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.
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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.