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New Yorker Fiction Review #131: "The Story of a Painter" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Issue: Jan. 18, 2016

Story: "The Story of a Painter" by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Rating: $$

Review: The more and more I read short fiction, the more I come to appreciate the sort of "magical," or "fairy-tale" type of story that rears its head occasionally. Not the oh-so-tired "re-tellings" of classic fairy tales using some sort of modern spin (What if Rapunzel had a cell phone! Tee hee hee...) but the distortion or compression of reality into a story with an overt moral bent, meant to -- if not impart a lesson -- at least hold up a funhouse mirror to some aspect of real life for reasons slightly more "useful" than mere entertainment. In the pages of the New Yorker, I have been exposed to the best examples of this kind of short fiction from the likes of Steven Millhauser and Robert Coover and now, this gem from an author I've never heard of until today.

In this story, a Russian painter gets swindled out of his apartment (in Russia) in becomes a vagrant walking the streets and looking for food, lodging, and sympathy, but finding precious little of each. His world is peopled by greedy, sinister characters who want to cheat and defraud him at every turn. His life bound on a downward trajectory until he finds a canvas that enables him to make things disappear just by painting them -- something he doesn't even realize until he's made most of his problems and part of his old neighborhood disappear. Eventually, he learns how to undo the curse and allows the people he's "disappeared" to come back to life, even if they were less than nice to him.

The author
After reading Petrushevskaya's interview in the This Week in Fiction Section, I know what her intended moral was for this story, and it pretty much jibes with mine: "Don't lose your soul even when you are faced with the worst of circumstances." Even when the painter is at his lowest, he offers his only possession (the magic easel) to an old woman he meets on the street. It is very soon after that his luck begins to change.

The whole idea of the artists "magic canvas" which causes whatever is painted to disappear, cannot
be ignored as a major metaphor here. Exactly what it is supposed to mean, I am not sure. Sometimes (often) these things don't have to "mean" anything and it's better to let them just exist. I will need to dwell on this idea for a while, but it is an absolutely intriguing one. When we try to represent reality in our art, do we necessarily alter that reality? Fascinating question, and one which the painter in the story seeks to circumvent after his experiences making things disappear, by painting only "abstract compositions." Perhaps Petrushevskaya is making her own case for writing fairy tales in a distorted reality instead of "realism"?

In any event, it made for an entertaining story and one which did, in fact, make me reflect a bit on art and life and "karma" in the space of only a few pages.

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