The Death Of A Mythmaker

A major witness to the Holocaust takes his own life

In 1979 novelist Jerzy Kosinski told a reporter: "I'm not a suicide freak, but I want to be free. If I ever have a terminal disease that would affect my mind or my body, I would end it." Last week Kosinski ended it; he wrote a note to his wife and friends, tied a plastic bag over his head and lay down to die in the bathtub in his New York apartment. The controversial, wild at heart Polishborn writer had been suffering from a serious cardiac condition. His friend A. M. Rosenthal, former editor of The New York Times, recalled that he " was very down, very depressed. His heart was racing constantly. He was taking medication and it made him groggy and he couldn't write. He was very afraid of being helpless." But on his last evening Kosinski attended a party at the home of writer Gay Talese and his publisher wife, Nan. "He was brimming with ideas and holding court," said Nan.

The manner of the suicide seemed grotesque and painful, like a scene from one of his novels. But it would have been like Kosinski to know that the plastic bag is a method of suicide recommended by The Hemlock Society, a support group for those wishing for "self-deliverance." Or he may have felt that at 57 his exit from a world he didn't love was overdue. In his last novel, "The Hermit of 69th Street," his largely autobio graphical hero, Norbert Kosky, reflects: "Do you know the worst of all vices? It is being over 55." The book ends with nameless assailants throwing Kosky into the East River.

So there was one vice-longevity-that Kosinski, a connoisseur of vices, rooted out with absolute finality. His entire life was inextricably linked with the greatest vices of a cataclysmic century. "The Painted Bird" (1965), his first and best novel, is a fictionalized account of his childhood odyssey through Eastern Europe in the time of the Holocaust. Like Kosinski himself, the boy witnesses the most appalling horrors, is brutalized by villagers who call him a Gypsy-Jew, is hung from the ceiling while a vicious dog waits slavering beneath him, is thrown into a manure pit, and loses his ability to speak for several years. Most of his subsequent novels, which are set in places as varied as the South Bronx ("Pinball") or the venues of affluence ("The Devil Tree"), are variations on the themes of violence, humiliation, incest, rape, murder.

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Critics have been sharply divided about his work, especially the later novels. Kosinski has been praised because he "enlarges the borders of the bearable" (said Arnost Lustig of "Blind Date") and attacked for producing (in "Cockpit") "the most coldly odious reading I have ever been subjected to," wrote Christopher Ricks. But William Styron, who wrote his own Holocaust novel, "Sophie's Choice," says that Kosinski was "a pioneer, one of the first people to treat the Holocaust fictionally." Elie Wiesel, who has made the Holocaust his life's preoccupation, wrote a review of "The Painted Bird" for The New York Times. "I thought it was fiction," says Wiesel, "and when he told me it was autobiography, I tore up my review and wrote one a thousand times better. He chose to describe the element of cruelty and he did it magnificently, viewing the world through the eyes of a mutilated child."

"He perpetuated a myth about himself," says Styron. "He told incredible stories about some of the things that happened to him in Europe after the war. These stories were part of his persona-you believed some and didn't believe others. He was a very charming guy but, and I say this affectionately, there was a bit of a con man about him." It was Kosinski the con man who got himself into America, fabricating false documents that brought him a visa. After the success of "The Painted Bird" and "Steps," which won the National Book Award, it was that charm that made him a friend to big shots like Rosenthal, Henry Kissinger and Warren Beatty. His first wife, Mary Weir, was a wealthy widow who died in 1968, leaving her fortune not to Kosinski but to her late first husband's estate. Kosinski was a nocturnal roamer: he slept twice a day in four-hour shifts, making the rounds (often in various disguises) of the New York streets, downtown sex clubs and hospital emergency rooms, where he witnessed the traumas and fatalities that fed his vision of a world in chaos.

In 1982 he was accused by writers for New York's Village Voice of not being the true author of his books, relying on editorial assistants for much of their language. It now seems clear that the accusation does not bear up under examination, but it shocked the writer, whose "The Hermit of 69th Street" is a vast (529 pages) justification of his art and his life, in parts brilliantly original, in parts laborious and tiresome. "I have always been a very marginal novelist," he once said. "A lesser talent. I say it complainingly. I'm saying to the world, 'Come on. Reward me'." Behind this bravado was a wounded spirit. In his first two novels he was a shocking and revelatory witness to a time of spiritual disintegration. After that he continued to record the horrors but the voice was often forced and the shocks often a product of will rather than vision. "I don't want to be remembered," he said. "These are dehumanizing times. It's best to be forgotten." Once again, the bravado of a hurt soul. He is part of the century's haunted memory.

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