‘Tell me that’s not a cellphone,’ says Nicole Krauss, the acclaimed author of The History of Love, who has come here for the International Writers’ Festival.
She’s talking about a tinny version of the theme from Exodus which fills the air as we sit on the balcony of the restaurant at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. Krauss, born and raised in New York, lives in Brooklyn and is married to another prominent writer, Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Everything Is Illuminated, who is also taking part in the festival.
As we listen to the Exodus music, it soon becomes clear: It is indeed a ring tone from one of the other tables. Krauss, 36, laughs, and gets back to explaining her complex relationship to this country, one that goes much deeper than that of most American Jews who fly in to see the Western Wall.
She has a brother who lives here, as well as maternal grandparents from Britain who made aliya and lived in Jerusalem. Her father spent years here as a child, while his father ran a branch of the Bulova company in Tel Aviv. Her parents actually met here, at a conference at the Knesset, and married here, although they then moved to the US.
“We visited every year when I was growing up,” she recalls. “I remember it as a place where we would see my grandparents. I would go to the shuk with my grandmother.”
But a deeper interest in the country has been a relatively recent development in her life. “As a younger person, I wasn’t so interested in concentrating on or exploring Judaism. But inevitably, you begin to ask, who am I? There was a wealth of feeling and desire caught up in that question, and I began to ask what it is to be a Jew. And around then, my idea of Israel began to change. It wasn’t just a place I came with my family, to see my grandparents. It was something to argue with, working in all the contradictions, and it became something to work against. Not just beautiful klezmer music,” she says, gesturing to the table with the Exodus ring tone.
While many artists who take part in festivals here come for whirlwind visits, she, Foer and their two children will be staying for several months. It will be part of a writers’ residency, based on the program of the American Academy in Rome and Berlin, in which artists and scholars spend time living and working abroad.
Although they are starting out at the festival in Jerusalem, they will be spending time in Tel Aviv as well. “This experience will be a gate into the life of the city, and ideally it becomes part of your work,” she says.
JUST AS she has found herself increasingly interested in Israel and Judaism, she has also begun to delve into Israeli literature over the last few years. She doesn’t read Hebrew, although she says that she tends to read mainly works in translation, preferring them to books written in English.
Among Israeli writers, she feels an affinity for David Grossman. “David Grossman is a writer I’ve read for years in a deep way,” she says. “I now know him as a person and his way of thinking and writing is always on my mind.”
Recently, she has begun to read the work of Yoram Kaniuk, and looks forward to meeting him on this trip. “Every few years, I read a writer who changes my mind about what writing can do. Kaniuk is a strange, extraordinary writer.”
She mentions other writers, including Yael Hoffman, Amos Oz and Yehuda Amichai, as having had an influence on her. She will also be participating in a panel with another writer whose work she admires, Aharon Appelfeld.
She is not unaware of calls to boycott Israel on political grounds, although she notes that that movement is far more prevalent in England than in America. “I think people tend to become cynical and exhausted when they think about politics,” she says, which she sees as coloring their view of Israel. “I began to feel a totally unreasonable desire to share the Israel that I know.”
It seems fitting that Krauss would want to live and work abroad, given her background and the themes of her work, which deal with identity and loss. While her first novel, A Man Walks into a Room (2002), is about an amnesiac’s search for himself, her last book, The History of Love, published in 2005, has an international scope. It is about the lost manuscript of a book with the same title as her novel. Krauss’s intricately woven tale travels back and forth in time and gets inside the consciousness of several very different characters. They include an elderly Holocaust survivor now living in New York who wrote “The History of Love” for and about the girl who was the love of his life, and an awkward New York teenage girl whose mother is translating the novel – which, unknown to its author, was translated into Spanish and published in Argentina, as the work of a different writer – into English.
The book received rave reviews, garnered Krauss a host of literary awards, and was called “Jewish magic realism” by The New York Times. Her new novel, Great House, which she finished recently and which will be published in October, has an even more explicitly Jewish theme. It centers around a desk stolen from Budapest in 1944 and features four main characters who narrate sections, one of whom is Israeli. As with The History of Love, this book explores the contemporary Jewish Diaspora and its relation to the past, as well as raising questions about identity. The title comes from an institute of learning set up in Yavne in the first century CE, by Yohanan ben Zakkai to continue, preserve and enrich Jewish learning after the Romans’ victory over the Jews.
“He took the law of the Talmud,” says Krauss, “and took something external and made it into something portable... I became fascinated with the idea of what is a Jew without Jerusalem.”
SINCE HER husband’s work has dealt with themes of Jewish identity, the
question of how they influence each other’s writing becomes inevitable.
Whether out of weariness or diffidence, she makes it clear that isn’t
something she is comfortable discussing in this context: “That’s not a
question you can answer lightly. We are first and foremost parents, and
we both write. That is what our life is right now.”
As she heads back to her children after the interview, she chats about
their jet lag and finding a babysitter for them here, then says, “I
remember Israel as a child, as a place where a procession of friends of
my grandparents and relatives would come up and pinch my cheek. I
remember endless car trips up and down the country, going to Masada.”
But when she went to the first Writers’ Festival here two years ago, “It
was my first visit not as a child, as a writer and as the mother of
children. I realized I would like my children to know this place.”