Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – A Life on Paper

What makes art, art? Prior to its exhibition in a museum, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was a urinal in a men’s toilet. Duchamp removed the urinal from its mooring, signed the piece “R. Mutt”, and submitted it to the 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. The original has been lost, but authorised copies are exhibited around the world. Is Fountain art, and if so, which aspect of it is art, and at what stage of its engendering did it become art? Duchamp’s contribution to the piece was to remove it, sign it, and exhibit it – is that what makes it art? If not, then it was art while still a urinal, which seems absurd. If so, then anything an artist chooses to exhibit is art, and thus there are no concrete definitions for art. Everything is art; nothing is art.

I offer the example of Duchamp’s Fountain as a way of introducing Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper (trans. Edward Gauvin), a short story which comes from the similarly named collection. In this story, Anthony Mortime Siegling, a reasonably well-off Englishman, becomes obsessively devoted to his daughter, Kathrin, after his wife dies shortly after giving birth to her. Siegling arranges to have his daughter’s photograph taken about a dozen times every day, for a total of 93,284 times before the poor girl dies. The narrator of the story, unnamed, purchases the collection in 1974 at a public auction.

Much of the story is devoted to the narrator’s attempted explanation of Siegling’s mania. It was well-accepted during Kathrin’s short life and particularly after Siegling’s own death, that the man was insane – criminally insane according to some, just “ordinary” insane according to others. At any rate, his project consumes him and, unfortunately, has understandably ill effects on his daughter who, is described by one of the photographs thus:

The poor child seemed to me a hunted animal… There was something about her of a doe who forever hears the twig snapping beneath the wolf’s paw. A sweet child, yes, but pale, pale, with a drawn look, a flicker of anguish in her eyes… And so many nervous tics! She blinked all the time.

But the primary focus of the story is not on Kathrin or her personality as it crumbles under the tyrannical control of her father’s constant observations; nor does A Life on Paper dwell overlong on Siegling’s mania other than to present it as fact and describe it in sufficient detail. Instead, the narrator becomes concerned with the concept of the 93,284 photographs and what they mean both as an exercise in examination and a study in time, and a work of art.

Examination and time: The narrator notes that

[w]ith his infinite patience, night after night, image after image, was he able, in discerning an almost imperceptible change in Kathrin’s features, to surprise time at work? For truly, the mystery of time itself is caught in the continuity of the Siegling-Brunet collection. Kathrin’s appearance remains unchanged from photo to photo, and yet the first show us a newborn, and the last a woman dead at twenty…

And we are reminded immediately of the paradox of the bald man. When a man has a full head of hair and one hair is removed, he is not bald. When two are removed, not bald. When three, not bald. And yet, though we never see it occur, at one point the man is bald when before he was not. How to reconcile such things? Or, more fitting, every day a person ages, but it is only the aggregate of these days which records a change. I will look much the same tomorrow as today, and much the same the next and the next, but in ten years time I will look much older.

This story, written in 1989, is curious in that it anticipates the videos that may be found on Youtube where people (usually young) take a photograph of themselves every day for, say, a year, and then blend them all into one smooth video (this example is of “Noah”, and is a photo every day for six years). In these cases the conceit is narcissism and not father-daughter obsession, but it’s fascinating to note that Châteaureynaud anticipated such behaviour. Even more fascinating is this video, which shows a collection of photographs taken by a father of his son,a photo every day from birth until his first birthday. To have the photographs is one thing, to display them another. Have these photographs become art, or have they remained self-absorption? Noah’s video, I might add, as at 22 February 2012, has been watched over twenty-two million times.

The ending of the story returns to the beginning, and provides the other major theme of the piece – the question, what is art? The narrator wishes to have all ninety thousand photographs presented in a museum, but muses that such a museum would generally only apply to a celebrity or otherwise famous person, and not a “nobody” like Kathrin. But is this true? We are reminded again of Duchamp’s work, which is made from an item which is clearly not unique or special in any way – except that it was chosen by Duchamp to become a piece of art.

The theory is put forth, not strongly but it’s there, that the mania of Siegling and the tragic early death of Kathrin (her death is not presented as suspicious, but one wonders considering it occurred immediately after she left her father’s home, married to another man.) might be enough to turn these photographs into art, but is it? Châteaureynaud refrains from answering the question, though his narrator laments the lack of interest in museums to own the collection. The story never quite puts forth a succinct question or answer, but the text is rich with the concept of art and the inherent difficulty in defining this as art, or that as not.

To return to Duchamp, and to finish: Duchamp’s artwork inspired critics and the public (and perhaps most importantly: artists themselves) to examine the artist’s place in the creation and exhibition of art as much as the work itself. His Fountain is important because it is his, and not because it was, say, mine. There are properties of an artwork which make it art that cannot be found within the work itself. Aesthetic judgment is perhaps more dependent on time, cultural acclimation or rejection, the “feel” of the milieu, and so forth, than was originally understood. Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper acts as an interesting metaphor for raising these questions.


Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title A Life on Paper
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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