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: