Elaine Kraf wrote a cult classic. Then she was forgotten

When Elaine Kraf died in 2013, no major—or minor, as far as I can tell—published an obituary. This is perhaps not surprising; although she had worked as a painter and headmistress of a specialist school, she was probably most notable as a novelist, and she had not published a book for over thirty years. The Time had called his first novelI am Clarencean “extraordinary achievement”, but it was long out of print, as were the two books that followed it. But his fourth and final book,The Princess of 72nd Street», remains printed; it was republished by Dalkey Archive Press in 2000, and has enough followers that it seems at least slightly odd that an online search for Kraf would return little more than a six-line Wikipedia page, some short biographies on publishers’ websites, and a handful of listings for surviving copies of his works.

I first went looking for information on Kraf after asking, on Twitter, for recommendations for a very specific type of book. I wanted to read formally experimental novels written by women in the 1970s and 1980s that had what I considered a certain New York sensibility. I imagined ashless cigarettes on empty steps, halogen reflections in grimy puddles, hot asphalt under hurrying feet. Novelist and critic Lauren Oyler suggested “The Princess of 72nd Street”; it was the only suggestion that fit the bill. When I asked Oyler how she heard about the book, I got an idea of ​​the novel’s sequel: she heard about it from a reviewer, Kaitlin Phillips, who was briefed by novelist Joshua Cohen. . Cohen had heard of Kraf not from a writer but from an artist, the late Joel Gold, who, Cohen explained, “paid his bills as a cameraman and fashion photographer, but devoted his life to performance, not as a stand-up so much as an improvisational monologue in the Professor Irwin Corey/Lord Buckley tradition.

“The Princess of 72nd Street” tells the story of Ellen, a bipolar artist who lives in Manhattan and paints “tangerines, brown teapots, buns and books.” Much of the novel concerns her “splinters”, or manic episodes, when she becomes Esmeralda, who dresses in garments with “flowers, cascades of color or abstract designs”, plus medallions: an Egyptian ankh and “crushed metal found in the trash”. .” She is proud and crazy and charming, a star in the firmament who is often mistaken for “a prostitute, Sabra, American Indian, actress, ballerina, witch, holy saint, mother, daughter, mystic, ethereal spirit, slut, goddess of Earth. The Upper West Side that Esmeralda runs is ‘not a country for Nordic blondes with impeccable taste’, but for ‘filmmakers who talk about film but never make it, some filmmakers who actually make it, residents who do nothing or have done something once, actors and actresses waiting in line, overly laid-back psychologists and a few self-taught mystics” – people who drink, sleep and smoke together in tiny apartments that line “streets full of soot with outdoor tables set amid trash bags,” where sunlight shines off the filth.

The book is both a high and a comedown – a climax of sex and booze and, above all, color. It’s that rare thing: a true underrated classic. So why did Kraf never publish another book?

Kraf was born in the Bronx, in 1936, to a pair of lifelong New Yorkers, Harry and Lena Kraf, née Rosenfeld. Her father served as a member of the New York State Senate from 1956 to 1965 and the State Assembly from 1967 to 1972. (He earned a obituary in the Time.) Elaine was their only child. In her early 40s, she married a credit and collections consultant and poet named Martin Altman, who told me his ex-wife – they divorced in 2002 – rejected her parents’ hopes that she would marry. settle down with a businessman or a deputy’s son. Instead, she went to art school. Her father, Altman said, “wouldn’t attend her art shows or publishing events. He saw no value in art or the life of the mind. But, he added, Elaine “had a creative force within her that was striving to break the bonds that held her back, whether in art, writing, fashion.”

Altman and Kraf adopted a daughter, Milena Kraf Altman, who told me her mother “reinvents herself every two years.” Kraf worked in special schools and in 1986 became manager of Astoria Blue Feather. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she painted and wrote. His visual art, like his writing, often had a fragmentary quality. She made mixed-media portraits with “different textures and fabrics,” Milena said. “She was walking through the streets of New York, and she would see an old drawer, and she would pick it up and be like, ‘OK, this is going to be my canvas.’ ”

Kraf’s novels vary in style but share a handful of themes. She was fascinated, in particular, by those who deviate from social norms (artists, lunatics, circus artists) and by the methods used to keep social norms in place (psychoanalysis, psychiatric institutions, lobotomies). All of the books feature a beautiful, isolated female protagonist with delicate mental health who is surrounded by untrustworthy men. “I Am Clarence”, her first film, uses a series of disparate viewpoints to explore the relationship between a mentally ill mother, her suitors and her handicapped son. Like the main character of “The Princess of 72nd Street”, the mother disintegrates, unable to find respect or love, and perhaps unable to give it too. Her son, Clarence, is mocked and complains. She leaves a group of doctors to experiment with him and eventually give him a lobotomy and, in the end, he is taken away.

Her second novel,Madelaine’s houseis altogether stranger: as far as there is a plot, it is about a woman who shares her first name with the author and cannot escape the inhabitants of a house which belongs to a friend . Eventually, she is framed for the murder of her friend’s husband and faces a meaningless trial; the novel’s most obvious influence is “Alice in Wonderland”. It’s deeply disorienting, like a recurring dream whose details constantly elude you. The passageways seem to connect before flickering out of reach, as if disappearing, with the characters from the book, in the central hallway of the house, lined with Formica tables.

Kraf’s first two books were published by Doubleday, but, unsurprisingly, after “The House of Madelaine,” she left corporate publishing for independent houses. The Fiction Collective, which was led by a group of experimental writer-editors – including Ronald Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, BH Friedman and Peter Spielberg – published its third book, “Find it!Her narrator is an unnamed, childlike woman who wakes up one day dressed as a schoolgirl, unable to eat, speak or clean herself without help. Her carer is a man named Oliver, who alternately introduces himself as her father, her lover, her captor, her abuser and her teacher Oliver, we learn, had a wife, Edith, who disappeared; it is strongly suggested that Edith was our narrator before she underwent a lobotomy. The text weaves dreams , fantasies and nightmares, and is interrupted by musical notations and drawings.A disturbing meditation on patriarchal violence and the construction of femininity, the novel feels indebted to both Tillie Olsen and Anaïs Nin, two of Kraf’s favorite authors, and deserves to be rediscovered as a significant work of feminist literature.

But, if there is one author who seems to act as an ancestor for Kraf, it is Jean Rhys, whose work Kraf examined in an essay she published in 1985. Rhys’ women, Kraf argues, are essentially a single character, a deteriorating figure. who is “a victim of her self-destructive nature and of her dependence on men for her survival”. Rhys’ men, writes Kraf, though distinct, are generally filthy, irresponsible, and chauvinistic.

It’s Rhys who comes to mind when reading “The Princess of 72nd Street,” with her confusing tale of how it felt to be parted when you were never truly whole. At the start of the book, Ellen/Esmeralda has at least a degree of control, or if nothing else the illusion of it: she “projects a special dignity” that no one would want to “taint or alter”, she says. . She’s wrong, of course – wrong, Kraf seems to suggest, because she’s a woman, wrong because that means someone, somewhere will always want to defile or alter her dignity. When Ellen enters a radiance, the prose becomes frenetic, twirling; we don’t just observe Esmeralda, but run alongside her, through a Manhattan filled with jazz clubs and street performers and bright yellow sunshine. After this centrifugal rush, the return to earth, during its depressive periods, is heartbreaking. In the end, we have seen her exploited and abused, and the pain and tear of the novel comes from our recognition that this happened before her. While the book is ironically funny – “Anyone who wears a bra on West 72nd Street is suspicious,” Esmeralda says, in one of many memorable statements – it’s also devastating.

In order to get New Directions interested in publishing “The Princess of 72nd Street,” Kraf sent “letter after letter” to New Directions, Altman told me — “kind of weird letters,” he added. They worked. During the first few years after the book’s release, she wrote two more novels, with the working titles “Joachim and the Angels” and “The Final Delusions of Cinderella Korn”, and she hoped that New Directions would publish them as well. She told Peter Glassgold, an editor there, in a letter that she had “forced” the first of these books “during a difficult time”. The publishing house passed on this, along with “Cinderella Korn”, though Altman recalled New Directions asking Kraf to rewrite it “at least twice, which she tried to do”. He got the impression from Kraf that the editor “wanted something more like ‘The Princess of 72nd Street.'” Milena recalls her mother being relatively optimistic about her rejections. , the reasoning why,” Milena said. “And she just kept going. She had a bunch of novels she was trying to get out, but no one was picking them up.

In another letter to Glassgold, Kraf wrote that she “never particularly liked ‘The Princess of 72nd Street’ as literature. In that,” she continued, “I guess our tastes are very different. She was in her mid-40s and had recently suffered a miscarriage and an accompanying intestinal virus; she was still recovering. She described “The Princess of 72nd Street” as a “farewell to a part of my life made up of dreams and fantasies,” adding, “I was young for a very long time and now I’m not.” She received a scholarship from the National Endowment for the Arts, which gave her a year to working on “Cinderella Korn” She later said the book came from “the good creative part” of her.

Milena said her mother, towards the end of her life, was working on a play about a woman who may have seen herself younger in Central Park. She was “very determined to finish it,” Milena said. But, in 2011, Kraf was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease. She died two years later. Kraf’s unfinished manuscripts, along with debuts and snippets of unrealized novels, sit in a storage space in Manhattan, which is “filled with so many of his works and writings,” Milena told me. She hasn’t been able to get through everything properly yet. ♦