Just the Facts

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

The Story Behind the Story:
“Little Follies,” by Carolyn Korsmeyer

(Editor’s note: This is the 92nd installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Its author is Carolyn Korsmeyer, a research professor of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, in New York. She is especially interested in how the senses and emotions are engaged by works of art, themes prominent in three of her philosophy books: Things: In Touch with the Past [2019], Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics [2011], and Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy [1999]. She is keen to explore the ways that fiction can revive lives from long ago by engaging the reader in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the past. Her first novel, Charlotte's Story [2021], imagined the life that Charlotte Lucas [of Pride and Prejudice] might have had after her hasty marriage. Little Follies is her second novel, released just last month by Black Rose Writing.)

The idea for Little Follies: A Mystery at the Millennium was inspired during a lengthy stay in Krakow, Poland, a city so full of history, art, and shadow that it seemed an ideal setting for a mystery novel.

I’ve visited Krakow five times, once for a stay of four months. It is a complex and intriguing place, best known for its beautiful Old City with its worn buildings and fascinating past. My first visit in the 1990s was only a few years after the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and Poland was emerging energetically from decades of Communist rule. This trip was inspired by a university colleague who arranged for six American scholars in different fields to visit the Jagiellonian University and conduct seminars on the advent of feminism in the scholarship in our disciplines. On the whole, this project was fairly successful (although having just rid themselves of one “ism,” many Poles were reluctant to take on another). Certainly for the six of us, venturing into Poland was fascinating.

Of course, we blundered a good deal. Assuming that after years of scarcity, Poles would be unfashionable, we all packed our oldest, dowdiest clothes. Scarcity, however, does not entail lack of style, and we found Krakow to be filled with women carrying themselves with considerably more elegance than we did. Nonetheless, there were certainly far fewer consumer goods available than in the United States, and we learned to go to restaurants early before they ran out of their main dishes.

Ten years later, I moved with my husband to Krakow for a semester, when we both taught at the Jagiellonian and got to know the city better. Even in one decade, the place had changed a great deal. There was more food readily available and more items from various places for sale. On my first visit, there had been only one synagogue still open for services in the area called Kazimierz, once the home of the many Jews who lived in Krakow, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. (Auschwitz, the infamous camp that is now a memorial as well as a much-visited site, is slightly more than 40 miles away.) Now, several more synagogues have been renovated and are open for services.

For all the improvements, on that second visit and the three that followed, I had to guard against a kind of retrospective nostalgia for the city as I had first experienced it. I quashed resentment that things had been cleaned up, repainted, and rebuilt, but I still found myself filled with the proprietary reactions of a tourist. How dare they gild St. Florian in his niche? (I remembered fondly the dirt-encrusted image atop the gate at the end of Florianska Street, which I had carefully photographed by hanging out the second-floor window of our guest house.) Why replace the perfectly good cobblestones in the big market square with flat pavers? (Better for the feet, of course.) And what are horse-drawn carriages doing here? (The latter query as a clopping horse came up behind me and snorted into my ear when I didn’t move to the sidewalk quickly enough.) And why put a parking lot on the river bank?

Every time I went to Krakow, I revisited the places that I was describing in my slowly-progressing novel, and the writing seemed to stretch on indefinitely. It is fortunate that the plot demanded that my story take place in 1999, or I would have been too flummoxed by all the changes to keep up with the renovations that now describe the setting. Perhaps the most dramatic change has been the discovery of layers of ancient Krakow lying beneath the cobblestones of the huge, old Market Square (the very stones whose removal I had resented). Now there is a vast underground area that has been meticulously excavated and turned into a captivating museum where one can descend to the oldest periods of the city’s past. Had I known that when I began writing, including it in the story would have been irresistible.

So fixing the plot in 1999 guarded against the temptation to start over repeatedly. I felt safe, but only for a little while. An unexpected and spectacular event in the art world caused a nearly fatal problem.

Krakow is a city of museums, including the Czartoryski, which holds Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite Lady with an Ermine. Like so many old art works, the provenance of this painting was interrupted, and for a time the attribution to the artist was disputed before the work was firmly authenticated. This history inspired part of the plot of Little Follies when I recalled another controversial painting that I had seen many years before.

(Left) Carolyn Korsmeyer

A painting bearing the title Salvator Mundi made the rounds of the United States sometime in the 1980s, sparking debate over whether it could possibly be one of the few paintings from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. A popular subject for paintings in the Renaissance, renderings of the “Savior of the World” typically picture Christ holding a globe in one hand, while the other is raised in blessing. I viewed it when it was exhibited locally and was skeptical, but the disputes over its authenticity were intriguing. I made a fictional painting of the same name—and possibly by the same artist—the target of a theft in Little Follies.

But suddenly, life decided to imitate art. To my surprise and temporary dismay, in 2017 another Salvator Mundi was authenticated as a genuine work of Leonardo da Vinci. To great fanfare, this painting was auctioned at Christie’s and sold for a record-breaking $450 million dollars. Needless to say, both the authentication and the extraordinary price made headlines.

At first, this seemed like irrecoverable bad luck, and I wondered what I could do with this collision of fictional plot and factual news. I considered changing the subject of the fictional painting, but it was too closely woven into the story. At a low point, I thought about scrapping the novel altogether, or maybe just hoping that whoever read my story had somehow missed the headline-making news about the upheaval in the art world. In the end, I confronted the problem head-on and added a preface that acknowledged the coincidental second painting, taking refuge in the fact that Leonardo sometimes painted the same subject more than once.

I continue to hope that the ambiguity of attribution and the ongoing controversies that still circulate about the “real” painting might even enhance interest in my plot. After all, sometimes mysteries—fictional and non-fictional—are best left with a few dangling, unsolved questions.

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