In an essay published earlier this year in The New York Times, the novelist Nicole Krauss questioned the notion of the author as a figure of authority, “someone who invents or causes something.” It is a notion, she writes, that “returns me to a question that bothered me to no end when I was younger: Who gives her the right? Or more like: How does she take it?” For Krauss, who published her first novel, Man Walks into a Room (2002), when she was twenty-eight, the answer when she was a young writer had been simple—adopt a man’s voice:
To speak as a man on the page, in his third or, even better, his intimate first person, was to have quicker access to the sort of authority that allows one to be assertive, brazen, even difficult, without losing the possibility of empathy, which might lead to the slamming shut of the book.
Taking on a man’s voice carried Krauss well into her second and best-selling novel, The History of Love (2005), half of which is narrated by Leo Gursky, a solitary octogenarian, the kind of man who walks around with a note in his wallet that says “PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.” The other half of the novel is told from a female perspective—that of a fourteen-year-old girl, to be precise—but even this seems in keeping with Krauss’s professed strategy: the narrator’s youthful precocity is sure to preempt whatever loss of empathy her author is worried about causing.
If that wasn’t enough, The History of Love came armed with metafictional devices, such as a novel-within-the-novel also titled The History of Love, that too neatly tied together both halves of the book. And the narrators themselves read like the studied products of their literary forefathers: Singer and Roth, Borges and Ozick. It was as if Krauss couldn’t proceed “without the understanding,” as she writes in her Times essay, that her work “better scale some invisible mark, proving the worth and seriousness of the mind it came from.” So winsome did The History of Love prove to be that I have heard parts of it recited at two wedding ceremonies. (You can see why: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”)
Nor did Krauss altogether abandon her narrative strategy in her next, and far superior, novel, Great House (2010). Two of the four storylines in that book are told in the intimate first-person voices of elderly men: a retired Israeli judge addressing his estranged son and a widower in London mourning his enigmatic wife. And yet what made Great House memorable were the other two storylines, those narrated by two women,…
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