Passion Playby Jerzy Kosinski
“Like Dostoyevsky’s, Kosinski’s characters explore their own souls, always reaching for limits. . . . The results are never less than compelling.” –Time
William Kennedy has written in The Washington Post that “the Kosinski hero is unique in literature, as recognizable as the Hemingway hero used to be”. Passion Play is the story of Fabian, Kosinski’s most romantic and driven hero. A modern knight-errant, he roams America in his custom-built VanHome, his refuge, transport, and stable for his two horses. His livelihood is polo — not the millionaire’s team sport, but the life-threatening duel of clashing horsemen. The prize is more than money and honor; it is the awareness of having drawn upon every resource of body and mind, of man and horse in danger. Passion Play is a masterpiece of violence and seduction, love and loss, by one of the world’s greatest writers.
“Like Dostoyevsky’s, Kosinski’s characters explore their own souls, always reaching for limits. . . . The results are never less than compelling.” –Time
“Imaginative, unique, and powerful. The stark landscape that is his home turf has never been more vividly drawn.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Kosinski’s novel is a morality tale, a fable of our time, a myth set in the hurlyburly atmosphere of modern life. . . . Episode follows inevitable episode’so intriguing that few readers will be able to put the book down.” –New York Daily News
Fabian decided to get a haircut. He parked his VanHome at the curb, across from the first barbershop he saw. Only when he went through the door did he realize that the place was a salon, catering to a young, fashionable clientele. There was a note of mod in the décor and in the men and women being pampered by female barbers.
A woman in her early twenties, her hair a curly, cherubic mop, gave him a shampoo. Dressed in jeans, a sleeveless silk vest hardly restraining her breasts, she chewed gum with the monotony of a tired mare chomping on its food, oblivious of the movement of her jaws and the sound of the chewing. Fabian, his head bent backward over the sink, staring at the ceiling, felt her hands massaging his scalp, the pressure of her breast against his shoulder as she leaned forward.
“How are you today?” It was a routine opening.
“Fine,” said Fabian.
“You still have a lot of good hair,” she said, rinsing off the soap. “Not too much gray for a man your age!”
“Thank you,” Fabian replied.
As he spoke, he regretted the poverty of language and feeling that so casually dismissed gratitude and obliterated one’s true state of being with the soiled currency of “thank you” and the worn coinage of “fine.”
“You live nearby?” the young woman asked when he was settled in the barber chair.
“Across the street,” said Fabian.
“No kidding!” The girl was surprised. “Amazing how many people live right next to you in this city and you never know it.” She began to cut his hair, her vest shifting with her every move, disclosing the curve of her neck, the pockets under her arms, glimpses of her breasts. He watched her in the mirror; their eyes met casually, then passed on to something else.
The sight of her put Fabian’s sexual instinct on alert. He felt that he would pursue her in thought until, unable to dismiss her, but unwilling to contemplate her apart from that original impulse, he would enter again sexual foray.
Yet he was alert to the workings of his mind and, after a moment, regarded the first onslaught of feeling as a momentary languor of senses, a substitute for desire, not strong enough to propel him into the world, again in quest.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I play polo,” Fabian said.
“Polo! For a living?”
“For a living.”
“In this city?”
“No, not here. I go places,” he explained.
“I’ve never seen polo,” said the girl, “just a TV show about this guy, a polo player, who fell off his horse, got crippled for life; then he had to play from a wheelchair. Have you ever seen it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What kind of ” game is polo?” the girl asked.
“What else do you do?”
“For movies or TV?” She was still hopeful.
“Neither. Just books. Books on horsemanship.”
“You mean a “how-to’?”
“Not quite. More about what it means to be a rider.”
“What does it mean?”
“If you really want to know, you could read a book or two about it.”
After a moment of silence, she made a final attempt. ‘most guys who come in for a haircut just sit and look at themselves in the mirror,” she said. “You keep looking around. Why?”
“I already know the guy in the mirror,” said Fabian, “but I don’t know this place.”
She was certain by now that there was nothing in him that could interest her, and she returned to her original state of boredom, drying his hair hastily, in her rush scalding his scalp with hot gusts from the hair drier.
He paid the cashier, then returned and gave her a tip. She pocketed the money without a glance.
‘see you around, polo player,” she said, a joyless smile barely breaking the line of her lips.
It was warm outside. Fabian decided to find a park to walk in. Before he set out, he attached to each side of his vehicle a brightly lettered sign that read INTERSTATE WILDLIFE CRUISER. In this fashion, while Fabian attended to business and other affairs, his VanHome and his horses remained stationary and secure, unmolested by traffic police.
The park was crowded. An outdoor restaurant overlooked a meadow where men and women strolled or lounged on the grass, while children and dogs darted among them, playing. At a small table in a corner of the terrace, obligatory consumption was its price. Reluctantly, he ordered a sandwich and a drink. Dotted about the terrace, old, solitary women, poodles coiling between their feet, and old men, discarded, leaning on their canes, sat warming in the afternoon sun. Several dogs chased each other among the chairs. Next to Fabian, a group of roistering, young men joined forces with a cluster of college girls.
There were many of them, and they tried to force Fabian to leave. One of them asked him to relinquish the table and find another seat. When he politely refused, they turned ugly and jostled their chairs against his table, laughing at and whispering snidely about his Western-cut jeans and jacket, his high-heeled riding boots. They mocked his manner and speech; he heard one of the more pretentious girls refer to him as “that existential cowboy.” Fabian remained indifferent; he would not allow them to provoke him. Soon, tiring of their futile game, they turned to the more obvious targets of food and liquor, the sensuous weather, the tension they had worked up.
After an appropriate interval, Fabian got up and casually, as if searching for a dropped object, bent to the ground. There, leaning toward an adjacent table, he dipped a corner of a paper napkin into the yellowish puddle freshly released by one of the poodles. Then, the napkin concealed in his fist, he moved between the packed chairs, still pretending to look for some lost article. As he negotiated his passage, Fabian managed to brush the corner of the napkin along the bottom of the young men’s jackets, draped over their chairs. He was not noticed and, throwing the napkin away, he returned to his table and ordered another drink while he settled back to wait.
The poodles that, up to now, had confined themselves to scouting the ground and the undersides of chairs and tables found a new enticement in the unmistakable scent. Sniffing in expectation, with that grace proper to their breed, one after another of the poodles started to nose the jackets, each male dog fastidiously raising its rear leg to shoot with the precision of a galloping polo player striking a ball.
The sun was warm, and the men, leaning back, turned their faces to it. The dogs sported about, returning on occasion to leave their particular calling cards, unnoticed. But soon, one man reached behind him for cigarettes in the lower side pocket of his jacket. He quickly recoiled, snatching back his hand. Some remote affiliation with the animal kingdom prompted him warily to sniff it.
Having identified the odor, the man looked around for its source. He found it in the dogs joyously running around. Fabian watched the man glance about furtively, to assure himself that no one had witnessed what had befallen him. He seemed resigned to the futility of any action against the dogs and surreptitiously dried his hand with the edge of the tablecloth; then he pulled his jacket from the back of the chair and laid it on his lap to dry.
It was not long before the other men discovered the convenience their jackets had provided to man’s best friend. In mounting fury, they summoned the manager and, pointing to their soiled jackets, and the contents of their pockets, they demanded restitution. The terrace, so peaceful moments before, became a noisy arena of accusations, demands, confusion. The manager refused to submit his nose to the laboratory of odors the men thrust at him, shouting he was not a dog, as they insisted he smell their jackets. The men fell to snarling at each other; the college girls, giggling, drifted away. One by one, the aged lords and ladies reclaimed their hounds, leashing them again, reluctantly leaving behind the sweetness of a summer day, in search of a less turbulent watering place. Fabian watched the parade departing.
In his travels, Fabian kept himself a nomad of the highway, shunning the communities of vans where so many other owners of motor homes gathered to exchange tall tales of engine trouble, of sewage vaporizers, of water tanks. Like a Bedouin’s tent, his VanHome went with him, and he with it, across whatever shifting landscape or mutable desert he might choose or chance upon, a place in which to bivouac or pitch camp when an unexpected oasis detained him, a companion when he bore down on the receding horizon, his thirst for what it promised never appeased, his voyage without destination.
Powered by its smooth diesel, Fabian’s VanHome, an ingenious hybrid of truck and trailer on its nine pairs of wheels, seemed to glide over the highway like a Hovercraft.
Shielded by large windows opaque to the world outside but transparent to the traveler within, a man could proceed from its spacious driving cabin to a sitting lounge, a versatile and carefully equipped studio for work, to an alcove above the studio, with a full-sized bed–a double bed, under a sliding transparent Plexiglas dome. Next came the galley, nautically precise, from which a narrow passage led to the bathroom; finally, passing between flanking storage compartments on both sides, he would arrive at his ministable, which housed his two horses. What Fabian’s VanHome announced was the dignity and economy of a free man who cared about moving fast and about his own well-being and that of those creatures under his will. The VanHome was a veritable mobile showplace, and the delight it afforded strangers confirmed Fabian’s taste, enhanced his own sense of reality. Its beauty was like the charm of a woman passed on the street, her image crystallizing a desire for something one had not before imagined.
In his VanHome Fabian could go anywhere but to the top of a business or profession that demanded the predictability of a permanent address. Any point on the country’s map was his potential address, and any community his place of rest. He carried the who’s who of the country’s polo players, horse breeders and stable owners, many of whom he had met in the past, as well as directories of city, community and private stables, of public and private parks that allowed riding, of garages high enough for his VanHome, and of motor-home recreational areas.
Fabian, who could afford only a second-hand motor home, had kept an anxious eye out for it, alerted by an advertisement cut from one of the horse and polo magazines. He kept calling the dealer, offering payment, but he was able to raise only half the price.
The VanHome had been built to order in Oklahoma, commissioned by a young Texan who resisted his family’s plan to make him settle down. Instead he decided to stay on the road, taking with him his girlfriend and two of his favorite horses. With the girl he played all the while; at polo, whenever he could find a field and a willing team.
Perhaps what set the young Texan originally in motion was that legend of Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs, who, having never before seen horses, took mounted men to be invincible gods and yielded up their kingdom to him; but, immured in his metal-plated VanHome, the young Texan could not quite see himself as a new conquistador of America’s highways: boredom set in. After three years of living in and driving his mobile home, he put it up for sale. For a while, there were no buyers. But finally, with a bank loan, Fabian was able to meet the price. The VanHome belonged to him at last.
Just as he prized his VanHome for its compact and economical mobility, so also he admired the horse, a creature superbly engineered for stamina and utility. In the odyssey of landlocked man, the horse had been the oldest craft of voyage, the most prophetic ship through space. Man astride his mount–even that first man, his horse at a full run, its hoofs cleaving soil and space–had been the original passenger through air, the traveler borne by winds. To the horse, man had always entrusted the foundation of his support, his legs and his seat, permitting only that animal such intimate access, allowing the horse to intercede between himself and solid ground. The horse carried him and his tools to work; it charged with him in battle; it permitted him his games of racing, hunting, jumping; it performed for him in a riding school, a show ring or a circus arena. And in polo, the horse shared equally with man in his oldest recorded ball game.
A professional polo player, as fascinated by the animal as he was by the game, Fabian reasoned that, if once man had traveled on a horse, or his horse had pulled him in a carriage, then now, in the era of the automobile, it was time for man to carry his horse with him–in a motor home.
Fabian reached the outskirts of a city. Acre on acre of cemeteries seemed to surround it; the dead watched the city like massed troops waiting for a fortress to submit. Against a smudged horizon, behind the giant ant hills of the city dumps, skyscrapers were strewn without pattern. He fixed to each side of his VanHome a sign that read QUARANTINED. The signs had proved useful: thieves kept away, and so did pedestrians and other drivers; but if he needed help sometimes, the signs let him more readily muster it.
Nature opened between men the chasm of forest and river, but a city offered that solitude which was not only freedom but refuge. To Fabian, a city was always a place of deliverance. Here in this enclosure of touch, of sidewalks, subways, buses, theaters, hospitals, morgues, cemeteries, where flesh was always only feet away from flesh, all streets led to his psychic home.
The city was a habitat of sex. Fabian speculated that if nature had given humans, in proportion to their size, the largest and most developed organs of sex, it had done so because, of all mammals, only they could keep themselves in a state of perpetual heat. Sexuality thus became the most human of instincts. Life gave them the fullness of time, to think and to do, to lust and to act. Because those powers were suspended in sleep and were to be retrieved in sex, Fabian divided his life into the sphere of sleep and the sphere of sex.
In sleep Fabian was time’s hostage, in a prison which muted action, now inviting dreams, now forbidding them entry. Sex liberated him, giving language to an urgent vocabulary of need, mood, signal, gesture, glance, a language truly human, universally available. Sleep was the expression of his life’s inner design, sex its outward manifestation. In sleep, he existed for himself; in sex, for others. Thus, sleep imposed; sex proposed. He refused to think of “sleeping with somebody” as synonymous with having sex, the bed in which sleep and sex took place being often their only point of communion.
Sleep came easily to him, and it was deep; his sexual urges beckoned often, their span very brief; he went about their fulfillment as in the crafting of an artwork, ultimately independent of the artist’s own life. He did not see himself as sexually desirable; to be given sex was a favor, and he was always ready to return one favor for another–the gift of a meal in his VanHome or in a restaurant, a ride on his pony in some park, advice or money.
©1979 by Jerzy N. Kosinski. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
by Jeanette Winterson
1. Set during Napoleon’s brutal sweep across Europe, The Passion is no ordinary historical novel. Discuss the ways in which Winterson uses history as an “invented space” in which to set her characters free. What are the advantages of such a device? The disadvantages? Did you feel when reading that you were immersed in a contemporary novel or perhaps one set beyond the bounds of time?
2. Talk about the wonderful, magical quality that imbues the narrative. Discuss whether this is primarily due to the fantasy elements of the plot or to the poetic, rhythmic text? Look at the ways in which magic is introduced by Patrick and Villanelle in the stories they tell, and then is confirmed by Henri as he experiences the “truth” of it: for example, talk about Villanelle’s heart, her webbed feet, and Patrick’s icicle. Comment on Henri’s response to Villanelle’s request that he retrieve her heart from her lover’s house: “Was she mad? We had been talking figuratively” (p. 115).
3. In continuing your discussion of the magical elements, talk about the language of the novel, its poetic nature, its musicality, its repetition of certain lines. Why do you think Winterson chose to write a “historical novel” in such a way? To what extent does the poetic language intensify and crystallize the narrative?
4. How far would you agree that The Passion is a novel about war and the reasons that people and nations go to war? Why does Henri sign up with Napoleon’s army? What do you think he means by: “Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye” (p. 5). What might these retrospective words suggest about his experience of the war?
5. Henri’s mentor, the priest, carries “a drawing of Bonaparte next to his drawing of the Blessed Virgin” (p. 16) and Henri grows up with both. Talk about the alliance in Henri’s mind between Bonaparte and religion, and the ultimate direction in which this leads him. In following Bonaparte, what is Henri looking for? Is he any different from other young French men in this respect? Why is he unable to follow his mother’s wishes to become a priest?
6. Consider Henri’s repeated phrase, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” What does it say to you about the relationship between fact and fiction? About the nature of truth? Do you think we are meant to question the reliability of the narrator?
7. In the light of the previous question, look at Henri’s reasons for writing a diary. He says, “I don’t care about the facts, Domino, I care about how I feel” (p. 29). What do you think he means by this? What about Domino’s view that Henri’s facts–indeed anyone’s–will be subjective and, therefore, cannot represent the truth? Will the truth always be subjective?
8. What is the role of Patrick “the defrocked priest with the eagle eye” (p. 21) in the novel? And what about Dominio with his belief that there is only the present, only now? What does he mean by that?
9. Talk about the place of passion in the novel–sexual, spiritual, religious, and emotional–and find examples of different kinds. By the very nature of its intensity is passion doomed to failure? Or can it be transmuted into something else? What happens to passion when it fails or ends?
10. Examine how the novel explores the relationship between passion and obsession. When does one become the other? Henri describes the dividing line between the two as “thin and cruel as a Venetian knife” (p. 153).
11. Henri and Villanelle’s intensely personal story is set against an unforgiving backdrop of brutal history. How does this background objectivity highlight and intensify their personal struggle? What does the blooming of their love in the middle of the zero winter say about them? About humanity in general?
12. Talk about the character of web-footed, red-haired Villanelle, captivating beauty and spinner of tales. What is it about her that so attracts both men and women to her? Is it even possible to pinpoint or pin down her characteristics? What des Henri see in her? Consider the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the familiar in her. What does Henri means when he says: “Whatever she touches, she reveals’ (p. 123).
13. How much would you agree that Henri and Villanelle are archetypes who could play out their doomed love affair on any stage in history including a contemporary one? Does this give their plight more resonance, more meaning to us, or does it ultimately undermine it because we want to empathize with them as individuals?
14. From the center of much of the novel rises the city of Venice, a living city that shifts shape and loses visitors in its ever-changing backwaters. Talk about the city as an unreal place, a part of the novel’s fantasy world and how this affects the events that take place there. Is this vision of Venice just true for Villanelle or does its magic infect Henri too? What exactly does the city mean for Villanelle and her family?
15. Discuss Villanelle’s sexuality and her cross-dressing as an extension of the magical reality of Venice where nothing is quite as one expects or as it seems. In a novel where sex is often depicted as violent or degrading, and certainly loveless, her relationship with her female lover resonates as joyful, as mutually rewarding. Do you think that Villanelle could have found such happiness–albeit short-lived–with a man? Or is sexual orientation not an issue here?
16. Knowing that her affair can only be snatched in brief moments in hidden places, Villanelle chooses to end the relationship and marry the ‘meat man.” What was your reaction to her decision? Did this rather pragmatic decision seem in keeping with her character?
17. Introduced through Villanelle’s work at the Casino the theme of gambling–and luck–weaves its way throughout the narrative in terms of how the characters live their lives and experience love. Discuss the statement: “what you risk reveals what you value” and what it means to Villanelle. How does it fit into her mantra, “You play, you win. You play, you lose. You play.” Expand your discussion to work out its significance in the novel as a whole.
18. Without taking into account historical accuracy, how far would you agree that in the narrative Bonaparte’s skill as a leader lies in his ability to get his armies to believe in him and the greater good, whatever the personal cost? When does this begin to change? Discuss Henri’s statement “but we, who had so little except our lives, were gambling with all we had from the start.”
19. How has Villanelle matured during the course of the narrative, especially in the way that she views passion? Why does she not return to her former lover? Do you feel that she has lost part of herself in her travels? What do you think the future holds for her and her child?
20. Henri offers up love as an antidote to war. Discuss his viewpoint: “Love, they say, enslaves and passion is a demon . . . I know this is true, but I know too that without love we grope the tunnels of our lives and never see the sun” (p. 154). Find instances of love as a double-edged sword in the narrative. Has Henri found contentment, or at least a greater understanding of what it takes to be happy, by the end of the novel or is he still searching?
21. Reflecting on the two great loves of his life, Villanelle and Bonaparte, Henri comments, ‘my passion for her, even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love. The one is about you, the other is about someone else” (p. 158). Do you understand what he means by this?
22. Talk about the novel’s conclusion. Did you consider it sad and depressing or could you find elements of hope there? Would Henri consider his fate as sad? If he had not ended up on San Servelo what do you think the future would have held for him and Villanelle? Examine what Henri has learned about himself, about love, about Villanelle. Compare his self-reflective island-bound life to Napoleon’s last days on Elba and consider what Henri has discovered about life that Napoleon never worked out.
Further Reading: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson; Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark; Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong; The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera