Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #146: "Three Short Moments in a Long Life" by John L'Heureux

Issue: May 9, 2016

Story: "Three Short Moments in a Long Life" by John L'Heureux

Rating: $

Review: I feel like this is a somewhat tired technique, straight out of Creative Writing 101: write a story consisting of three or four different snapshots or snippets out of a character's life at different ages, sort of like a series of written photographs. Fun perhaps, but strikes me as a bit amateurish. However, I also think L'Heureux succeeds here by pushing it a bit further, playing with the character's tentative attempts at something close to faith -- in childish, adult, and mature adult ways -- and tying all three "Short Moments" together in a subtle and readily decipherable way.

L'Heureux's prose and his frank humor and his ability to glorify and find the meaning in the mundane events and thoughts of every day life, and thereby turn the life of an ordinary person into a drama with meaning and significance puts me in mind of John Irving. As well a…

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Water Review: San Pellegrino 250ml Bottle

Damn you, tiny little bottle of San Pellegrino. So little. So cute. But what are you really good for other than to make me wish I had a full bottle of Pellegrino? 
Good as a palate cleanser after a nice double espresso, I will give it that. But little else. The suave yet chaotic burst of Pellegrino bubbliness is still there, but with each sip you feel the tragedy of being that much closer to the end of the bottle, that much faster.

This is a bottle of water made specifically for the frustrated, for the meticulous, for the measurers among us with a penchant for the dainty. This water does not love you in the wild, on a sunny porch or with the raucous laughter of friends. No...much the opposite. Whatever that may be.

Best drunk in tiny, tiny sips, while forcing oneself through an unreadable and depressing Russian novel one does not want to read but feels one should, on a cold, wet day in December that promises four months of gloom and depression...or in pairs or threes and poured over …