Tides of Treacle

James Wood

  • The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
    Viking, 252 pp, £12.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 670 91554 8

Last year, when the young writer Nicole Krauss published an extract from her second novel in the New Yorker, I took delighted note. The voice of her elderly narrator was both familiar and strange enough to be captivating. Leopold Gursky, an 80-year-old Jewish immigrant from Poland, told us about his solitary, death-haunted life in Manhattan. He tries to be seen by someone at least once every day (‘All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen’); he and his upstairs neighbour, Bruno, communicate by banging on their radiator pipes; he carries with him a card that reads: ‘MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.’

Perhaps the fiction editor of the New Yorker has an exceptionally sharp eye for sentimentality, and excised a great deal of it from the larger manuscript; or else the well-subsidised columns and queenly old typeface of that magazine depress one’s standards. For in the comparative nudity of book-sized print, Leo Gursky’s voice seems less strange and rather too familiar: a sentimental pastiche of the kind of Jewish fiction Krauss clearly adores – Singer, Malamud, Schultz, perhaps the Roth of the early stories. Consider that card Gursky carries with him: isn’t it, and the ever-so-humble run-on sentences and block capitals, a little cute? Mightn’t Gursky – who after all has lived in America for fifty years and, it will be revealed, is also a distinguished novelist – have punctuated this final missive about his own terminal punctuation?

Again and again, one catches Krauss in the process of exaggerating a good idea, of adding sugar to a mixture already sweet enough: if Gursky is nearer death than he’d like, perhaps it is because he can barely breathe for the tides of treacle. The novel’s first page introduces us to Gursky’s solitude, and to his fear that he will die unnoticed and forgotten. He tells us that to make a point of being seen, he will buy a drink at a shop even if he isn’t thirsty, and even go as far as dropping his change on the floor to make a bit of an exhibition of himself. These details have vitality and tilt; they are odd enough to stir us. But Krauss will not leave well alone:

I’ll go into the Athlete’s Foot and say: What do you have in sneakers? The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck that I am and direct me over to the one pair of Rockports they carry, something in spanking white. Nah, I’ll say, I have those already, and then I’ll make my way over to the Reeboks and pick out something that doesn’t even resemble a shoe, a waterproof bootie, maybe, and ask for it in size 9. The kid will look again, more carefully. He’ll look at me long and hard. Size 9, I’ll repeat while I clutch the webbed shoe. He’ll shake his head and go to the back for them, and by the time he returns I’m peeling off my socks. I’ll roll my pants legs up and look down at those decrepit things, my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I’m waiting for him to slip the booties onto them. I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.

The drink and the scattered change were enough; this further riff seems crowd-pleasing on the part of Krauss (‘like the poor schmuck I am’), and fundamentally untrue: how often would anyone perform this pantomime?

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