed into inattentiveness to coming pain and dissolution, yet to live in such a state is really not to live at all. According to Heidegger, one only lives fully when confronted by the terror of approaching death. The Kosinski hero purposely and unflaggingly thrusts himself into the terror-ridden present moment of his life, heroically refusing the deceptive and deadening temptations of his society to give up his lonely individuality and crawl under the umbrella of its collective “safety.”

The Painted Bird

While Kosinski was living in immense wealth with his wife Mary Hayward Weir, he began writing The Painted Bird, a novel about an orphaned outcast. “It was an attempt to somehow balance the reality of my past with the reality of my present. She [Mary], in turn, learned of my past through my writing.” This statement suggests an autobiographical impulse for writing The Painted Bird; in other statements, however, Kosinski has made it clear that it was a novel, a work of art he was writing, not a memoir.

The child protagonist of the novel, never named, is dark haired and dark eyed, and he speaks the educated dialect. The peasants among whom he is abandoned are blond and blue eyed and speak a barely comprehensible peasant dialect. He stands out from them at a glance, and they suspect he is a gypsy or a Jew; the penalty for hiding such a person from the Nazis is severe, so they are not pleased to have him around. Further, the peasants are suspicious of strangers, and superstitious, and they believe his dark coloring indicates an evil eye. He has no choice, however, but to live among them, suffer their unmotivated violence, and take the blame for any natural catastrophes, surviving in any way he can.

At one point he lives with Lekh, the birdcatcher. When Lekh is angry, he takes out his anger by capturing a bird, the strongest and handsomest of the flock, painting it in brilliant rainbow colors, and then releasing it among its drab brown congeners. They fall on it at once and peck it to death. The examples of the perils of being a “painted bird” are constantly brought home to the boy, who is aware that his visible difference from the others marks him as a painted bird. In one of Kosinski’s nonfiction works, No Third Path, he describes a man he met in the Soviet Union who survives because he is able to remain as one of the masses, always staying in the exact center of the crowd, never calling attention to himself. In that way, life could be “waited through,” as he phrased it, without too much inconvenience. There is safety, then, in not being a painted bird, yet it is safety gained through a denial of life.

In the winter there is no work for the boy to do in the villages. He is simply another mouth to feed, and his presence is unwelcome. Instead, he wanders freely over the countryside, wrapped in his collection of rags and bits of fur. He is warmed and protected by his “comet,” a tin can with a wire handle. The can is punched full of holes so that by swinging it he can force air through it, thus keeping alight the sticks and bits of dry moss he uses to fuel it. No one else ventures out in the deep snow; he can easily break into barns and steal potatoes and other vegetables, then find shelter for the night under the roots of a tree and cook his food with his comet. At these times, even though he is only seven or eight years old, he feels a marvelous happiness at his free dom and independence, his ability to face life directly and survive. In the summer, he is forced to move back into the village, and his torments begin again. His only hope is to try to blend into the society—valuable months of his life need to be “waited through.”

Toward the end of the war, when the Germans have retreated, he is found and briefly adopted by a Soviet army battalion. The stresses of his experience have left him mute; he has psychically cut himself off from communication with others. Two soldiers in the army have particularly taken him under their care: Gavrila, the political officer, and Mitka the Cuckoo, the sharpshooting instructor. They are the first human beings in memory to treat him kindly, and he worships them and wants to model his life after theirs. He cannot, however, because they are diametrically opposite to each other. Gavrila lectures him daily on the advantages of the collective: No one stands alone, but the entire society is a unit. Individuals can make mistakes, but not when they give themselves up to the wise decisions of the community. As long as they are careful to remain within the center of the collective, they will march ahead to a marvelous new future. The boy wants to believe what his hero Gavrila tells him, but he is uneasy. His experiences in the villages, putting himself in the power of the mass, have all been unfortunate, whereas his life seemed fullest and most satisfying when he was by himself, making his own decisions. Mitka the Cuckoo—his name suggesting that he, like the boy, is a painted bird—was a sniper behind enemy lines; because of this, he had to develop to the fullest his instincts to be solitary and to depend on no one but himself. Like the boy, he has always been a loner in a hostile world but able to take care of himself. In the end it is this philosophy that wins the boy.

The boy survives, when so many other children did not, because of his miraculously tough emotional health. He does not despair or curse his fate. Instead, he accepts his world as it is and desperately tries to learn how to survive in it. In this respect, The Painted Bird is a Bildungsroman in which the boy, always an empiricist, struggles to find the underlying principle of life. He believes at one time that it might be love, at another time religion, and finally that it might be evil, but each time he is disillusioned. At the end, his speech gone, he believes that hatred and revenge against one’s enemies are the keys to survival. The war is over, and his parents have found him in an orphanage; it seems he has survived. Yet, hatred and cynicism possess him completely. They give him a certain power: the power to have survived. Yet, one wonders whether he really is a survivor if he has been so deeply scarred that he can no longer relate to other human beings.

How can this story about experiences apparently so remote from those of most of its readers have moved those readers so deeply? Perhaps a clue to this can be found in a statement Kosinski made: “I think it is childhood that is often traumatic, not this or that war.” Perhaps the novel is best read as an allegory of childhood, and the war—as so often occurs in works of fiction—as symbolic of the struggle and engagement with life. Children—who are small, weak, powerless, and ignorant of adult ways—are often deeply alienated from the ruling adult society (adults, after all, may be the prototypes for the terrifying giants found in the most powerful children’s tales). Learning to live in a society, in enemy territory, can be a deeply scarring struggle. Reconciliation and the reopening of communications come, if at all, with the slow painful dawning of maturity.


Steps was the first novel Kosinski began writing, but feeling too close in time to some of the experiences he was recording in it, he set it aside and instead wrote The Painted Bird. Steps, which won a National Book Award, is engrossing but puzzling for the reader. The book consists of nearly fifty brief vignettes. Many of the scenes report perverse or violent sexual encounters or ruthless acts of revenge. Each scene is brief, and each has little or no connection with the successive scenes. There is no certain indication that the main character in one scene will reappear in the next one. Kosinski never comments on the action, forcing readers to decide for themselves how they are to judge the characters.

These puzzling features are explained by Kosinski’s aesthetic and philosophical principles. The short vignettes force readers to concentrate their attention on the individual scenes themselves, rather than, as in a conventionally plotted book, taking the scene as a whole. Society tries to “plot” one’s life, Kosinski suggests, in such a way as to make one look to the future, but while one waits for the future to come, one has missed one’s real life, which takes place in the present moment. The protean narrator of the scenes presents another philosophical point. He is different each time he appears; indeed, some critics have claimed that there are several different protagonists, but Kosinski has specifically stated that one protagonist links all the scenes: Identity, the nature of the self, is fluid. Finally, there is no authorial judgment of the actions of the protagonist. Kosinski makes it a point in all his novels to give the absolute minimum of advice to readers, thus implicating readers continuously in the action, forcing them to examine their own values.

Perhaps an exception to this system is in the scenes of revenge. In many of his novels, Kosinski seems to advocate an ethic of revenge. If a person has hurt one, physically or spiritually, that individual must strike back or lose his or her sense of self. Selfhood seems to be very much an absolute value to Kosinski. It must be defended against the collective and in personal encounters as well, particularly in sexual encounters. Kosinski believes that human beings reveal themselves most completely in their sexual relations, and therefore these relations play a large role in his novels. The longest series of repeated, connected scenes in Steps is a series of thirteen italicized passages, sprinkled throughout the novel, which consist of elaborate pre- and postcoital dialogues between a man and a woman who are trying desperately to sort out their relationship.

The difficulty in a relationship is to find the means by which one may give him- or herself to another while still retaining one’s selfhood. Kosinski presents this problem in terms reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential psychology: In any relationship between two people, one must be the subject, and the other the object. To be the object is to give up one’s selfhood and be nothing. To be the subject is to manipulate and diminish the other. There is a desperate struggle then for people to retain their selfhood—in other words, to become the subject and make the other the object. If one is successful in the struggle, he or she survives as an individual, but only at the cost of destroying the other. Relationships in this novel, and in all of Kosinski’s novels, tend to be manipulative and destructive. Though the characters do not seem to find a way out of their dilemma, and though the novel offers no solutions, it seems that Kosinski is critical of his characters for their failure, for he has elsewhere defined love as “the attempt to be simultaneously subject and object . . . the willing relinquishment of the single subject to a new subject created from two single ones, each subject enhanced into one heightened self.”

Steps is thus Kosinski’s purest novel. It has no “plot,” but instead it draws the reader’s attention to the present moment of each incident as it unfolds; it has a protean narrator who is a new person in relation to each new set of experiences with which he is confronted; it presents human life as a struggle to maintain selfhood, to avoid being diluted into some larger mass, or, on the individual level, to avoid being dominated and made into an object in personal relationships; and finally, it offers no authorial judgments, throwing the reader entirely to his or her own resources.

Being There

Being There, at twenty-three thousand words, is a novella rather than a novel. Short in length, stripped and pure in language, and simple in outline, the story is told as a parable or moral allegory, which indeed it is. Chance, the protagonist, is consistent as a character because he has no character. Because he is mentally disabled, he is incapable of change or growth. No situation makes an impression on him, and therefore no situation alters him. He has never in his life been outside a rich man’s estate, where he has remained to tend the garden. He works in the garden by day and watches television by night. When the rich man dies, however, the executors of the estate release Chance. He is tall, handsome, soft-spoken, and wears his former employer’s cast-off suits. The wife of a billionaire financier invites Chance into her house thinking he must be a rich businessman. That night, the president of the United States visits the financier and is introduced to Chance. In every situation, Chance acts the way he has seen someone on television act in a similar situation. Every question he is asked, he answers in terms of gardening, since that is what he knows. His simple statements about flowers growing are taken as profound metaphorical statements about the economy. The president quotes him in his national speech that night, and he is immediately pursued by all the media, invited to talk shows, and courted by foreign ambassadors; by novel’s end, there are plans to run him for high office, since he looks good on television and does not seem to have a past that might prove an embarrassment.

This amusingly absurd tale is in fact Kosinski’s indictment of the mass media, especially television, which, as a sociologist, he frequently attacked in lectures and essays. The first evil of television, according to Kosinski, is that it presents viewers with an immediately accessible image and therefore does not induce them to do any thinking for themselves (an infant child, Kosinski reminds his readers, can watch the same programs they do). This mindless image is ultimately deadly, because it suggests that experience is outside, something that happens only to other people. Through lulling viewers into believing that wrecks and bombings and deaths can happen only to others, television robs them of the angst needed to live life fully. Further, television can make mere images so attractive that it can persuade viewers to vote for any well-made-up puppet it puts before them. Into the empty, simplified, television image, viewers pour all their hopes and wishes, as the characters around Chance fill in his blank personality, making him into the person they want him to be. The comedy loses its humor when Kosinski suggests how easily this completely empty puppet could find itself sitting in the Oval Office, world destruction within the push of a single button.

Unlike television or films, which present the audience directly with an external image, novels, when they are read properly, force readers to re-create the scenes inside their heads, to generate their own images. This act of re-creation allows the reader to experience directly the action of the novel; when a character dies, the reader must, to an extent, experience that death. Kosinski was so opposed to the way the image falsifies and separates people from experience that he long refused to have any of his novels made into films. Under extraordinary and repeated persuasion from actor Peter Sellers, he at last agreed to allow Being There to be made into a film, starring Sellers, in 1979. There is a kind of ironic appropriateness in a story dealing entirely with the effect of visual images being portrayed in visual images.

Blind Date

Blind Date is typical, and indeed is probably the best, of a later group of Kosinski novels (the others in this group are Cockpit, Passion Play, and Pinball). The novel is presented in what can be called a standard Kosinski format: a series of incidents that finds the mobile lone-wolf protagonist in various countries, frequently flashing back to the past, moving from adventure to adventure, from woman to woman. In this group of novels, Kosinski begins to move toward more conventional plotting, and his protagonists are softened and made more human, more vulnerable. They are growing older and are no longer capable of some of the feats of their youth. Human relationships become less of a battleground, and at least the possibility of love is present. The theme of revenge, so prominent in earlier novels, begins to diminish. Where it is still present, it has been sublimated. The protagonist, giving up acts of personal revenge, raises himself to be a sort of “scourge of God,” taking impersonal revenge against enemies of humanity. The earlier novels made frequent use of autobiographical materials, which these later novels continue to do, but there is a new element. The later novels come more programmatically to represent Kosinski’s spiritual biography, and the protagonist, for all the indirection of art, comes more and more to stand for Kosinski himself.

The novel Blind Date and its protagonist Levanter are transitional in this scheme. Levanter as a young man is just as egotistic and manipulative as earlier Kosinski heroes have been. In summer camp, for example, he binds and brutally rapes a girl with whom he is infatuated, but he refuses to talk to her because he is too shy. That event, however, is seen in flashback. When the novel opens, Levanter is middle aged, and though he is still capable of violence, the violence has a social dimension. When he learns that the minister of internal affairs of a small dictatorship, a man famous for tortures and murders, is staying incognito at the same ski resort he is, Levanter manages, through an elaborate scheme, to have him killed. When a champion fencer from an Iron Curtain country is imprisoned because of information given against him by an informant, Levanter kills the informer by skewering him on just such a sword as the fencer has used.

Levanter, particularly as he grows older, is not so ruthlessly manipulative in his personal relationships as previous protagonists. If Tarden, the protagonist of the previous novel, Cockpit, had raped a girl, he would never have looked back. Instead, Levanter again meets the girl he had raped a year later (she had never seen his face), and their relationship continues to the point of true love; when he kisses her in the way the rapist had, however, she recognizes him and leaves in a rage. He feels then that he has missed a real opportunity and regrets his earlier action.

Levanter had met the girl the second time through sheer chance, another in a series of chance events in the novel. For example, in the novel’s opening, Levanter meets a woman whose piano playing reminds him of the way his mother once played. By chance, that woman had been instructed under the same teacher as his mother, and Levanter and the woman feel this establishes a link between them. They go their separate ways, but toward the end of the novel, by sheer chance, Levanter meets her again; this time they complete the relationship begun earlier, one of total fulfillment for both.

These chance meetings, which have the ironic effect of giving the novel a conventional plot, seem like the most banal and improbable coincidences until the reader realizes that chance is actually the governing principle of the novel. The novel’s epigraph is a quotation from Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (1972) in which he argues that every moment in life is the chance convergence of completely unrelated chains of random events, and therefore there is no “plot” to life, no inevitability, no prediction. Blind Date reiterates more directly than any of Kosinski’s other novels the Heideggerian notion that human beings are on earth only through sheer chance, that their time here, whether long or short, must end with death, and therefore they must get the most possible out of each moment as it is lived. What is new in the novel is the social dimension: One way human beings make their life meaningful is by trying to make the lives of those around them meaningful as well. The earlier Kosinski protagonists fought desperately and ruthlessly to preserve the self, even if it meant destroying their closest personal relationships. The later protagonists, among whom Levanter again is a transitional figure, take more risks with the self, even hesitantly offering it in love. As a sign of this mellowing, Levanter actually seeks to rectify the cruelty he had practiced as a youth. As a first step he dedicates himself to punishing totalitarians; later, he seeks to undo his own totalitarian act of raping the girl at summer camp. In the novel’s greatest coincidence, he realizes that the pianist is that very girl from the summer camp, who, as a result of the rape, has never been able to achieve sexual fulfillment. He binds her now, gently, and, this time with her permission, reenacts the rape, at last freeing her to be fully herself.

At this point a romantic novel might have ended, but such an end would be a falsification. Life can only end with death, which is the only predictable and almost inevitable conclusion to life’s “plot.” An aging Levanter is skiing when an unexpected lateseason surge of bad weather catches him inadequately dressed. He is lost in the fog and slowly gives in to the cold, feeling he has played life’s game very well and is now perhaps titled to a rest.

Major works
Long Fiction:The Painted Bird, 1965; Steps, 1968; Being There, 1971; The Devil Tree, 1973, revised 1981; Cockpit, 1975; Blind Date, 1977; Passion Play, 1979; Pinball, 1982; The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky, 1988.
Screenplay: Being There, 1979 (adaptation of his novel; with Robert C. Jones). Nonfiction: The Future Is Ours, Comrade, 1960 (as Joseph Novak); No Third Path, 1962 (as Novak); Notes of the Author on “The Painted Bird,” 1965; The Art of the Self: Essays à Propos “Steps,” 1968; Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991, 1992; Conversations with Jerzy Kosinski, 1993 (Tom Teicholz, editor).
Edited Texts: Sociologia Amerykánska: Wybór Prae, 1950-1960, 1962
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


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