The Painted Bird: Memoir or Fiction?
Did you ever hear the one about Jerzy Kosinski passing off The Painted Bird as a memoir?
Yeah, that kind of happened.
Here’s how our always trustworthy friends at Wikipedia put it:
The book was published and marketed as a fictional work although it was generally assumed that it was based on the author’s experiences during World War II. Only later did it become clear to most reviewers that Kosiński was neither the boy in the story nor did he share any of the boy’s experiences, as revealed in a series of articles in newspapers and books. The depicted events are now widely known to be fictional. D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University, reviewing a biography of Kosiński noted that initially the author had passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own life during the Holocaust: “Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry. Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosiński confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences.” According to James Park Sloan, by the time the book was going into publication, Kosiński refrained from making further claims of the book being autobiographical – in a letter to de Santillana and in a subsequent author’s note to the book itself. Kosinski nonetheless continued to assert that characterizing the novel as autobiographical “may be convenient for classification, but is not easily justified” (the same language he used in his author’s note and his pre-publication correspondence with de Santillana) in later interviews during his life.
Imagine if something like this happened today, like it did with James Frey, the author who was featured by Oprah before admitting that his “memoir” was actually all fiction.
That’s not all with Kosinski, though. Apparently, he was accused of plagiarism on multiple occasions.
In June 1982, a Village Voice article accused Kosiński of plagiarism, claiming much of his work was derivative of Polish sources unfamiliar to English readers. (Being There, for example, bears a strong resemblance to Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy – The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz). The article also claimed that Kosiński’s books had actually been ghost-written by his “assistant editors,” pointing to striking stylistic differences among Kosiński’s novels. The New York poet, publisher and translator George Reavey claimed to have written The Painted Bird. However, in the opinion of Kosiński’s American biographerJames Sloan, Reavey was simply embittered by his own lack of literary success. Regardless, Reavey’s assertions were ignored by the press.
I’m kind of wondering…how did this novel make the Time list?
I’ll have my review up soon, and I’ll just say it’s unlikely to be favorable.