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?

The paragraph’s neat docking at its most sentimental sentence – ‘All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen’ – turns out to be one of Krauss’s habits, as if she is constantly riding home on the current of her own deep feeling. Gursky tells us that he came to America and worked for a second cousin who was a locksmith. The cousins founded a business, which became Gursky’s occupation for fifty years. But this paragraph of information ends: ‘The truth is I came to like it. I helped those in who were locked out, others I helped keep out what couldn’t be let in, so that they could sleep without nightmares.’ I suppose there might be locksmiths who think in this moistly metaphorical way about their line of work (a hundred pages later Gursky tells us that ‘in my loneliness it comforts me to think that the world’s doors, however closed, are never truly locked to me’), but it seems a little easy. Gursky thinks often of death because he has already had one heart attack. To save his heart more strain, he plays a mental game of transferring pain and stress to other organs. Small daily humiliations he takes in his liver; the pancreas he reserves ‘for being struck by all that’s been lost. It’s true that there’s so much, and the organ is so small . . . Disappointment in myself: right kidney. Disappointment of others in me: left kidney. Personal failures: kishkes.’

But why spoil a potentially fantastic riff with mere editorial continence? Instead of closing her paragraph here, Krauss spills on, and the sentences mount towards their pinnacle of schmaltz:

The pain of forgetting: spine. The pain of remembering: spine. All the times I have suddenly realised that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist: my knees, it takes half a tube of Ben-Gay and a big production just to bend them. To everything a season, to every time I’ve woken only to make the mistake of believing for a moment that someone was sleeping beside me: a haemorrhoid. Loneliness: there is no organ that can take it all.

Krauss fervently believes that Gursky is Jewish. But he is not Jewish. He is a literary idea of Jewish. He is the pampered notion, the precious dream, of his overdetermined literary parentage, all the Singer and Babel that Krauss has been reading. Gursky looks out of the window: ‘Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza.’ No one talks like this in real life, unless they are impersonating an idea of how people talk in Singer’s tales. Interestingly, the novel often registers its uncertainty in such passages, wobbling between claiming its over-explicit Jewishness and wanting to disown, or at least to ironise, that Jewishness. The book tries to be knowing about the Jewishness it is most earnestly in thrall to.

The result is an inability to control the flow of sentiment, and an uneasy sense that the novel’s Jewishness has been warped into fraudulence and histrionics by the force of Krauss’s identification with it. What is one to make, for instance, of the passage in which Leo Gursky, having learned of the death of his son – a man who, by unhappy accident, never knew that Gursky was his father – buys a funeral suit and goes home to his apartment to mourn. Gursky takes a bottle of vodka off the shelf: ‘I took a drink, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, repeating the gesture that was made a hundred times by my father and his father and his father’s father, eyes half-closed as the sharpness of the alcohol replaced the sharpness of the grief.’ This is cliché, and the final phrase is suspiciously symmetrical, but it is forgivable because such moments, in which the adult finds himself mimicking exactly what his father and grandfather did before him, are often both clichéd and self-conscious. Yet what follows is unconscionable:

And then, when the bottle was gone, I danced. Slowly at first. But getting faster. I stomped my feet and kicked my legs, joints cracking. I pounded my feet and crouched and kicked in the dance my father danced, and his father, tears sliding down my face as I laughed and sang, danced and danced, until my feet were raw and there was blood under my toenail, I danced the only way I knew how to dance: for life, crashing into the chairs, and spinning until I fell, so that I could get up and dance again, until dawn broke and found me prostrate on the floor, so close to death I could spit into it and whisper: L’chaim.

This is minstrelsy, pure and simple; it is an insult to Jewishness (the test of the insult is to imagine it written by a gentile; or imagine an equivalent piece of nonsense about an octogenarian African American – tap-dancing, say, or hysterically singing along to Marvin Gaye – written by a white writer). It is difficult to know where to begin. First, like almost everything Gursky does or wants to do or tells us he has done, it seems deeply untrue: the old man danced until dawn, did he? Until his feet were raw and bloody? And dawn found him lying prostrate on the floor? Yeah, yeah. Then there is the characteristic arc of the passage, as it guns for its target of sentiment – that incredible ‘L’chaim’ that closes the paragraph. And then there is the desperate groundlessness of the writing, as on the one hand it bathes in its overwrought ethnicity and on the other seems to want to cleanse itself by turning that self-indulgence into awkward self-parody, into something out of Fiddler on the Roof.

The novel has another narrator, a teenage girl called Alma Singer. Alma is Jewish, precocious, feisty, and a New Yorker; her younger brother, Bird, is very Jewish – he thinks he may be the Messiah – and appears to be autistic (he is the kind of boy who tells us that he spent exactly 23 minutes on the lavatory). Alma’s adored Israeli father died when she was six; her mother, who is English, has withdrawn into her grief. Alma’s impertinent and charming voice allows Krauss’s charm and whimsy, and her talent for narrative, a little space, and she seems to relax into these parts of the book. But just as Leo Gursky’s Spinoza-and-Schultz routine seems a too easy shot for Krauss, so Alma’s adorable Harriet the Spy routine seems in the end a little predictable. Since her mother is pusillanimous – the kind of word Alma would know the meaning of – about dating new men, Alma takes it into her own hands and phones suitors to arrange . . . well, you know the deal from TV and film. Alma’s narrative, in accordance with contemporary rules about these things, is broken into small numbered units, each with a winsome block-capital title: ‘WHAT I LOOK LIKE NAKED’; ‘HOLY COW’; ‘MEMORIES PASSED DOWN TO ME FROM MY MOTHER’; ‘HOW TO RESTORE A HEARTBEAT’; and so on.

One of these sweet units of narration concerns Alma’s English uncle, Julian, who has come to New York for a few weeks to stay with his sister. Ostensibly, he has come to do research on a book he is writing on Giacometti, but Alma has discovered an angry letter he wrote to his wife, which reveals that they are having a trial separation:

19. LONELY PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.
When I opened my eyes, Uncle Julian was standing above me. ‘How old are you?’ he asked. ‘Fourteen. I’ll be 15 next month.’ ‘Fifteen next month,’ he said, as if he were turning a math problem over in his head. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He was still wearing his raincoat, which was soaking wet. A drop of water fell in my eye. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Come on, there must be something.’ I sat up in my sleeping bag, rubbed my eye, and looked at my digital watch. There’s a button you can press to make the numbers glow. It also has a built-in compass. ‘It’s three-twenty-four in the morning,’ I said. Bird was asleep in my bed. ‘I know. I was just wondering. Tell me and I promise I’ll let you go back to sleep. What do you want to be?’ I thought, Someone who can survive in sub-zero temperatures and forage for food and build a snow cave and start a fire out of nothing. ‘I don’t know. Maybe a painter,’ I said, to make him happy so he’d let me go back to sleep. ‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘That’s what I was hoping you’d say.’

Repeatedly, the reader comes to the end of passages in this book and intones to himself (in Alma-ish block capitals): I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. In life, alas, one’s uncle never does wistfully hang over one’s bed at three in the morning with a single charming question. But in a made-for-TV film this is exactly what happens. I don’t believe Krauss when she tells me that Alma’s mother was at Oxford, where her tutor ‘slept under a pile of papers’, since it’s rather hard to sleep under a pile of papers; the image is something out of Harry Potter – or, if one is being charitable, Dickens. And I don’t believe Krauss when she tells me about Alma’s trip to Israel for her Bat Mitzvah, where her grandparents, Bubbe and Zeyde, look after her. At the Dead Sea, Bubbe appraises Alma: ‘You don’t have a bosom? Vat happened?’ At the Wailing Wall, grandmother and granddaughter place their prayers in the cracks of the bricks. Alma’s prayer, she tells us, is addressed to her late father. Once her grandmother has walked away, Alma sneaks a glance at her prayer: ‘Baruch Hashem, I and my husband should live to see tomorrow and that my Alma should grow up to be blessed with health and happiness and what would be so terrible some nice breasts.’ Bubbe is no more real than anyone else in this book, merely a coarse version of fat Auntie Bobka in Babel’s Odessa stories. (Also, wouldn’t her prayer be in Hebrew or Yiddish, languages incomprehensible to Alma? Why, then, this stagey, absurdly ‘Jewish’ English?)

The fervent Jewishness of the book, in which characters read Schultz and the 18-volume History of the Jews, and call one another ‘Gimpel’, and do Jewish dances, and even say ‘Oy Vey!’, is odd. In particular, Krauss proceeds as if the Holocaust happened just yesterday. What explains the emphasis? In part, it may have to do with Krauss’s not being old enough to have lived through the various representations of the Holocaust wrought by popular culture in the 1960s and 1970s, so that the historical event now seems, as it were, freshly antique. Then again, Krauss belongs to a generation that has been rediscovering its ‘lost’ religious Jewishness, and some of this renaissance may have to do with a feeling on the part of American Jews in their late twenties and early thirties that they, paradoxically, are the last witnesses to the memory of the Holocaust because their ageing grandparents are the last generation to have direct experience of the horror, while their parents have traditionally shown little interest in such reclamation: it is the zeal of the third generation, of the grandchild who speaks to her grandparents, and who is neither an actor in the awful events nor the burdened child of those poor actors.

Krauss’s novel is dedicated to her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, and to her four grandparents. Startlingly, and with characteristic sentimentality, the dedication page bears a row of four old-fashioned passport photos from the 1930s and 1940s, reminiscent of the enormous, terribly sad collection of photographs at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. These, presumably, are Krauss’s grandparents. A motto accompanies them: ‘FOR MY GRANDPARENTS, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.’ (You see, Krauss really does sound exactly like Alma and Leo.) This Jewish fervency may also represent a response to the relatively relaxed ethnicity of postwar Jewish-American writing, which in novelists like Bellow and Mailer and Roth has not shown a great interest in the shadow of the Shoah. (And in Bellow’s case not even a great interest in Jewishness.) And in part what is at work here, understandably in a young writer, is no more than the desire to emulate the writers one admires: to become, by mimicry, an obviously ‘Jewish writer’.

Alas, in this novel saturated with questions of belief, Krauss violates the only one that matters to a writer: do my fictions persuade? Around her characters, Krauss weaves a complex plot about a novel written in Poland years ago called The History of Love: the original version seemingly disappeared during the war, only to resurface in a Spanish translation; this novel has determined the lives of both Leo Gursky and Alma Singer (who was named after its heroine); the author whose name is on the title-page of the Spanish edition turns out to be an impostor; and Alma, the young detective, figures all this out. The plot is quasi-Borgesian, though closer to Schultz and to Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm (a novel that plays with the idea of the discovery, in Stockholm, of a manuscript by Schultz, his famous ‘lost’ book about the Messiah). Krauss’s novel, then, has much to say about an almost religious faith in texts; about distinctions between, and blurrings of, fiction and fact; about the extinction of the past and the transmission of culture in a Holocaust-haunted world; and about the persistence of love. But these important questions are soiled by the book’s inability to be primarily truthful about human conduct and motive, about life. The many turnings of the plot, which Krauss handles very well, are only sectaries scurrying around without a church, since the centre of the book – its rendition of life, its ability to make one believe in it – is empty. Krauss wants the human pay-offs of her postmodern games – feeling, tenderness, sympathy – without having first written her cheque to the real.

The contemporary novelist, anxious to make her characters vital, overdoes the vitality; and then, anxious about the overdoing, attempts to ironise some of that cartoonishness. One should have sympathy for this tricky dilemma – a basic one of novelistic creation, and scarcely avoided by hundreds of even very great writers – especially in the case of a young writer. But Krauss’s novel has been praised precisely for the ‘brilliance’ of its portrayal of Leo Gursky, for its ability to capture a ‘voice’. Or two voices: Leo’s and Alma’s. Can we now no longer tell the difference between human vitality and the theatrical vitality of Hollywood? When publishers talk about a novelist’s or a narrator’s ‘voice’, the word is evacuated of content: ‘voice’ does not have to belong to a plausible human being; ‘voice’ is merely vocal – it is the sound of exaggeration; the sound of ‘liveliness’, not the lifelike.

How telling, then, that Krauss’s two ‘voices’ inhabit the extremes of age: the child and the pensioner. Both characters, in a way, are children, because they speak with the whimsy of the child; at one point, Gursky, feeling happy in Starbucks, wants to burst out: ‘The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!’ The child represents a short-cut to fictional vitality, and fiction has been especially fond in recent years of the childish speaker: there is Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator; and the heroine of The Lovely Bones; and the brilliant, near-autistic nine-year-old narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer’s most recent novel. This vocal juvenility represents a fear of the median (and by ‘median’ I do not imply mere ordinariness). Unfortunately, the result of all this childishness, emphatically so in Krauss’s case, is a novel that is not a grown-up book for grown-up readers.