Jerzy: A Novel

by Jerome Charyn

New York Times "Editors' Choice" selection

"A moving attempt to trace the connections between Kosinski's wartime struggles and postwar fictions." ―The New Yorker

"The rise and fall of novelist Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991) emerges in an offbeat way . . . through Charyn's resourceful imagination and always-colorful, punchy, provocative prose." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


Jerzy Kosinski was a great enigma of post-World War II literature. When he exploded onto the American literary scene in 1965 with his best-selling novel The Painted Bird, he was revered as a Holocaust survivor and refugee from the world hidden behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. He won major literary awards, befriended actor Peter Sellers (who appeared in the screen adaptation of his novel Being There) and was a guest on talk shows and at the Oscars. But soon the facade began to crack, and behind the public persona emerged a ruthless social climber, sexual libertine, and pathological liar who may have plagiarized his greatest works.

Jerome Charyn lends his unmistakable style to this most American story of personal disintegration, told through the voices of multiple narrators—a homicidal actor, a dominatrix, and Joseph Stalin's daughter—who each provide insights into the shifting facets of Kosinski's personality. The story unfolds like a Russian nesting doll, eventually revealing the lost child beneath layers of trauma, while touching on the nature of authenticity, the atrocities of WWII, the allure of sadomasochism, and the fickleness of celebrity.

 

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The New York Times Editor's Choice

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The New York Times

The New Yorker

Radio Interview

 

Booklist Starred Review

Kirkus Starred Review:

Publishers Weekly Review:

Excerpt from Jewish Book Council's new magazine: The Paper Brigade

Interview PLUS separate exclusive excerpt from Stay Thirsty Magazine

Jerome Charyn on Jerzy

This novel is an attempt to unravel Jerzy Kosinski, to find the sympathy and pathos deeply hidden in the fabric of a "secret agent" who lived by lies and lies alone. It was written in a swirl of creativity, almost like a song. I had been republishing Kosinski's earlier novels (in French translation) for a small Swiss publisher, and as I reread the novels, they almost seemed like the work of a writer on his own secret maneuvers, masks within a mask. And I wondered if I could uncover the man—or the boy—crouching behind the ultimate mask, if one could ever find it. As Kosinski says in the novel, "I lie even while I speak the truth."

I'd met Kosinski once or twice. I was working as an editor for Fiction magazine, and wanted to publish a section from a new novel of his that had not yet appeared in print. Another editor at the magazine, who had been one of Kosinski's "ghost writers," had given me a sample to read.

But when I asked Kosinski if we could publish the section, he fell into a rage and began to quiz me, as if he were a member of his own secret police and I were his private prisoner.

He knew about Fiction. We had published John Barth, John Ashbery, Stanley Elkin, Peter Handke, John Lennon, etc. But nothing I said could quiet him down. I escaped as fast as I could.

The next time we met he was much more subdued. He pretended not to recollect our first encounter at all. He was funny and quite generous. At first I wondered if he had an evil twin, and then I realized he was a consummate actor, always on call, like some strange Houdini, authentic and inauthentic in the very same moment.

In addition to his novels and my memories, I had one other artifact, James Park Sloan's Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, which was published in 1996 while there was still some furor surrounding Kosinski's suicide. The rest was a leap into the unknown. I had never written a book like Jerzy, attempting to steal away Kosinski's stolen life. The form of the novel seemed to find itself, like a musical piece with its own undersong. I wanted as many voices as possible to "tell" Kosinski's story, a tale that couldn't be told in one narrative thread. So we have multiple narrators: a homicidal actor, a dominatrix, and Stalin's daughter Svetlana, who have their own magical ties to Kosinski. And lurking behind them all is Stan Laurel, Princess Margaret, and Peter Sellers, with particular parts to play, like ghosts in a ghosts' tale.

-- JC

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