From “ ‘Being There’ in Toronto,” a May 3, 1987, speech by Jerzy Kosinski. Oral Pleasure, a collection of Kosinski’s speeches, essays, and interviews, edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack and Kiki Kosinski, will be published next month by Grove/Atlantic. Kosinski’s novels include The Painted Bird and Being There. He committed suicide in 1991.
Once a novelist is portrayed half-naked, as I was, on the cover of a magazine, his profile clearly changes. Once a novelist steps outside of his novel, he becomes a public figure. And once he becomes a public figure—you know this as well as I do—he is no different than any other public figure.
To illustrate the predicament of the novelist: A man came to New Haven to interview me for an American newspaper. After the interview, we went to a nearby restaurant, where it just so happened that a birthday party was taking place at another table. The man who was being celebrated must have been the largest human being I have ever seen. As you can tell, I don’t have much flesh to hide the soul, so I was astonished at the sheer mass of that man’s flesh. I would love to be his size, since I find it an astonishing accomplishment to love life so much. Fat is life. Fat is flesh. Flesh is something I have always envied. Too bad I can demonstrate it only in my novels and not in person.
In any case, in front of the man were three or four chocolate cakes. Personally, I don’t eat chocolate cakes; they don’t agree with me. And I probably don’t have the space for them, even if they did. But I noticed that even after three cakes, this man could easily have eaten more. So I asked the waiter to send him another cake and to charge it to my Master Charge card. The waiter sent the cake. The man looked at me with gratitude. He probably thought to himself that I could have stuffed myself to no end, that I could have eaten fifteen such cakes, and the fact that I was sending him a cake was a very honest act of admiration. “Hey, thanks, buddy,” he said, and ate the cake, indicating to his friends that he was moved that a stranger would send him such a thing.
The reporter turned to me and asked, “Mr. Kosinski, why did you do that?” I said that I sent the chocolate cake because I felt that the man would enjoy it—that he could have his cake and eat it too, or something like that, I don’t know—and besides, in the novel that I was writing at that time [The Devil Tree], I was going to have a character do a similar thing, though with an entirely different motive in mind. In Eastern Europe, we don’t have chocolate cakes. But in my novel, my character would send a chocolate cake to find out whether the man who received it would be silly enough to eat it, knowing that the cake might actually kill him. My character would say when you are that big and have only one heart, an average American heart, there are only so many cakes you can eat.
Well, what came out in print was that Kosinski was basically a chocolate-cake killer; and that, having survived World War II, there was no telling what else I might do. Since the reporter was a veteran of the Vietnam War, readers assumed that he wrote with a ring of truth. Who knows? Maybe he was right: perhaps you can kill somebody with chocolate cake.
Later, I made the mistake of going on a television show in Washington, D.C.—I think it was called Panorama, with Maury Povich—where I was asked to be a cohost. Telegrams from fat people started pouring in. “Mr. Kosinski, you are a fat-hater,” they said. “You of all people should be ashamed of yourself. You, as a survivor of the war. Why do you want to kill fat people?”
Then, in Passion Play, I depicted a fat girl. She was in her twenties, short and plump with an open face. I actually liked her a lot as a character. Her waist was as wide as her hips. Her breasts were large and shapeless; they seemed too heavy for her torso and shifted with every movement she made, pouring from side to side, slapping against her ribs, sloping when she leaned forward. Actually, I found it very exciting: female breasts are a source of life, and the larger they are, the more life they contain. In the novel, she takes the protagonist, who is drunk, back to her house and lets him rest until he feels well enough to move on. And there is a love scene. But that doesn’t matter, at least not to my critics. After Passion Play was published, the letters began to arrive—letters reinforced, remember, by The Devil Tree. This is one of the letters that I received.
I have read just about all your fiction and everything the media has to say about you. And I have come to this conclusion: You’ve got to be one of the meanest little creeps on earth. My God, with all the suffering you say you have been through, you treat people like trash. This is, of course, if the things you write are true. I am reading Passion Play now. I think the well has gone dry, my man. OK, but what truly sets me off was how you treat this fat girl on page 158. You practically describe this girl as a no-good sow. You shouldn’t have messed with her in the first place if you feel her so repulsive. Have you taken a look at yourself lately, kiddo? You could go sucking up ants with that hooter of yours.
Then, as far as your body goes, there was a picture of you on the cover of a magazine. It looked like you had just had the hair waxed off your chest. Also, let me tell you this: it seems like most of the female characters in your books are body-beautiful, acrobatic, pseudointellectual whores. You know, there are some women in this world who are not 5’7”, 110 pounds of boobs and legs, who do not summer on Montego Bay or screw around like cats. There are some average people who are actually more than they seem, but why tell you this? You are so-o-o heartless, you probably don’t care what real affection is all about. It seems to me the fat girl was just reaching out to you for affection. I hope that when you are old, man, you know what misery and loneliness is all about.
p.s. Sorry for my grammar. My God, I don’t pretend to be a writer. My friends call me Fat Pat.
Now obviously this hurts. It hurts because it simply is not true. But what can a novelist do, call the letter writer and enter into a personal dispute with her? The fat girl is a character in a fiction of mine. The character exists independently of me. I have no relationship with her; it is the male protagonist, Fabian, who has the relationship. So how do I resolve Fat Pat’s concern? Were we to meet, she would probably take one look at me and say: “Sure, you hate fat people. Look at you.”