Bio Hazards

Photo: Chris Floyd

Amid the old-timers and stale knishes of Shalom Chai deli, Nicole Krauss makes an aloof, if amused, onlooker. We’ve come to Grand Street in honor of Leo Gursky, the lonely octogenarian who anchors her intricate second novel, The History of Love. Krauss, in flared jeans and Saucony sneakers, is not just too young and modern for this crowd but too soft-spoken as well. Her voice is barely audible as a hoary man in a yarmulke shouts, “Come on, when was the last time you saw a drunken Lubavitcher?”

Krauss got glowing reviews for her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, followed quickly by a six-figure, two-book deal. So I ask her how she feels about writers’ succeeding wildly the minute they’re out of the gate.

“In general?” she asks. “I don’t know what it’s like for other writers.”

What about her husband, great-young-thing Jonathan Safran Foer? “That subject I’m not talking about,” she says firmly. “Not much to say on that front.”

She will, in fact, not utter his name within sight of a tape recorder. Can you blame her? She’s living beside a lightning rod, whose alternately hyped-and-reviled second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has attracted much Schadenfreude. Put together, the power couple is easy to resent. She’s 30, he’s 28. Their debuts were nestled side-by-side on year-end best-of lists in 2002; this year they could well be again. Then there is the multi-million-dollar brownstone on three lots that they just bought near Prospect Park (its ornate bathroom is featured on the snark blog Gawker). And there are the striking similarities between their two second novels, which few reviewers have failed to note. Mediabistro declared them “obviously collaborative.” (“Is it a cute postmodern joke?” the piece went on. “God knows Foer is fond of those.”)

Add to that Krauss’s own privileges: the isolated splendor of her Bauhaus childhood home on a Long Island hilltop; a precocious and suspended career as a poet; degrees from Stanford and Oxford; a stint corralling literati for a hip reading series at the Russian Samovar that must have yielded lots of writerly connections.

But what of it? Authors through the ages have been well-off and well connected. More to the point, The History of Love is a significant novel, genuinely one of the year’s best. Old Leo (a new entry in the Jewish-lit canon) nurses the loss of his true love, as well as his only son—a famous writer—and his own great manuscript. Krauss’s novel is emotionally wrenching yet intellectually rigorous, idea-driven but with indelible characters and true suspense. It draws a career arc that may very soon surpass her husband’s, in book clubs (it’s a Today show pick) as well as Hollywood. (Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated comes out this fall, and Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón—of Y Tu Mamá También—is already laboring on The History of Love.)

The literary couple is a familiar phenomenon, and one notoriously unfair to the female member. Who is more famous, Paul Auster or his talented wife, Siri Hustvedt? Marianne Wiggins could be a great novelist, but will she ever field an interview that doesn’t probe her time in hiding with Salman Rushdie? Those who open up about it seem only to suffer more. When Ayelet Waldman recently confessed her undying lust for husband Michael Chabon, she became no less vulnerable than Kathryn Chetkovich—who wrote an essay, “Envy,” on her burning jealousy of her boyfriend, Jonathan Franzen. Aiming at liberation, both inevitably became so-and-so’s partner. That’s a dilemma Nicole Krauss is looking to avoid, and on the strength of her work she stands a better chance than most.

Krauss does address the smaller elephant in the room, the writer’s biography in general. She calls it irrelevant at best, harmful at worst. “A year ago I started reading a biography of [fabulist Jorge Luis] Borges. And I just closed it on page ten, because I realized I was not going to like the man. And if I didn’t like the man, the book was going to be tainted for me.”

Still, Krauss offers a selective biography. “I felt like I really did have the last real American childhood,” she says of an upbringing that actually seems a touch surreal. Her house-on-high in Old Westbury was built by architect Ulrich Franzen, and the Krauss family garden was laid out by an Olmsted. Her grandfather owned a factory that made precision gears; her father left the family business to become an orthopedic surgeon. As a child, Krauss—just as detail-oriented as her forebears—lived in a world of her own. For five years, she pretended to be a travel agent in a game called “Office,” organizing trips for fictional tourists. “One time my brother tried to be in the game,” she says. “The partnership collapsed in a month. It didn’t do to have more than one person involved.”

Well into her twenties, Krauss wrote poetry, which “felt like the great goal of the language,” she says. She wrote a poem about her uncomfortable bed, declaring, “Architects should try to live in their own houses.” She was a lot like The History of Love’s 14-year-old narrator, Alma Singer, who wants to be a survivalist, compiles obsessive lists, and is an avid collector.

At Oxford, Krauss did her thesis on compulsive collector-artist Joseph Cornell. (Before she and Foer met, Foer put together a poetry anthology inspired by Cornell’s work.) Then she abruptly quit poetry. She wouldn’t show me any of her poems, having set aside what she describes as an impossible quest for poetic precision.

Still, her first novel had the feeling of being too perfect. It also left her distracted. “Getting a book published made me feel a little bit sad,” she says. “I felt driven by the need to write a book, rather than the need to write. I needed to figure out what was important to me as a writer.” What she needed was to take more chances. In writing the new book, “there was a real loosening of control. There was no end in sight, no synthesis at all until finally there it was.”

It’s tempting to attribute Krauss’s new risk-taking to her husband’s influence—even more so if you’ve read their new novels. “Did Krauss learn to be cute from her husband,” asked Entertainment Weekly, “both of whose books seem somewhat desperate to amuse?” Both books revolve around fathers, exiled from Europe, who have outlived sons they’ve never met. Both juxtapose precocious young narrators with eccentric old ones. Writing for the The New York Times Book Review, Laura Miller called these correspondences an “engraved invitation to compare and contrast.” The Village Voice noted with forensic suspicion a blue glass vase that appears in both books.

“These comparisons are laughable,” says Krauss, insisting the couple didn’t read each other’s proofs until the very end. “People find what they’re looking for.”

In fact, it’s clear that the writers’ passions (Joseph Cornell) and family histories (the Holocaust) ran parallel long before they met. As do their sensitivities: Like Foer, Krauss still seems a touch uncomfortable with the pigeonhole of “Jewish fiction.” Growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, Krauss “wanted to have nothing to do with anything Jewish at all.” Even as we walk through the forsaken shtetl of the Lower East Side and Krauss points out a bialy shop Leo name-drops and housing projects he might inhabit, she insists that “Leo might as well have lived in Baltimore.”

But she’s clearly begun returning to that history: A few years ago, she began recording conversations with her grandparents. And she’s been honing a semi-fictional piece—a chapter on each grandparent—that she might publish someday. Critics make much of her book’s unremarkable dedication, “For Jonathan, my life,” but have yet to mention the accompanying one: “For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.”

Krauss says that she shunned her heritage when she was younger because she was keen on “casting the line to a more foreign landscape” so as to distance her work from straight biography. She also notes that the hidden meanings of the most tantalizing material can sometimes be found in obvious places. Take that blue glass vase. “It was mine—a gift from my mom—and now it’s ours. It’s nice. I’ll show it to you one day.”

The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss.
W.W. Norton & Company.
252 pages. $23.95.

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