Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Talking Out of Turn #1: Jerzy Kosinski (1982)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

Jerzy Kosinski
The interview with author Jerzy Kosinski (The Painted Bird, Being There) took place in 1982 while he was promoting his novel, Pinball. The book was written in response to the murder of John Lennon a couple of years earlier. It's the story of a female fan who hunts down a popular rock star by seducing a former classical pianist to help her in the search. The novel examines the motivations of the pop fan: Is she moved more by the artist, or his art? Our talk also came shortly after the release of Warren Beatty's Reds (1982), which examined the life of the American Communist journalist John Reed (Ten Days That Shook the World) who covered the Russian Revolution. In the film, Kosinski played the Soviet ideologue Zinoviev.

Jerzy Kosinski was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by living under a false identity. He wrote about that experience in The Painted Bird (1965). Many of his books took up the theme of anonymity and invisibility which, ironically, came to a head in the late eighties when he was being accused of plagiarizing some of his work. He ultimately committed suicide in 1991. His final note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity." Before Eternity knocked, we discussed the subject of anonymity and visibility.

kc: Is anonymity a theme you love to explore?

jk: Anonymity and visibility, both. Particularly in Being There where the invisibility of the character was uninvited. The world didn't expect Chauncey Gardener and Chauncey Gardener didn't expect the world.

kc: In light of this particular theme, don't you find it rather ironic that a brief appearance in Warren Beatty's Reds has given you - the writer - a certain kind of visibility?

jk: Yes. It's interesting. Twenty minutes of Reds increases one's visibility far more than twenty years of writing fiction. Very recently in New York, I went out with two friends of mine wearing one of my silly disguises and they asked me if I wanted to go to some favourite place of theirs. So I went with this disguise that had a different hairline, mustache and sideburns. For some reason, when we arrived at this place, they ran into a student they knew from Yale, and he was a student when I was a professor there. He wasn't my student, but we were there at the same time. In any case, my friends steered the conversation towards Jerzy Kosinski and whether or not this person had met him. And this guy went into this negative tirade about what his friends - who were my students - thought about this silly man. Meanwhile, there I was sitting right next to him drinking my beer, not contributing to the conversation. He turned towards me only once and then left me alone. Clearly, he didn't think I was interested in the subject matter of Kosinski.

kc: That is a lot stranger than being a fly on the wall. What was your reaction to this?

jk: I found myself absolutely fascinated by the whole experience. I was dramatized from within. Even though some of the things he said about me were very unpleasant. Unfortunately, some of the things he said were true, so I found myself wanting to argue with him about some of his points and accepting the others. All together this was a negative experience. I was crushed by some of his comments. I like to think I'm popular. But obviously, I'm not. Still, it was very rewarding.

kc: You make it sound as if there are both benefits and dangers to exploring anonymity.

jk: I still can't resolve what is better. Is it better to be visible? For an artist, who needs it? Who needs to suffer the consequences of visibility which is always negative? You have to deal with the rumours, the innuendos, the jealousy of people who feel that you became visible for the wrong reasons. All of this debunking could lead to an assassination. I'm not just talking about physical assassination, but character assassination as well. That's very common when you are visible. But maybe visibility is just another experience. Maybe one should go through this. Maybe an artist deserves to set himself up as a target. Let's be hit! This is part of the creative process. It's not a popularity contest. Art by nature is adversarial. It demolishes certain notions of morality. Most of the characters we remember from drama, or literature, are characters that are adversaries. They bring something new into life and therefore they are not popular at all.

kc: I assume that you've put this adversarial quality to good use in your personal life?

jk: Those are the kinds of characters I grew up on. And yes, it gave me the courage to be an adversary as well. It got me out of Eastern Europe, to oppose the communist system, and to oppose the things in my life that I don't like. To be an adversary is the essence of the Protestant doctrine. The very basic credo of the Protestant message is that you have to step out from vital existence. You can't allow yourself to be bound by it. As a spiritual being, you have to step outside of it and cast judgment upon it - to protest, hence protestant. Either say yes, or no, to it.

kc: When we discuss this ambivalence to being visible isn't there a point when the choice is out of your hands - especially as you become too well known?

jk: George Harrison came to visit me once in Switzerland at a ski resort. And I was convinced he was going to be mobbed. This was at the height of his visibility. He called me to say that he was coming and that he'd never been to a ski resort. I told him that he must be kidding, that they'd kill him here...they'd kill me here! But he told me, "Jerzy, they won't recognize me." So he arrived at the resort where I spend my winters and nobody recognized him. There I was walking with George Harrison, the Beatle, and people would come up to me and say, "Hi, Mr. Kosinksi, how are you?" There he is dressed in his trench coat, looking the way he always looks, and nobody recognizes him. I asked him why nobody would and he told me, "Because they would never assume that I was here." He said, "I could make myself visible if I looked at them a certain way, or stared at them, then I would invite recognition." So even if you are a big rock star, you can be invisible.

kc: Oddly enough, even with this struggle over visibility resting right at the heart of your novels, as well as your life, does intimacy still become a prime objective?

jk: It's very important. Sexuality is a prime mover of my characters. This could have something to do with my growing up in Eastern Europe at the time of the war. In the post-war period, when society manifested itself at its worst, where life meant nothing and people were gassed and killed for no reason at all, the only force that brought people together was the sexual instinct. The worst love affair is better than the best war - there's no doubt about it. The worst lover is better than the best bureaucrat. The worst love letter is certainly better than being rejected by the Communist Party and ending up in a prison camp. My point is, we all became sexually driven. And I remember when most of us came to the West, we encountered this hostility. The critics would say, "These are sexually driven and obsessed people." And we would say, "Well sure, don't you think it's better to be sexually obsessed than to be ideologically obsessed?" Look what those who are ideologically obsessed do to those who they don't like. This theme has been very much part of my fiction from The Painted Bird through Steps, Cockpit, Blind Date and Pinball.

kc: Are you saying that your experiences in Europe during and after the war had some bearing on your life because then you would have had to be invisible?

jk: Right. And sex offered the few areas of being entirely yourself without the scrutiny of society and its institutions. Therefore, you could be profoundly human, close to life, and in no way in conflict with your spirituality. It requires acknowledging your own humanity. This can only be accomplished through the force of life.

kc: Now that your appearance in Reds has given you some form of visibility, where do you think it's going to take your writing?

jk: Well, this is a very temporary visibility. It will end up in some wounding articles about me and some rumours spread as well. It's unavoidable. Like any other "star," I'll go through an interesting period of apprehension, of the debunking of my novels, and suffering because of my performing as an actor. There are some who think that if you write novels, then you write novels. You don't make yourself visible. But I like to think that experience matters, no matter what. To this novelist, to Jerzy Kosinski, experience is all I have. It may be a very painful process, but it will end soon. And I will disappear again.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. Kosinski was an incredibly fascinating man, and his books remain as powerful as ever.
    This month is the 20th anniversary of his death, and it would be nice if it also marked a new surge of interest in his work, but, unfortunately, I think many critics & academics are still baffled by him.
    (By the way, there's a typo in his third response. You have him saying "excepted," when I'm pretty sure he meant "accepted.")

  2. From Kevin: Thanks for your remarks and your keen eye. The typo is now corrected. It certainly would be nice to have a renewed interest in his work even though I think he also had a hand in contributing to the baffling responses from critics and academics. But no question, he was a fascinating artist. If you haven't seen it, you should try to find Jack Kuper's film essay Who was Jerzy Kosinski?