Friday, January 21, 2011

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

This book seems to be infused throughout with a plaintive sadness. Now that may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not really because you have to admire an author who can evoke a sentiment consistently without making the reader feel totally depressed! It’s a novel about love and loss, childhood and old age. Some aspects of the plot towards the end are slightly convoluted and contrived but I forgave the author because of the quality of the characterisation. I loved both narrative voices so much by the end that I didn’t mind that Krauss was seemingly making me leap through hoops of belief in order that they could eventually meet.
There are elements of magic in the book and a preoccupation with death which is almost inevitable when the two main characters are a Jewish man who escaped from the Nazis, leaving his friends behind and a girl whose father has died. These themes lead inevitably to the book being infused with sadness. Nonetheless, it deals with sadness well, and with grief in a manner that balances sentiment with style.


  1. I think modern fiction needs to get past the "Jewish man who excaped from nazi's" meme. Not that its not a worthy subject, but its an easy one - its one that we're all familiar with, its foreign and slightly mystical without being too demandingly alien. Unfortunately there's no dearth of awful things happening to people, and these plights are being ignored by the literary scene in lieu of instantly recognisable figures, which demand less imagination and engagement from both the author and the reader. We're soon getting to the point where people who were meaningfully involved in the second world war are dying out. Will all our fiction be historical? Discuss.

  2. Luke, come on, you just called the holocaust an 'easy' subject! have you read Primo Levi? If not, I think you should. Yes there are plenty of awful things going on in the world but that does not diminish the horrific facts about WW2. It's a memory that people want to keep alive and keep revisiting and rightly so. Literature is about conflict and horror and the awful savagery of humanity and the beautiful love we can create too. If authors want to keep revisiting the themes in order to explore humanity then that's fine with me. People focus on great battles and memorable wars until eventually they bcome legendary or gain mythological status. We still remember Troy because people wrote about it and continued to write about it. Historical fiction is a welcome although sometimes contentious genre, it will not overtake other genres (who can live without a good Western or Romantic Comedy) but it has its value in presenting us with moral ideas that should be considered and remembered.

  3. In a general sense, I have issues with the ‘holocaust industry’ of film and literature. I share Luke’s sentiment that it is intellectually easy pickings, and also have a political concern that constant revivification of the theme acts as a justification for the existence of the state of Israel: by selecting the Holocaust as the perpetual theme for suffering we brand it again as a unique horror and therefore justify a unique measure of political protection, in comparison to our neglect of the victims of other genocides. Of course, there were unique features of this genocide, but that is true of all genocides.
    Getting off my bandwagon, I would argue that the original contributions to this literary genre, authors such as Primo Levi, as you mention Sian, Elie Wiesel, were astonishing. They were a genuine attempt to engage with the causes and legacy of the Holocaust. We don’t have a comparable canon for other genocides, though perhaps that will happen in time. As a result, there is a pre-existing understanding of the Holocaust which makes it a resonant context for modern fiction writers. This really addresses the issue of whether ‘all our fiction will be historical’. It is anyway, in so far as all fiction presupposes prior experiences, whether individual experiences or those within collective consciousness. Even dystopian fiction plays upon our understanding of tyrannical regimes that have already existed in order to generate the fear and tension – had we always lived in a Platonic world of ideals or More’s Utopia then dystopian fiction would have no resonance. How can fiction writers reach a wide audience and reveal something meaningful about the human condition in an entirely original manner?

  4. I don't think authors are necessarily thinking about a 'holocaust industry' when they decide to write about it. Although to a certain extent authors are trying to generate an income, the commodification of WWII in literature has yet, in my mind, to reach the distasteful levels of, for example, the commodification of female sexuality in literature. Anyway, of course the Western literary tradition is going to focus on the Holocaust as a source of pain and suffering because it resonates on a grand European scale as well as having had an impact on the American sensibility, far more so than other genocides.
    Anyway, great literature is about exploration of genre, style and narrative form, so back to the original debate topic, not all of our great fiction will be historical because a rich literary heritage will encompass and create so much more than that limited definition.


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