Jerzy is a fictional recreation of the life of Jerzy Kosinski, the famed author and Holocaust survivor, told through a myriad of perspectives including those of the movie star Peter Sellers and Svetlana, Joseph Stalin’s daughter. Author Jerome Charyn places Kosinski, an enigmatic and revered author, most notably of The Painted Bird, in the midst of imagined vignettes and dialogues in order to provide insights into the life of the secretive and controversial author.
The Painted Bird portrays the life of a six-year-old boy, abandoned by his parents during World War II, who wanders around Europe looking for sympathy and finding only brutality; he witnesses murders and rape. The title refers to a story Kosinski once heard of a peasant who would trap birds, paint them white, and set them free — only to watch the flock who didn’t recognize their former comrade attack him to death.
Initially most readers saw Kosinski as the painted bird, a helpless victim of untold atrocities. However, Charyn argues that as Kosinski became famous, he turned into a social climber, opportunist, and sexual predator. As a result, a theory emerged that he could be better represented by the cruel painter of birds, not the bird itself. It was also alleged that he relied on others to write much of his work, perhaps even plagiarized and exaggerated the claims he had made about being abandoned during the War. In fact, he spent the war years with his parents, moving from country to country.
The story begins in an offbeat way, when Sellers, a talented comic actor, hires the narrator as a chauffeur a because he wants him to run over one of Sellers’ enemies. Kosinski and Sellers become acquainted when Sellers wishes to play a part in the movie version of Kosinski’s book Being There. Only after pursuing the role for three years did Sellers finally get Kosinski to relent and offer him the part of the gardner who eventually becomes a candidate for vice president of the United States.
The playboy life that Kosinski and Sellers lived is told in vivid detail. But Kosinski’s unexpected friendship with Svetlana, called Lana in the book, provides much-needed warmth and reveals various sympathetic aspects of Kosinski’s character. The dialogue that Charyn has created between Lana and Kosinski is enchanting and offers insights into a gentler and more emotional aspect of Kosinski.
This book is as full of surprises as Jerzy Kosinski was himself. Charyn has captured Kosinski’s multifaceted and complex personality. The book whets the reader’s appetite to learn even more about a man who is simultaneously reviled and respected.
Jerzy is excerpted in the 2017 issue of Paper Brigade.