Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Viswanathan story enters freefall.

One imagines a whole cadre of readers looking into the book for yet further lifts from other writers.

All of which makes me think of an all-but-forgotten 1988 novel by Jerzy Kosinski, has last mad note to the world before offing himself three years later: The Hermit of 69th Street: The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky, which is deliberately, rather madly full of passages from other books. It was Kosinski's answer to charges that his books had been written by others, and from the grave it may well be his odd, half-serious, crossed-fingers-behind-the-back defense of Viswanathan and James Frey, among others. I think I'm one of the two or three people in the world who actually read it all the way through.

A little background. Kosinski's first great success was The Painted Bird, a fantastical, surreal, absolutely brutal account of a child's Holocaust survival. Though more or less presented as a "novel," it came to be thought of as Kosinski's own story. The response of Elie Wiesel, in particular, was telling; he read the book and wrote a very harsh review; then, somehow discovering the book was actually true, tore up his review and wrote a thoroughly positive one. It may have been that in Wiesel's way of looking at things, genuine Holocaust survivors had the right to recount their experiences, but onlookers didn't have the right to imagine them, and for some reason Kosinski went from one to the other, although in the public mind he gradually seemed to go the other way. The book came to be regarded variously as autobiographical, semiautobiographical, fictional and, ultimately, not even as Kosinski's own, as a damning Village Voice expose revealed that Kosinski's early works in English had largely been written by grad students with a better grasp of English prose than his own.

The Hermit of 69th Street is a fictional memoir, very much like Nabokov's Look at the Harlequins! though nowhere near as brilliant -- involving the life and times of a Kosinski-esque writer who wrote books that sounded a lot like his and had experiences to match. (Kosinski starred in Warren Beatty's Reds, about the Russian Revolution, for example, while Kosky starred in something called Total State.)

it's been years since I read the book, so my memory is wobbly, but Kosinski had a few interesting ideas by way of making a defense of himself as a writer, memoirist and fictionist. His memoir and his life was a part of a pool, both real and imagined, his own experiences and others, the books he had read, the books he had written -- everything a writer puts himself in touch with, he seemed to be saying, becomes part of his own body of experiences on which to draw. The very narrative of the book freely pulled in quotes from dozens of other writers -- usually in bold or set off in some way -- as if to say that literature is all about cross-pollination and that every story, even his own, is merely the latest bastard child of whatever came before it.

In some strange sad way, Norbert Kosky is beginning to take shape as the spiritual godfather of a whole new generation.

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