The History of Love. W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; 252 pages; $23.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: A long-lost book reappears, mysteriously connecting an old man searching for his son and a girl seeking a cure for her widowed mother's loneliness. Leo Gursky is just about surviving, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbor know he's still alive. But life wasn't always like this: 60 years ago, in the Polish village where he was born, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. And though Leo doesn't know it, that book survived, inspiring fabulous circumstances, even love. Fourteen-year-old Alma was named after a character in that very book. And although she has her hands full -- keeping track of her brother Bird (who thinks he might be the Messiah) and taking copious notes on How to Survive in the Wild -- she undertakes an adventure to find her namesake and save her family. With consummate, spellbinding skill, Nicole Krauss gradually draws together their stories.
This extraordinary book was inspired by the author's four grandparents and by a pantheon of authors whose work is haunted by loss -- Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and more. It is truly a history of love: a tale brimming with laughter, irony, passion, and soaring imaginative power.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Chicago Sun-Times: The History of Love is one of those spider-web books reviewers unintentionally tear to pieces in the act of clearing a path for readers. I promise to move delicately, but beware helpful explanations: No one must rob you of the chance to experience Nicole Krauss's new novel in all its beautiful confusion.
Though it's a relatively short book (some pages contain only a sentence or two), The History of Love involves several narrators and moves back and forth through the 20th Century and around the world. But that's just for starters: It contains a lost, stolen, destroyed, found, translated, and retranslated book called The History of Love, characters named for other characters, cases of plagiarism and mistaken identity, and several crucial coincidences and chance meetings that are all maddeningly scrambled in an elliptical novel that shouldn't work but does.
The New Republic: Krauss's enormous skill as a writer is enough to make one accept and admire some of the novel's more ambitious moments.
The Boston Globe: The History of Love is replete with subplots that are accomplished and intelligent: riffs on Jewish mysticism, anthropology, the transcendent power of narrative. We are privy to enough passages to realize it is an ode to love and its vast territories of misunderstanding: There were, in days past, such eras as the Age of Silence (when gestures did the job of speech) and the Age of Glass (an "evolutionary corrective" that fostered compassion). Alma the teenager escapes the mundanity and sadness of her life by poring through books like Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, keeping track of the numbers of species dying off per year, and starting her own secret narrative: How to Survive in the Wild.
Eventually Alma begins an expedition for which there is no guide, searching for the girl who inspired the character who inspired her name: the first Alma, in other words, born in some Polish village light-years away. So this Alma's path will begin to parallel that of Leo, who, through a series of craftily imposed revelations, begins to sense that all of his past is not lost after all. Like those difficult but well-oiled locks of Leo's cousin, Krauss's novel begins to slide into place, so that the last quarter of the novel has a thrilling sense of inevitability.
At a crucial point in the novel, at the end of an exquisite internal riff, Leo says, about sitting in a room alone, "Aside from myself, there was no sign of me." There are plenty of beautiful moments in The History of Love, and that's one of them.
Chicago Tribune: Taken on its own, Nicole Krauss's second novel,
At a crucial point in the novel, at the end of an exquisite internal riff, Leo says, about sitting in a room alone, "Aside from myself, there was no sign of me." There are plenty of beautiful moments in The History of Love is an altogether lovely book, a book many readers will, no doubt, wholeheartedly embrace. It has, for one thing, all the components of enduring fiction: an idiosyncratic structure, a wise and searching voice, a series of embedded incidents that read like mystery.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nicole Krauss is the author of the novel Man Walks Into a Room. Her work has appeared most recently in The New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Nicole Krauss and I talked, she from her home in Brooklyn and I from California. Ms. Krauss was born in 1974 in, she enthusiastically said, "New York, New York." She grew up on Long Island, in Old Westbury. She attended local public schools. "My dad was an orthopedic surgeon, although he only decided to become a doctor when I was two, so most of the time when I was growing up, for 11 years, he was in medical school and then residency. He only opened his practice when I was in high school. It was amazing to have two little kids and then decide to become a doctor. My mom, as you can imagine, through all of that, had to be first and foremost a mom."
Young Alma, in Ms. Krauss's novel, shows an extraordinary interest in science. I wondered when Ms. Krauss's interest in the subject began.
"I wonder too. In Old Westbury, when I was a kid, you could spend a lot of time outdoors. I think my interest in science had less to to do with test tubes and Bunsen burners than with the natural world. I was allowed to be alone outdoors a lot. I had collections of minerals and shells."
I mentioned that I, too, as a child collected minerals. "I think everybody who grew up in New York must have collected minerals and gone to the Museum of Natural History gift shop and bought boxes that held minerals. Did you have those boxes with the minerals from the gift shop?"
"Yes," she laughed, "I had a number of such boxes."
"And we both are interested in the Joseph Cornell boxes." (Ms. Krauss did her master's thesis at Oxford on Cornell.)
"Yes, that's right. Isn't that weird? The Cornell boxes changed my life when I first came across them. This idea that you could collect things and create small private universes that fit into a box was so beautiful and satisfying.
"I have this wonderful photograph that somebody gave me of Joseph Cornell's workspace that shows all of the boxes that hold his supplies. The boxes filled with buttons and spools and shells are labeled in his messy handwriting. There's something so dreamy about that, for a child. I had boxes like that long before I even knew about Joseph Cornell."
"And in high school, you were a great lacrosse player."
"Great might be an exaggerated word for what I was. I liked to run around; I don't know how effective I was. I was willing to try anything when I was in high school, in terms of school plays and sports. It wasn't until later, luckily, that I had to specialize in life."
"Did you read a lot as a child?"
"Obsessively. I had nobody to guide me. I read whatever I could get my hands on. I remember in seventh grade being on this family vacation and coming back on a plane -- it was a transatlantic flight -- and finishing the last pages of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. God knows how I got that, but it ended by rocking my world in seventh grade. When I was 12 my mom gave me Portnoy's Complaint and I wondered whether she'd forgotten the Italian whore scene. I had such an eclectic reading experience as a kid, but more important than what I was reading was the feeling. I had this corner in my room, on the floor, where I read. And my parents let me read at the dinner table. So, books went with me. One wonders about these things later, but luckily it worked out."
"Did you feel transfixed while you read?"
"Oh, yes. I felt accompanied. It's not that I was so lonely, I had an older brother, but the houses were far apart where I lived, so we didn't have neighbors. There was a sense of solitude to my childhood. I definitely had that feeling...there's that line where someone says, 'I felt different from the others, and the difference hurt.' Reading for me was the sudden feeling of company, and it also was this entry into a world that was larger than mine and where things had meaning and where they didn't necessarily feel like they had in everyday life. It was this great revolution and relief and joy -- mostly joy -- to suddenly discover books."
"Yes. That came later. One of my favorite writers, when I was a kid, was A.A. Milne; I knew him by heart. But poetry of a different order came when I was in high school. Like 14 or 15. This was the most wonderful potent thing that I'd ever found, and I immediately wanted to read it.
"Poetry is so intimate and goes right to the essence; towards the deepest, central matters, and it's so hard to get there in life. Even with conversations, with your closest of friends, it's very hard to go to the heart of the matter. As soon as you open a book of good poems, you're there in that vibrating little place."
Ms. Krauss received her B.A. from Stanford. How did she decide upon a West Coast university?
"Oh, it was the most exotic place that I could imagine. I visited first and that was my first time ever in California. I got off the plane. I still remember the shuttle bus to the hotel near the campus where I was staying. The windows were open, and there was this incredible smell of flowers. I was sure that this was paradise, and why wouldn't I go to school here? It was a big fight for my parents to let me go, and I had to promise to come back to New York for every vacation, which I dutifully did. But it was this new freedom being out there and totally on my own. A beginning is what it felt like.
"In retrospect now I think if someone had whispered in my ear, 'You are going to be lucky enough to be a writer,' I would have said, 'Oh good, then I'll study evolutionary biology and oceanography and take dance classes.' But being a reader and loving books, majoring in English was the obvious thing, automatic almost."
We talked then about Ms. Krauss's new book. "People have asked me about The History of Love, if it's about writers or writing, and I always say, 'Yes.' But actually, in a way it's even more about reading and the power that a book can have in your life.
"I feel first like a reader and then like a writer. That's the order it happened, and that's the way I feel. If some force said, 'You have to choose. You never get to read again or you never get to write again,' I could make that decision in an instant. I would gladly give up writing if I could keep reading. It's too lonely an existence without it."
"Why did you decide not to get an M.F.A.?"
"I never had any inclination to study writing in any formal way. Maybe I knew instinctually that I wouldn't survive. I certainly wouldn't bloom in that environment. I need to feel alone when I'm writing and that what I'm doing is a private labor. I don't talk about my work with anyone while I'm doing it, and I certainly don't show it to anyone. It would shrivel up and die. It would be the end of things for me. Something essential would be lost. I mean, to me, it's a secret.
"For a book to have authentic emotional weight, there does need to be a rawness and honesty that when you're in the process of doing it feels risky. You don't want to be writing to a critical environment, which is what, as far as I understand them, those writing workshops are. Your peers are there to help and critique, as is your teacher. One thing that I regret is that I do see the value of having wonderful mentors, and I wouldn't have said 'no' to that, but luckily it worked out okay."
"How could you have a more wonderful mentor than Bruno Schulz? Or Isaac Babel? And Kafka?"
"There you go. I know that's true. Those writers live with me. I don't keep many books in the room that I work in, but there's about half a shelf full, and of course, Bruno Schulz is one there. Those are the books of my life, that I'm never very far from."
"What poets do you read?"
"One of my favorite poets who I discovered my freshman year at college was Zbigniew Herbert. He remains one of the great poets of my life. He had a radical influence on me. At the same time I was reading Milosz and Brodsky and Rilke. I read American and English poets too, but the ones who affected me tended to be ones that I was reading in translation. There's something about their sensibility; it's familiar to me. I've had to think about this because I am sometimes asked about it, and it's something about that writing, both the poetry and the novels. I think of somebody like Kafka or Schulz. Their writing seems to get right to the existential heart of it. It's not about description or creating a social setting. It simply goes to the essence of how it feels to be alive and the difficulties with that."
The History of Love is dedicated to Ms. Krauss's grandparents. She explained.
"I wouldn't have written a book had it not been for them. They, at the very least, were owed the dedication. I wanted that. I wanted to give it to them. Only one of them will be aware of it. Two of them are alive, but my grandfather has Alzheimer's, and my other grandfather is very, very old. His mind is shattered from a series of strokes. So they will never quite be aware of it no matter how many times we show them the book and point it out to them.
"But my grandfather, my dad's dad, with whom I'm very close, he lives in New York and reads every word of what I write. He called me yesterday because I sent him the hardcover. It makes it all worthwhile. They had such difficult lives, and they lost so much. They lost physical places and objects, but more importantly, they lost people. I feel not only would I not have written this book, I might not have become a writer if it hadn't been for how I came to be. Which is basically because they had to escape the places that they were from.
"None of my grandparents would have met had it not been for World War II, which is a strange thought. Two ended up in what was then Palestine, and two ended up in London, where they met and married. Somehow, for me, writing has to do with an urge to fill silences and gaps and losses, that emptiness that as a child I was always aware of and always sensed in vague ways. I don't know. It's hard at this point to untangle that from this book and even from the act of writing."
Ms. Krauss's four grandparents were storytellers. "But not so much about where they came from. They are people who love life. If I inherited anything from them, it was definitely an attitude and addiction to the messy stuff of life. And Leo, who's not like any of them or isn't any of them -- if he's like them, it's that he has their laughter in the face of disaster and loss.
"My grandfather, the one who still has his wits about him, has this incredible serenity when it comes to huge, disastrous things. When it comes to small things, like my being on a plane, he is not serene. But with huge non-life-threatening things, disastrous things in one's career or financial things, whatever it may be that's happened in his life, he's faced it with equanimity and calm."
We talked about imagination. "In a weird way, it's easier for me to make things up and invent things than it is for me to labor through telling the truth. I've always known that, and I discovered that in a very concrete way when I finished this novel and I sat down to write what I thought was going to be this long essay about my grandparents. Because I hadn't written about them directly in this book. But the book kicked up all this dust in my mind and facts and thoughts about their lives.
"I sat down to write and I found that I couldn't get through it. I couldn't find the right tone. I met my mom in the city one day, we were having lunch, and we started to talk about my grandmother, and she told me that in London in the late '40s and early '50s, my grandmother had sold bras. Door-to-door. Door-to-door bras. I found this amazing. I started to think about it when I was on the subway back home.
"Somewhere on that stretch of subway, my grandmother went from being a door-to-door bra saleswoman where she lived in northwest London, to one day going to make some extra money selling bras and selling a bra to Anna Freud when Anna Freud lived in London. My mind made this leap of imagination. At that moment I could start writing the essays. The essay became these inventions about my grandparents' lives, but I needed the invention in order to tie it together.
"At the end of the essay I write about making up some of these things. But I think my impulse is that in order for me to tell the truth, in order for me to feel my writing is authentic and honest or interesting to me, that I need to be in the realm of imagination.
"I didn't have many rules when I was writing A History of Love, but early on, one rule was, 'I don't want to be bored writing this book. I don't want to worry about getting a character from A to B. If it's not interesting to me, skip it. They'll never get to B.' So what happened was I kept having to change voices, and suddenly I would invent a story here and another story there. But then I had to find a way to connect the two stories. It became like hopping on lily pads.
"I had to find my way to the next one. At some point, probably about one-third of the way through, I realized that I had created this very complicated problem. It's like that game of Twister. There was a lot of solving the problems of having made up this rule of never, never being bored.
"I certainly wrote a lot that never made it anywhere except into the garbage bin. But I did find in writing The History of Love that I needed to give myself a room to simply get things out there, knowing that they might be terrible and that I most likely would throw them out.
"I started this book not writing it for anyone, and certainly not writing it with the idea that it would become a book. It was going to be what it was. Only later did I allow myself the ambition of turning the whole thing into a novel. I needed the freedom of knowing in advance that it might suck.
"What was that wonderful Beckett quote? 'Try and fail, try again, fail better.' Novels are imperfect inherently and by definition. A poem has the potential to be perfect, but a novel is so big and sprawling, I simply cannot think of a perfect novel. And so knowing that setting out is a relief because with each decision you make, you create twice as many problems, so that by the end of the book you're simply paying for your mistake. Perfectionism is disappearing over the horizon. And, as I say, I started writing this book not having high hopes.
"I had published my first novel, and suddenly I had so many questions about writing, whereas before I simply wanted to do it and be a writer. I found there's something disappointing about having become a writer. I needed to figure out why I was doing it and if I should even do it and whether I was any good at it.
"The only answer that made any sense was 'Well, let me begin and see whether something that I like and that seems worthwhile comes out of it.' I had 130 pages before I showed it to anyone. At that moment, I felt that I was writing something that nobody would want to read. I felt sure of that and sad about it. So there was a strange, mixed feeling of relief from the pressure of the labor, but I also was fearful about people's reaction. I didn't think that Leo's voice was going to be something that people wanted to hear. I may not be the best judge of my own writing. I certainly wasn't at that moment.
"At the time, my agent had been asking me about the book. I'm very close to him, so it's even the wrong word to say, 'agent.' He is always the first person who reads anything. He knew that I was feeling down in some ways about expectation, so I met him in a restaurant and I had these 130 pages. I almost refused to give them up at the end of the meal. Finally, I pushed them across the table to him. I remember, I was on the edge of tears and I said, 'I know you're not going to like this. I'm sorry.'
"I'll never forget his e-mail after he read it. I was shocked because I was so caught in the momentum of writing this thing without any hope for its future or its final form. But then when I was finished writing, I did have this feeling of 'Oh God, I'm supposed to be writing another publishable book. ' "
"What did he say in his e-mail?"
"He was so alive and happy. His e-mail was full of enthusiasm and joy and surprise because, as he later told me, I had convinced him that I had written something so terrible that no one would want to publish it. He was prepared for the worst. But I think maybe part of the problem is that there are so many books that are published that are so full of the desire to be books."
"When you get together with writers your age, what older writers whom you admire do you talk about?"
"Well, you'd be surprised how few people I get together with. I'm a homebody. I don't hang a lot with writers. I find it better to do my own thing. I've been like that since I was a kid. Long before I ever became a writer."
"Yes, maybe that's what it is. But not in an unhappy way. But I certainly couldn't be anything but a loner and have written this book, don't you think?"
"True. This book understands loneliness."
"Well, actually it's something that has been with me my whole life, and it probably will be my subject for lots of things that I write. I don't know that I can exhaust that subject. Or that feeling."
Ms. Krauss ended our talk, saying, "The person who's been on my mind these days is Saul Bellow. That was someone who was so alive. He managed to drag all of life into his work. There's no energy and no feeling and no thought that didn't have a place in his work, and how miraculous is that, you know? So many people keep quoting this amazing line from The Dean's December, where this dog is barking and the dean imagines that the barking is the dog's bemoaning his lack of understanding. He thinks that this dog's howl must be the dog's way of saying, 'For God's sake, open the universe a little more!' When you think of that idea, 'opening the universe a little bit more,' it's such a beautiful idea, and in a way it's at the heart of learning to write -- to pull it open, to crack it open a little more, to have a little bit more understanding, a little bit more of a shot at meaning."