the painted bird: vignettes of ornithological & human horror

two words: perverse odyssey

first edition cover, 1965

I read the first half of The Painted Bird cold, before I had any details on Jerzy Kosinski. I understood there was an autobiographical element to the novel and was excited to get to know him through his words describing his ordeal during the holocaust. But with an increasing unwilling suspension of disbelief and an urge to call Adam and Jamie, I reevaluated the term TIME used to describe the novel – ‘controversial’. What exactly did they mean?

Mid-novel, I decided to look Kosinski up. I found a slew of negative press and this cumulative review. Turns out Kosinski may have been a hack, a fraud, a pervert, a liar, a social-climber, a plagiarist, non-Jewish, and never poor.

With suspicions (then some!) affirmed, I plunged into the second half of the novel searching for literary rather than historical merit…. I closed the novel wondering – how did The Painted Bird make TIME any Top 100?

To be fair, Kosinski starts off well. The Painted Bird opens with Marta’s death described by believably innocent and confused eyes. The central image of a painted bird being devoured by its own kind, and other ornithological allusion, is also quite stunning. It speaks to how eager we are to viciously annihilate even one of our own out of misplaced xenophobia. Ludmila’s brutal murder by fellow peasant women is the epitome of this imagery.

kosinski was as notorious for his lies as he was famous for his fiction

But then the novel spirals deeper and deeper into pointless and contrived accounts that appear less and less about insight into war and more a platform for perverse predilections. The Painted Bird devolves into vignettes of sexual abasement and horror described by a conveniently/inconveniently placed little boy, with bits of holocaust thrown in to legitimize it. It began to feel like a sick joke.

Kosinski had a knack for appropriating and exploiting tragedy – he did it with The Tate/Manson Murders, saying he was an invited guest the night of August 8, 1969, a claim Polanski denies. There’s also his vocal by-proxy battle with brain cancer à la his wife, where he fails to mention that she divorced him and wrote him out of her will before she died. And many other blatant and exploitative omissions and lies.

Whichever way you look at it, being a real, adjacent or imaginary holocaust survivor is not literary absolution, and The Painted Bird page after page morphs into trivial and artless treatment of a deadly serious subject.

I feel duped and defiled. Just the way he seemed to like it.

I was excited to read The Painted Bird, and unless Kosinski’s apparent hoax is part of an elaborate painted bird experiment – he the painted bird and me part of the mob flock that devours him – the novel is a huge disappointment and easily the worst book I’ve ever read.

the painted bird killed the music inside me


Though still a work in progress, here are the novels that I’ll be reading in 2011.

Struck through titles have been completed.
Bold titles are presently being read.
* indicates reread.

  1. 1984-1948-George Orwell
  2. The Adventures of Augie March-1953-Saul Bellow
  3. All The King’s Men-1946-Robert Penn Warren
  4. American Pastoral-1997-Philip Roth
  5. An American Tragedy-1925-Theodore Dreiser
  6. Animal Farm-1946-George Orwell*
  7. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret-1970-Judy Blume
  8. At Swim-Two-Birds-1938-Flann O’Brien
  9. Atonement-2002-Ian McEwan
  10. Beloved-1987-Toni Morrison*
  11. The Big Sleep-1939-Raymond Chandler
  12. The Blind Assassin-2000-Margaret Atwood
  13. Blood Meridian-1986-Cormac McCarthy
  14. Catch-22-1961-Joseph Heller
  15. The Catcher in the Rye-1951-J.D. Salinger*
  16. A Clockwork Orange-1963-Anthony Burgess
  17. The Corrections-2001-Jonathan Franzen
  18. The Death of the Heart-1958-Elizabeth Bowen
  19. The French Lieutenant’s Woman-1969-John Fowles
  20. Go Tell it on the Mountain-1953-James Baldwin
  21. The Grapes of Wrath-1939-John Steinbeck
  22. The Great Gatsby-1925-F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. A Handful of Dust-1934-Evelyn Waugh
  24. The Heart is A Lonely Hunter-1940-Carson McCullers
  25. The Heart of the Matter-1948-Graham Greene
  26. Herzog-1964-Saul Bellow
  27. Housekeeping-1981-Marilynne Robinson
  28. I, Claudius-1934-Robert Graves
  29. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe-1950-C. S. Lewis
  30. Lolita-1955-Vladimir Nabokov*
  31. Lord of the Flies-1955-William Golding
  32. Lucky Jim-1954-Kingsley Amis
  33. The Man Who Loved Children-1940-Christina Stead
  34. Midnight’s Children-1981-Salman Rushdie
  35. Mrs. Dalloway-1925-Virginia Woolf
  36. Naked Lunch-1959-William Burroughs
  37. Never Let Me Go-2005-Kazuo Ishiguro
  38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-1962-Ken Kesey
  39. The Painted Bird-1965-Jerzy Kosinski
  40. A Passage to India-1924-E. M. Forster
  41. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie-1961-Muriel Sparks
  42. Snow Crash-1992-Neal Stephenson
  43. The Sound and the Fury-1929-William Faulkner
  44. The Sun Also Rises-1926-Ernest Hemingway
  45. Super Sad True Love Story-2010-Gary Shteyngart
  46. Things Fall Apart-1959-Chinua Achebe*
  47. To the Lighthouse-1927-Virginia Woolf
  48. Ubik-1969-Phillip Dick
  49. Ulysses-1922-James Joyce
  50. Under The Net-1954-Iris Murdoch
  51. Under The Volcano-1947-Malcolm Lowry
  52. Watchmen-1986-Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons*
  53. White Teeth-2000-Zadie Smith*
  54. Wide Sargasso Sea-1966-Jean Rhys*