Nicole Krauss’s first novel, Man Walks into a Room, published in 2002 when she was twenty-eight, begins as an astute portrayal of an Upper West Side couple, a Columbia University professor and his social worker wife, whose lives are shattered after the husband undergoes an operation to remove a tumor from his brain. The husband remembers nothing that happened to him after the age of twelve but his cognitive faculties are left intact. Nevertheless, he allows himself to be recruited for a project that is designed to enable people to “communicate and share more clearly,” and attain “true empathy” by transferring one person’s memories to another. At this point, the book turns into grade-B science fiction. Nicole Krauss is also a poet and has been short-listed for the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize, and has been named by The New Yorker as one of the best of young American writers.
Her second novel, The History of Love, is not, in my view, an improvement over the first. However, no less an authority than J.M. Coetzee, the great master of modern fiction, has written in a comment on the book jacket that the novel is “charming, tender, and wholly original,” and the review of History in the daily New York Times was close to rapturous. It has also been announced that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban and Y tu mamá también, has included filming History among his projects for 2006. Sometimes the resemblance between a film and the novel on which it was based turns out to be distant. But even if the filmmaker follows Krauss’s text, he may still succeed in reshaping it and getting rid of the many absurdities that now mar it.
History consists of two loosely connected stories, both told during October 2000. The simpler one concerns Alma Singer, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Brooklyn with her widowed mother and younger brother, who has been called Bird ever since, on his sixth birthday, “he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly.” Bird is passionate about Judaism and the Jewish religion; he thinks he may be a lamed vovnik,* or even the Messiah; at the age of twelve and a half, he still wets his bed; he is in therapy with a Doctor Vishnubakat. One might wonder whether Bird had been inspired by J.D. Salinger’s stories of the Glass family, but Seymour’s recent avatar, the compulsive and relentlessly cute Oskar Schell (in Krauss’s husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), may, as a New York Times reviewer has also remarked, be a nearer relative. Alma’s story takes the form of a memoir, which is supplemented by excerpts from Bird’s diary, some of them inserted in Alma’s text and some standing on their own. Alma has set a task for herself—she is determined to find a suitor for her mother, Charlotte. Since her father died, Charlotte has had only two dates.
The subject of the other story is Leopold Gursky, an elderly retired locksmith who has lived for many years on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and has written two books. As far as he knows, they have remained in manuscript. The first is called, like the novel under review, The History of Love. Gursky, it would seem, wrote it in Yiddish between 1938 and 1941, mainly in Slonim, an ancient small town that belonged to Poland between the 1921 Peace of Riga and September 1939, when the Soviet Union annexed eastern Poland. It is now in Belarus. In 1941, Gursky entrusted the only copy of this manuscript to his childhood friend Zvi Litvinoff on the very day Litvinoff left Poland for Chile.
Gursky tells his story in the first person, with occasional lyrical flights into the third person, while an omniscient narrator tells us about Litvinoff. From Poland, Litvinoff traveled across German-occupied Europe to Spain, from there to Lisbon, and then to Valparaiso, Chile, where he settled in 1941. Meanwhile Gursky, after three and a half years of hiding from the Germans, arrived in New York City in the fall of 1945, having spent six months in a displaced persons’ camp. He has not seen Litvinoff again but, having somehow obtained his address in Valparaiso, wrote to him in 1952, asking for the return of his book. Litvinoff’s Jewish-Chilean wife, Rosa, intercepted the letter in Yiddish and responded with a lie: her husband was sick, she told Gursky, and the manuscript has been destroyed, with no copies remaining.
She lied in order to protect her husband. A couple of years earlier, Litvinoff, wanting to impress Rosa with his literary gifts, copied Gursky’s manuscript and presented the book to Rosa as his own, substituting South American place names for Slonim and Vilna, and giving all the characters, except one, Spanish-sounding names. Rosa later found the original manuscript, and without telling Litvinoff she had penetrated his secret, destroyed the incriminating document by flooding Litvinoff’s study. Thus, in 1952, the book was published in Chile, in Rosa’s Spanish translation, as the original work of Litvinoff. The one name Litvinoff did not alter was that of Alma, the girl Gursky loved in Slonim. He knew that Gursky wrote the book for her.
Gursky’s other book is a novel, written by him in English, which he apparently completed in New York in the late 1990s. Its title is Words for Everything. Gursky has recently mailed it to Isaac Moritz, a celebrated American author of six novels, the first of which won the National Book Award in 1972 and received that same year a rave review by Edmund Wilson.
As the reader may have already guessed, the link between the seemingly disparate tales of the Singers and Gursky turns out to be the name Alma. Alma Singer was named after the Alma in Gursky’s book. Alma Singer’s father, an Israeli, bought the plagiarized Spanish version in a Buenos Aires bookshop and gave it to Charlotte, his English wife-to-be, whom he had met on a kibbutz. He read it to her aloud, translating into Hebrew or English, but soon Charlotte learned Spanish in order to be able to read it herself. This turned out to be a useful decision. She became a professional translator while living in Tel Aviv and continued to translate from the Spanish after she and her husband moved to the US, where Alma was born. Much later, when Charlotte was already a widow, one of her translations, of the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, came into the hands of someone calling himself Jacob Marcus, who wrote to her asking that she translate The History of Love (a “slim volume”) into English for his own use, offering the astonishing fee of $100,000. Marcus explained that he had read her translation of Parra and had noticed that in her introduction to the poems, she had mentioned, he said,
a little-known writer, Zvi Litvinoff, who escaped from Poland to Chile in 1941, and whose single published work, written in Spanish, is called The History of Love…. Maybe if I tell you that a very long time ago someone once read to me as I was falling asleep a few pages from a book called The History of Love, and that all these years later I haven’t forgotten that night, or those pages, you’d understand.
Charlotte accepts his proposal and starts sending him installments of her translation. Not surprisingly, Alma thinks this generous patron is a likely candidate for her mother’s affections. She begins a secret correspondence with him, signing her mother’s name to the letters. She wants to find out who he is. Dogged sleuthing in official record offices leads her to the truth. Jacob Marcus is a name being used by Isaac Moritz, the writer to whom Gursky mailed his second book (and it is also the name of a character in one of Moritz’s novels). But Moritz dies just before Alma is able to zero in on him.
Now the plot thickens. Isaac Moritz turns out to be Gursky’s son. We know from Gursky’s account that the Alma of History was a real person, his sweetheart in Slonim; she is the only woman he has ever loved. Moreover, unbeknownst to herself and Gursky, she was pregnant with Gursky’s child when she left Poland in 1939; her shoemaker father “was shrewd enough to scrounge together all the zloty he had to send his youngest daughter to America.” In 1940 she gave birth to Gursky’s child, which did not discourage Mordechai Moritz—the son of the owner of the dress factory in which she works—from marrying her in 1942 and naming the boy Isaac Moritz. When Gursky rushes to see her upon his arrival in New York in 1945, he finds out both about her child and about her marriage to Mordechai, with whom she has had another son.
Alma tells Gursky that she wrote to him in Poland as soon as she found out that she was pregnant, and waited for Gursky’s reply, but none came. However, Alma did receive other letters from Gursky, containing portions of his book; in one he “copied eleven chapters in tiny handwriting.” The pages that Alma read to Isaac Moritz in Yiddish as a child, the memory of which led him to commission the translation of History, must have been from those excerpts. Alma never told Isaac about Gursky, neither that he was his father nor that he was the real author of the work that now haunts him. Nevertheless, after his mother’s death in 1995, he began to suspect that there had been in her life someone other than the man he considers his father.
Gursky meanwhile has been secretly keeping an eye on Isaac Moritz and his mother for forty-five years, and has become one of his son’s fans. He yearns to make himself known to Moritz, and he finally sends him the manuscript of his English-language book Words, assuming that something in the text will open Moritz’s eyes to the truth. Naturally, with each passing day Gursky grows more impatient for a word of recognition from Mor-itz. None comes. Instead, in a Starbucks, Gursky reads Isaac Moritz’s obituary in another customer’s newspaper. He is dead at sixty, of Hodgkin’s disease.
Gursky desperately wants to know whether his son read the manuscript before he died. An ambiguous and unexpected answer comes a short while later, in October 2000, in the form of the publication of an excerpt from Words, “only edited a little here and there” in a magazine that faintly resembles The New Yorker. Isaac Moritz is named as the author of this piece, which is described as “part of his last manuscript.” Astonished, Gursky telephones the magazine’s fiction department and is told that the entire novel by Moritz will be published in January 2001 by the publishers of Moritz’s previous novels. Gursky asks whether the novel is “any good.” “Some people,” he is told, “say it’s one of his best.” It seems that the manuscript, unsigned, was among Moritz’s papers when he died, and was simply assumed to be an unpublished work. Gursky asks himself whether, if such is the case, Moritz had read it. It “dawned” on him that it was, after all,
possible there had been a brief window of time in which Isaac and I both lived, each aware of the other’s existence.
One way or another, every novel must end. Krauss concludes hers with yet another recognition scene, connecting Gursky and his manuscripts and the Singer family. Gursky and Alma Singer meet on a bench at the entrance of the Central Park Zoo, to which they have been summoned by her brother, Bird. The boy, who has been following Alma’s research into the identity of Moritz and has figured out the existence of Gursky, has arranged the rendezvous by forging letters between Alma and Gursky. The girl tells Gursky that her name is Alma. His response is, “What do you know…. My favorite name.” The girl then asks:
Were you ever in love with a girl named Alma…who left for America?
The son you think didn’t know you existed, was his name Isaac Moritz?
In response, Gursky taps her gently on the arm. One infers the taps mean yes, a word that he is too feeble or too overcome by emotion to utter. Presumably, Gursky now believes that his love has at last been recognized and he has earned his rest.
Manifestly, for this elaborate and rickety structure to stand up, the reader must somehow believe, first, that Gursky’s History is, in Yiddish and Spanish, a work of spellbinding beauty and power, and, second, that the editors of the magazine and Moritz’s publisher would mistake Gursky’s English-language novel for the work of Isaac Moritz. Neither seems likely. Passages from the English translation of History, which Alma Singer filches from her mother’s computer, appear in her memoir, and a short excerpt from the same book is quoted by the omniscient narrator. These turn out to be mawkish mini-essays or prose poems—something that Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesdays with Morrie, might have written on an off-day if he were striving for highbrow refinement. “Feelings are not as old as time,” reads one passage from the History.
Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness. For a while, new feelings were being invented all the time…. It might have been a certain counterclockwise movement of the hips that marked the birth of ecstasy; a bolt of lightning that caused the first feeling of awe. Or maybe it was the body of a girl named Alma.
Of course, when we consider the success of Albom and other authors of inspirational works, that may be exactly the effect that Krauss set out to achieve. She gives no hint of what the second book, Words, is about. However, the English of Gursky’s first-person account makes it impossible to believe that his prose could be mistaken for the writing of a major American novelist.
Krauss uses four voices to tell her story—that of the narrator, and those of Gursky, Alma Singer, and Bird—and struggles to make each of these different from the others. Her solutions are very simple. In addition to setting off each paragraph of Alma’s text with a title written in solid caps and a number, she has preceded each entry of Bird’s diary by the Hebrew word for God. Since Alma’s and Bird’s voices otherwise sound the same, this helps the reader to tell them apart.
The case of Gursky is intrinsically more difficult. To make him believable, Krauss would have had to figure out how an intelligent character with a literary sensibility who grew up speaking Yiddish would tell his story in the English he had learned only as an adult, without any formal training in the language. Henry Roth found a brilliant solution for an analogous problem in Call It Sleep. He has the child in his book use Lower East Side slang when he speaks English, and chaste and beautiful English when he speaks or thinks in Yiddish. The result is to establish at once the boy’s estrangement from his surroundings and the delicacy of his nature. Krauss’s solution is to make Gursky sound like a Borscht Belt comedian, except at rare moments, when he becomes lyrical or uses an unaccented American idiom. At those times he has no individual voice; he sounds like the omniscient narrator who tells the story of Litvinoff. For instance “The traffic lights bled into the puddles,” or “The train left the city behind. Green fields fell away to either side.”
As for the Borscht Belt vernacular, which comes across as Gursky’s genuine voice when he speaks or thinks in English, the trouble is that it cannot be reconciled with the claim that Gursky was capable of writing a novel in English that could be mistaken for the work of his son, Isaac Moritz. In the approximately sixty pages that contain Gursky’s story, I was able to count no fewer than thirty-three instances in which Krauss uses the shrug-of-the-shoulders interjection “And yet,” and there must be some I missed. Speaking of any-one who is dead, Gursky says “may his memory be a blessing.” He uses expressions such as “sagging knedelach,” “poor schmuck,” “schwartzer” (at least three times); “What are you trying to do,” he asks, “give me a conniption?” He goes to Bloomingdale’s “once or twice in my day to get a little shpritz from one of the perfume ladies. What can I say, it’s a free country.” The faux I.B. Singer talk is simply coarse; Singer’s ear was sensitive, and one cannot imagine him claiming that one of his comical or pathetic “cafeterianiks” was a great writer—in Yiddish, English, or any other language.
None of this would merit discussion if it did not lead to a larger unpleasant issue, which is Krauss’s handling of Jewish material and history. As must be clear by now, she could have told her story without using Slonim and Minsk, the unimaginable suffering of Eastern European Jews, and, ultimately, the Holocaust as more than a backdrop. But she has gone further, and many of the religious, historical, and folkloric references that crowd her book are wrong or tasteless or simply gratuitous, e.g., Bird’s writing the name of God in Hebrew on the bands of his underwear or Gursky’s dancing alone, drunk, in his room during the night before his son’s funeral
until my feet were raw and there was blood under my toenail…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.
Nothing in the funerary customs of Eastern European Orthodox Jews or Hassids justifies Gursky’s “dance.” Another example, picked almost at random, is the slip of paper stuck by Alma Singer’s grandmother, Bubbe, into a crack in the Wailing Wall during Alma’s bat mitzvah, and then retrieved by Alma, on which the grandmother had written:
Baruch Hashem, I and my husband should live to see tomorrow and that my Alma should grow up to be blessed with health and beauty and what would be so terrible some nice breasts.
Nicole Krauss was born in the US and was educated at Stanford, Oxford, and the Courtauld Institute. She has said in an interview that her grandparents came from Europe and other members of her family did not survive World War II. Her desire to make use of her family history is understandable, and, of course, a novelist wanting to write about a great catastrophe need not have been personally caught up in it. Neither Stendhal’s description of Waterloo nor Tolstoy’s of Borodino suffers from its author’s not having witnessed the carnage; The Red Badge of Courage is a work of imagination, not an eyewitness report. However, the Holocaust differs from those and other mass slaughters not only in its extent but in the incomprehensibility of its evil; it was more than a disastrous meeting of blind historical forces. Perhaps for that reason, the only writers who have been able to deal adequately with the subject, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, and Primo Levi, for example, are those who knew its horror, in one way or another, at first hand. So far, the work of other writers, however pious in intention, has, in my opinion, fallen short.
In any case, the least one should expect from an author who undertakes to draw on the Holocaust experience is a high degree of seriousness and a respect for historical accuracy. Alas, Krauss has been very careless about facts, to a degree that is disturbing enough for this reviewer to ask himself, reluctantly, whether she is not trying to exploit the emotional appeal of a subject she could have well left alone.
For example, it is in-conceivable that a shoemaker’s daughter from Slonim in 1939 could have got the papers that would have permitted her to emigrate from Poland to the United States. The US, to its shame, resisted issuing entry visas that year and subsequently during the war, even for distinguished scientists, scholars, writers, and artists whose lives were in imminent danger. It is startling to read that Zvi Litvinoff, in 1941, through the machinations of his pharmacist father,
who was owed a favor by someone who knew someone,…had been granted a visa from Spain. From Spain he would travel to Lisbon, and from Lisbon he intended to take a boat to Chile, where his father’s cousin lived.
As a rule in 1941, Jews could travel from Poland through German-occupied Europe only if their destination was a concentration camp.
It is true that the German army entered Slonim in June 1941, and that in June and July massacres of Jews took place there. However, Krauss’s accounts of what happened to Gursky in Slonim are inconsistent. In one version, he was working in a hospital in Minsk (in itself hard to believe, because casual travel between Soviet-occupied Poland and the Soviet Un-ion was most unusual), lost his job, and went home to Slonim. Then one morning
we heard their tanks approaching, my mother told me to hide in the woods…. I ran out to the woods. I lay still on the ground…. Hours went by. And then the shots. So many shots. For some reason, they didn’t scream…. I don’t know how much time passed. Days. I never went back.
On a bright, hot day in July they [Einsatzgruppen] entered Slonim. At that hour, the boy [Gursky] happened to be lying on his back in the woods thinking about the girl [Alma]. You could say it was his love for her that saved him…. In this way, he escaped death.
But 160 pages later there is a third version, in which there is no mention of the rumbling of tanks or Gursky lying in the woods thinking of Alma. Instead Gursky says his mother was busy
stuffing things in a suitcase, the house was a wreck. She told me to go out into the woods. She’d packed me food, and told me to wear my coat, even though it was July…. She told me she’d follow the next day. We chose a spot we both knew in the woods.
Gursky spends the next
three and a half years hiding, mostly in trees, but also in cracks, cellars, holes. Then it was over. The Russian tanks rolled in. For six months he lived in a Displaced Persons camp. He got word to his cousin who was a locksmith in America…. Finally his papers came through.
He arrives in New York in November 1945.
But there were no DP camps in Poland, and it was difficult if not impossible in the spring of 1945 to go from Slonim to a displaced persons camp in Germany or Austria, where such camps did exist. Moreover, arranging for a displaced person to enter the United States within the remaining months of that year is a feat that would have required Gursky’s locksmith cousin to enlist the active support of a high US government official or member of Congress.
Two of Krauss’s other statements seem to me to epitomize her carelessness with fact. First, in 2000, Gursky still has in his possession a “slide” of his Slonim house, which, “on special occasions, my birthday, say,” he projects on a wall in his apartment:
A house with a yellow door at the edge of a field. It’s the end of autumn. Between the black branches the sky is turning orange, then dark blue. Wood smoke rises from the chimney, and through the window I can almost see my mother leaning over a table.
Are we to believe that the slide happened to be in a pocket of his trousers when he lay on his back in the woods thinking of Alma? Did his mother press it into his hand as soon as she heard the German tanks, or was it when she told him to flee wearing an overcoat, even though it was a day in July? And by what miracle was this high-quality slide made? While Kodachrome, the world’s first slide film, became commercially available in 1935, it was not in general use until the 1940s. In the 1930s it surely had not reached the remote and backward Slonim that Krauss describes.
Second, in Valparaiso, anxious for news from home, Litvinoff buys with his first savings a shortwave radio:
Every night he spun the dial between his fingers, roaming the continent of South America until he found the new station, The Voice of America…. He listened with horror to the progress of the Nazis. Hitler broke his pact with Russia and invaded Poland. Things went from bad to terrifying.
This must be taking place in 1941, since the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was breached in June of that year, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. But The Voice of America was not founded until 1942, and beamed its broadcasts at first only at German-occupied Europe and later at North Africa. Litvinoff could never have heard it in Chile.
For all the talk of love and history in Krauss’s novel, little in it reveals what the author wishes to tell us about either one. Perhaps she hadn’t decided what she wanted to say. We are left only with two sad stories about the broken lives of Gursky and Litvinoff, and the story about the Singers, which seems somehow beside the point. The themes of Gursky’s History of Love and the magic quality of the name Alma are not sufficient to connect them in any meaningful way. Krauss may not have made up her mind about whether she was trying to write in the realist tradition. If that was her aim, she violated in History an implicit obligation to the reader, which is to be accurate. It may be that she is a halfhearted realist. It may also be that she really believes that, if you have sufficient bravura and talent, anything goes.
June 23, 2005