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Book Review: ‘Jerzy: A Novel’ by Jerome Charyn

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.

Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.

It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.

As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.

It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”

Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:

No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.

It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.

What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:

“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Hollywood, Holocaust, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, writers, writing

Review: BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

Yuri and Stavrogin: It is a matter of trust.

In Herman Melville’s last novel, “Billy Budd,” we follow the fate of an orphan plucked from adversity and conscripted into the British Royal Navy. In the graphic novel by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq, the lost little orphan is carted off into the service of the Soviet Union. Like Melville’s main character, there is something special about this boy. As we find in much of Charyn’s work, we have a protagonist of limited means compelled to honor his great potential. However, as we begin, we have only an emotionally stunted, ignorant lad with a hideous harelip. It is 1954. Stalin is in power. Yuri cannot resist all that is offered to him by the Soviets. In fact, he has no choice. “Billy Bud, KGB,” originally released in France in 1990, has recently been re-issued, with a new English translation by Jerome Charyn, by Dover Comics and Graphic Novels.

Four graphic novels by Jerome Charyn, available from Dover Publications.

Mr. Charyn’s literary career began in America in 1964 with his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,” a story of underdogs fighting to remain in their tenement apartment. After 19 prose novels, including the Isaac Sidel crime noir series, Charyn decided to adapt one of his stories into a graphic novel. That led to more. It all began with 1987’s “The Magician’s Wife,” with artist François Boucq. They also collaborated on 2014’s “Little Tulip.” Another graphic novel by Charyn in a similar spirit is 1991’s “The Boys of Sheriff Street,” with artist Jacques de Loustal. All four of these stories have multi-layered plots, primarily set in New York City, and filled with offbeat characters.

Yuri encounters the spiritual realm.

Our main character, Yuri, seems to be a typical malleable cog but something burns inside him making him go astray. He is far too innocent and ignorant to be in command of his intuitive desire to rebel. All he knows is that there must be more to life than what his Soviet handlers are telling him. Luckily, Yuri stumbles into a friendship with an instructor that will inform the rest of his life. Comrade Grigori’s unique artistic skills and broad knowledge have made him an asset over the years at the KGB training camp. But that same treasure trove of knowledge makes him very dangerous to the Soviet agenda. As a tutor, mentor, and friend, he provides Yuri with a key to unlock his soul.

It’s not easy being a spy.

By fits and starts, Yuri emerges as material for a competent secret agent. The KGB arranges a few encounters with prostitutes in order to, in their view, make Yuri more worldly. And then he’s shipped off to America. His new identity, a knowing nod to Melville: William “Billy” Budd, the lost soul. It will be up to the newly minted Billy in New York City to struggle with his life’s purpose. Stavrogin plucked him out of a ditch and gave him a future. Grigori opened his eyes to life’s possibilities. And Red Eagle, a Native American mystic, may offer him the salvation he’s hungered for all along.

Yuri gains a deeper spiritual connection.

Both Charyn and Boucq work in such a synchronized and nuanced manner that was as rare a treat then as it is now. Such pairing can only happen when the time is right. Today, readers in America and in general, are far more receptive to this level of quality. While a unique challenge, some creators choose to control all aspects of their work alone. But, as this graphic novel collaboration makes clear, the results can be stunning when writer and artist work together. We can all thank novelist Jerome Charyn for being a true trailblazer in adding his unique literary talent to the pantheon of exemplary work in comics. This book is a mesmerizing story and comics of the first order.

BILLY BUDD, KGB by Jerome Charyn and François Boucq

“Billy Bud, KGB” is a 144-page full color trade paperback. For more details, and how to purchase, visit Dover Publications right here. You can find it at Amazon right here.

Also note a Kickstarter campaign going on now thru May 21st for a deluxe reprint of FAMILY MAN, a collaboration between Jerome Charyn and Joe Staton.

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Filed under Comics, Dover Publications, François Boucq, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Jerome Charyn, Russia, Soviet Union, Spies