"The Young Painters" by Nicole Krauss Originally published in the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.
Last week’s double issue featured eight of the twenty authors selected in The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40.” The other twelve authors will be featured in the next twelve issues, starting with this one where we get a very short work by Nicole Krauss.
A few years ago, my wife read and enjoyed Krauss’s second novel History of Love. My recollection is that she didn’t enjoy it enough that I wanted to read it right away. As happens, time keeps passing and I still haven’t picked it up. This may have to change now. At any rate, I really want to read her forthcoming book Great House, because I really enjoyed this short story, and this short story is part of that book. “The Young Painters” showed me that Krauss knows how to write and isn’t just stringing vapid sentences together as many others are, I feel.
This story starts out within an interesting frame: some unknown narrator is speaking to a judge. When it begins, we have no idea why:
Four or five years after we got married, Your Honor, S. and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of a German dancer, who was then living in New York.
It’s a simple opening made much richer when we know the narrator is speaking to a judge. The narrator goes on to tell the judge what occurred at this dinner party. Basically, nothing. It was normal. But when the narrator sees a picture hanging in the home, she asks who painted it. The German dancer said it was a friend, long ago, when they were both children, only nine, in fact. The friend and his eleven year old sister (who, the dancer says, probably did most of the painting) gave the painting to him not too long before their mother gave them sleeping pills and took them into a pine forest for a murder/suicide.
The narrator, we soon learn, is a writer and cannot let go of this story. How could this happen? It troubles her for a long time.
At that time, S. and I were thinking of having a child. But there were always things that we felt we had to work out first in our own lives, together and separately, and time simply passed without bringing any resolution, or a clearer sense of how we might go about being something more than what we were already struggling to be.
I think that is a remarkable sentence that ends with such a sad admission. This story, this admission to some silent judge, is very rich for these incites into the writer’s life. This is important because soon after hearing this tragic story of murder and suicide, the narrator writes it up and publishes it, finally feeling some closure on that matter only to be shocked by a new feeling of guilt. She cannot bear to face the German dancer again, though she doesn’t really feel she has done anything wrong:
Yes, I believed — perhaps even still believe — that the writer should not be cramped by the possible consequences of her work. She has no duty to earthly accuracy or verisimilitude. She is not an accountant, nor is she required to be something as ridiculous and misguided as a moral compass. In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.
The story is not simply about writer’s guilt. This is a rich look at a narrator’s conscience as it is battered on several sides. The writing is strong throughout and contains several layers. One of the best of the bunch so far.