In the book In Love With Jerzy Kosinski we go inside Agate Nesaule's head because that is where all the action is. Or rather, we go inside the head of Anna, Nesaule's fictional alter ego, a woman who has a lot in common with her creator. Both are English professors, both endured World War II as young children in Latvia, became refugees, and immigrated to the United States in their teens. And both (according to the author's note) are obsessed with the late Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski.
Hardly anything happens in this book. Anna learns to drive and leaves her husband with little fanfare. She gets a job and a boyfriend, and she thinks about Jerzy Kosinski. She reads, she gardens, she cooks. But Anna's past is never more than a millimeter below the surface, and her memories are triggered by the smallest event. The sight of a traffic cop paralyzes her because he reminds her of the Russian soldiers who took away her father. A warehouse fire convinces her that a war has begun in the city where she's living. Anna's horrific childhood in Latvia colors nearly every moment of her life, but on the surface she is calm, measured. One secret of survival, it seems, is to never let anyone know how much you are struggling.
It is the contrast between Anna's serene exterior and her roiling interior that makes this book so interesting. Nesaule plays up this contrast by juxtaposing Anna's controlled existence in the present with the chaos of her memories. No drama in Anna's adult life can begin to match the drama she has already lived through. No man is as needy as her father was after the Russians were through with him.
Is this why Anna is so drawn to Jerzy Kosinski, a man who made his professional reputation recounting the drama of his own life in the clutches of the Nazis in Poland? Anna must remain in control, but Jerzy Kosinski can reveal everything at the top of his lungs; indeed can embellish and even falsify the real story to achieve the greatest possible effect.
Agate Nesaule is also the author of A Woman in Amber, a memoir of her life in Latvia. Might someone ask whether In Love With Jerzy Kosinski is just a fictionalized retelling of that same story? I don't think it's that simple. Just as Anna's everyday reality is colored by the events from her past, so is Nesaule's. I don't believe that Nesaule could write anything that wasn't influenced by her earlier life. No, let me rephrase that. Nesaule is an extremely talented writer who could write anything she wanted; I just can't imagine anything that would be as powerful and heartbreaking as the truth.
Isthmus readers will recognize the book's various Madison settings and events, including the farmers' market, the Edgewater Hotel and the Central Storage warehouse fire of 1991. Nesaule lives in Madison and is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. This book was published by Terrace Books, an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press.