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Jerzy by Jerome Charyn
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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Because his persona was so strange and illusive, understanding Jerzy Kozinski was challenging for his biographer, James Park Sloan. In the final analysis, Sloan speculated that Kozinski suffered from alexithymia, a regression of feeling that "makes the affects useless in the processing of information." An alternative approach to the Kozinski story might be to imagine him in a work of historical fiction. This is what Jerome Charyn does in JERZY. In an interview, Charyn described Kozinski as “a shadow within a shadow within a shadow.” He never mastered the English language, a fact that lead to his eventual downfall because of his extensive use of “editors.” What he did master, however, was something he learned in Nazi-occupied Poland—the art of lying and dissembling. Charyn captures this quality admirably in his novel, but also portrays Kozinski as a gifted storyteller. Ultimately Kozinski used stories to once again survive. Only this time, it was not the Nazis, but a language and culture where he was never completely comfortable.

Charyn uses multiple narrators, some based on real people and others imagined, to tell Jerzy’s story. His approach is to start at the end and work backward through his colorful life to the time when Kozinski’s strange persona may have formed. He begins in the period of Kozinski’s peak fame, when he derived much satisfaction from social climbing and hobnobbing with celebrities, including Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden. Ian worked for Peter Sellers at the time and relates the story of Sellers’ intense interest in portraying Chauncey Gardner in a movie version of “Being There.” Kozinski loved playing hard to get with Sellers, but eventually relented. Because Sellers comes across as just about a weird as Kozinski, this part of the novel is quite amusing. One of the more humorous anecdotes in this section tells of a meeting between Sellers and Stan Laurel, who is now living in a retirement home and missing his longtime partner, Oliver Hardy. Sellers manages to convince Stan that he is Hardy with delightful results.

Svetlana Alliluyeva was briefly Jerzy’s neighbor on the faculty at Princeton. Jersy admired Stalin and was completely taken with Svetlana.

As the novel progresses backward, Charyn introduces Kozinski’s alcoholic ex-wife. As a consummate social climber, Jerzy saw the obvious advantages in being married to the heir to the petroleum jelly fortune. However, he demonstrates little real affection for or loyalty to this bizarre woman.

Next up is Anna Karenina, a dominatrix who Kozinski meets while patronizing her sex club. Caryn uses this relationship to introduce his problems with eclectic storytelling encumbered by awkward writing in English. Anna provides Jerzy with an extremely talented and sexy young editor who manages to re-write his prose using Stalin’s much loved green pencil.

The most revealing chapter deals with Jerzy’s early life in Poland. He often told the story, related in “The Painted Bird”, of abandonment by his parents during the war and being left to wander the countryside. Charyn sets that record straight by depicting Jerzy, surviving as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland, not by abandonment, but by dissembling. His father managed to hide him and his family right under the noses of the Germans by masquerading as Catholics.

The narrative deftly travels backward by carefully pealing away the layers of Kozinski’s bizarre life, much like an archeologist would, to reveal a few shards of truth. We discover a traumatized boy who learned to survive and even succeed by his wits and imagination.

Charyn approaches his subject with a clear eye. At the height of his career, Kozinski did enjoy many successes. He was a major literary figure, winning prestigious awards. He made the acquaintance of famous and powerful people and was a darling of the talk show circuit. Charyn also gives us a ruthless social climber, sexual libertine, pathological liar and strange exhibitionist. On balance, he returns to where he started. “There is no meaning. He was a shadow within a shadow within a shadow.” ( )
  ozzer | Mar 17, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Jewish boy saved himself from the Nazis in Poland by pretending to be a Catholic, even to the point of becoming an altar boy. Pretending to be someone else became a way of life for Jerzy Kosinski (he was born Jozef Lowenkopf), the noted Polish-American author and the protagonist of Jerome Charyn's new novel, "Jerzy." "I cannot function without disguises and masks," Charyn has Kosinski say.

The theme of pretense and disguise fills Charyn's novel, and it isn't only the title character who is a master of deception. The novel begins, in fact, with actor Peter Sellers, gifted at impersonation, who played the lead role in the film "Being There," adapted from one of Kosinski's novels. Other people whose lives intersected with Kosinski's, including Princess Margaret and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin's daughter), were good at playing roles. Of one character we are told, "Gabriela would undergo sudden changes. She'd show up dressed as a man, her long hair pulled back and hidden under a hat." Jerzy remembers his father playing chess with himself: "He could change his persona, according to which side of the board he was on."

"We're all painted birds," Jerzy says at one point, a reference to another of his novels, "The Painted Bird." Charyn seems to suggest that everyone is something of a fake, our real selves hidden behind paint or false smiles or other people's hats.

The novel wanders, going back and forth in time with a variety of different narrators picking up the thread of the story. We read, in no particular order, about his survival during World War II, his escape to the West, his coming to the United States in 1957, his marriage to an alcoholic heiress, his literary success and then the accusation that he plagiarized much of his work. It was quite a life, in reality as well as in fiction, before it ended prematurely with suicide in 1991. Unfortunately it was the real Jerzy Kosinski who died that day. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Mar 15, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I loved some of this -- the depiction of Peter Sellers was fascinating, and I happily tore through the first narrative. The language was vivid and idiosyncratic, and the characters surprising. But I always have trouble with novels that get you to the end (in this case Jerzy's suicide) early on and then start again from another point of view -- in this case 4 more, each covering different parts of his life. There are two mysteries here -- what parts of Jerzy's endless inventions are true, and whether he was really the unassisted author of The Painted Bird -- but they did little to give this fractured structure any strong forward momentum, and I found my interest flagging, till I finally put it down unfinished. I think I would have enjoyed it much more if the different stories had been interwoven with each other, which would have created more suspense and sharpened the juxtapositions. ( )
  JillianaBartleby | Mar 2, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A few times a year, I will read a book by an author that is new to me. Of course, this sometimes leads me to books I just don’t finish or find lacking in some way. Fortunately, this was not the case with Jerzy. I was drawn into the story of author Jerzy Kosinski immediately, and completely enjoyed the way Jerome Charyn presented it. I’m quite thankful to have had the opportunity to read this book. I've found myself a couple of authors whose books I will be seeking out. I’m certain others will feel the same. ( )
  myra.reads | Feb 24, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book describes the author Jerzy Kosinski through five different people's views/time periods in his life. It is highly entertaining with great detail and will keep you guessing...about what constitutes the truth. And just a random aside, when Jerzy speaks, I always imagined Holly Golightly telling stories in the setting of Dr. Zhivago. ( )
  Bricker | Feb 22, 2017 |
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