Empty Rooms: On Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss couldn't be accused of being a "writer's writer," that double-edged compliment bestowed on authors whose works are deemed too difficult or obscure for the general public. Long before The New Yorker anointed Krauss a member of its "20 Under 40" list of novelists who "are, or will be, key to their generation," her second novel, The History of Love, had made her a household name in households that discuss contemporary literary fiction over dinner and in more than a few that don't. Praised by critics and novelists—J.M. Coetzee found it "wholly original" and Claire Messud declared it "to have made a new fiction"—The History of Love became a favorite on the book club circuit and was swiftly optioned by Warner Brothers for adaptation into a film to be directed by Alfonso Cuarón, another artist who has shuttled between high- and middlebrow audiences with projects like Y Tu Mamá También and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
For all its fans, The History of Love has been faulted for exploiting its strain of clever cutesiness to the point of shmaltz. It's a charge that's hard to avoid, given that a third of the book is told in the voice of a precocious teenager named Alma, whose insistence on separating her reflections into numbered subchapters smacks of a Milan Kundera pastiche. More generally, skeptics seem wary of a book that has enjoyed broad popularity while invoking the gravitas of "writer's writers" like Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam and Franz Kafka, all of whom Krauss conspicuously cites as the forefathers of her primary narrator, Leo Gursky, a Jewish octogenarian on the Lower East Side whose literary ambitions as a young man in Poland were brought to an abrupt end by the Holocaust. But no one seems more ambivalent about the novel's popularity than Krauss. When asked by an interviewer in 2005, the year The History of Love was published, to comment on the commercial trappings of literary success, she pointedly sidestepped the question: "I suppose it depends how one personally qualifies success.... My point is, when I sit down to work those exterior marks of success have very little bearing on me."
That is presumably as it should be, though it's a different story after the work is released into the wider world. When Leo discovers that a manuscript of his that he presumed had been lost to the wreckage of World War II may have been saved and published decades after the war, he doesn't pause to weigh the relative merits of private and public marks of success. "Who else has read it? Did they like it? Is the number of readers greater or less than—" Leo wonders, before cutting himself off with a canny dose of self-awareness: "Was there a number that wouldn't disappoint me?" Leo's thrill at the realization that he may be an author is inseparable from the thrill at the prospect of having an audience, and with good reason. A book, as Krauss reminds her readers repeatedly, is a powerful kind of progeny, one that can rescue its author from oblivion by virtue of its having endured in the minds of those who happen across it. Who might be reading makes all the difference.
In her debut novel, Man Walks Into a Room (2002), Krauss riffed on this idea in a fleeting, fantastical way. Samson Greene, an amnesiac literature professor, phones a former student to tell her about a scientist who is "going to inscribe great books onto roach DNA. When it reproduces it will pass the book on and eventually, when there's a nuclear disaster and we're all wiped off the face of the earth, these indestructible roaches will be the carriers of Western civilization." The thought is as preposterous as it is appealing to the kind of humanities drone who dreams that the study of literature and philosophy will one day be vindicated as having practical value. Samson's student sees bigger possibilities:
"Imagine they could do that to humans," she finally said. "Tattoo our DNA with Goethe maybe, or Shakespeare or Proust, so that we would be born with the memory of the madeleine or full of Hamlet."
Human beings would enter this brave new world as congenital readers, their perception of reality deliberately conditioned by authors' renderings of it. Printing passages from Proust onto our DNA might seem like a dystopian chuckle at the expense of the Western canon or overambitious geneticists. But it's only a sloppy, deceptively high-tech metaphor for what literature already accomplishes without an additional boost from idea labs or test tubes.
Krauss, as The History of Love made clear, cherishes the notion that a set of texts can guarantee their own indestructibility by finding their way to the right readers, as well as the conviction that certain books, given time to ferment in those readers' minds, can affect the actions that shape their lives. Unable to inscribe readers' genes with her canon of great books, she has had to settle for sprinkling tributes to her literary heroes throughout her novels as consciously as Hansel and Gretel scatter crumbs in the woods to trace their path home. Krauss's trail leads to her self-proclaimed predecessors and influences, the books and writers who compose the literature-centric universe she has cobbled together to serve as an anchor for her work.
* * *
Loss of memory, of love, of the past: These are Krauss's central motifs, and Great House, her third novel, opens with a soliloquy by Nadia, a narrator who, like Leo Gursky and Samson Greene, has come to define herself by what she lacks. Set against Leo's unguarded, crotchety patter ("When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day") and the opening catcall of Man Walks Into a Room ("Girls Girls Girls reads the sign on a chain-link fence and we whistle and cheer as the bus slams past"), Nadia's cautious, measured voice strikes the ear with the hollow silences it contains, the threat of loneliness made palpable:
Your Honor, in the winter of 1972 R and I broke up, or I should say he broke up with me. His reasons were vague, but the gist was that he had a secret self, a cowardly, despicable self he could never show me, and that he needed to go away like a sick animal until he could improve this self and bring it up to a standard he judged deserving of company.
The diction is glassy, the tone ominous and cold to the touch. A disembodied injunction—"Talk to him"—hovers just above Nadia's first sentence. Although that encouragement doesn't exactly amount to an invitation to confess, and the mysterious, mute Your Honor seems more dummy device than judge, Nadia is intent on testifying. Nadia, like Krauss a poet turned novelist, begins her story with a moment in her youth when, abandoned by her ex to an empty New York apartment, she followed a friend's tip and contacted a young Chilean poet who was returning home and needed a caretaker for the furniture he planned to leave behind. The novelist recalling her early 20s, heading off to a literary encounter at the start of her career: Nadia doesn't have enough bluster to see herself as the heroine of a Bildungsroman, even in retrospect, but the setup brings to mind Nathan Zuckerman's pilgrimage to seek E.I. Lonoff's blessing in The Ghost Writer. Just as Roth made sure to leave Bernard Malamud's features visible beneath the veil of his fiction, Krauss has sketched the contours of a would-be mentor in the character of Daniel Varsky, a poet of nomadic tendencies and youthful swagger. Varsky's rakish contempt for his guest's limited knowledge of his nation's literature—"Why is it, he asked, that wherever a Chilean goes in the world, Neruda and his fucking seashells has already been there and set up a monopoly?"—and his gesture of sending Nadia home from his apartment with a list of great Chilean poets topped by Nicanor Parra, accentuate his unmistakable resemblance to the young Roberto Bolaño.
It's an unexpected cameo. The History of Love seemed to secure Krauss a place in the cadre of young Jewish-American writers milling about in Roth's wake. If she wanted to stage a rendezvous between her alter ego and an idol, her readers might wonder, why not with the likes of Bruno Schulz or Isaac Bashevis Singer? But Krauss has insisted that Bolaño is her favorite writer, and Bolaño's—or rather his specter's—presence in Great House reveals much about her overarching ambitions for the book and its place in her growing oeuvre.
Krauss is drawn to puzzles as a theme and structural device. She sets her fiction in motion by sending her characters on scavenger hunts to find the pieces that will fill the obvious voids in their lives, from Samson Greene's missing memory to Leo Gursky's missing book. To that end, Krauss wound The History of Love as tightly as a spring, releasing the pressure at the last moment in a rapid-fire whir of connections established and questions answered, as if to emphasize how conscientiously the mystery had been coiled from the outset. The effect, like much of the book, hovers in the murky area between touching and twee. There is genuine pathos in Leo's discovery of his manuscript's second life, though Krauss, rapidly switching from Leo's voice to Alma's as the pair finally meet, turns it into a tear-jerker, drawing as much attention to her ingenuity in staging the scene for maximum emotional impact as to her characters' catharses. In Great House, Krauss seems to be willing the evolution of her precise, sculpted puzzles into the freer, more expansive blend of quest and detective narrative practiced by Bolaño.
Nadia, then, is not so much a courtroom witness as a gumshoe investigating her own loosely defined mystery. She senses as much while reflecting on Varsky's stuff, delivered to her apartment by an anonymous moving crew a few weeks after their meeting:
Sometimes I would look around at his furniture, the sofa, desk, coffee table, bookshelves, and chairs, and be filled with a crushing despair, and sometimes just an oblique sadness, and sometimes I would look at it all and become convinced that it amounted to a riddle, a riddle he had left me that I was supposed to crack.
Krauss has a weakness for glaring symbolism, and there can't be much doubt as to which of these objects will serve as the enigma of Nadia's story. Long after Varsky has returned to Pinochet's bloody Chile and disappeared in a flurry of rumors, his desk remains the centerpiece of her life. Nadia writes a career's worth of novels at the desk until suddenly, in 1999, Leah Weisz, a young Israeli woman claiming to be Varsky's daughter, arrives to retrieve it without any explanation. Its absence leaves Nadia stranded in the same state of "crushing despair" its presence had initially provoked, a depression like "the grips of a monster that seemed to have sprung from nowhere and made me a stranger to myself." When therapy and medication fail to lift her mood, Nadia takes off for Jerusalem—her quest, and the book's, finally launched.
Except that it isn't, or at least not quite. Great House is structured as a series of lengthy, rambling monologues, some voices recurring in both of its sections, others appearing only once. The first voice to speak after Nadia's belongs to Aaron, a gruff, petulant Israeli whose battalion commander's diction grows shrill and then slack as he mentally rages against his younger son. Aside from the marked coincidence of that son's being a judge, Aaron has no apparent connection to Nadia or her desk. Neither does Izzy, a young American woman studying at Oxford, though Izzy's relationship with Leah Weisz's brother, Yoav, leads to the introduction of Weisz's father into the mystery. The elder Weisz has made his fortune tracking down lost objects for others while scouring the globe to locate the contents of his father's Budapest study, raided by the Nazis in 1944. The quest has turned him into a de facto sleuth armed with the Havisham-ish conviction that "unlike people...the inanimate doesn't simply disappear." Whether there's much truth to that, Weisz's unwavering dedication to his mission points to a motive for his daughter's interference in Nadia's life.
The desk resurfaces in the recollections of Arthur Bender, an elderly Englishman whose wife, Lotte, owned the desk in the years after she escaped from Poland as a Kindertransport chaperone. Lotte was a good match for the desk, if not for the bumbling, adoring Arthur. Forbiddingly cryptic, she spent her life writing fiction that never received much attention—not that she minded. The model of Krauss's favorite trope, the writer satisfied by her work alone, Lotte composed sinister little allegories like "Children Are Terrible for Gardens," the story of a landscape artist who collaborates with a totalitarian government when it begins to bury children in the park he has designed. For Arthur, remembering his first encounters with the desk in the London apartment Lotte rented before they were married, its presence exerts the same terrible influence over his life and imagination as its absence does over Nadia's:
In that simple, small room it overshadowed everything else like some sort of grotesque, threatening monster, clinging to most of one wall and bullying the other pathetic bits of furniture to the far corner, where they seemed to cling together, as if under some sinister magnetic force. It was made of dark wood and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer. Except that every last drawer was empty...which somehow made the desk, the specter of that enormous desk, really more like a ship than a desk, a ship riding a pitch-black sea in the dead of a moonless night with no hope of land in any direction, seem even more unnerving.
Arthur imagines the desk waiting for him "like a Trojan horse," and he asks Lotte to keep it out of his sight in the home they later share. Monster, medieval sorcerer, ship and even, recalled years after Varsky inexplicably materializes on the Benders' doorstep and still more inexplicably leaves with the hated thing, "a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on [its prey] and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers": the barrage of associations strains to convey a sense of horror that's clearly meant to gain potency by virtue of its nebulousness. Yet the more Arthur searches for the right metaphor to animate the desk as a psychosexual nemesis—"it was," he adds, as if the point was ever in doubt, "a very masculine desk"—the stronger the reader's suspicion that the desk's true function in his world, not to mention in the book, isn't that of an enigma or puzzle piece. The desk is simply a Rorschach blot, its meaning as vague and changeable as the whim of its beholder and, like the psychological pop quiz, ultimately bogus, a symbol neutered by its wild malleability and under whose weight Great House begins to sag.
* * *
After two novels given to scrupulously tidy conceits, Krauss's attempt to loosen the constraints on her fiction would seem a welcome development. But the weakness of Great House lies in Krauss's habit of swinging from the evocative to the overcharged and filling any gaps in strict meaning with great gusts of portentousness to create a suggestive atmosphere. (Suggestive of what, aside from a thick smog of dread? Pass over it, as Aaron says when the going gets tough.) Early on, Nadia recalls the first time she took a walk after being left by R. "By the time I got home I was exhausted but I felt that I had purged myself of something," she says, and the cop-out of "something," empty rather than evocative, reverberates in the texture of Krauss's prose. Krauss is at her best when conjuring precise, unexpected details to bring a world into focus, like the "three strands of [his] mother's hair" that Weisz finds in his parents' plundered Budapest house, to say nothing of the "charcoal [of] a man sodomizing a donkey" scrawled on its wall. Nadia's tendency toward ambiguity doesn't work for Krauss. She's bound to step in and tamp it down or, better yet, unfurl a moral that could apply to her project, as she does toward the end of Nadia's saga:
Maybe you sense that I am coming to the end, that the story that has been hurtling toward you from the start is about to turn the bend in the road and collide with you at last. Yes, I wanted to weep and gnash my teeth, Your Honor, to beg your forgiveness, but what came out was a story. I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life, but now I will be judged by how I described it. But perhaps that is right, after all.... Only before God do we stand without stories. But I am not a believer, Your Honor.
If this seems more than a bit overwrought, it might be best not to dwell on the fact that the plot point that causes Nadia's "hurtling" story to "collide" with her silent listener's is, incredibly, a car crash. An author who feels the need to package a primer on the power of narrative into the heart of her novel can't have much trust in her readers. Krauss doesn't want to take the risk that we'll mistake the message at the core of her novel, but books that self-consciously venerate storytellers and storytelling while patronizing readers in the process don't do themselves, or their craft, a service. Reductive and facile, they are too often dulled by didacticism, the worst advocates for the qualities they deem most important. When Arthur abruptly ends a litany of typically unwieldy and pedestrian metaphors that veer from atoms to train stations to circus tents with the question "so what hope did we really have of ever making sense of ourselves, let alone one another"—or when Aaron thinks, "Death is waiting just around the corner for me. If we leave things like this it's not I who will pay the price"—it becomes even more tempting to cut through the treacle and self-pity and shout, as Leo Gursky did with such aplomb, "WAKE UP, YOU DUMKOP!"
Where is the humor, the wry self-awareness that rounded out the pathos of Leo's battles against age, loneliness and loss to make him a compelling presence on the page? Where, for that matter, is that vast spectrum of emotion beyond disappointment, repressed anger and a foreboding sense of loss? Arthur dismisses a certain grim restaurant he eats in as being "populated by zombies"; he could just as well be describing Great House. Krauss seems to be trying to suppress her gift for humor along with the particular insights humor can convey in an effort to establish Great House as a truly serious work, one that can't be assailed, as The History of Love was, for being awash in sentimentality. Yet the act of suppression breeds an artificially flattened tone, a tense, prolonged numbness that is too studied to be true either to life or to the characters trapped into expressing themselves in its truncated register. The very refusal to traverse broad regions of emotional territory for fear of veering into sentimentality only constitutes a different kind of sentimentality, one rooted in the idea that petty tragedy and inevitable estrangement are life's two essential, unremitting conditions.
"But emptiness didn't mean apathy," Izzy remarks of the depression she suffers at Oxford; "anxiety, loneliness, and despair seemed to lurk around every corner, waiting to sabotage my physical progress down the street." Izzy's situation is elevated to a philosophy to which each of the narrators of Great House invariably subscribes. Their homogeneity stems from Krauss's limited use of her interspersed monologues, a scheme that should grant ample opportunity to play characters' different voices off one another to add new dimensions to the narrative as, yes, different rooms can add unexpected complexity to a house. Instead, the uniformity of tone that permeates the novel is a surprising shortcoming for an author whose earlier books came alive in large part through her characters' distinctive ways of expressing themselves. Particularly egregious is Krauss's treatment of the women of Great House, all of whom are pointedly childless, haunted by son stand-ins and smothered in a placid bleakness that can be poignant on the individual level but maddening when imposed as some kind of melancholic female burden. When Nadia (whose ex-husband, to make the point even starker, nicknames her Nada) arrives in Jerusalem to search for the Weisz clan, I found myself wondering how the premise of her individuality could be sustained if she were confronted with herself in the form of Izzy, whose even, analytical penchant for self-effacement had become all but indistinguishable from Nadia's.
Was Krauss aware of the problem? Izzy does disappear from the novel after a single monologue, though not before pointing to the quality missing from the fictional realm she and her fellow characters inhabit. "He awakened a hunger in me," Izzy says of Yoav, "not just for him, but also for the magnitude of life, for the extremes of all it has been given us to feel. A hunger and also courage." "All it has been given us to feel." The phrase makes a show of raising the question of agency in order to dodge it just as glibly: been given us to feel by what? Nature? The divine? Scientists with a special yen for Proust? Still, as we're operating in the restricted scope of the novel, Izzy's curiosity to explore what exists beyond the boundaries that so constrain her and the other characters' experience amounts to taking her author to task. The desk is a mysterious conceit, but it's far from a genuine mystery; it fails to suggest anything as strange and profound as "the magnitude of life." Like Miranda upon seeing Ferdinand, Izzy has looked beyond Krauss's manufactured gloom and glimpsed a slice of her own, astonishing world. 'Tis new to her, perhaps, but surely not to Krauss, who has made use of its expansive contradictions before to moving effect. It remains for Krauss to allow her characters, and herself, the courage to explore.