Monday, 29 June 2009

A brief interlude before I review The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Despite the fact that Jonathan Safran Foer is one of my favourite authors, or perhaps because of it, I put off reading anything by Nicole Krauss for a long time. Repeatedly I was told that she was a fantastic writer and that her style was reminiscent of that of that of her husband. When I started reading The History of Love I did so in the inherent knowledge that she was the wife of Jonathan Safran Foer. But that was the problem: unconsciously it appears that I was falling into that age old gender trap of subsuming the wife to the husband. Had it not been for her husband, I probably wouldn't have ever read it. At the very least I was guilty of failing to recognise her as a writer in her own right. (I am ashamed to say that this is not an isolated instance having only considered reading Victoria Hislop's The Island after learning that she was married to Ian Hislop).

This is a shameful state of affairs, but it strikes me that I am probably not the only well meaning person whose instinctive reaction to modern female authors is to presume they are light weight chic-lit type books. It doesn't matter that this assumption is consistently proved false when I actually read the book, for the judgement is made in the first instant when I first see a book.

Why is this?

Am I inherently sexist in my judgements? Probably. But not deliberately. All books, but particularly those by female authors, are marketed to a very female readership – paperbacks especially are marketed directly to women over the age of 35, who watch Richard and Judy, belong to a local book group and like to talk about the political and social issues in a novel. Let me be perfectly clear, I am not saying that this is the real readership, but it is the 'ideal' reader that the books are marketed at. As a result, a gender split in reading habits is developing which is every bit as worrying as the converses situation was in years past where male literary authors were made austere looking to reflect the calibre of their supposed learning.

Rather than reflecting something of the character of the book, jackets these days are increasingly designed in order to ensure generic and widespread interest. As with much of the rest of the media, quality has been subsumed to quantity. What is important is not the extent to which someone enjoys a book, or getting people who would enjoy it to read it, but ensuring that as many people as possible who see it on a 3for2 table take it with them to the counter.

This is nothing new. It has all been said before. But in writing a review of The History of Love I have begun thinking about the preconceived notions we all take with us into a book. Better reviewers than I have been unable to see past the incredible resemblances which the works of Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer bear to each other. Has the knowledge of their relationship affected the reviews produced as a result?

Sadly for the purposes of this article, it seems the answer is no. Each has received widespread praise in their own right. But I want to dwell on their similarities nonetheless, for no other reason than to get it straight in my head. Not only do they have similar styles of prose, thematic concerns, inventive treatment of the past, and even characters, but at times they actually use sentences that have echoes in the others work. For instance here in The History of Love Nicole Krauss has Leo Gursky say: “we met each other when we were young, before we knew enough about disappointment, and once we did we found we reminded each other of it.” This strikes me as echoing a passage from Everything is Illuminated in which Alex comments: “‘There is time for all of them,’ I told him, because remember where we are in our story, Jonathan. We still thought we possessed time.”

And all of this links back to their shared fascination with one of the most beautiful words in the English language: nostalgia. It is there referenced in Foer's title for Everything is Illuminated which is taken from a passage in Milan Kundera's masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which he writes: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” Krauss too has talked about the forever lost history of her ancestry and the the epiphany she felt at the discovery of the word nostalgia which seemed to be a ready made definition of her mindset.

But what is most amazing of all is not the similarities in their work – she has said that they do not compare notes and nor do they read each other's books until they are in proof form – but in how similar they were as people even before they met. As she says: “I think we come from such a similar place. His grandmother survived the Holocaust. I think we intuited a lot of the same things in the silences of our childhood.' (Guardian, 15 May 2005)

They were each born of Jewish parents on the East Coast of the US, Krauss in New York, Foer in Washington DC, and each enjoyed a largely routine nuclear childhood. Naturally creative as children they each studied literature at University where each received direct and positive mentoring from a literary legend (Foer from Joyce Carol Oates, Krauss from Joseph Brodsky). Krauss wrote a these on Joseph Cornell at Oxford and Jonathan Safran Foer edited a collection by leading American writers based on Cornell's work. They each published their d├ębut novels to widespread acclaim in 2002 and followed these up by startlingly similar second novels in 2005.

But despite all this they only met in 2002 when their Dutch publisher noticed these remarkable similarities and introduced them to each other. They were married in 2004.

More than anything it seems to me they are each representatives of the fantastically vibrant young US literary scene from which they have emerged. What I like most about each of them is that they demonstrate a rare belief in the power of written communication and are willing to test the limits of what is possible in a novel. They each clearly love novels, and believe in their ability to change people's lives. They each understand and can enunciate the desire to write which is at the heart of why people need to write. It is for this reason, not to mention their considerable linguistic talents, that I love reading each of them.

So what is the point of this post? I honestly don't know. They are just some thoughts and bits of research which occurred to me when I tried to write about The History of Love. They don't really go anywhere, which is why I decided not to use them. But nonetheless, they might be of interest to someone out there. And that's what a blog like this is for: pointless ramblings which seem relevant at the time but quickly fade into utter irrelevance.

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