The Young Painters – Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss constructs the story of “The Young Painters” as an address to a judge, but for what reason?  Does it matter that we do not know why she is facing a judge?  For those readers in search of a crime that is distinct and concrete, disappointment will follow.  The narrator is guilty of what many writers are: stealing parts of other people’s lives, lifting the story from a conversation and manipulating it until the narrative is part of the writer’s new story.

The story of the painting on the dancer’s wall, a relic of his murdered childhood friends, as well as the example of the deteriorating health of the narrator’s father, and the father’s failings as a parent are proof of ways in which the narrator has used stories from those she knows.  In the first example, she is guilty and unsure about wanting to see the dancer again.  She doesn’t know how he’ll react.  What will he say?  In the other example, she waits until after her father has died to write a novel that clearly reflects his life.

The irony the narrator uses is striking.  In the following passage, after talking about how she took and took from her father’s life, she says:

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 no such thing as the writer’s imagination, as if the writer’s work lay only in dutiful chronicling and not in fierce invention. I championed the writer’s freedom—to create, to alter and amend, to collapse and expand, to ascribe meaning, to design, to perform, to affect, to choose a life, to experiment, and on and on—and quoted Henry James on the “immense increase” of that freedom, a “revelation,” as he calls it, that anyone who has made a serious artistic attempt cannot help but become conscious of. Yes, with the novel based on my father if not flying then at least migrating off the shelves in bookstores across the country, I celebrated the writer’s unparalleled freedom, freedom from responsibility to anything and anyone but her own instincts and vision. Perhaps I did not exactly say but certainly implied that the writer serves a higher calling, what one refers to only in art and religion as a vocation, and cannot worry too much about the feelings of those whose lives she borrows from.

The narrator goes further and says, “In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.”

The more we read, the more complicated the narrator becomes.  She can be selfish, but she is also self aware.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll change, but she knows the consequences, and is willing to continue on.  I wonder too, if part of her lack of freedom in real life is due to the realization that there is not always time, and the events she has missed, like having her own child, are simply gone.  The last section of the story focuses on a child crying out and the narrator being haunted by the sound.  It links up with the earlier prose about the narrator and her husband wanting to have a child at some point, but never feeling quite ready.  In the story, the narrator isn’t sure what this cry means, only that it leads her to distrust herself.
At first glance, this looks like a simple story.  It’s pared down to a few well written scenes, but the subtext is packed.  What can we believe from the narrator?  In most of her interactions she seems to warp what happens and dramatizes it.  What is the tension between Krauss and the narrator and the reader?  If the narrator distrusts herself, can we trust her?  I wondered, if she called her husband S. because she respected his privacy, and his life?

“The Young Painters” explores what it is like to be a writer in a way that is smart, ironic and humorous, a combination that is hard to beat.

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