Is Janusz Głowacki’s new book a fictionalized story about Jerzy Kosiński? An answer in the affirmative would be the simplest of possible answers, but it would also misleading, because Good Night, Jerzy is a complicated, multi-layered, and fragmentary novel. Although, of course, the figure of Kosiński has been placed in the main thread, the fictional axis of the text is the story of the work of the narrator—a fictional alter ego for Głowacki—on a screenplay about the author of The Painted Bird for a German film producer. The other threads develop around this axis. The narrator shows the reader around contemporary New York, allows him to look behind the scenes of the business of literature in the Sates, revealing a marketplace of vanities, full of ruthless literary agents and writers chasing after celebrity; he tells the story of the toxic relationship that linked the German producer, his young Russian wife, and Kosiński; and he records the dreams of the main characters …
Why was it precisely Kosiński who drew Głowacki’s attention? Was his goal only and exclusively to recall the figure of the scandalous Polish-Jewish-American writer, who was considered by some an excellent, uncompromising prose writer, by others, a confidence trickster and a habitual liar, who skillfully manipulated people in order to further his career. Yes, and no. Głowacki had contemplated writing about the author of Being There much earlier. First he wrote a play on that topic, then he worked on a screenplay for a film, but in the end none of these projects were brought to completion, and fragments from them went into Good Night, Jerzy. This time he completed the story about the title figure Jerzy, although he did it his own way: by multiplying the points of view, by portraying the various, often contradictory opinions about the author of The Painted Bird, and yet refraining from unambiguous assessments, from making a definitive statement. Głowacki has created the portrait of a writer, who wrestled with private demons, got lost in the myths he created about himself, and simultaneously made desperate attempts to remain afloat in life and salvage his career.
- Robert Ostaszewski
“Perhaps,” sighed Roger, pouring us some more Chilean black wine. “Perhaps. But what do you really want to say about him that’s new?”
We were sitting in comfortable cane armchairs. It was October, in other words, what they call Indian Summer here. Fog was rising from over the Hudson, the ships had already sailed away, and the lights of New Jersey had become less distinct. Roger had put on a little weight lately, but for seventy he looked great. His watery round eyes were attentive, and his lips were in constant motion. He would eat napkins, theater tickets, and parking stubs. There was often quite a lot of trouble on account of this.
“Because we all know he told lies,” Raul added. “And it is also obvious that he left almost no literary legacy.”
A fat black tomcat jumped up on Raul’s lap. It nudged him in the stomach, demanding to be petted. And Raul devoted himself completely to the cat, which was in ecstasy, stiffened, raised its tail, and stuck its rear in the air. And when Raul obediently began to scratch it in the vicinity of the tail, it began to whine, more like a dog than a cat.
“He was definitely intelligent, in fact, very much so,” said Roger, affectionately watching the cat’s contortions. “Perhaps even intelligent enough to suspect that the majority of what he wrote was worthless, and that it would fall apart like a house of cards with the slightest breeze.” He leaned toward Raul and blew on the cat’s rear. “And that is why he needed some sort of big final spectacle. Do you remember, Raul? Jerzy often said suicide is the best method for prolonging your life.”
For a moment we all watched what was going on with the black cat. The other three cats were watching him too. They were no longer indifferent; they were starting to stretch and stiffen in their armchairs.
“If that’s so,” I asked, “then why did all of you fall on your knees before him? You wrote that Jerzy was a cross between Beckett and Dostoyevsky, Genet and Kafka.”
“Michael! That’s enough now, enough.” Raul attempted to throw the cat onto the stone floor, but it dug into his pants with its claws. “That’s enough, nigger.”
The cat finally gave up and jumped softly to the floor.
“Look, Roger, blood … I’m going to have claw tracks again,” Raul complained.
“But why, why?” said Roger, shrugging his shoulders. “My dear boy, go wipe it with hydrogen peroxide, and bring us another bottle.” He smiled at Raul and saw him off with an affectionate gaze. Raul came from San Jose, he was much younger than Roger, and he moved like a domesticated—but, nonetheless, predatory—animal. “Probably because the world lost the ability long ago to distinguish talent from lack of talent, and lies from the truth. Or perhaps for some other reason. Perhaps because America had never seen someone like Jerzy before. That’s why he screwed us. And now, as we hear, Janusz, you intend to shaft him posthumously.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Wait a minute, wait a minute …”
“Don’t get all offended. Do you remember, Raul, that he smelled funny.”
“Sort of like patchouli,” noted Raul.
“No, no, no. It wasn’t patchouli. Has it ever occurred to you, Janusz, that the soul has a scent? It might smell of goat, or it might smell of roses. It is written that when God created man he breathed His spirit into him through his mouth, but perhaps at that same time the Devil crawled up and breathed his spirit into his ass? I have only one request. Show some respect for our intelligence and don’t try to tell us you want to write the truth about him.”
“That’s just it,” Raul interjected. “Remember: the further from the truth, the closer to Jerzy.”
“Either way, we wish you success. Of course, a crowd of people will immediately gather to attack you, screaming that they knew him better, and that that wasn’t how it was at all. But that shouldn’t bother you, since you screwed first. But just don’t count on us. Because we aren’t all that certain there’s anyone left in New York, apart from us, who still remembers who Jerzy was in the first place.”
“Well, now you’re exaggerating,” I said.
Raul uncorked another bottle; the three cats joined the black one at our feet and formed a teeming mass of meowing and howling, scratching and biting. The orgy of the castrates was beginning.
The next day the weather turned bad, and it suddenly began to pour. Still, I went to Barnes & Noble, a huge bookstore of several stories on Broadway, across from Lincoln Center, and asked for a book on Kosiński.
“Who? Could you spell the name?” the young salesperson asked me.
I spelled it once, then once again, then again, but now through clenched teeth. He tapped on the computer keyboard, shook his head, and said:
I sagged, was filled with doubt, and gave up on Jerzy.
Translated by David Frick