In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honour, she is not free.
Nicole Krauss‘s short story, “The young painters”, is a sly, clever little piece. I have not read Krauss’s novels so came to this short story with no preconceptions, other than that I’d heard of her. The story starts with:
Four or five years after we got married, Your Honor, S. and I …
Ah, I thought, so the narrator is defending herself in a court for some crime she’s committed. And so it turned out – more or less – because this is not about the usual sort of crime nor the usual sort of court. It is about the crime of art, that is the crime of stealing the lives of others for art’s sake. In this case, the artist is a writer and she has “stolen” a tragic story from a dinner host about “the young painters” of the title. She has also written a novel using her father’s last days, telling stories about him (particularly regarding his loss of control of his bodily functions) that she knows he would have seen as a betrayal. She does it nonetheless, justifying herself in two ways: one is that she doesn’t write the novel until after his death and the other is that the story reflects
less on him than on the universal plight of growing old and facing one’s death – I did not stop there, but instead I took his illness and suffering with all its pungent detail, and finally even his death, as an opportunity to write about his life and, more specifically, about his failings, as both a person and a father, failings whose precise and abundant detail could be ascribed to him alone. I paraded his failings and my misgivings […] even if the final notes of the book were of triumphant love and grief at the loss of him, in the weeks and months leading up to its publication a sickening feelings sometimes took hold of me […] In the publicity interviews I gave, I emphasized that the book was fiction and professed my frustration with journalists and readers alike who insist on reading novels as the autobiographies of their authors, as if there were not such thing as the writer’s imagination …
Later in story she runs into the dinner party host and senses, rightly or wrongly (the point is not what others think but her own conscience), his displeasure at her use of the story. She defends herself, to his Honor, by saying the story had not been told in confidence, that she had not discovered it surreptitiously by sneaking around his diaries and journals (which of course begs the question of those writers who do!).
And so, here we have laid before us various writerly defences:
- I’m universalising from the particular;
- I’m not writing autobiography but fiction;
- the story was “given” to me (and, presumably, you knew I was a writer when you told me).
But, for this writer, it all starts to play on her conscience … and here I will end so you can read the story yourself. It’s very short – just 4 pages if you print it out from the link below – and I’ve only touched the surface. The ending is effective.
If this story is a guide to Krauss’s ability as a novelist, and the way she thinks about her “art”, then I’d like to read more, as I found it a cleverly – and dare I say it, poignantly – conceived and executed story.
“The young painters” (from “20 under 40”)
The New Yorker, 28 June 2010
Note: As with several of The New Yorker short stories, this is apparently an excerpt from her novel Great house.