The strength to survive
Nicole Krauss' novel offers a haunting look at love and loss
For her inventive second novel, The History of Love, Nicole Krauss set herself "two small personal rules." The first was that she wouldn't do any research for the book. "I just didn't want to," Krauss says firmly in a soft, lilting voice during a call to her home in Brooklyn's Park Slope, where she lives with her husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer. In her well-regarded first novel, Man Walks into a Room, Krauss had written of the experiences of Samson Greene, a man whose memory is erased after removal of a tumor. It was a book that had a whiff of research but nary a hint of autobiography within its pages. "The second time around," Krauss says, "I felt very thoughtful about what kind of writer I want to be. I didn't want to write a novel just to write a novel or just to be a writer. I decided to write something for myself. I wanted to really use the things that I know."
Krauss' second rule was that she would never let herself be bored. "Writing the first novel, I thought it was sometimes necessary to write though a boring moment just to move the characters from point A to B. This time I felt that if I was bored, the reader would be bored. So I decided that as soon as something felt a little dull I would invent a new story, vignette or character."
In the hands of a less skillful writer, Krauss' rules might have blended about as well as oil and water. But in The History of Love, Krauss achieves an uplifting alchemy of surprise and recognition. The result is a haunting novel that has generated considerable excitement even before its publication. The New Yorker ran a much talked-about excerpt in 2004, and movie rights have been sold to Warner Bros., with Alfonso Cuar—n (best known for Y Tu Mamá También) set to direct. Foreign rights have also been sold in nearly 20 countries.
Krauss, 30, a Stanford graduate who also studied at Oxford, achieved acclaim as a poet before turning to fiction in 2002 with the publication of her first novel. Though her marriage to Foer (author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) is the source of considerable curiosity in literary circles, she prefers not to discuss it obviously reluctant to be seen as capitalizing on her husband's renown.
With The History of Love, however, Krauss proves that her literary reputation can stand on its own. The novel focuses mainly on the slowly converging stories of Leo Gursky and Alma Singer. Gursky is an 80-year-old retired locksmith in New York, a lonely survivor of a Nazi massacre in the Polish village where he grew up 60 years before the novel opens. Alma is a 14-year-old girl whose father has recently died, whose mother shields herself from loneliness by working without stop as a literary translator, and whose nine-year-old brother, Bird (over whom she vigilantly watches), thinks he might be the Messiah.
Leo and Alma - and all the many other characters in this slender, densely woven novel - are connected across time and space by the impact on their lives of an almost-forgotten novel called The History of Love.
"In the beginning," Krauss says, "this book was very much about writing. I was thinking, well, how many readers does one really need? If it reaches one person and changes her life, is that enough? Or two people? The idea that there is a book that has a print run of under 2,000 and that nobody reads but in the end a single copy of it connects and changes all these lives was very moving to me," she says. "I write because I want to reach people and have the kind of conversation with them that can happen only through a book. It's one of the most beautiful conversations there is, I think. So as the book progressed, I realized that I was writing as much about reading and being a reader as about writing. And I became unabashed about occasionally putting in lines from all the writers I love."
This undercurrent of reference and allusion, even when unannounced, buoys and intensifies the story Krauss tells. Yes, The History of Love is about writing and reading. But more importantly and more essentially, it is about love and loss. As Krauss says, "It's what we know and have experienced of love that give depth and shape to our solitude. The book is about the necessity of imagining in the space of loss and of filling silence with made-up things - thoughts, feelings, images. Everyone in the book invents things to survive."
Interestingly, Krauss found it easier to invent Leo than Alma, whose life experiences were closer to - but not the same as - her own. "I struggled with Alma's voice, I think, because I remember very well what it was like to be 14 years old and someone not unlike her," Krauss says. "It took me a long time to feel I could abandon the sometimes dull circumstances of my own experiences and freely imagine this character. With Leo, conversely, I felt immediately and totally at home in his voice. There was never a question of wondering what would an old man from Poland do here. I always felt with him that I was writing about myself, as strange as that may seem."
Krauss dedicates her novel to her grandparents, "who taught me the opposite of disappearing," and includes photographs of them in the book. Like her character Leo Gursky, Krauss' grandparents fled Europe before the start of World War II. "I put in the photographs and the dedication line because of the scene in the book where Leo . . . realizes that he has lost the ability to be seen by other people. He is a person who thinks a lot about his invisibility. And for that reason I wanted to use passport photographs of my grandparents," she says.
"In my mind the opposite of disappearing is survival. The book is shot through with odes to survival, to the strength it takes to survive, and to the joy of those who have survived," Krauss says. "My grandparents are people who love life. Every conversation I remember having with them as a child was about life - not about tragedy, not about history, not about what had happened to their families - but simply about living."
At the end of the novel, Leo's and Alma's lives unexpectedly converge. And The History of Love becomes not simply a story of love and loss but also a moving history of survival, visibility and the joy of living.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.