Saturday, 5 October 2013

Book review: Good night Dżerzi by Janusz Głowacki

I've written about playwright and author Janusz Głowacki before having read his autobiography, Z głowy (2004). Good night Dżerzi (2010) is a more serious work, based on the life of Jerzy Kosiński, the Polish-American novelist. The book's structure is exceptionally interesting, being a seamless blend of autobiography, biography and fiction. The trouble is with spotting where one genre ends and another begins.

For those who've come to the book familiar with the jocular tone of Z głowy, Good night Dżerzi opens as autobiography. Janusz Głowacki (Dżanus) is in New York. He's talking to a pair of Broadway producers about writing a play about the life of Jerzy Kosiński, who had committed suicide in 1991. Kosiński had achieving critical and popular acclaim with his books Painted Bird and Being There, the latter becoming an Oscar-winning film starring Peter Sellers. The former was about a boy wandering around wartime Poland, subjected to horrendous cruelties by Polish peasants. Kosiński left America thinking that Painted Bird was autobiographical; in fact he and his family were saved from the Holocaust by a Polish family.

Good night Dżerzi takes us into Kosiński's world. To what extent is it based on fact (Głowacki knew Kosiński well from his sojourn in New York in the early 1980s), and to what extent is it fiction, we can only speculate. For example, there's a scene in which Kosiński is asked to present awards at an Oscar ceremony. The producer's name is invented, as is probably much of the dialogue; but the event did happen. (Click here to see Kosiński at the 1982 Oscars.) What we don't know is how much of Głowacki's dialogue was based on conversations he may have had on the subject with Kosiński, and how much Głowacki just made up.

But hey, it's a novel, so Głowacki can be creative... But to what extent? The drifting between genres is unsettling at first, but after a while, begins to intrigue. The book follows Kosiński's fall from grace, encircled by a growing number of critics who are accusing him of plagiarism, of passing off fiction as autobiography, of manipulating editors and translators for his greater glory, and  - the central thread of the novel - his callous exploitation of the women in his life.

The two Broadway producers we meet in the novel's opening have been approached by the husband of a woman that Kosiński has seduced. He is a wealthy German businessman and wants the story of the (now dead) Kosiński turned into a play. And Głowacki is the man to write it, being a) a playwright, b) a fellow-Pole and c) someone who knew Kosiński well.

Głowacki's novel about a play (to be turned into a film) he's writing about the life of a well-known author is set largely in New York City, largely among it's Russian immigrant community (the German's wife is Russian). This allows for many scenes, some with Kosiński, some with Głowacki, getting very drunk and in the depths of their drunkenness unearthing the deepest secrets of the creative soul.

Russia intrudes heavily in this book. Masha, the wife (and Kosiński's lover) is from Russia and through her we are shown a debased nation lacking in morality, drunken, debauched, lacking human values. The virus spreads with its emigrants to New York, its Little Russia on the Atlantic coast battered by storms, waves, high winds and pelting rain.

An ingenious book that questions the price that creative artists pay for achieving and clinging on to fame, Good night, Dżerzi would work well in English. The book was well received and well read in Poland; it could do well outside Poland too.

If I were to have any reservations about the book, it is with its ending; it lacks circularity; we don't return to the original premise and our two Broadway producers; it drifts away and ends somewhere else.

This time last year:
More serious setbacks on Second Metro line construction

This time three years ago:
Leonard Cohen in Katowice

This time five years ago:
The short-term future of suburban development (How right I was!)

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