The Young Painters (nicole krauss)
The New Yorker, June 28, 2010
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. At the time, S. worked at a theatre where the dancer was performing a solo piece. The apartment was small and filled with the dancer’s unusual possessions, things he had been given or had found on the street or during his tireless travels, all arranged with the sense of space, proportion, timing, and grace that made him such a joy to watch onstage. In fact, it was strange and almost frustrating to see the dancer in street clothes and brown house slippers, moving so practically through his apartment, with little or no sign of the tremendous physical talent that lay dormant in him, and I found myself craving some break in this pragmatic façade, a leap or turn, some explosion of his true energy. All the same, once I got used to this and began examining his many little collections I had the elated, otherworldly feeling I sometimes get when entering the sphere of another’s life, when for a moment changing my banal habits and living like that seems entirely possible, a feeling that always dissolves the next morning, when I wake up to the familiar, unmovable shapes of my own life.
At some point I got up from the dinner table to use the bathroom, and in the hall I passed the open door of the dancer’s bedroom. The room was spare, with only a bed and a wooden chair and a little altar with candles set up in one corner. There was a large window facing south, through which lower Manhattan hung suspended in the dark. The walls were blank except for one painting that was tacked up with pins, a vibrant picture out of whose many bright, high-spirited strokes several faces emerged, as if from a bog, now and then topped with a hat. The faces on the top half of the paper were upside down, as if the painter had turned the page around or circled it on his or her knees while painting, in order to reach more easily. It was a strange piece of work, unlike the style of the other things the dancer had collected, and I studied it for a minute or two before continuing on to the bathroom.
The fire in the living room burned down; the night progressed. At the end, as we were putting on our coats, I surprised myself by asking the dancer who had made the painting. He told me that his best friend from childhood had done it when he was nine. My friend and his older sister, he said, though I think she did most of it. Afterward, they gave it to me. The dancer helped me on with my coat. You know, that painting has a sad story, he added a moment later, almost as an afterthought.
One afternoon, the mother gave the children sleeping pills in their tea. The boy was nine and his sister was eleven. Once they were asleep, she carried them to the car and drove out to the forest. By this time, it was getting dark. She poured gasoline all over the car and lit a match. All three burned to death. It’s hard to explain, the dancer said, but I was always jealous of how things were at my friend’s house. That year they kept their Christmas tree up until April. It turned brown and the needles were dropping off, but many times I nagged my mother about why we couldn’t keep our Christmas tree up as long as they did at Jörn’s.
In the silence that followed this story, which he told in the most straightforward manner, the dancer smiled. It may have been because I had my coat on, and the apartment was warm, but suddenly I began to feel lightheaded. There were many other things I would have liked to ask about the children and his friendship with them, but I was afraid I might faint, and so after another guest had made a joke about the morbid end to the night we thanked the dancer for the meal and said goodbye. As we rode down in the elevator I fought to steady myself, but S., who was humming quietly, seemed not to notice.
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. And though when I was younger I believed I wanted to have a child, I was not surprised to find myself at thirty-five, and then forty, without one. Maybe this seems like ambivalence, Your Honor, and I suppose in part it was, but it was something else, too, a feeling I’ve always had, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that there is-that there will always be-more time left for me. The years went by, my face changed in the mirror, my body was no longer what it had been, but I still found it difficult to believe that the possibility of having my own child could expire without my explicit agreement.
In the taxi home that night, I continued to think about that mother and her children: the wheels of the car softly rolling over the pine needles on the forest floor, the engine cut in a clearing, the pale faces of those young painters asleep in the back seat, dirt under their fingernails. How could she have done it? I said aloud to S. It was not really the question I wanted to ask, but it was as close as I could get just then. She lost her mind, he said simply, as if that were the end of it.
Not long afterward, I wrote a story about the dancer’s childhood friend who had died asleep in his mother’s car in the German forest. I didn’t change any of the details; I only imagined more of them. The house the children had lived in, the buoyant smell of spring evenings seeping through the windows, the trees in the garden that they had planted themselves all rose up easily before me. How the children would sing together the songs that their mother had taught them, how she read the Bible to them, how they kept their collection of birds’ eggs on the sill, and how the boy would climb into his sister’s bed on stormy nights.
The story was accepted by a prominent magazine. I didn’t call the dancer before it was published, nor did I send him a copy of the story. He lived through it, and I made use of it, embellishing it as I saw fit. Viewed in a certain light, that is the kind of work I do, Your Honor. When I received a copy of the magazine, I did wonder for a moment if the dancer would see it and how it would make him feel. But I did not spend very long on the thought, basking instead in the pride of seeing my work printed in the magazine. I didn’t run into the dancer for some time after that, nor did I think about what I would say if I did. Furthermore, after the story was published I stopped thinking about the mother and her children who had burned to death in a car, as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.
I continued to write. I wrote my fourth novel, and then a fifth, which was largely based on my father, who had died the year before. It was a novel that I could not have written while he was alive. Had he been able to read it, I have little doubt that he would have felt betrayed. Toward the end of his life, he lost control of his body and was abandoned by his dignity, something he remained painfully aware of until his final days. In the novel, I chronicled these humiliations in vivid detail, even the time he defecated in his pants and I had to clean him, an incident he found so shameful that for many days afterward he was unable to look me in the eye, and which, it goes without saying, he would have pleaded with me, if he could have brought himself to speak of it, never to mention to anyone. But I did not stop at these torturous, intimate scenes, scenes that, could my father momentarily suspend his sense of shame, he might have acknowledged as reflecting less on him than on the universal plight of growing old and facing one’s death-I did not stop there, but instead took his illness and his 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 faults and my misgivings, the high drama of my young life with him, thinly disguised (mostly by exaggeration) across the pages of that book. I gave unforgiving descriptions of his crimes as I saw them, and then I forgave him. And yet, even if, in the end, it was all done for the sake of hard-won compassion, 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 feeling sometimes took hold of me and dumped its blackness before moving on. 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.
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.
Some months after the novel about my father was published, I was out walking and came to a bookstore near Washington Square Park. Out of habit, I slowed as I reached the window to see whether my book was on display. At that moment, I saw the dancer inside at the register, he saw me, and we locked eyes. For a second, I considered hurrying on my way, though I couldn’t have said exactly what it was that made me so uneasy. But this quickly became impossible; the dancer raised his hand in greeting, and all I could do was wait for him to get his change and come out to say hello.
He wore a beautiful wool coat and a silk scarf knotted at his throat. In the sunlight I saw that he was older. Not by much, but enough that he could no longer be called young. I asked how he was, and he told me about a friend of his, who, like so many in those years, had died of AIDS. He spoke of a recent breakup with a long-term boyfriend, someone he had not yet met the last time I saw him, and then about an upcoming performance of a piece he had choreographed. Though five or six years had passed, S. and I were still married and lived in the same West Side apartment. From the outside, not very much had changed, and so when it was my turn to offer news I simply said that everything was fine and that I was still writing. The dancer nodded. It’s possible that he even smiled, in a genuine way, a way that always makes me, with my unrelenting self-consciousness, feel slightly nervous and embarrassed when I encounter it, knowing that I could never be so easy, open, or fluent. I know, he said. I read everything you write. Do you? I said, surprised and suddenly agitated. But he smiled again, and it seemed to me that the danger had passed-the story would go unmentioned.
We walked a few blocks together, toward Union Square, before we had to turn off in separate directions. As we said goodbye, the dancer bent down and removed a piece of fluff from the collar of my coat. The moment was tender and almost intimate. I took it down off my wall, you know, he said softly. What? I said. After I read your story, I took the painting down off my wall. I found I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. You did? I said, caught off guard. Why? At first I wondered myself, he said. It had followed me from apartment to apartment, from city to city, for almost twenty years. But after a while I understood what your story had made so clear to me. What was that? I wanted to know, but couldn’t ask. Then the dancer, who though older was still languid and full of grace, reached out and tapped me with two fingers on the cheek, turned, and walked away.
As I made my way home, the dancer’s gesture first baffled and then annoyed me. On the surface, it had been easy to mistake for tenderness, but the more I thought about it the more there seemed to be something condescending in it, even meant to humiliate. In my mind, the dancer’s smile became less and less genuine, and it began to seem to me that he had been choreographing the gesture for years, turning it over, waiting to run into me. And was it deserved? Hadn’t he gamely told the story, not only to me but to all of the dinner guests that night? If I had discovered it through surreptitious means-reading his journals or letters, which I couldn’t possibly have done, knowing him as little as I did-it would have been different. Or if he had told me the story in confidence, filled with still painful emotion. But he had not. He had offered it with the same smile and festivity with which he had offered us a glass of grappa after dinner.
As I walked, I happened to pass a playground. It was already late in the afternoon, but the small fenced-in area was full of the children’s high-pitched activity. Among the many apartments I’d lived in over the years, one was across the street from a playground and I’d always noticed that in the last half hour before dusk the children’s voices seemed to get noisier. I could never tell whether it was because the city, in the failing light, had grown a decibel quieter or because the children had grown louder, knowing that their time there was almost through. Certain phrases or peals of laughter would break away from the rest, rising up, and hearing one of these I would sometimes get up from my desk to watch the children below. But I didn’t stop to watch them now. Consumed by my run-in with the dancer, I barely noticed them, until a cry rang out, pained and terrified, an agonizing child’s cry that tore into me, as if it were an appeal to me alone. I stopped short and jerked around, sure that I was going to find a mangled child fallen from a terrible height. But there was nothing, only the children running in and out of their circles and games, and no sign of where the cry had come from. My heart was racing, adrenaline coursing through me, my whole being poised to rush to save whoever had let loose that terrible scream. But the children continued to play, unalarmed. I scanned the buildings above, thinking that maybe the cry had come from an open window, though it was November and cold enough to need the heat. I stood gripping the fence for some time.
I didn’t tell anyone what I’d heard, not even Dr. Lichtman, my therapist of many years. But the cry stayed with me. Sometimes I’d suddenly hear it again as I wrote, and would lose my train of thought or become flustered. I began to sense in it something mocking, an undertone I had not heard at first. Other times, I’d hear the cry just as I crossed over into wakefulness or departed from sleep, and on those mornings I rose with the feeling of something wound around my neck. A hidden weight seemed to attach itself to simple objects-a teacup, a doorknob, a glass-hardly noticeable at first, beyond the sense that every move required a slightly greater exertion of energy, and by the time I negotiated among these things and arrived at my desk some reserve in me was already worn down or washed away. That cry haunted me. And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.♦