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Being There

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Bantam, New York, 1978
(price: $2.25; 124 pages)
first published 1971

dedication: For Katerina v. F. who taught me that love is more than the longing to be together

The blurb on the back:

A startling novel for the electronic age about fame, power, money, sex - and a hero who gets it all.
The hero of this astonishing novel is called Chance - he may be the man of tomorrow. Flung into the real world when his rich benefactor dies, Chance is helped on his life journey by Elizabeth Eve, the young beautiful, resourceful wife of a dying Wall Street mogul.
Accidentally launched into the world of sex, money, power - and national television - he becomes a media superstar, a household name, the man of the hour - and who knows, perhaps our next President.

Peter Sellers was a bit like Alfred Hitchcock. He made his name with a series of excellent films in Britain, then went to Hollywood and became much more famous and much more successful, simply by making worse movies. Compared to, say, The Naked Truth or Heavens Above, the vast bulk of his American work is deeply embarrassing: The Magic Christian anyone? Murder By Death? No, I didn't think so.

Fortunately, however, he got to make Being There just before he died. And it's a work of rare and precious genius.

The story is of a simple-minded man named Chance who has lived all his conscious life in the house of a very rich man in New York, employed as a gardener. When the old man dies, the house is closed up and Chance is thrown out on the street with nothing but a minimal IQ and a memory of TV shows to help him. Fortunately he stumbles into being accepted into the home of millionaire power-broker Melvyn Douglas and his society wife, Shirley MacLaine. Their comprehensive misunderstanding of him extends from his name (Chance the gardener becomes Chauncey Gardiner) to believing that his simple tales of gardening are actually profound parables. It's not long before he's become a TV celebrity himself, being heralded as either the Messiah or the next President.

The movie is totally wondrous, and Sellers deservedly got an Oscar nomination for his performance (shamefully Dustin Hoffman got the award for Kramer vs Kramer), but even better was the subsequent discovery that the novel on which it was based is just as good. In fact it's almost exactly the same. Jerzy Kosinski adapted his book himself and he made as few changes to it as he could, evidently believing - with due cause - that it was close to perfection already.

It's difficult to praise the novel highly enough. If it has a parallel, then the mix of satire and parable and the economy of the language are perhaps reminiscent of Animal Farm. Less agricultural, of course, but comparable somehow.

Kosinski himself had a life almost as disorientating as Chance - a childhood survivor of the Holocaust and a defector from communist East Europe, he eventually committed suicide. Try the site below for more on this great man.


visit the Jerzy Kosinski homepage