IN PASSION PLAY Jerzy Kosinski has done for polo what Hemingway did for bullfighting, and made a sport into a literary metaphor. His choice of polo was not dictated merely by his own private passion for the game.
"Polo is the oldest organized sport in our recorded history," he says from his two-room Manhattan office located midway between Tiffany's and the Russian Tea Room. "In its make-up, polo is antiquity's answer to American rodeo-- the polo player appears as a sophisticated fusion of the Hollywood swash-buckler and the Wild West's cowboy. In spite of several super-American ingredients, polo has yet managed-- for various social reasons-- to avoid having ever to perform for a mass audience and be turned, like other sports of controlled collision-- hockey and football for instance-- into spectacles of purposefully ugly violence and vulgar conduct that benefit neither the players nor the viewing audience-- but keep TV ratings high."
Both as an avid player and a trained observer, Kosinski was able to survey the U.S. polo scene quite sufficiently to use it as a backdrop for Passion Play, a novel which, he explains, "is, like polo, about 'controlled collision'-- between life's passion and life's play."
The preoccupation with time and its impact on one's emotion and memory-- more than merely on one's body-- is another recurring theme of Passion Play. It is thus appropriate that, after writing, photography should be Kosinski's other form of artistic expression. As a young man he had important shows in Poland of his own photographs. He was, for instance, the youngest artist ever to have a one-man show of photography sponsored by the city of Warsaw in the state-owned gallery of modern art.
In his New York apartment several large albums of photographs taken of Kosinski (photographs by him are kept in rented storage) unreel the documentary of his own life: as a child in Poland; as a boy of six, at the outbreak of World War II, shortly before he was separated from his parents and was sent to spend the war years in the remote peasant villages of Ruthenia and the Ukraine. As if to keep for himself the visual record of this "camera-less" chapter of his life, his albums also contain the photographs of these villages-- and even of the huts that sheltered him-- taken there shortly before the war by a group of American anthropologists and geographers.
The photographs in the albums also show him: as a ski instructor in the Polish Tatra mountains; as a student in Poland and in the Soviet Union; as a truck driver soon after his arrival in New York; with Mary Weir, his late wife. They portray him in his travels on horseback, playing polo, his years as a professor of English at Wesleyan, Princeton and Yale, with his friends, in his encounters with diplomats and heads of state when he was a president of P.E.N., the association of writers.
Says Kosinski: "Recently, I realized that, quite likely in the last 30 years not a single month, often not even a week, passed without my taking pictures of others, who in turn would photograph me with my own camera. No head of state has ever had more pictures taken than I of the state of my head," he quips.
Like Passion Play's Fabian who traverses this country in his VanHome, Kosinski has wandered widely in Europe and the United States. As an emigrant from Poland at the age of 24, Kosinski began his American odyssey as a truck driver, "transporting hats-- one object that I have never worn," through the hot states-- Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, and like Fabian, "enthralled by so measureless a domain."
To become a trucker he had to borrow a lot of money to ease his way into the union. To pay it back he moonlighted as a Kinney parking lot attendant, a cinema projectionist, a chauffeur and racing driver for a black nightclub entrepreneur. "By working in Harlem as a white, uniformed chauffeur I broke a color barrier of the profession" he recalls.
After two years in the United States he learned English well enough to write in it. He obtained a Ford Foundation fellowship and, as a student of social psychology, wrote The Future is Ours, Comrade, the first of his two nonfiction books on collective society, published under the penname "Joseph Novak." The book was an instant best seller, was serilized by the The Saturday Evening Post, condensed by Reader's Digest, and published in 18 languages. He was firmly set on a writing career. "When you're a student you're supposed to read serious books-- not publish them. The pen name allowed me to conduct my studies uninterrupted by the controversy that my books triggered among my fellow students and professors. A side benefit of a pen name is that it allows you to recommend your own books, to those who don't know you've written them, as the very best on the subject-- without ever feeling immodest."
During his publishing debut he met Mary Weir, the widow of a millionaire steel magnate from Pittsburgh. They began dating, and, two years later, after the publication of No Third Path, a study of collective behavior, the second "Novak" volume, they were married.
During his 10 years with Mary Weir (which ended with her death in 1968) Kosinski moved with utmost familiarity in the worlds of the steel industry, big business and high society. He and Mary traveled a great deal-- there was a private plane, a 17-crew boat, and houses in Pittsburgh, New York, Hobe Sound, Southampton, Paris, London and Florence. He led a life most novelists only invent in the pages of their novels.
"During my marriage, I had often thought that it was Stendhal or F. Scott Fitzgerald, both preoccupied with wealth they did not have, who deserved to have had my experience. I wanted to start writing fiction and, frankly, was tempted to begin with a novel that, like Passion Play, would utilize my immediate experience, the dimension of wealth, power and high society that surrounded me, not the poverty I had seen and experienced so shortly before. But during my marriage I was too much a part of Mary's world to extract from it the nucleus of what I saw, of what I felt. And as a writer, I perceived fiction as the art of imaginative extraction. So instead, I decided to write my first novel, The Painted Bird, about a homeless boy in the war-torn Eastern Europe, an existence I've known but also one that was shared by millions of Europeans, yet was foreign to Mary and our American friends. The novel was my gift to Mary, and to her world."
In the years to come -- and in his other novels -- Steps, Being There, Cockpit, The Devil Tree, Blind Date and now Passion Play, he would draw on the experience he had gained during his first American decade when once a "Don Quixote of the turnpike" he had suddenly become a "Captain Ahab of billionaire's row."
Until just recently besides his own active writing and teaching career, Kosinski was also the president of P.E.N., the international association of writers and editors. According to the American P.E.N.'s resolution, made at the end of his two-term tenure and inscribed on a plaque that hangs over his desk, "he has shown an imaginative and protective sense of responsibility for writers all over the world. No single writer can possibly be aware of the full extent of his efforts, but it is clear that they have been extraordinary and that the fruits of what he has achieved will extend far into the future."
In addition to P.E.N., Kosinski has been active in the International League for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and other American human rights organizations. During this interview he was constantly on the phone trying to help a Connecticut poet who wrote to him asking for help in countering a legal action instigated against him by a reader who claimed to have been libeled by one of his poems.
Kosinski is proud to have been greatly responsible for freeing from prisons, helping financially, resettling or otherwise giving assistance to at least 80 writers, political and religious dissidents and intellectuals all over the world, many of whom have thanked him publicly for his role in their liberation. One has even written a book about it. "Whenever I learn of yet another journalist imprisoned, novelist silenced, teacher suspended, I feel implicated by their fate. Here I am, once a dissident myself, free to write, to teach, to travel-- and they-- men and women of my profession-- are not. Their plight spoils my own freedom-- I have to do something for them, something that would improve their condition-- and restore my peace of mind. Thus, I do it as much for myself as for them."
Critic Geoffrey Wolff once said of Kosinski that he "writes his novels so sparsely as though they cost a thousand dollars a word, and a misplaced or misused locution would cost him his life." He was close to the truth: Kosinski writes slowly and rewrites massively: he took almost three years to write Passion Play, and he rewrote it a dozen times; later, in subsequent sets of galley-proofs, he altered most of the novel's text, condensing it by one-third. "Writing is for me a constant crystallization of the very essence-- of characters, and of the setting that the reader needs to recreate it. It is not the mass of details but the clarity of vision that forms the basis for such recreation."
As the author covers the cost of the type re-setting above his 10 percent publisher's allowance. Kosinski's corrections produced the highest bill of his writing career: a large chunk of his advance royalties. But he does not complain. "Writing is the essence of my life-- whatever else I do revolves around a constant thought: could I-- can I-- would I-- should I-- use it in my next novel? When I face the galley-proofs I feel as though my whole life was at stake on every page and that a messy paragraph could mess up my whole life from now on. As I have no children, no family, no relatives, no business or estate to speak of, my books are my only spiritual accomplishment, my life's most private frame of reference, and I would gladly pay all I earn to make it my best."