Literary Daybook, June 14

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 14, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 14, 1888, Mrs. Mering's fête, including the first jumble sale in history.
-- "To Say Nothing of the Dog" (1998)
by Connie Willis

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1933, Jerzy Kosinski was born, as Jerzy Lewinkopf, in Lodz, Poland. Kosinski's father changed the family name at the beginning of World War II in an effort to escape persecution as a Jew. As described later in Kosinski's international bestseller "The Painted Bird" (1965), this plan went horribly wrong. When 6-year-old Jerzy became separated from his parents he was given up for dead; in fact, he spent the next three years roaming the Polish countryside, witnessing and suffering such atrocities that he was struck dumb, recovering his speech only years later when, now reclaimed by his parents from an orphanage and enrolled in a school for the handicapped, he was jolted back to speech by a skiing accident.

Or so the story went, until a 1982 Village Voice article challenged it and just about everything else about Kosinski. The list of charges is lengthy, and some remain only half-substantiated -- or muddied by anecdotes about Kosinski's academic failings or sexual eccentricities -- but a 1996 biography by James Park Sloan maintains that the main accusations are indeed true. These include the revelation that "The Painted Bird," which Kosinski either promoted as an autobiographical novel or allowed to be so interpreted, was the furthest thing from personal experience: The Kosinskis remained together throughout the war, safe and even comfortable. Other charges center around Kosinski's noted inability to express himself clearly in written English: that he hired teams of editors to virtually ghostwrite his books; that "Being There," his 1971 hit, was not only polished by hirelings but Polish in origin, the plot stolen from a book published in the '30s back home.

Some question these charges, others have come forth with corroborations. Kosinski's literary reputation certainly went into a tailspin; when he committed suicide in 1991, some cited the allegations as cause. Some Jewish critics say that, whether true of Kosinski's youth or not, "The Painted Bird" is still a powerful and "true" book. Some Polish critics say that Polish peasants could not have committed such atrocities upon him or anyone. Some critics of the book's style say that, Kosinski's or not, the atrocities lie there:

"The miller, evidently annoyed by the cats' play, kicked the animals away and squashed the eyeballs with his heavy boots. Something popped under his thick sole. A marvelous mirror, which could reflect the whole world, was broken. There remained on the floor only a crushed bit of jelly. I felt a terrible sense of loss."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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