The life of cultural factotum Jerzy Kosinski

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Toba Singer
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Dissemble: (per the OED) Conceal or disguise one’s true feelings or beliefs.

Dissemble: A word I have never understood. Why not just say “lie”?

In “Jerzy,” PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist Jerome Charyn bites off more than most of us can chew on the subject of dissembling. By exploring the life of cultural factotum Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991), he chases an answer to a question that has plagued me ever since I first heard the “D” word. I never had a chance to raise my hand and ask it when Charyn taught English for a brief period to seniors at my high school (New York City’s now-defunct School of Performing Arts). I was just a near-sighted sophomore when the much-admired teacher left the building for greener pastures.

Charyn has written more than 50 novels. In this, his latest, he matches his faultless ear with a correspondingly artful imagination to assemble a story around a string of Kosinki’s colorful contemporaries. Some are those that the immigrant celebrity cultivated. Others gravitated toward him only to find their ambivalent needs almost always not quite met by Kosinski’s boomeranging to and fro attentiveness to idiosyncratic demands.

The narrator is Peter Sellers’ driver, whose allegiance belongs to neither the era’s most trenchant comic actor, Sellers, nor Kosinski, the other Jew, the one whose improprieties weren’t all that funny. Rather, it ricochets off of both, as Charyn relates the driver’s impressions of what constitutes a parasitic social layer. The driver tells his story in the discerning voice of a grown-up Bronx boychik, the ubiquitous corner candy-store bad boy. His tone lifts him above the fray. It’s as if from his seat at the Friday night Sabbath dinner table, between the first-course of chicken soup and the inevitable second-course fricassee, his grandfather, perhaps a Café Royale autodidact, regaled him with stories that inadvertently groomed him for his approach-avoidance attraction to the Kosinski cabaret.

Kosinski’s life as a Jewish youth in war-torn, post-revolutionary Stalinized Eastern Europe, prepared him to bob and weave his way to the United States—mostly finessed by lies and pretenses. His survival strategy was the precursor of six-degrees-of-separation social climbing, his own ascent marked by fewer degrees and a more aggressive upward thrust into the upper crust. He knew antisemitism when he saw it, whether codified by Stalin or insinuated via the homegrown variety as portrayed in Laura Z. Hobson’s “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Kosinski hates Stalin for his own good reasons, and arrives in the U.S. during the post-McCarthy 1960s. It’s an era when U.S. propaganda cleaves onto Stalin’s betrayal of world revolution, his counter-revolution now a tool for discrediting the very same revolution Stalin betrayed. Kosinski, self-schooled in the medium of opportunism, creates his own calling card. His book, “The Painted Bird,” which might be a boutique version of his Balkanized life story, is just as likely a dissembling bid for the limelight among a stratum of English-language dissemblers. They are hungry for the Samizdat culture, perhaps initiated by revolutionaries silenced by Stalin, but appropriated for darker purposes by Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, and others, as the years go by. These dour looking “courageous giants” churn out gut-wrenching or lyrical material detailing Stalin’s counterrevolution, and turn it into something more marketable, not to mention more counterrevolutionary when imprinted with the pro-capitalist brand. It’s up to the Painted Bird reader to separate truth from fiction. The odds for sourcing the facts are against you if you don’t read or speak Polish, but then the language barrier also contributes something linguistically tantalizing to the literary mystique.

Move E. L. Doctorow’s novel “Ragtime” forward a decade or three, to find its echo in the fodder for Kosinski’s canon. Charyn has Sellers on the prod to appear in Kosinski’s immensely funny social and political film, “Being There.” He has Kosinski cozying up to Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s self-exiled daughter, the ultimate anti-Stalinist. The Bonapartist’s princess-without-portfolio, is the sole individual who might have exposed Stalin without suffering any consequences. Instead, she chooses to party like it’s 1923. After what she has witnessed, she prefers to abandon rather than find herself, even if it means parceling out time and attention to Kosinski, whom she views here as a Semite poseur.

Jerzy buoys my confidence about my own youth, which flowered in the cracks of the Bronx’s concrete sidewalks. As a pre-teen, I knew there was more to life than making out in the hollows of Mosholu Parkway to the tinny strains of “One Summer Night,” that struggled to be heard from two-toned transistor radios. What does that “more to life” turn out to be? Excavating the material that lies beneath Gotham as served up by its semi-pro dissemblers! You may feel frustrated that you don’t know any more about Kosinkski after reading Jerzy than you’ve gleaned from the tabloids over the years, but that is the whole point. “Jerzy” is where the juju of The Big Apple meets the consummate probing skepticism of native New Yorkers. It’s chauffeurs like Charyn’s narrator, who do the hard time, brooking the glancing insults of the likes of Kosinski and Sellers, while they drive the dissemblers to their ill-gained or ill-fated dates with a destiny without dignity.

Toba Singer

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