Written With Invisible Ink

Is Nicole Krauss's book-within-a-book 'taut as a drum'?

Last year in Granta, novelist Kathryn Chetkovich wrote about what it's like to be in a relationship with Jonathan Franzen when his work is going well (he'd been "struggling so agreeably when I met him"). Deflated by his "pathologically extreme" success, she reads through The Corrections in a panic, noting the various passages she wishes she had written, then withholds sex and tries to break up. "I have met the circumstances that are larger than my capacity to be gracious," she writes.

Her desire to avoid dating someone in the "field" seems perfectly logical (Franzen's ex-wife, also a novelist, says she stopped writing and reading after the breakup), but there are many literary couples who turn what could be competition into another public expression of love. Paul Auster and his wife, Siri Hustvedt, performed a "trans-fictional marriage," as they happily term it. The lonely heroine from her novel The Blindfold reappears in his Leviathan, falling in love with one of the characters.

Displaying similar levels of devotion, Nicole Krauss and her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, have just published novels that read like two different versions of the same book (the dedications: "For Jonathan, my life," "For Nicole, my idea of beautiful"). Although Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about a family traumatized by the World Trade Center attacks, it's more romantic than political, relying, like Krauss's History of Love, on a sort of Aristophanic worldview—lonely, brokenhearted people, all searching for the Right One.

Krauss: An Aristophanic worldview
photo: Joyce Ravid
Krauss: An Aristophanic worldview

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The History of Love
By Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton, 252 pp., $23.95
Buy this book

In both, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, smitten by a woman he hasn't seen since World War II, stalks her family while losing basic sensory abilities. Foer's old man forgets how to speak, and Krauss's Leo Gursky becomes invisible, "vanished completely." In alternate chapters, a chatty child (whom the codgers don't know, but soon will) mourns the death of a father by going on a quest around New York City, knocking on strangers' doors, and acting cute and peculiar.

Both books have a surplus of sprawling metaphors, but while Foer grounds his in the most specific New York moment possible (the father's last words, a panicked voice message, are timed down to the second), the central event in Krauss's novel is the publication of a grand fairy-tale book about love. It's passed from one swooning couple to another, across continents and generations, and accompanied by related letters, excerpts, and reviews (the Times calls passages "taut as a drum"). Like a caricature of Great Literature, the book skates through impossibly abstract topics—the birth of art, language, romance, and vulnerability (as demonstrated by a man with a glass penis).

After inspiring two affairs, three translations, and a young girl's mission around Manhattan (she searches for the novel's heroine, Alma, whom she was named after), the book magically resurfaces in Leo Gursky's mailbox—60 years after he wrote it for his 'tween sweetheart. Giddy with the idea that he's famous without knowing it, he marches to the library, shouts out his name, and demands every book ever written by him. The librarian hands him The Incredible, Fantastic Adventures of Frankie, Toothless Girl Wonder by someone with the same name. Haunted by the idea of "losing sentences" or suddenly forgetting how to form them, Leo and his devoted readers get lost in a reverie of hyper-lyricism, throwing themselves into discussions about commas, semicolons, the "space after the period and before the capital." If only if we could just "use a piece of string to guide words," one character sighs; that way they won't "falter on the way to their destinations."

Experimenting with a slightly cuddlier version of magical realism, Krauss describes a New York that resembles some sort of writer's retreat—everyone is thinking about, and freaked out by, their own literary projects. Even sex is related in linguistic terms: Leo and his childhood lover make out by meticulously naming the parts of their body. " What's this? He'd ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle. And this? He'd ask, kissing her elbow. Elbow! What kind of word is that? "

Like the last Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who reads the final sentences of a book about his own death, invisible Leo wastes away believing "the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same." Krauss too cleverly concocts her own literary loop as she describes the publication drama surrounding the fictional book (also titled The History of Love)—written to woo someone, then received with wild acclaim. Various references to her marriage recur throughout the book, including crucial objects from Foer's novel (the murdered father's "blue glass vase" is in Leo's son's room) and a triad of literary couples, who use books to win each other over—"Wasn't that what wives of artists were meant to do? Husband their husbands' work into the world?" Consumed by the logistics of being a novelist, Krauss describes writing as an active, two-person process, turning it into a romantic event, a more dignified—and worthwhile—form of flirtation.

 
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