In an interview at The New Yorker, Nicole Krauss is asked, “What, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?” She replies, “Its ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation.”
Precisely, I say to myself, at least for most of the books I enjoy most. There is a harmony, a union between me (reader) and text (writer). We are on the same wavelength, in the same mood. That doesn’t imply we prefer only one class of novels. If we are a brooder, we are also a joker, an escapist, a dreamer, etc. But it is that momentary alignment between where we are at the time we read the book, the story, and the way it is told.
That is the way I felt recently when I read for the second time, Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love. I’m not quite sure why I picked up the book again, although I know I am a great admirer of Krauss’s fiction. The story is a bit confusing, a novel within a novel, in which the aging, kvetching Leo Gursky, who came to New York after surviving the Holocaust, ruminates, largely in solitude, about Alma, the love of his life. Gursky had written a great novel in Poland, The History of Love that was given to a friend who later told him it was lost.
So within her novel, Krauss begins to unfold the chapters of this apparently lost novel. In fact, the novel was not lost, having been translated from its original Yiddish into Spanish by one Zvi Litvinoff who passed it off as his own work. Later, it was discovered by Alma’s father who sends it to Alma’s mother to be translated into English. Confused? At times I was. It is a complex tale.
Regardless, what is so good about this novel is the voice in which it is told. A voice of longing for lost people and lost times, Leo’s longing for Alma and for the son he never knew, as Alma was pregnant with their child when she escaped to America. Thinking Leo has been killed by the Nazis, she marries, gives birth to their child that Leo only learns about when he reads about his death in the newspaper.
Then there the voice Krauss gives to Leo, his sadness the way he qualifies much of what he says and feels. In reminiscing about Alma, he says, “…nothing makes me happier and nothing makes me sadder than you.” Elsewhere, “I live alone now, which doesn’t bother me. Or maybe just a little.” “Sometimes I even pretend to write, but I’m not fooling anyone.”
Leo is often sad and funny at the same time. “Maybe this is how I’ll go, in a fit of laughter, what could be better, laughing and crying, laughing and singing, laughing so as to forget that I am alone, that it is the end of my life…” “You also asked what I do. I read…Also I watch movies…Oh, and I go to the mailbox.”
The deeply emotional nature of this novel is also reflected in the wry, ironic truths scattered throughout the novel.
• Put a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza.
• I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely.
• The truth? What is the truth? …The truth is the thing I invented so I could live.
• At most a person has two, three good ideas in a lifetime.
• …the insoluble contradiction of being animals cursed with self reflection, and moral beings cursed with animal instincts.
What is voice? I like Philip Roth’s answer best: “I don't mean style... I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." The History of Love has a great deal of that.
Some once told me that the most enjoyable parts of the essays in a book I had written was my voice. I thought that was great, although I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I’m not sure I do now, eight years after those essays were published. I’ve thought a little about it, but not too much, and looked for it in the novels I’ve read since then. From time to time I hear a voice in Coetzees’s novels, especially Youth. And I heard it in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, but not in his latest Solar.
On the dedication page of The History of Love, Krauss placed a photo of each of her four grandparents and wrote, “For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.”