|Interview, The History of Love, 2005|
Which character in The History of Love was easier to invent - Leo or Alma? Why? Who is closer to you? And why?
Philip Roth said somewhere that the art of impersonation is the fundamental novelistic gift; that the novelist’s art consists of being present and absent, that she is most herself by simultaneously being someone else. This seems exactly true to me. I don't like the idea of writing a character that looks suspiciously like me. I would feel trapped by the narrowness of veracity, by having to conform to a certain version of reality. What I'm interested in is the sheer joy and freedom of making something new. Of imagining and inventing, while also expressing myself in the strongest way I can. On the other hand, if I were to concoct a character who was nothing like me either emotionally or psychologically, I might have a hard time making him or her seem authentic and alive. So ideally I want to strike a kind of balance between autobiography and invention. Maybe it's similar to the difference between figurative and abstract painting. In Leo and Alma’s voices I could write about a set of very familiar feelings, a way of looking at the universe, in a way that was both more vivid and powerful than I could had I attempted to create some sort of characterological self-portrait.
What was the starting point for The History of Love?
One day I stumbled into the voice of an old man who was completely alone, face to face with death. I instantly knew how he sounded, and wrote many pages. There was something incredibly flexible about his voice, which could switch from ecstatic or funny to tragic in a single sentence. I’d been writing all sorts of things at the time, but all of them struck the wrong note. When I picked up Leo’s voice it was like picking up an instrument and discovering that I knew how to play. After a while I began to wonder what it would be like if there was another voice, a kind of counterpoint to his: a girl near the beginning of her life. I thought they could be, somehow, the answers to each other’s questions. So Alma was born. And for a long time I just kept writing in these two voices, without any idea of where I was going or how they belonged together. The novel was an improvisation, in certain ways, though of course later I went back and changed things as the story began to emerge.
The relationships between characters, the ways in which they come together and split apart are intricately complex. Did you map out the ways they would interconnect before starting to write, or did their relationships evolve during the writing?
I never take notes or plan outlines. I never know where the story is going until it gets there. Getting completely lost, coming unstrung and unbound, arriving at unknown and unexpected places, is, for me, a critical part of writing. When I started The History of Love, I'd accepted the idea that I wasn’t going to write a book with a real plot. Devising plots didn't seem like my strength, and, though not ideal, this didn’t seem like a terrible thing, since many of the books I love don't depend on them. For a long time all I had was Leo's voice. Then Alma's. I had these bits of The History of Love which I didn't know yet were going to become a book within a book--they were just vignettes. I had no idea how all of these elements could possibly fit together. But I also had a sense that they belonged together. For a long time it was a struggle to see the larger picture they could all make. I got used to the idea that book was probably going to fail. I worked myself into so many corners, and dug myself into so many holes. The book was written almost exactly in the order you read it, so every chapter was a discovery for me. I had no idea how the book would end until I got there.
There are lots of things I'm not good at, but I happen to have a very good sense of direction, a kind of string instinct for it. If you dropped me in a foreign city and let me walk around, the first thing that would happen is that a bird's-eye view of the city, with all the streets, would form in my mind. I think maybe that spatial sense, the habit of drawing mental maps, is what I lean on when I write a novel. The plot that developed was just a way of giving everything I was thinking about a place: a street, an alley, a square, a boulevard, a bridge.
The History of Love seems to be as much about the act of writing as it is about reading.
Yes, almost everyone in the novel is a writer of some kind or another. Some of their books have never been read, some have been lost, some are written in journals, some published under the wrong name. And yet, being readers as well as writers, they’re all held together by the invisible threads that tie together those whose lives have been changed in some way by a certain book written sixty years ago. Cynthia Ozick once described the tunnel dug between the minds of people who’ve read the same book, and the unsuspected new current that runs between them. This novel is full of such tunnels. It’s filled with characters who are in some way alienated, or radically alone, but who are desperate to communicate, to find their way out of themselves or their solitude, people who are desperate to relate to others, to be heard, to get through. They sometimes go about trying in clumsy ways. But their effort and hope is to find or, if need be, dig tunnels that might join them to others.
Do you carry on your shoulders the importance of remembrance, of keeping alive historical memory?
No. I’m not particularly drawn to writing about history or keeping the memory of it alive. On the contrary, The History of Love is about the struggle of those who have lost something to find a solution to their longing that allows them to live fully in the present. I’d say I’m less interested in memorializing than I am in the way people alter their personal histories in the act of remembering simply to make life bearable. Everyone in The History of Love invents things or re-imagines the past in order to survive.
It´s peculiar, because in some way your novel is an exercise of imported or borrowed nostalgia?
My first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, is about a man who loses his memory. When I started it I was twenty-five, and I thought I was trying to find a solution to the problem of nostalgia, a feeling I’d often had―I even want to say suffered from― since I was very young. I suppose there has been a certain thread that’s run through both of my novels that has something to do with overthrowing the burden of memory, which weighs us down with nostalgia and so many other forms of sadness. In both books memory is reproached so that it becomes not something that confines the self, but rather liberates it. Because of course memory isn’t so much a literal record of our experiences as it is a creative act, one that helps us forge a narrative of the self. Not unlike writing.
Why did you quit poetry? And why so abruptly?
I don’t really feel that I quit poetry. What I mean is that I see the evolution of my writing as one continuous line. I began to write when I was fifteen, and since then my writing has, thankfully, evolved in ways I could never have anticipated. In the beginning the form it took was poetry: something about the directness and heightened emotional state a poem often demands appealed to me. And more importantly, reading poetry had an incredibly stimulating effect on my mind. It goes without saying that from the ages of fifteen to twenty five―at which point I started my first novel― my writing changed enormously. By twenty or so I’d started to write a lot of poems in the voices of other people, sort of lyrical character studies or dramatic monologues. As it turned out, writing a novel was a kind of natural step from there. I simply realized at a certain point that a poem was no longer the right form for what I was beginning to do. I was feeling trapped in it, and the poems showed that, because, frankly, they weren’t very good. I wanted something looser, longer, and new. So I began a novel. And now I’ve written two, and am looking forward to a third and fourth. But one day, who knows, maybe the form will no longer fit so well. And then I’ll have to move into something else. Maybe I’ll return to poems. Or maybe it will be something else entirely.
Rumours say something about six-figure advances, Alfonso Cuarón will adapt The History of Love for the cinema what is the best thing about this success that early? And the worst?
I suppose it depends how one personally qualifies success. I try not to think too much about the things you mentioned, as they are not always a good measure of the quality of the writing. Of course they are nice, and they make writing more books possible, which is perhaps the best that could be said of them. But in general I would say I’m quite critical of my work. As soon as the book is finished—and often before— I become painfully aware of all of its flaws. The process of writing a novel is a series of seemingly endless decisions. But with each decision you make, you cancel out countless other possibilities. By the end of the novel, your hands are almost tied. You’re paying for your earlier decisions, and in some cases you are paying for your mistakes. I suppose turning against the work is a necessary part of the process. It paves the way for writing the next book. If you were to write a novel that you thought was perfect, why bother writing another? In reality, I think there is perhaps no such thing as the perfect novel. And perhaps that’s what allows us, what propels us, to keep writing them. My point is, when I sit down to work those exterior marks of success have very little bearing on me. To write a novel is to go to war with one’s self-confidence. I begin with nothing each time, and yet each time full of naïve hope.
Are there characters from Man Walks Into a Room or unpublished works you would like to go back to?
I haven’t opened Man Walks Into a Room for some years now, and it’s possible I may never open it again. Once I’ve done the last public reading for The History of Love, I suspect I may never return to it, either. Or perhaps only after decades have passed. It feels awkward and surreal, even a bit painful to go back. It’s like having a conversation with one’s younger self. When the book is finished, and certainly once it has been published, it becomes closed to me. I can no longer enter it in the same way; I can only observe it from the outside. Mostly for this reason, I can’t imagine returning to any of my characters. They’re no longer mine. Having met readers, they’ve been given their own lives.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you are thinking of your youth?
That I’m glad I’m here and not there. Being young is somewhat overrated by people who are no longer young, in my opinion. In the immense effort to define themselves, young people suffer a lot. Granted, it’s an extraordinary time, full of emotional energy and longing and desire and revelation, and I’m grateful to have lived through it. But I’m also glad to be on the other side of it; to have won myself the right to sentimentalize it, if I so choose, or feed it into the mill of nostalgia. To look back on life with bittersweet feelings is a tremendous privilege, one that I’ve been claiming since about the age of ten.
Do you read many books in your leisure time? If you read books, do you always buy and keep them in a shelf?
I’ve always been a big reader, from a very young age. I still have the books I read as a very little child, and to open them up is to be returned to myself as I felt then. When you're young, books offer a form of travel, a breadth of experience that far exceeds what is otherwise available to you. People often describe reading as a means of escape. But for me it was the opposite. What's the opposite of escape? A means of arriving, let's say, at all that I was so eager to see and know.
I still read a lot, although perhaps not as much as I did when I was young and books provided a constant source of revelation. Now I read looking for that revelation, but it’s harder and harder to find. It’s not that I know so much now―I don’t―or that I’ve become jaded―I don’t feel that I have. But I’ve read a lot more, and so perhaps that makes it harder to find the book that will really bowl me over and make me feel as if I have encountered something totally new. But of course sometimes I still find those books. Most recently, for example, I discovered the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, whose books have affected me very deeply.
Could you tell us about what’s on your bookshelf? The old stuff, the unread stuff, the favourite books, the passing enthusiasm....
Above my desk there is a small shelf where I keep many of my favourite books, the ones that had a big impact on me when I first read them, and to which I often return. Beckett’s novel, Molloy, is there alongside all of his plays, as are Zbigniew Herbert’s poems. Bruno Schulz. Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, as well as his poetry. The poems and essays of Joseph Brodsky. All of W.G. Sebald’s novels. Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kis. Herzog, by Bellow. Roberto Bolano's By Night in Chile, David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon, Charlotte Salomon’s Life or Theater?, the poems of Yehuda Amichai, The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee, the books of Thomas Bernhard―just to name a few.
Is there anyone whom you rely upon for advice and guidance during your writing process?
I don’t show anyone my work while I’m writing. I’m very protective of the work, or perhaps of the private world the book encompasses, which needs to be preserved intact until the book is finished. I find that if I talk about my ideas, or try to describe the work, the desire to actually write it shrivels up. The idea dies when I try to articulate it, and I have to try very hard to resuscitate it. I never took any writing classes which, at least in America, require quite a lot of conversation about the work in progress, and so I never got into the habit of sharing my work that way. Only after I’ve reached the end of something do I feel ready to seek someone else’s opinion. I have a few people―two or three at most― who over the years I’ve come to really trust.
When was the first time you regarded yourself as a writer? Other career options you weighed?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of fifteen or so. Of course I had no sense as to whether it would actually work out. If I’d had to guess I’d probably have gambled that it wouldn’t. And yet, the more time passed, the less interest I had in becoming anything else. The backup plan was to become a professor of literature or art history, but frankly I wouldn’t have been very good at that, since to be a professor requires you to do a lot of scholarly work, and my scholarly work, much as I loved doing it, always took leave of the facts and strayed into invention.
Are you working on a new book? Would you sketch it with a few words?
I am working on a new book, in a manner of speaking, but as I said earlier I never talk about any work in progress until it’s finished. I’d run the risk of spoiling it for myself. Maybe Nietzsche put it best when he said that we only find words for something already dead in our hearts.
|Interview, On Writing, Difficulty, and Philip Guston, 2007|
You’ve written two novels, and are in the midst of a third. These are still early days, but have any enduring concerns emerged—problems, ideas, arguments, or frames of mind, you see yourself continually returning to in your fiction?
Nicole Krauss: Yes, though I’m wary of trying to articulate these things. A certain nebulousness about why one has chosen one's peculiar subjects seems like a helpful thing. To analyze such decisions is to open the door to self-consciousness, which one is always trying to shut out. But, without stopping for too long to wonder why, I can say that everything I’ve written so far seems to have found much of its energy in exploring the chasm between the self and others. My characters all seem to be somehow isolated—in the beginning it was because of something obvious such as the loss of their memory, or grief, but as time has passed I’ve had less use for these outward explanations, needing only the normal conditions of life in which to conduct further explorations into the negotiations of the self—the expansion or contraction of its freedom when it comes up against others, the use of the imagination as solace or for self-invention, the contortions it performs in the hope of being understood. It’s one of the many lessons I’ve learned as a writer these past few years: that I can smuggle my pathos and trouble into almost anything, and once within, expand, investigate, test, and illuminate it there, in a side of beef as easily as a train to Poland, East 52nd Street as easily as my grandfather’s grave. So there’s alienation, but it doesn’t end there; the isolated characters I’m drawn to aren’t ones who are content with the conditions as they are. Who would be, one wonders? But of course there are those. Beckett—a writer to whom I always return—certainly mined the rich vein of alienation, but in all of his brilliant articulation of it there’s little suggestion that things could ever be any different. And it seems to me that for some people things are different, and of course other writers have staked their tents in the rich messiness of human entanglement.That’s not my subject now, and it might not ever be. But, however removed, I work in view of it.
In the last seven years, the years since you began to write novels, have you noticed any changes in your reading life? Are you still the same reader you were before, or do you come to books differently now that you’re engaged in trying to write them?
NK: There’s no question that I’ve changed as a reader. I suppose when one turns any passion into a profession, something of the simplicity and unselfconsciousness of the original pleasure is lost. Not all of it, of course, and there is the gain of other, newer sorts of pleasures that have to do with noticing and appreciating the writer’s decisions. I can still lose myself in a book, but it happens more rarely. It isn’t just the development of a critical sense that I’m talking about, and the detachment that comes along with that. When I was a student and writing papers every week about the books I was reading, I was still entirely open to persuasion, and, bursting with feeling, prepared to be moved at the drop of a hat. My reading really began to change when I started to write novels. Slowly, I started to acquire a sense of what it was I wanted to do myself. And that narrowed my patience with the sorts of books that didn’t speak to those aspirations. I began to write in the first place because it was a way to prolong the accompaniment and heightened sense that reading afforded me. And as I was getting older, and more experienced as a person and reader—and a writer—I had a clearer sense of my peculiar tastes. I suppose you could say that my beginning to write novels coincided with the end of my student days and the beginning of my life as an adult, and no doubt that has something to do with these changes, too. I don’t think one becomes any less emotional as one get older, but the emotion is no longer spread evenly through everything one thinks and does: it hides and concentrates itself in more discreet places. But as such, when one stumbles unknowingly into one of these abysses, the diameter and depth of a well, it’s very powerful.
Elsewhere, you’ve described the difficulties involved in writing—the psychological cost, one might say. Why do you continue to do it?
NK: For one thing, it’s become a habit, a rather extensive one that is not only limited to a professional life but affects how I interact with the world in the most basic ways. I’ve been writing seriously for half of my life now, and because I began young, like so many, the process of writing became integral to how I order, calculate, and absorb my experiences. I don’t think I would function healthily without it—though as it turns out, it’s rather difficult to functional healthily with it. Difficult, but not impossible. And in certain ways I’ve grown attached to the difficulty. I don’t like it, and in fact often it is a nightmare. But the reward, once one is inside a book and steadily working, is enormous. I’ve never found anything else like it. Writing affords one tremendous freedom—to exercise the imagination, to alter and amend, to collapse and expand, to ascribe meaning, to design, to perform, to affect, to choose a life, to experiment, and on and on. It is work that demands one to be in constant contact with the most essential things. You can’t really skimp on your existential duties if you’re a writer—the work grinds your nose into it. But then, one day, the freedom and all of the emotional trawling amount to something, and suddenly you enter into a different plane of consciousness. It’s thrilling when it happens. The trouble begins when it doesn’t.
Writing necessarily demands that you return to your past, and the past in general, to mine it for material. Does this pervert your relationship to it at all?
NK: I’m sure that it does, to a degree. I rely on the past heavily. I’m in constant conversation with it, often without being aware of so being. Sometimes it is a vague conversation, and sometimes it is very pointed. But the real perversion, if there is one, has to do with my relationship to the present. I am naturally an observer, and as such I have the sense of always standing apart from things that are happening around me. I assume that I was like this to begin with, and that it’s part of what drew me toward writing, which with time enhanced or exaggerated the tendency. But it is a very strange way to live, and often it frustrates me. The only exception to it, or relief from it, that I’ve found is the time I spend with my son—he and I both would refuse to have it any other way, and in his presence I can abandon the otherwise perpetual narrative I am otherwise carrying on in my mind. But that is something relatively new in my life, and so far it is limited to being with him. I often imagine what it would be like to throw oneself into the fray, what it would be like to talk without thinking so much about talking, etc. But that doesn’t make it any easier to actually do it. In The Counterlife, Zuckerman attends his brother Henry’s funeral, already writing in his mind the novel about the lust that killed Henry, and Roth has him remark, “This profession even fucks up grief.” It’s not only that one cannibalizes life to feed the addiction of writing, but also that one’s real-time emotions are informed by the many hours and days one has already spent contemplating those emotions, their cause and effect, at a remove, as well as the knowledge that one will inevitably put this new crop through the mill at some point in the future.
Other writers must influence you. What about artists? Do you ever think of any painters when you work?
NK: Absolutely. When I started to write The History of Love I was thinking a lot about Philip Guston, and the work he did in the last ten years of his life, when he returned to figurative painting after a long mid-period of working in the abstract. He painted these crude, incredibly moving self-portraits, often depicting himself painting, smoking, eating, or sleeping, sometimes doing two or three of these at once. They’re very honest, naked expressions, intimate without being at all quiet, energetic while contemplating a life’s demise, bright and also dark. Inevitably, Guston informed my thoughts about Leo Gursky, the old man in my book. But he didn’t only affect the content, but also my approach. Guston worked by addition. He added paint on top of paint, building forms that seem almost to bulge forward into the viewer’s space. When he scraped paint away, it was only to add more. A history of gestures seems to buckle under the surface. This extroverted quality is at the heart of who Guston was as a painter. Above all, he wished to communicate. There is a wonderful painting he did in 1979, the year before he died, called Talking. It’s of a hand gesturing while holding two cigarettes, one that appears to have burned to the filter, the other giving off an outpouring of red smoke. What looks like a beaded chain hangs down, presumably attached to the bulb casting light on the talking hand, and though the wristwatch seems to read 3 o’clock, there is the feeling that the talking will go on indefinitely. And at the same time, his paintings of this time are very solitary. He was facing his own death. From him, I learned a certain attitude toward these things.
Another painter I was thinking of quite a lot of at the time is RB Kitaj, who sadly died last week. Around the time that I began The History of Love, I was in a bookstore looking at a book of his paintings, and in it were these little stories he’d written in prose to accompany some of them. The sound of his voice got into my head, as did the look of his paintings, a certain strangeness he managed so well, strangeness and emotional acuity, and these things also influenced me.
It’s the end of 2007 now. How do you imagine the next twenty-five or thirty years of your life as a writer? Ideally, what would they bring?
NK: Ideally, they would bring year after year of satisfying work, and at the end a number of books that I am not too embarrassed by. Ideally, these books would be very different from one another, perhaps even radically so, and at the same time be held together by the development of certain enduring concerns, as you put it in your first question. As long as we’re speaking hopefully, I’d like to imagine that the difficult periods, particularly those I’ve experienced between books, will become less so. Though recently I met an older writer that I deeply admire, a writer who has written more than twenty-five books, and he assured me that this was not going to be the case. He even wrote it for me on a piece of paper I now keep framed above my desk: It’s not going to get any better. Resign yourself to this. Strangely enough, it comforts me to look up at this little promise and imperative. It isn’t an easy life, but it’s a relief to know more or less what I’m in for.
I begin my novels without ideas. I don't have a plot, or themes, or a sense of the book's form. Often I don't even have a specific character in mind. I begin with a single sentence of no great importance; it almost certainly will be thrown away later. To that sentence I add another, and then another. A little riff emerges. If it's going well--and it's hard for me to say exactly what going well means, beyond the writing feeling authentic enough not to require immediate erasure--I'll continue this sort of aimless unspooling. If I'm lucky, as the paragraphs accumulate, a compelling voice will emerge. Though often I will write twenty or thirty pages before I realize that in fact the voice lacks what might be called the "Pinocchio" element: the chance of becoming truly alive and "real."
|An Interview with Juliet Linderman, Jewcy Magazine
I’m always surprised by your novels, the simultaneous subtlety and emotional power of your prose. What were you reading while you were working on Great House?
Nicole Krauss: It was two and a half years of work, so there was a lot of reading. I know there are novelists who don’t like to read as they’re writing because it will direct them or, God forbid, influence them. But I’m the opposite, I love to read always. I find reading is like opening a faucet to the great streams of language come pouring out and splash around in your mind for the rest of the day or week. I find it incredibly helpful to have a ready flow of great language. For the past few years I read a lot of Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer. I read a lot of Roberto Bolano, who I discovered in 2003 when I read the first book that was translated here in America, By Night in Chile. He’s one of those writers who absolutely changed everything for me. I love Sebald, and he’s a writer I return to a lot. Perhaps my favorite is Beckett. I re-read a lot of his novels. I’m constantly reading new work or books that are new to me, but I tend to go back and re-read sections of books I love while I’m writing to remind me of what’s possible.
I know you used to write poetry. Do you still write poetry?
NK: I haven’t since I wrote the first words of my first novel. It’s an ongoing point of curiosity for me. When I was growing up as a teenager and all through college my great ambition in life was to be a poet and I couldn’t have possibly imagined that I would have fallen from the grace of poetry into the prosaic world of novels. I read and loved novels of course, I majored in literature, but it wasn’t my intention at all. It came as a surprise that I became a novelist and that I stopped writing poetry. I feel that someday there will be a return to it. I always say I need to be older and wiser but I don’t know if that’s true anymore, because the novel as a form fits me very well; the formlessness and elasticity of it, the fact that it doesn’t have a real definition. It’s the work of a novelist every time she sits down to write one.
But how is that different from poetry?
NK: I think with poetry the form is much more apparent and clear going out. You’ll have stanzas and line breaks; there is a certain attentiveness and clarity about formal tradition that novels don’t have. When you think about novels, all you can really say about them is that they’re long. They begin, and they end. The prose usually covers the pages, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s very unclear what a novel wants to be. It’s kind of amazing that it doesn’t paralyze us setting out because the possibilities are so vast.
But when you say you stopped writing poetry the moment you wrote the first lines of your first novel—what possessed you to start writing a novel in the first place, when you previously identified so strongly with poetry?
NK: I had reached a point where I felt ensnared by my own anxiety about writing poetry. I had had some mentors in college, most importantly to me Joseph Brodsky who is a real formalist and really insisted on being able to master as fully as possible formal verse before moving on. Seems like an obvious thing: you have to know what you are being free from if you’re going to write free verse. I followed that and at a certain point all of the great freedom that writing is meant to offer the writer somehow got lost for me, or was no longer accessible. I felt my poems were getting shorter and smaller and more airless. I knew in order to save the enterprise for myself I had to break a hole in my work where air could flood back in. I thought, what would it be like to write a novel? What is a novel, can I get to the end of it? I’m just going to see. It was more, what would the novel I wrote be like, and can I do it, even? I found very quickly that I just absolutely felt at home in the form, for this new freedom that returned to me and also the length of the project, the messiness of it, the necessary and integral imperfection of all novels really suited me. I liked the fact that novels can’t be perfect, and I feel that poetry can be. I don’t even think a novel aspires to perfection. It’s just too large to define. I felt at home there, and I still do.
Was that a daunting task for you? Endeavoring to write a novel understanding that there is no set definition for what you’re trying to do?
NK: I don’t know if I understood that yet. I read a million of them but you think differently when you try to write one. I think that realization came later. I can’t quite remember. It was daunting because how does one even write a novel? It’s an odd thing to try to do, and it seemed impossible. I wasn’t at all convinced that I could do it. Would I be able to get to the end, or think of a story sufficiently long enough or interesting enough? The first book, which I didn’t intend to publish, was just a question of being able to get from the beginning to the end. After that was when I sat down and thought, I really want to do this. But now the question is, what kind of novels do I want to write? I began trying to answer that in The History of Love.
The characters in Great House who are writers, Nadia, Lotte and Dovik, use writing as a means of retreat, as a way of distancing themselves from those around them. You talked about your relationship to form—novels, poetry—but what is your relationship to writing? In short, why do you write?
NK: I’m not sure I would describe their reasons for writing that way. I think what was interesting to me is the question of, what is the cost of writing? One begins to write and very soon you realize that there are things required of you, there are things you have to do and that involves solitude and a degree of remove, in order to simply have perspective on life, your relationships, the relationships of others. If you weren’t already you become an observer, and it’s very demanding in terms of a kind of willfulness you need to sustain. I was thinking about the costs of that.
But in these characters, writing is a way of not giving everything away, of keeping something to yourself, that is just yours.
NK: Absolutely, absolutely. I think what’s so interesting is, to what degree do writers have great recesses, and maybe secret recesses, that they guard in a certain way and preserve for their work, that they don’t allow to keel over into their normal lives and keep from their most intimate ones? In terms of what writing means to me is to return to the idea of freedom. As the years pass in my life, the rest of my life becomes filled up with the responsibilities of being a parent and having a family. The freedom that writing affords me is thrilling. As difficult and sometimes miserable, as hard as it can be on one’s confidence and sense of purpose, this sense of being able to sit down and potentially go anywhere and say anything; to put yourself in a position where you can get lost and enter the unknown, and put yourself up against very difficult things to discover who you are, what you’re made of, how you think about things. Again, what is the nature of life and human existence? It’s this incredible freedom that is impossible to find elsewhere in life. It’s kind of an enormous thing for me. The other thing is a sense of being able to create meaning. It seems like a bland and cliché thing to say but I find the disorganized chaos of life is not ultimately satisfying, and one wants to make out of that some solid thing. I don’t think it’s an accident that my books end up, though I never intend setting out, having a highly-wrought architecture in the way that I chose different voices and weave them together. There are echoes, thematic symmetries, it becomes, at least when I’m thinking about it, solid architecturally. It’s that sense of solid form that’s very satisfying to me because it seems like it will stand on its own after I walk away, and that all of life’s experiences can actually come to something
What are the costs, then?
NK: It’s hard to distinguish them from a personality type who often becomes a writer, and I probably fit that mold. Is one a naturally solitary and somewhat removed person and one naturally migrates towards writing because it’s an opportunity to express oneself clearly and communicate in a way that is difficult, or the other way around? I don’t know because I’ve been writing since I’m, like, 14. I think my personality has been largely formed around that work, and I was just like that since I was very young. My whole life I’ve been acutely sensitive to the divide between who we are and who we are able to bring to the surface of our lives to show to other people even those closest to us. I find that incredibly painful, from your average cocktail party to even a nice dinner party to familial relationships. The only place I find release from that is children. In children, you don’t have that sense of divide. There’s a kind of wholeness between you and them.
You talked about how a novel itself is inherently a challenge and Great House is somewhat experimental in form. You drift seamlessly between a series of very different and emotionally complicated narrators who serve as the keepers of the story. How do a series of stories become a novel? Where do you begin crafting the story, and what are some challenges associated with creating so many distinct voices?
NK: It seems to be emerging to me that this is a way of writing I’m very much drawn to. I’m attracted to beginning these stories in very remote places and moving them towards each other. In The History of Love I had three distinct storylines—Leo Gursky, Alma and the book within a book—and there, it was slightly more obvious. I wrote it in the order that you read it so I was always held in suspense: For the longest time I didn’t know how it was going to end. There was an old man, a young girl and they were going to be drawn to each other through this third story of a lost book. I was setting out to write the book that would become Great House, and I was less and less interested in concrete connection. I was much more interested in what happens if you start in very remote places and don’t aim for a concrete connection. Yes, the novel will only be interesting to me and anyone else if it absolutely holds together and is fused at some point, that these parts standing on their own would be nothing compared to what they are when they reflect and echo off each other. It’s sounding very abstract, and it is. I wrote a lot for a long time, different voices. A couple of them disappeared and I kept four. A lot of the pages got thrown away—they didn’t develop in authentic enough ways so there was a lot of aimless wandering for a long time until there was a bristling effect, where the character stands up and you know they’re alive. I was much more interested in what happens if you try to make a book where these connections, echoes, symmetries, these convergences are oblique and subtle. I wanted to hold them at a distance from each other. I was interested in that tension. At a certain point I depended on my uncertainty as a writer. I think in order to discover and go places you haven’t been before you can’t know the outcome. I write simply not knowing. That doubt and uncertainty of my capabilities as a writer and the possibility of this novel failing began to seep into the work. At a certain point, it had to shift from process to material. The characters are riddled with that uncertainty and doubt. Like Arthur’s doubt about being married to this mystery, this woman he didn’t really know. Or the Weiss children’s inability to trust others or believe in the possibility of a permanent home. Or the doubt of the Israeli father about what kind of father he was. It’s filled with intellectual and moral doubt and self-doubt. Most profoundly to me, this doubt about how fully known we can ever really be to each other, that distance between who we are and how much of ourselves we are able to ever communicate or expose to others. Then it became the characters’ uncertainty. Then, there’s a third level of the readers’ uncertainty. If the writer is uncertain of herself then the readers will be skeptical and that became interesting to me. For all this uncertainty to be mirrored in the reader, for her, the reader, to have to be held in doubt and to think about this idea of what it is to make one’s life in the shadow of uncertainty?
The four narrators: they are all so different but have certain similarities. Can you explain in more concrete terms where these characters came from?
NK: I always think there is a too-little-noted distinction between the autobiographical and the personal. I don’t write anything autobiographical, which means the characters really don’t come from anyone I’ve met, or even people I’ve observed, in my own life. They’re really complete inventions on every level. But, having said that, one of the most important things to me as a writer is that my work feels very authentic to me, and in order for it to be authentic, it has to be personal. The stakes have to be high. What does that mean? It means that you are inventing these lives and voices into which you can pour very deeply felt and personal feelings and thoughts. Not always your own, sometimes it’s an empathy for what it might be like in a certain situation. Some of the characters evolve in strange and accidental ways. Arthur and Lotte: I lived in England for awhile, and I used to live near Hampstead Heath and I used to always walk by these bathing ponds. I walked in the Heath every day. It was a melancholy time in my life. It was this landscape onto which I projected all of that and all these years later I find myself mentally revisiting them. I wanted to write about them, I didn’t know what, but there was something atmospheric I wanted to write about. This character was born who walks his wife to the pond every day. There was no story, just that scene. And I began to write more it became interesting to me. I sometimes use small details from life. For example, my grandmother is absolutely nothing like Lotte but she was a chaperone on a kindertransport. They are small, sketchy elements of life that allow me to invent these characters and pour all kinds of things into them. They were born, and as I was writing, it became clear to me that this swimming hole is a metaphor for Arthur, that he couldn’t follow his wife. She disappeared into this abyss where he couldn’t go, and that was somehow a metaphor for her mystery, her unknown quality. Their whole relationship was born out of that. For Weiss, the antique dealer, I became obsessed with the idea of a transplanted room. I think that came from two sources. One is the Freud house, where I did spend a lot of time myself, and that room is just so amazing. It’s reassembled for the last final year of his life, moved from Vienna to London. And there is Francis Bacon, the painter’s studio. After he died it was broken down into ten thousand pieces and moved piece by piece and resurrected in Dublin in a gallery. It was fascinating to me: Why would that happen, and why are people compelled to consider these things? So this idea of a room that is deconstructed in one place and reconstructed elsewhere became the source for thought.
A lot of the language you use to describe the characters in the book evokes the image of houses—doors being opened and doors being closed, secrets, hiding places, isolation, discovery, the notion of interior and exterior. What is it that compels you about structures?
NK: I was aware at a certain point that there were these houses in the book. I thought about the connection between walking through a house and walking through a mind. I was exploring their remembering minds. I was aware of houses, rooms, doors, but I didn’t think of that as an overarching rubber band until the very end when I thought about that Ben Zakkai story and something snapped in place. Structure is always an interesting subject when it comes to writing because in order to do it you have to be aware and unaware at the same time. For example: the desk in the book. I actually wrote the first half of the first chapter as a short story called From the Desk of Daniel Varsky. I published it in Harper’s in 2007. It was collected in Best American Short Stories, and when you’re in that anthology they ask you to write a paragraph explaining it. I sat down at my desk and tried to figure out why I wrote that story and it dawned on me that the desk I write at is awfully like the one in the story. Hugely dominating—it goes up one wall and has lots of drawers and shelves, and it’s absolutely enormous. More than that, I inherited it from the previous owner of the house who had it built to his esoteric specifications. I’ve never liked the desk. I’ve always thought, it’s this imposing thing that I’d like to do away with but I don’t know how. It would have to be chopped up to even get down the stairs and it seemed sad to me, to waste this desk. When the former owner left, he had the desk built around this painted panel that I guess was valuable to him, so he had it removed. So, there’s a gaping hole under which I work, and I realized this desk had always been a burden and responsibility to me. Then I realized that this story is actually about the burden of inheritance. I had written the story without really realizing I had written it about my own desk. You don’t know, but you know.
I was actually going to ask you, when Weiss says: “to call it a desk is to say too little. The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always posed to offer up its back for its owner to make use of…” Of course, in Great House, the desk represents so much more—family, the power of memory—but the story is, in fact, anchored around an object. Is there an object in your life that carries significant weight?
NK: I certainly am somebody who is attached to objects that come down to me from grandparents or the old world. I have things like that, small things; A German-English dictionary that my grandfather gave my grandmother when they first met in 1940. I don’t think about them a lot, but the desk is interesting because it’s my life. On a certain level I do sort of despise it. The drawers fly open because the floor is sloped. It does, in a way, have a life of its own and I’ve agreed to let it have a life of its own, imbued it with meaning that I’ve put upon it.
The themes of this novel, in my opinion, are very Jewish in nature: pain, memory, inheritance, burden, family, history, discovery. Even the title itself, Great House, a school of thinking designed to “turn Jarusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.” Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Judaism, and to Israel, and how it has shaped you as a writer and influenced you as a person?
NK: Every writer is born into and also grows and arrives at her own material, and it became apparent to me pretty quickly as I was becoming a novelist that there’s something about Judaism that is contradictory and argumentative, which I find deeply useful as a way of thinking about the world, and therefore something to infuse my writing with. Being born into all of the complications of being a Jew, the beauties and complications, is a tremendous gift as a writer. I won’t always use those gifts but I’m lucky to have them. With this book, it wasn’t an overly conscious decision, but again this notion of doubt and uncertainty. Judaism is extraordinary in that it allows for and even encourages doubt; in the Talmudic tradition an argument that is refuted is considered a failure. The idea is to keep the argument or idea aloft for as long as possible and continue to peel it and peel it and dice it and get to the heart of it, but continue the questioning. That intellectual restlessness and inability to accept things as they seem or as they are is what makes the religion, to me, so incredibly powerful and intellectually interesting. It trickled down without me fully knowing it.
What’s next for you?
NK: I’ve been writing a lot of short pieces but in the back of my mind thinking about a new novel. Some of these characters are still enough alive in me. For example, Dov. I thought I’d write his story in this novel; the idea of a fallen judge who has somehow compromised himself morally, and finds himself in the position of then being judged. Part of me wants to know who he is and what he has to say. Sometimes the moment passes, and once the book is published there might be an unfortunate but necessary emotional distance. But, we’ll see.
|A Conversation with Christopher Bollen, Interview Magazine
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Congratulations on the National Book Award nominations. Did you anticipate that happening?
NICOLE KRAUSS: How does one anticipate something like that?
BOLLEN: I don't know. Maybe you just wonder when you discover you're getting strong reviews.
KRAUSS: I didn't wonder, actually. It was a total surprise. They called me directly a couple of days before they announced it and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone—not even my publisher.
KRAUSS: This is my third novel, so I'm getting a sense of my assets as a writer, although I imagine that will change over time. But I really like starting with these fragmented parts—using different voices without any sense at all when their connections will be. I don't have it all mapped out ahead of time. They are just characters and stories formed out of my mind and I have to discover the coherence among them. Part of the work of writing a novel is to uncover these symmetries or connections that make it whole, which might not reveal itself at first. I have a very strong sense of architecture in my novels. But, yes, at first it's sometimes like it's like building a doorknob before you have a door, and a door before you have a room.
BOLLEN: So you write from a place of uncertainty, not knowing yourself exactly where you are going or where it will end.
KRAUSS: Sometimes uncertainty extends all the way through to the end of the book. That was the case when I was writing The History of Love, too. But it was even more acute with Great House, because I chose a more complex set of stories and characters. And I wasn't interested in easy connections. I was drawn to establishing a distance and tension between them, a galaxy where the bodies are all moving according to the same force.
BOLLEN: I'm always curious about how much a writer can leave unanswered for the reader. In that sense a novel could be the opposite of a murder mystery where the entire work begs for a resolution. How do you decide, "OK, that's enough of a connection"? Or, "Wait a minute, that is completely vague and no one is going to get this at all"?
KRAUSS: I think it was Chekhov who once made the distinction between making a clear presentation of the problem and offering a solution to the problem. For him, it is only the former that is the writer's responsibility. I do realize that the reader needs some form of resolution. Sometimes I think of it almost like writing a musical score where things have to harmonize and certain lines have to come to a close. But I don't think it's required to tie things up.
BOLLEN: When you started on the road that led to Great House, did you begin with one character or did you jump around?
KRAUSS: I was writing them simultaneously. On different days I would work on different sections and sometimes I would get really absorbed into one voice and I would write that for some months, come to a close, and then open another back up again. What interests me very much as a writer is the ability for writing to have our lives to be occupied so vividly by others. I think that's what we long for as writers and that's the unique thing that literature provides: To be able to step so fully into another situation and condition.
BOLLEN: So what about the desk? How did it become the sun for all the revolving planets in Great House?
KRAUSS: In an effort to describe [this book] in a few paragraphs for the jacket copy, we found that there was no way to do it without the desk. Frankly, I don't think of the desk as the central pillar of this book. It's reductive. It is one of many joints. A main one but not the only one—and it doesn't connect all the stories. The desk first appeared in a short story I write called "From the Desk of Daniel Varsky." When that story was collected in an anthology, I was asked to write a small paragraph about the inspiration of the desk. I went up to my own office on the top floor of my house and sat at my desk and started at it, thinking. Naturally I looked at my own desk and had this moment where I suddenly realized—with shock—"Oh, my God. I was writing about something that comes directly from my own life that I was blind to when I wrote it." The desk I write at is very much like the one in the story.
KRAUSS: It doesn't have 19 drawers, but it has many, and it has a vertical wall that rises up from the desktop of shelves and drawers. And in the story Nadia inherited her desk from a poet from her childhood. Far less romantically, I inherited my desk from the former owner of my house. He had it built into the room to his specifications. It's an overbearing piece of furniture and I've never liked it. It's masculine. If I could, I would get rid of it, but to do so you'd need to chop it up to get it downstairs. I live in a very narrow house with lots of stairs.
BOLLEN: Was the former owner a writer?
KRAUSS: No. He wasn't.
BOLLEN: Why did he have a desk in an attic?
KRAUSS: In his spare time, he made music, and that was his room to do it. The story gets weirder because he built the desk around this painted panel, which, I guess, was valuable to him because when he left the house he removed this panel. So now there's this gaping hole above my head when I work. I've never known how to fill that hole, yet I keep writing at this desk, which I could have gotten rid of. When I was writing this paragraph about the inspiration for the story, I realized that this desk was in some ways a burden to which I felt somehow responsible. And the story was about a writer who inherited a desk from a poet, who later was kidnapped by Pinochet's secret police. All of this somehow had to do with the idea of the burden of inheritance. Of course, it's not about the inheritance of physical objects but emotional inheritance—things that are passed on through our parents and that we then pass down to our children.
BOLLEN: Why did you decide to include Chile and a poet who is among the missing of Pinochet's dictatorship?
KRAUSS: At the time I was reading a lot about that period in Chilean history. I can't say exactly what led me there. In History of Love, Chile was an imaginary place—this long, narrow, fantastic place at the end of the earth. And I'd never been there, so it was a place to imagine a story into. After that, I was invited to Chile to be a judge on a competition and I took the invitation. That's when I began to read a lot about the real Chile, especially its very dark history in the '70s following Pinochet's coup. I became obsessed with these people who were kidnapped, often tortured, and killed—or just simply disappeared.
BOLLEN: You said you began writing not knowing how the structure would come together. Were there other stories or characters who eventually got stripped out?
KRAUSS: There were others but they kind of failed to come alive and real, so they were thrown out. It's a Pinocchio element, the chance of becoming fully alive and real. And some characters reached a dead end, where they weren't compelling enough to me.
BOLLEN: You write about parents and kids quite often. When you wrote History of Love, you hadn't had children yet. Now you have two. Do you see that experience as having an appreciable effect on your writing—say, in comparison to when you wrote your first book, Man Walks into a Room, in your early twenties?
KRAUSS: The hope is that one is always changing. I don't want to write the same book and I couldn't, because I'm a different person. Having children is one of the most radical experiences you can have. Obviously that flooded into this novel. This book explores parenthood from really dark angles. For me, the most powerful way to write about something is through the absence of it. Rather than writing about what it was to become a new mother, I wrote, for example, in the voice of Aaron, a father facing death and addressing his estranged son about the regrets of his relationship.
BOLLEN: Before you have kids, you can only really play off of how you remember your own childhood.
KRAUSS: But life in general in my experience gets deeper and deeper, more and more profound, more and more complex, the older one gets. Don't you find?
BOLLEN: Sometimes I'm impressed by how much more I felt when I was younger.
KRAUSS: In one's youth, one has tremendous access to one's feelings. And as one gets older, some of those feelings kind of drift away. But so much more happens to you. There's more at stake in life. When you're younger, it's all theoretical. It's all potential. As you get older, it becomes actual, and your life gets filled with unexpected complexity—some of it asked for, and some of it not. It becomes richer, I find.
BOLLEN: I know you don't like to be referred to as a "Jewish writer," or to grouped that way in order to explain the work you make. But of course Judaism plays a big part in your novels. There is a point where one character talks about how Jews have figured everything out in this life but they've never created an afterlife. They stop thinking as soon as it comes to what happens at death. That got me thinking about the value placed on the desk—the object of this world, and I couldn't help but wonder if maybe that need to hold on to what is here is a symptom of not knowing by faith what is there after death.
KRAUSS: It interests me insofar as you don't have truth at our disposal as an easy consolation. In other religions there is a clear understanding of an eternal hereafter or an everlasting heaven. The sense I was describing in the part of the book you are referring to is a sense of not being able to be consoled or never knowing for sure what is to follow. That uncertainty or doubt is so critical—an intellectual inheritance of arguments, questions, and dissatisfactions. That feeling is everywhere in the book, and it's not only a Jewish thing, although perhaps it comes to me through that channel. The story that the title is partially taken from in Great House is the story that is a Jewish story but ultimately to me a quite human, universal one. Here is this Jewish sage faced with the question after this loss of Jerusalem, on which this entire history of people has depended [Ed.: Krauss refers here to first-century Jewish sage Yochanan ben Zakaai who, after Jerusalem falls to the Romans and the Temple is burned, proposes a moveable faith that doesn't rely on a place or loacation but teaching and oral law]. Judaism until then was this very political and national idea. The basic system just ceases to exist. The sage's answer was a radical reinvention of the people. We'll replace sacrifice in the temple with prayer. We'll make this portable. We'll take what's external and make it internal. All these things that we now think of as Judaism largely have to do with that shift that happened under him. That's one of many sort of examples, but this idea of how we willfully re-imagine ourselves—the active role of the imagination in the creation of self.
BOLLEN: And it's a beautiful idea—growing around something that isn't there.
KRAUSS: In one way you are shaped by that loss, but there's also this willful shaping of self.
Congratulations on Great House being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. This is your third book. How did the writing of this novel compare to the work you’d done previously?
It’s important to me feel I’m always changing as a writer, for each book to move beyond the last, take different risks, be propelled by a different set of ambitions. And Great House does feel, on every level, like a departure from everything I’ve written before. But at the same time, of course one has certain preoccupations that accompany one, evolving from book to book, and I’m aware of having carried some of these with me from The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room before that. There are threads that stitch all three novels together: the question of how we respond to great loss, an interest in the re-imagining or recreation of self in the wake of it; the struggle to be known, to transcend solitude. I’m also often told that my novels are about memory—though I do I find myself wondering what novel isn’t, in some vague way, about memory? Memory, which is a creative and on some level willful act, is our primary means of creating a coherent self, and any exploration of the inner life, of what makes a character who he or she is, will have to confront the complexity of what James Wood once called “the remembering mind.” It’s certainly of great interest to me, and probably always will be.
A similarity among the fiction finalists this year is the use of an alternating narrative point-of-view. You grant readers access to different characters’ consciousnesses throughout the novel. While this isn’t a necessarily new narrative technique, I wonder if its current prevalence isn’t indicative of something in our culture. What led to your decision to employ different points-of-view?
Almost none. The main places where I set Great House are cities I’ve lived in and known all my life, and my memories of these places are more or less precise. After I finished the novel, I wrote to various friends to ask if you do indeed, pass the trenches 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.
Yes, parts of Great House are set in New York, others in London, Jerusalem, Budapest, the countryside outside Brussels, Frankfurt; the shadow of Chile falls over the book as well. Much of this geography is very personal to me, critical to the story of my own life. On some level, writing for me is an effort to create a home, something that, for various reasons, has been an elusive idea in my life, and stitching together the many places my family comes from is part of that effort. My mother is from London, as a child I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ house there, and then later I myself lived between London and Oxford for some years. My father grew up in Israel, my parents met and married there, as did one set of grandparents; the other lived there for a quarter of a century and died there. England and Israel are among the places of my life, and as such I imagine I will always return to them in my work.
It was just an instinct to begin to pass the desk from one character to another. I still don’t think of the desk as central to the novel―in fact, as I wrote it, I thought of it as a book without a center, made instead of many moving parts held together by shared emotional and intellectual forces. The desk is a vessel for some of those forces.
Three Questions for Nicole Strauss
Nicole Krauss is the multi-award-winning author of three novels, including the bestseller The History of Love, and was chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists in 2007. Her new novel, Great House, was published this month. The plot centres on an imposing 19-drawer desk, once owned by a Chilean poet who died under Pinochet's regime. It has one locked drawer. The story is narrated first by a reclusive New York writer, then by a widower in Jersualem and finally by another widower in London as he tries to understand a secret his wife kept from him for five decades. Saskia Vogel caught up with Nicole to ask her three questions about the book.
SV: In the first part of Great House the narrator asks two questions: 'Do you think books change people's lives?', and the more cynical, 'Do you think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?' They are very different questions, but both make me wonder how you feel about the author as a public figure.
NK: Are they such different questions? I see them as different phrasings of the same question, or the same question asked in different moods. I know both of those moods well, and the many shades in between, too. I don't think a writer can get away without wondering about the impact of literature, or questioning the worth of what she does. Obviously it's easy to make an argument for the importance of literature in general, but almost impossible to sustain any conviction about the specific value of one's own work. And that's where the problem begins, or one of the problems.
Your style of storytelling has been described as 'kaleidoscopic'. Do you feel this is accurate? What attracts you to telling a story with so many strands?
Yes, I think it's fair to say that I'm very interested in patterns – within a single life, and between many lives – and equally interested in where those patterns break or become ambiguous. I think this attraction is connected to some innate fascination with structure, specifically to forms where disparate parts are drawn together to form an unexpected whole. I find it incredibly pleasing to make things in this fashion. Why that should be is a more complicated question. I've been thinking about metaphors recently. Why do we love metaphors? Because, when we link or juxtapose two seemingly unrelated things to reveal a commonality that feels at once surprising and inevitable, it confirms in us a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things. It's a very joyful feeling, and one supported in art far better than in life. I suppose one could say that I like to create metaphors on the narrative or structural level by discovering the bridges, patterns, and allusions between stories that at first seem remote from one another. And one could also say that, having discovered them, I have a paradoxical urge to resist those same patterns, to break and deny them. For as much as I am invested in the consolation of meaning, I'm also very much aware that ours is an uncertain life, and I'm moved by the struggle of what it is to live in doubt, or with the unknown.
Both The History of Love and Great House carry a sense of the impossibility of ownership and the inevitability of loss. How did you become interested in these themes?
I wouldn't describe my themes exactly in that way, but that doesn't mean much; the writer isn't the only authority on her themes. But if you're asking about the subject of loss, I'd say that I'm interested in how people respond to tremendous loss, and specifically a response that involves a form of reinvention. Take Samson Greene, the protagonist of Man Walks Into a Room, who loses twenty-four years of his memory and has to reinvent a coherent self out of what remains. Or Leo Gursky in The History of Love, who responds to his loss by altering his reality; for whom memory is a creative act; who draws vitality from his irrepressible imagination. Or the story that the title Great House is taken from – to my mind one of the most beautiful stories in Jewish History – about how the Jews, under the guidance of Yochanan ben Zakkai, reimagined themselves after the loss of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, a radical reinvention that allowed them to survive in the Diaspora.
|Essay: On Writing Great House|
There is something strange that happens at some point between when one turns a novel in to the copyeditor for the last time and the day it's finally published. The book, which for so long was something elastic, shifting to accommodate each new thought, every nuance in the writer's mood, begins to harden. One discovers that the chair that yesterday could be dragged across the room is now nailed to the floor. The novel begins to close itself to the writer who built it out of her private concerns and instincts. She who knows its measurements exactly, who invented its inner workings, begins little by little to forget how it was made. The more the novel becomes a solid thing in the world, the less access the writer has to the accidents, reversals, inventions, rejected ideas, passing weather, sudden triangulations, and unshakable intuitions that led to those words, and only those, standing there on the page with an authoritative air about them, as if they were always bound to be. The writer who locked the door not long ago loses the key.
So I thought I would try to record, before they slip away, how certain elements of my novel Great House came to be. Where they arrived from, and the unexpected transformations they underwent as they became underground forces in the writing. The novel is told in four voices, but the stories they each tell, how they fit together in the book, and the larger story they sum to--I won't say much about all of here; I'll leave that to the novel itself. Instead I'm going to tell you about a desk, a shark, a swimming hole, and a room that ceases to exist in one city, only to be reassembled many years later in another.
The Shark Hospital
I don't support the plan, I told you. Why? you demanded, with little angry eyes. What will you write? I asked. You told me a convoluted story about four, six, maybe eight people all lying in rooms joined by a system of electrodes and wires to a great white shark. All night the shark floats suspended in an illuminated tank, dreaming the dreams of these people. No, not the dreams, the nightmares, the things too difficult to bear. So they sleep, and through the wires the terrifying things leave them and flood into the awesome fish with scarred skin that can bear all the accumulated misery. After you finished I let a sufficient amount of silence pass before I spoke. Who are these people? I asked. People, you said. I ate a handful of nuts, watching your face. I don't know where to begin on the problems with this little story, I told you. Problems? you said, your voice rising and cracking. In the wells of your eyes your mother saw the suffering of a child raised by a tyrant, but in the end the fact that you never became a writer had nothing to do with me.
And here is that father again, later in the novel, describing how he came to secretly read the pages his son wrote:
All throughout your army service, before what happened to you, you used to send packages home addressed to yourself. Your mother passed on your instructions that these packages were not to be touched except to be placed in a drawer of your desk. You lavished no end of tape on them, so that you would know if anyone tampered with them. Well, guess what? I did. I opened them up, and read the contents, and then I closed them back up exactly as you had, with more tape, and if you ever asked I would have told you it was the army censors who were to blame. But you never asked. As far as I could tell, you never again looked at what you had written. Sometimes I even convinced myself that you knew I broke open the packages and read what you wrote; that you meant for me to read it. And so, at my leisure, when your mother was out and the house was empty, I steamed open the envelopes and read about the shark, and the interconnected nightmares of many. About the janitor who cleaned the tank every night, wiping the glass and checking the tubes and the pump that sent fresh water in--who would pause in his work to check on the feverish, shivering bodies asleep in their beds, who would lean on his mop and stare into the eyes of the tormented white beast covered in electrodes, attached to tubes, who every day grew sicker and sicker from absorbing the pain of so many.
So the story of the shark who becomes a repository for human sadness was reduced to a reoccurring but very slight strand in the narrative, and yet it became a strong underground current directing the novel, a way for me to think about the book as a whole, these different voices, confessions, or dreams, that are all being channeled toward some unified point: a great beast floating in an illuminated tank. Later on in the writing, it also dawned on me that the shark was yet another metaphor for the burden of inheritance, of how children absorb into their being the dreams and sadnesses of their parents.