Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The History of Love - Nicole Krauss

Read: May 2009

This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris where I write a guest review on the first wednesday of every month.

So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. On rainy days you can hear their chorus rushing past:


There was a time when it wasn't uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations...The physical distance between two people using a string was often small; sometimes the smaller the distance the greater the need for the string.

“The practice of attaching cups to the end of the string came much later. Some say it is related to the irrepressible urge to press shells to our ears, to hear the still-surviving echo of the world's first expression. Others say it was started by a man who held the end of a string that was unravelled across the ocean by a girl who left for America.

“When the world grew bigger, and there wasn't enough string to keep the things people wanted to say from disappearing into the vastness, the telephone was invented.

“Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person's silence.”

When I first sat down to write this review I intended to use it as an opportunity to investigate gender stereotyping in the book industry. I even filled a page and a half with meaningless words and a rambling argument chronicling the similarities between the works of Nicole Krauss and her husband Jonathan Safran Foer, and the differences in the ways their books are marketed**. However, I then decided to take a metaphorical string out of Krauss's bow and use it to guide my words so they don't go so dramatically off course. What I want to say is actually very simple: Nicole Krauss is a fantastic writer and this is a book which demands to be read.

The History of Love is a beautiful, funny, nostalgia drenched novel full of mystery and uncertainty. And fittingly for a novel with such a grandiose title it is about nothing less than the entire history of love and life and emotional communication between people. It follows the interweaving stories of a series of disparate characters whose lives are linked by a lost book named (can you guess?) 'The History of Love'. Leo Gursky is a lonely old man living in New York. He has had heart problems but now desperately wants to live just a little bit longer. Everyday he does something to make sure he is noticed, whether it is spilling his coffee in Starbucks or volunteering as a nude model for a life drawing class. Each morning when he wakes up he taps on the radiator to confirm to his neighbour that he is still alive. It is all a world away from the young man he once was, in Poland before the war, in love with a girl named Alma who inspired him to write a book and call it 'The History of Love.'

On the other side of New York Alma Singer is a precocious 14 year old determined to find out more about the person she is named after, the main character from her parents favourite book, an obscure Spanish novel again entitled 'The History of Love'. Gradually, and thanks to the input of a host of secondary characters, these two stories and the history of that mysterious lost book comes together. If this sounds like it might be complex, that is because it is. This is a literary whodunnit in which the truth is shrouded in mystery and the clues subtly scattered around the plot. Even the ending is uncertain. And yet.

In a sense all this hide and seek is just a subplot for Krauss's spectacular centrepiece: the eponymous novel within a novel and its mystical history of love. Offered up in little vignettes here and there, these fantastically crafted passages are what turn a good novel into a very good novel. They are all like the passage quoted at the beginning, charting the mythological evolution of love in beautifully childlike simplicity. It is these playful and emotionally pinpoint passages which create that extra dimension and bring the novel to life. And yet.

In another sense it is really Leo Gursky who is the star of the show. He has a wonderful habit of using the phrase “And yet.” at the end of sentences, as a way of acknowledging all the things he has not said. It is a powerful and memorable motif. In those two words is carried the emotional core of his story, in the silence of what is not said. He is a tragi-comic one man show, obsessed with death but in a self-aware manner which makes his attempts to escape it in any way utterly charming. At one point early on he goes to the cinema and sits right at the front. “I like for the screen to fill my whole view,” he says, “so that there is nothing to distract me from the moment. And then I want the moment to last forever. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to watch it up there, blown up. I would say larger than life, but I've never understood that expression. What is larger than life?”

Nicole Krauss is a fantastic writer whose prose is so sharp and accurate it is as though it is carved into your spine. She is able to take an idea and distil it into purest essence, rich and potent and so very familiar. She employs a veritable menagerie of modernist devices to tell the story. Some of these, particularly the short stories within the story are startlingly successful. It is refreshing and delightful to read a writer so clearly convinced of the power of the written word, so willing to push the boundaries of what is possible in the novel.

If there is a criticism it is that perhaps The History of Love is a little too intricately plotted. There are just too many strings wrapped around each other so that when you try to pull them apart they end up a big knot. (This also makes it a difficult book to review, for there are many other aspects I want to share with you - like the fantastic fictional obituaries of famous writers or the wonderful anecdote of how Gursky learned the balancing act between fact and fiction – but there is not time.) At only 252 pages Krauss crams a huge number of characters and narrative devices into her story, producing a series of brilliantly realised little character portraits which, despite each focusing on that lost book, work just as well on their own. They don't need the mystery to be so complex to keep you reading. And in the end the failure to offer a clear version of events detracts from what is otherwise a fantastic read.

But these are minor quibbles. I suspect that had I picked this up two years ago, before I fell in love with the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer I would have written a review similar to that I wrote on first reading Everything is Illuminated, in which I was barely able to contain my hyperbolic sense of awe. For each uses language in such a vivid way that reading anything they have written is an unmitigated pleasure. But that is the way with life sometimes, just as it is with love, the first time you experience something is always the most intense. It doesn't really matter whether it is truly original or not.

The History of Love is a really good read, emotionally rewarding, structurally precocious, and intellectually thought provoking. There is an incredible vibrancy about the prose and invention of Nicole Krauss's fiction. Along with fellow young American authors like Jonathan Safran Foer, Aleksandar Hemon, and Junot Diaz she is one of the absolute must-read novelists of this decade.

** If you wish to read this in its pointless, unedited form, please click here

8.5 out of 10

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