Jessica Teisch

This profile of and interview with Nicole Krauss is from our Nov/Dec 2010 issue.

Writing a novel is a difficult enterprise; starting a new work after a best seller can be particularly daunting. In our interview with Nicole Krauss, the celebrated author of The History of Love ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2005), we discussed the challenges and origins of her newest novel, Great House (to be reviewed in our next issue). "When I began to write seriously again after The History of Love," Krauss told Bookmarks, "there was a long period of aimless effort, of trying this or that without any sense of where it would lead. Many of the pieces I began I eventually lost interest in--either they reached a dead end, or never really came alive to me. But in all of this material, there were four voices that I fell into just as accidentally as the rest, but unlike those stories, these didn't quickly exhaust themselves. Just the opposite: the more I wrote of them, the more real and vivid they became to me. I threw the rest away, and these four intense monologues or confessions began to expand, each with its own story."

These four voices--of an American novelist, a tyrannical Israeli father, a retired Oxford don, and a young American woman, all with links to a desk stolen from Budapest in 1944--soon converged into a complex tale of disappearance, destruction, and inevitable loss. "Slowly I discovered their connections," Krauss told Bookmarks, "how they were bound to each other, and the ways they echoed and reflected on each other. I began to understand the regrets that compelled each of them, and the novel's shape as a whole began to emerge." The result, Great House, reflects Krauss's varied interests--in the role of memory, the nature of survival, the burden of emotional inheritance, in the contemporary Jewish Diaspora, and in her own search for an identity that spans many generations.

Named one of Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40 in 2007 and recently featured in New Yorker's 20 Under 40 Fiction Issue, Krauss received wide recognition for her first novel, Man Walks into a Room (2002), about an amnesiac man's search for himself. But it was The History of Love, a story of a novel within a novel and described as "Jewish magical realism," that earned Krauss wide popularity and acclaim.

Krauss dedicated The History of Love, about an elderly Holocaust survivor and a New York teenager, to her grandparents, "who taught [her] the opposite of disappearing." Certainly, her family's history--and her own desire to understand the contemporary Jewish Diaspora's conflicted past--affects how she views the world and the stories she tells. Krauss's ties to Israel and Europe run deep. Her four grandparents grew up in Europe and left their homelands because of anti-Semitism and, later, because of World War II--two immigrating to Israel and the other two to England. Krauss, who was born in New York and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, and their two children, grew up visiting England and Israel often.

This rich heritage and diverse geography inspire Krauss's novels. Certain details of the stories in Great House are drawn from her family's experience during and after World War II. Other elements come from her own life. Still, Krauss's imagination leads the way. "I can't stress strongly enough the importance, to me, of not being bound to reality, of feeling that I am completely free to imagine and invent," she said. "As for the true stories and historical facts that occasionally guided me, the question, for me, was why I was drawn to these particular things. Why had they gotten under my skin? Writing novels has always been a way for me to shine a light on, and give form to, certain enduring preoccupations, often ones that have been with me for many years."

In Krauss's highly artistic endeavors, writing has also been, in the deepest sense, an attempt to "create a home for myself. That home has necessarily had to include and reflect the places that have been fundamental to my life." And now, with Great House, Krauss has found an aptly titled home.

Man Walks into a Room (2002)

Award Star Los Angeles Times Book of the Year

This poetic "what if" novel about nostalgia and memory delves into the emotional consequences of amnesia and is, at heart, a quest to understand relationships, intimacy, and loss.

The Story: What if a man woke up one day and had forgotten everything he ever knew? Thirty-six-year-old Samson Greene, an English professor, contracts a small brain tumor and finds himself bereft of memory and wandering in the Nevada desert. After the tumor is removed, he can recall his childhood--but nothing about his career or his relationship with his wife, with whom he struggles to reconnect. Then a research scientist invites him back to the desert for an experiment, in which memories of another person will be transplanted into him. But after a shocking experience, Samson, an "emigrant in his own life," starts to embrace his loneliness.

"Krauss' prose is casually dazzling, as are the ideas she explores through Samson. Robbed (or freed) of identity, he's a man bereft of preferences and pet peeves, stripped of gestures and habits. Who, then, does that make him? For starters, a thoroughly riveting character." Gillian Flynn, Entertainment Weekly, 8/2/02

"Most budding novelists would have succumbed to the temptations inherent in the theme by going nuts with structure (think of the fragmented, backward thrust of Memento), but Krauss's narrative is straightforward and accessible. She does try too hard to sync up all the elements, approaching amnesia from every imaginable angle: scientific, emotional, historical, religious, literary. But the novel survives this overkill because Samson is an intriguing, submerged character, forever grasping at feelings just beyond his reach." Joy Press, Village Voice, 5/21/02

The History of Love (2005)

Award Star William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, 2008

Award Star Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France), 2006

Award Star Orange Prize shortlist

Krauss describes her best-selling second novel, which appeared in abbreviated form in the New Yorker, as "a book about the way in which books can change people's lives." Critics hailed it for its imaginative complexity and literary pyrotechnics, depth of characters, and touching exploration of love, loss, and memory.

The Story: Across time and space, an almost-forgotten novel called The History of Love, published in 1950s Chile, binds together two souls. Leo Gursky, an 80-year-old retired Polish locksmith in New York and former writer, fled the Nazis as a youth. Now he fears he's invisible to the world. "Aside from myself, there was no sign of me," he says. His childhood sweetheart, Alma, is gone, and he has never become acquainted with his son. A different Alma, named after the fictional heroine of the 1950s novel, is a 14-year-old girl whose father has died, leaving her to cope with a lonely mother and a disillusioned little brother. Through these characters, this book-within-a-book narrative questions the relationship between life and literature and recounts stories of great loss, memory, and survival.

"The History of Love is a significant novel, genuinely one of the year's best. ... Krauss's novel is emotionally wrenching yet intellectually rigorous, idea-driven but with indelible characters and true suspense." Boris Kachka, New York Magazine, 5/21/05

"I read [this] in a few stunned hours. ... Krauss is ambitious in her storyline and themes and has the gifts to carry out her big ideas." Maureen Corrigan, NPR, 12/22/05

"Nothing in The History of Love exists without some kind of echo or doppelgänger. There are multiple Almas, multiple texts and several interrelated old men. ... Beyond the vigorous whiplash that keeps Ms. Krauss's History of Love moving (and keeps its reader offbalance until a stunning finale), this novel is tightly packed with ingenious asides." Janet Maslin, New York Times, 4/24/05

An Interview with Nicole Krauss

Bookmarks: In researching the stories in Great House, what did you find most fascinating or surprising?

Nicole Krauss: I’ve never done much research for my novels. The main places where I set Great House—New York, London, Jerusalem—are cities I’ve lived in and known all my life. Sometimes I had to look at a map to remind myself of a street name, but generally my memories of these places are very precise. After I finished the novel, I wrote to various friends to ask if they did indeed, pass the trenches at Ypres on the way to Brussels if you’re coming from Calais (yes), or whether there were commercials for whores on German television in the seventies (no), or whether the ticket hall at the West Finchley Tube station was above ground, as I remembered, or below, and so on—but these questions mostly involved details that had no real bearing on the stories themselves.

There was historical information that was important to me, however obliquely, as I wrote—for example, the fate of those who were kidnapped and who disappeared under Pinochet’s regime in Chile, or that Pinochet’s coup in 1973 and the Yom Kippur War in Israel took place three weeks apart, or that Freud fled Vienna in 1938 and his wife and daughter reassembled his study almost exactly, down to the last detail, in the house he moved into in North London, and so forth. But I was very familiar with these bits of history before I began writing. Somehow they found their way into the novel, but in most cases they eventually sunk to the bottom of the stories, became submerged, and appear on the surface only fleetingly.

Some elements of the stories came from my family. Lotte, my grandmother, was a German refugee who arrived in London as a chaperone on a Kindertransport. Weisz, my great- uncle, survived the war in Budapest and afterward shipped his belongings to Israel, only to learn, upon arrival, that they had all been stolen; many months later, he rang someone’s door, and the man who opened it was wearing my great-uncle’s silk shirt with his initials monogrammed on the pocket. These are stories I’ve known all my life. Other stories came from my own experiences. A few others were told to me by chance. By far, the great majority of the novel’s stories were completely invented, imagined through and through.

What draws you to different places in the past?

I’m not particularly drawn to other eras, but I am interested in the way people digest the past, and particularly how they survive enormous loss, destruction, or change. The characters in the novel are all contemporary, but they each, in different ways, are looking back on some part of their lives, retelling, confessing, struggling to explain themselves.

I do tend to set my novels in different places, almost always ones where I have had significant experiences. I like the feeling of drawing remote things together in unexpected ways, of building a coherent design out of parts that don’t initially seem to belong together. Geographically, that is the story of my own family—we come from so many countries, moved to so many countries, then moved again, were born here and died there—and my instinct in writing has always been to try to draw up these various, distant places into a meaningful whole. Writing has been many things to me in my life; one is the effort to create a home for myself. That home has necessarily had to include and reflect the places that have been fundamental to my life.

Do you identify with any of the characters?

I came to identify with all of them; that’s the only way I was able to write about them in their own voices. In some cases, it took time before I found my way into them, until I felt I could really become them. It didn’t always happen immediately. I began writing the story of Aaron, for example, without fully understanding him. I felt some compassion toward him, but I couldn’t yet explain why. How could he have been so unfair, even cruel, to his son, Dov? But as his story unfolded, I came to see him differently. I felt what it must have been like to have a child who had chosen against one parent, who had chosen his mother and sided against his father from the beginning. I understood this father’s frustration and regret, his grief at having a son whom he could never understand, who he felt had never given him the chance to understand. With other characters, such as Arthur, I knew from the beginning that I was writing about a man who felt he had been married to a mystery all of his life, and from the beginning, I felt some empathy for him, for his longing, and for his regret at collaborating, for so many years, in his wife’s silence. And yet it took 50, 60, 80 pages to really grapple with and come to terms with his life and his story, to fully understand the choices that he made. The truth is that I put a lot of myself, of my own feelings, into my characters: their circumstances aren’t mine, but often their emotions are. And yet in creating them, by putting myself in their situations, I also discover many things I hadn’t fully known about myself.

What recent books can you recommend?

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, which was published in September by New Directions. All three of Erpenbeck’s books are stunning; in each, she invents a kind of private language, invented to tell that one story, alone. This book, which was a best seller in Germany, tells the story of a unique summerhouse on a lake outside Berlin, owned by Erpenbeck’s grandparents during her childhood. Written in a staccato, musical prose, Erpenbeck traces the story of the house from the 19th century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally, to reunification. Through the lens of the characters that tried to live in this house, Erpenbeck tells a very intimate, emotional story of a hundred years of history as it affected twelve lives.