A History of Love
By Nicole Krauss
Magazine profiles of Nicole Krauss have a familiar shape and structure. They often begin in a public place, since Krauss does not meet journalists at home. Afterwards comes the obligatory description of her physical presence the word delicate comes to mind. So does fierce.
The 30-year-old author of the highly touted new novel The History of Love, is prone to barbed or provocative statements. If I were to make it up out of thin air, the comment might be: "I think this interest in writers' lives is sort of bizarre. I wish I could just write my books and that's it." Krauss, of course, did not say this, but if the interviews and reviews that ushered her assured second novel had a collective undercurrent, this might be it.
"Most journalists come with a story in mind," Krauss says, standing at the counter of her favorite coffee store, Dunkin' Donuts, where she buys two extra large coffees and a half-dozen donuts.
Our destination is Prospect Park and what's left over from our picnic will go to George, the enormous female dog she shares with husband Jonathan Safran Foer. As a woman ventures too close to Nicole, George, who stands more than waist high and has the expressive face of a pit bull, lets out a cannonball woof.
"George!" Krauss scolds. And then she leans in conspiratorially. "Actually, I sort of like it when she does that."
In a day and age of eagerly promotable young authors, Krauss's firm boundaries and her palpable distaste for hocking herself are something of a throwback. She is not being difficult, just an author controlling the story, existing in contradictions.
In all fairness, appreciating Krauss's story involves a kind of negative capability. She has published a book about a WWII refugee from Poland who wrote to fill in a loss, and has placed passport photos of her grandparents on the title page. Yet she does not feel like she was writing to imagine their lives. She has invented a novelist and revealed his inner life, yet she wants her own to remain private. If Oprah were to call she'd have problems.
Oprah hasn't called yet, but many other people have so far. In a year marked by new novels from Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, The History of Love was one of the most reviewed titles of the year in America.
The New York Times ran its review on the cover, and the world's most formidable critic couple (at least in English) James Wood and Claire Messud each applied themselves to it and came to opposing conclusions. Good Morning America, a hugely popular talk and news program, chose it for its book club.
SO WHY the fuss over talking about herself? In America, some might call this having your cake and eating it too, but sitting on a park bench now in Prospect Park, eating a jelly donut, Krauss has a more subtle take on things, one that cuts to the heart of what she was writing about in The History of Love.
"This is a novel about books, about reading, where as most people have interpreted it as a book mostly about writing. Everyone in this book is a reader first." It's an important distinction, but one that has actually been lost on many professional readers, or critics, who have attempted to read the book as a roman clef of her writing life with her husband.
As if to underscore the true focus of her novel, the next hour and a half of our conversation is taken up with a discussing of books and the metaphysics of entering them; the books which shaped her and animated her childhood, and the books hidden within this one.
"Everyone keeps pointing out the similarities between The History of Love and Borges, or this and Singer. Almost every book review mentioned Singer. I hate to say this, and I mean no disrespect by it, but until recently, I hadn't read much Singer. I just couldn't get into him."
One reason why critics probably spend so much energy likening Krauss's book to other books is that there is, in fact, a book within her book: only she has created it. The History of Love is a novel written but never published by Leo Gursky and sent to his own true love in America.
Sixty years later, he discovers the book translated from Spanish into English with new names, and a new setting.
In a separate plotline, a young girl named Alma named after a character in an obscure Chilean book called The History of Love embarks on a quest to discover more about the book that gave her a name. Slowly, cleverly, and then poignantly, Krauss draws these plotlines together.
Given the literary detective work that lends The History of Love its dramatic panache, influence and the anxiety thereof is something Krauss keeps coming back to. Was it magical realism? Borges?
"In fact, the book I think most influenced me is Beckett's Malloy," she says. "I can't believe none of the critics have mentioned this." As with many things she says about books, Krauss says this with obvious feeling. Books are as real as people to her, perhaps more so, and they always have been. "I always remember feeling this utter painful disappointment to have to return to everyday life. People say they read to escape, I read to arrive at places. Growing up in Long Island, I was so eager for a different life."
UNTIL NOW, the rough details of Krauss's life did not present a rich opportunity for nifty dovetails with her work. She was born in 1974, and grew up in New York and Long Island, one of two children. Her mother is English, her father American. Both sets of grandparents escaped the Holocaust. A bookish child, she used to read at the dinner table, something that was not discouraged. She was a good student and got into Stanford University, where she met Joseph Brodsky.
"He did the best thing a poet could ever do," Krauss says now. "He gave me a reading list." Krauss worked away on that list as she went on to Oxford University as a Marshall Scholar. She wrote a thesis on the influence of radio on modernist writing, and continued writing poetry, which she had begun publishing at a very young age. After two years, she came back to America, then began work on a BBC radio documentary of Brodsky's life.
After that was completed, she helped curate a literary reading series at the Russian Samovar Tea Room in Manhattan.
But what exactly do these details mean when tie-dyed onto her fiction? It's hard to tell, and any attempt to project them on to her first novel would be idle speculation. Streamlined and noirish, A Man Walks into the Room tells the story of Samson Greene, a Columbia professor who is discovered wandering around the desert of Nevada with no idea who he is or how he got there. Then he comes back to New York and attempts to reenter his life.
THE BOOK is a beautiful and spare, deeply philosophical work. But Krauss is surprised at herself now for having written it. "I worked very hard for a period of about a year" she says. I got up and wrote until the end of the day. The day I sent it off to my agent I was in a fever, I just practically collapsed."
Orphaned by her editor and published in the wake of September 11, the book was hardly a commercial success, but it did get tremendous reviews and was later named a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction.
During this year, Krauss's Dutch editor set up a meeting between her and another novelist who was a finalist for the same book prize, whose book she had admired: Jonathan Safran Foer. And so Krauss's life as half of a literary couple was born. They were married last June.
Although she clearly feels a tremendous affection for her husband, Krauss is not about to belittle that feeling by sharing it with the world. There will be no Tom and Katie moments for her, nor does she feel particularly disposed to discussing their working relationship.
It's easy to see why Krauss would feel this way. The proximity of the publication, their recent marriage, and the thematic similarities between both books proved too rich a target for many journalists to ignore. In fact, at least a dozen reviews of her book mentioned Foer's name in the first sentence. Even critics writing for The New York Times acted as if their two novels were one hypertext they could jump between.
Although she is pretty and photogenic, and has the kind of finishing school manners which come in handy in public situations, it would be a mistake to say books are the cocoon from which Krauss emerged. Because in some ways, she is in them still.
"I have known periods of just awful loneliness in my lifetime," she says carefully. "I remember being in Oxford and going out at night and feeling like everyone was happy to be there, and feeling so alone, it was really debilitating. Obviously, being married, I don't feel that now. I know it is much better to be in a moment than on the outside watching. But sometimes I wish I could bring a book to cocktail parties."
In spite of a growing number of invitations to such events, the life Krauss lives is fairly mundane. She has been reading Amos Oz of late, doing interviews for foreign publications of The History of Love, going to bed early, and settling in to married life.
The completion of her second book hasn't at all assuaged her desire to write, though. In fact, it's made her want to write more and not for the sake of writing alone.
"Early on I just wanted to write a book. Now I am figuring out what I want to write about and that is so much harder."
There is a silence and loss in the world Krauss wants to fill, and writing only makes her more aware of it.