It is no exaggeration to say that I've been meaning to read Jerzy Kosinski Steps for decades. Somehow, though, I've never gotten around to it. I read The Painted Bird (1965) many years ago and was suitably impressed, and I remember Kosinski well from the 70s and 80s. During those years he was twice president of the American chapter of P.E.N, and his books were easy to find in bookstores. How different those times were, when a writer like Kosinski appeared on The Tonight Show many times and later on Late Night with David Letterman, where, as I remember, he was quite amusing. I loved the film version of his novel Being There (1979), which he did the screenplay for, and he provided a bracing, acerbic presence playing the Old Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev in Warren Beatty's Reds (1981).
Then came what you might call the downfall. There were the allegations of plagiarism in his work, the claims that editors more proficient than him in English had written or re-written substantial portions of his books. There was the charge that The Painted Bird was not autobiographical, which, at one point, he had suggested at least to the world at large. Though he was acclaimed for The Painted Bird, which was his debut novel, and a National Book Award winner for Steps (1968), some in the literary world accused him of being a con man and literary fraudster. In the mid to late eighties, physical infirmities set in, and depressed about these as well as the tarnishing of his reputation, Kosinski, in 1991, at his apartment in New York City, committed suicide. He took a large amount of booze and pills and tied a plastic bag over his head, and then died of suffocation. His note: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity."
That was all long ago now, and with the turmoil and controversy gone, things of the past, what's left are the actual books. Most people today who pick up a Kosinski novel would probably not know offhand about the charges once leveled at his work. I've always felt that it doesn't matter one iota whether The Painted Bird is autobiographical or not; it's a highly controlled and disturbing look at one character's survival in Eastern Europe during World War II, and whether or not it happened precisely as written to Kosinski himself is immaterial.