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The Emergence of Nicole Krauss

With her bestseller, The History of Love, a young novelist makes a case for literature that simmers with emotion.

Photo: Ethan Hill

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By Ann Marsh

The slim, 30-year-old woman behind the microphone at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif., looks nothing like a wisecracking 80-year-old Polish locksmith living a threadbare retirement in New York City.

Several dozen book lovers who have come to hear Nicole Krauss are making the acquaintance of the crankily irresistible Holocaust survivor Leo Gursky. “I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive,” Leo wonders as Krauss reads the book’s opening chapter. “If I had to bet, I’d bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out.”

Leo lives alone, his health waning, in a dilapidated Lower East Side apartment. When he goes out to shop, he purposefully spills small change, “nickels and dimes skidding everywhere,” at the cash register. Or he makes a production out of trying on sneakers he has no intention of buying at The Athlete’s Foot, compelling the teenage clerk to regard “those decrepit things, my feet.” He answers an ad for an art class, stripping down to his “hairy, sagging knedelach” in a chilly warehouse for the benefit of life drawing students—except that it’s also for his own benefit. “All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.”

Krauss, ’96, MA ’96, has seen to it he won’t. In a world where literary fiction can seem an endangered species, The History of Love is a New York Times bestseller and a summer staple on several other bestseller lists. It was selected for MSNBC’s Today Show book club in May. Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee supplied a blurb of praise that appears on the book’s dust jacket: “Charming, tender, and wholly original.” Publishers Weekly, in its influential prepublication review, said Krauss’s “imagination encompasses many worlds.”

In December, nearly half a year before the book’s publication by W.W. Norton, the movie rights were sold to Warner Brothers. Alfonso Cuarón, who made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Y tu mamá también, will direct. In June, Vroman’s was stop No. 23 on a 30-event book tour that took Krauss to 22 cities, a huge swing in an era when a three- or four-city tour is considered substantial. Rights to The History of Love have been sold in more than 15 countries, and Krauss will tour with the book in Europe this fall.

On the dedication page of The History of Love, Krauss’s forebears, Holocaust survivors like Leo among them, gaze out from four passport-sized photographs. “For my grandparents,” she writes, “who taught me the opposite of disappearing.”

To not disappear, to survive, to thrive, to write something lasting—these are themes in The History of Love, an intricate book in which Leo shares the narration with another protagonist, a 14-year-old diarist from Brooklyn named Alma Singer. Their stories unfold separately, but are entwined by a mysterious book, also called “The History of Love,” which has been written, lost, translated, lost again and retranslated.

Krauss’s paternal grandmother inspired a key part of the book’s plot: Leo’s devotion to a classmate named Alma Mereminski. Alma shares the surname of Krauss’s grandmother Sasha Mereminski, who, like several History of Love characters, came from Slonim, a town the book says “was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia.”

“My grandmother was in Nuremberg,” Krauss says. “She ended up in a transit camp in Poland, where she met a doctor. He helped her to get her papers to go out as a chaperone on the last Kindertransport to London. Her parents died. We really don’t know how. She assumed he (the doctor) had died, too. Years later (after Krauss’s grandmother had married and moved to the United States), she got letters from him in South America.”

Her grandmother never responded to those letters from the doctor, choosing not to complicate her devotion to her new family. It’s a choice that inspires both sadness and admiration in Krauss.

The sadness got spun into Leo’s story. “A love that is frozen in mid-phase and the rest of life has to grow around it . . . that idea was really central to Leo.” His childhood sweetheart leaves Slonim just before the war and comes to the States, not yet aware that she is carrying Leo’s child. He survives the war by hiding. He eventually comes to America, but by then Alma—believing him dead—has married someone else. Leo lives out his life alone nearby, never meeting his son, but never snuffing his love for either of them.

“I’m interested in the notion of necessary lying to compensate for the meanness in the world,” Krauss says. “Leo took what is a tragedy and what could have been ruinous in his life and he makes his love a fuel for staying alive and for his humor.” His determination echoes that of her grandparents. “They are people who love life,” she says. “They have always emphasized life over the loss of it.”

Krauss grew up on long island with an older brother and a younger sister. Her father left his father’s manufacturing business to become an orthopedic surgeon, entering medical school when Nicole was 2. The family lived far enough from neighbors that Nicole learned to keep her own company, and she read voraciously.

She came west to study at Stanford both for the break it represented from her East Coast upbringing and because the beautiful campus smelled so good on her first visit. In the fall of her freshman year, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky came to campus to give a series of lectures. She gave him a stack of her poems to read but didn’t expect to hear from him. He called the next day, and they talked for hours.

Krauss studied English at Stanford and completed subsequent degrees at Oxford and the University of London. She established herself as a poet initially, with work that appeared in DoubleTake, Ploughshares, PN Review, The Paris Review and elsewhere. The economy and immediacy of the art form appealed to her. “Poetry has so little time and space. It has to get to the existential heart of the matter,” Krauss says. But, at 24, she began to recognize how difficult it would be to live as a poet. She worked on a BBC documentary about Brodsky and felt the satisfaction of returning each day to a project that grew in size and complexity. She decided to write a novel.

Her first work of fiction, published when she was 27, was Man Walks into a Room. (Susan Sontag provided early praise for the book, writing that Krauss “strides into the forecourt of American letters.”) It told the story of a college English professor found wandering alone and sunburned in the Mojave Desert. Surgery to remove a brain tumor spares his life, but not his memory: He recalls only what happened to him by age 12.

In turning to prose, Krauss made the deliberate choice not to write poetically. “I was less interested in writing a sentence that a reader can stop and admire,” she says. “I was more interested in writing a sentence that a reader wouldn’t notice, but that would evoke an emotion. I like things that are coarser and more to the point.”

The Dutch publisher of Man Walks into a Room arranged a blind date for Krauss with another young American author. She and Jonathan Safran Foer married in 2004. Foer, 28, is the author of the bestsellers Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Stanford makes one brief appearance in Man Walks into a Room when the protagonist leaves the East Coast for Los Angeles. There he meets a young man named Wingate, who strikes him as “a being returned from the future, already evolved.” Wingate is a LINUX coder, a polymath and a Stanford grad of the sort that Krauss says she often met and enjoyed at the Farm. At Stanford, Wingate hangs out with Balkan guys doing work in robotics or symbolic systems. Though from Chicago himself, he relates to the Eastern Europeans’ resolve to never go home. Krauss writes that Wingate “knew as soon as he got to Stanford—wandering dazed through the mission-style buildings, hiking in the foothills up to a massive radio telescope—that he had come as far as he would go.”

The hopeful and deeply emotional nature of Krauss’s work sets it apart from much contemporary fiction, where things are often coolly ironic and emotionally detached. “I don’t have any interest in writing books where I can’t be emotionally honest,” Krauss says. “It’s abundantly clear to me that people want to be moved.”

But writing with her heart on her sleeve also has made Krauss vulnerable. Most of the reviews for The History of Love were glowing, but a few scathingly criticized the book’s sentimentality, especially in regard to improbabilities that allowed her characters to flee from or survive the Holocaust. Krauss, for her part, says she made a conscious choice not to do extensive research for this novel (unlike her process for Man Walks into a Room), the better to serve emotional truth. “Art has the chance to offer us consolation. I mean to create out of the difficult and pedestrian experience of reality something that transcends, that is familiar but at the same time new.”

Michael Silverblatt, host and creator of the public radio show Bookworm, interviewed Krauss for his show and came away with this impression: “I think this is still very much a culture of cynical disengagement. . . . People don’t like to feel. They protect themselves against their feelings by attacking the feeler. If you have someone who seems kind of enchanted, they’re going to be clobbered.” In the face of such an unfathomable evil as the Holocaust, Silverblatt says, Krauss has woven a web of magic, as if to comfort and protect both herself and the reader.

At the bookstore, after she reads as Leo, someone raises a hand to ask how she, a young woman, could write so convincingly as an elderly man. “His voice felt very familiar to me,” Krauss answers. “I don’t remember scratching my head and thinking, ‘What would an old man say here?’ Leo’s voice was a way of throwing my own voice. In his voice I can say things I simply couldn’t say in my own. If you can imagine a fishing line casting out: everyone pays attention to the splash, but I’m over here turning the dial.”

In response to more questions, she discusses how the book came into being—a process that’s bound to seem courageous to anyone who starts work with a specific destination in mind. Vignettes from Leo’s life came to her first. Then she wrote the completely unrelated story of Alma, an adolescent girl whose father has died of cancer and who frets about her mother’s unwillingness to date and her brother’s preoccupation with Judaism. In the midst of both, Krauss began writing pieces of the book within the book, the lyrical excerpts from a fictional history of love—short magical-realist essays that describe, for example, the “Age of Silence” and “The Birth of Feeling” and an era in human history in which every individual believes one fragile part of his or her to be made of glass.

“About a year into the two years that it took me to write History of Love, I didn’t know how these parts would fit together,” Krauss says. “Like Orion’s Belt, I could see the stars, but I couldn’t figure out the shapes they were forming. It was a book that was written with no master plan at all, all instinctually. There were times that meant it was on the edge of failure. So it was quite terrifying.”

She didn’t show any of this work to others, but she sometimes discussed it. At this confusing point a year in, one friend advised her to make matters simple and toss out one or more of the story lines. But Krauss kept them all. Only as she wrote the final chapter did all the strings braid themselves to form a coherent tale. The writing of the book was so intensely private and personal that Krauss wondered whether anyone else would like the story or find it interesting.

She laughs as she tells the crowd about a bookstore reading for her first novel to which only two people came—and only one of them bought a book. It made her ponder how many readers an author needed. That becomes a concern for Leo, too. In his cluttered apartment, he works on a growing manuscript (“Three hundred and one [pages], it’s not nothing”) of a work he calls “Words for Everything.” He assumes it will go unread, like manuscripts he wrote as a young man in Slonim. At one point in the story, he asks himself: “Is the number of readers greater or less than—I paused and deliberated. Was there a number that wouldn’t disappoint me?”

Before her reading, Krauss, sitting in a back office at Vroman’s, has said she writes out of a yearning for freedom and a desire to invent: “A white page is a place that is totally uncensored. I have a way to exercise my freedom that I don’t have in life.”

And that an author doesn’t have on a book tour. One foot in a silver-lamé flat twitched involuntarily just before she rose to meet her audience. “What allows me to [write] is a lack of self-consciousness,” she says. “The whole process that happens from publication on is very self-conscious. Ultimately I do worry about the price you pay for the increasing self-consciousness and the audience beyond your study. I am at the beginning of becoming a writer. It’s something I haven’t figured out yet, to be honest.”

It might be the price paid for making Leo’s wish come true.

ANN MARSH, ’88, is a writer in Southern California. She is co-author of Copy This! Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea into One of America’s Best Companies, an autobiography of Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea.

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