MONDAY UPDATE: The comments thread on this one continues to draw interesting and thoughtful perspectives, so we're leaving it here in pole position for one more day ... especially since we rode a 50-mile ride Sunday and are still working on our LATBR Thumbnail.
(A more personal, first person post as we greet the weekend ... See you Monday with the LATBR and more.)
The current issue of the London Review of Books includes James Wood’s review of Nicole Krauss’ novel The History of Love. Regular readers of this page are well aware of my immoderate enthusiasm for Wood’s criticism. The appearance of this review, however, presented a mild quandary. I am presently dead smack in the middle of The History of Love and am enjoying it. But it’s clear from title of Wood’s review – “Tides of Treacle” – that his take was likely to be unkind. So what to do? Could I count on my independence of mind to hold strong against Wood’s opinions? Or would I sheepishly fall into line with his reading? Or could I just leave the review aside until finishing the book?
I’m not known for my patience or discipline and prospect of a new Wood review proved irresistible to me – a prospect I admit was strangely heightened by the likelihood of disagreement. So, I read his review and – just to prove to you all that I’m not so slavish that I can’t take issue with my literary heroes – I’m here to say that I think Wood gets it more or less wrong. Yes, you read that right.
This isn’t to say that I disagree with everything Wood says. Yes, Krauss can be cloying at turns and she sometimes takes the whole enterprise a bit too far, not knowing when to leave well enough alone – there is no “less is more” in The History of Love; it’s a “more is more” kind of read. But this isn’t Wood’s core objection. The online review is only available to LRB subscribers but I reprint what I consider to be the crux of his problem with the book in three excerpts below:
Krauss fervently believes that Gursky is Jewish. But he is not Jewish. He is a literary idea of Jewish. He is the pampered notion, the precious dream, of his overdetermined literary parentage, all the Singer and Babel that Krauss has been reading. Gursky looks out of the window: ‘Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza.’ No one talks like this in real life, unless they are impersonating an idea of how people talk in Singer’s tales. Interestingly, the novel often registers its uncertainty in such passages, wobbling between claiming its over-explicit Jewishness and wanting to disown, or at least to ironise, that Jewishness. The book tries to be knowing about the Jewishness it is most earnestly in thrall to.
This is minstrelsy, pure and simple; it is an insult to Jewishness (the test of the insult is to imagine it written by a gentile; or imagine an equivalent piece of nonsense about an octogenarian African American – tap-dancing, say, or hysterically singing along to Marvin Gaye – written by a white writer). It is difficult to know where to begin. First, like almost everything Gursky does or wants to do or tells us he has done, it seems deeply untrue: the old man danced until dawn, did he? Until his feet were raw and bloody? And dawn found him lying prostrate on the floor? Yeah, yeah. Then there is the characteristic arc of the passage, as it guns for its target of sentiment – that incredible ‘L’chaim’ that closes the paragraph. And then there is the desperate groundlessness of the writing, as on the one hand it bathes in its overwrought ethnicity and on the other seems to want to cleanse itself by turning that self-indulgence into awkward self-parody, into something out of Fiddler on the Roof.
Repeatedly, the reader comes to the end of passages in this book and intones to himself (in Alma-ish block capitals): I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. In life, alas, one’s uncle never does wistfully hang over one’s bed at three in the morning with a single charming question. But in a made-for-TV film this is exactly what happens. I don’t believe Krauss when she tells me that Alma’s mother was at Oxford, where her tutor ‘slept under a pile of papers’, since it’s rather hard to sleep under a pile of papers; the image is something out of Harry Potter – or, if one is being charitable, Dickens. And I don’t believe Krauss when she tells me about Alma’s trip to Israel for her Bat Mitzvah, where her grandparents, Bubbe and Zeyde, look after her. At the Dead Sea, Bubbe appraises Alma: ‘You don’t have a bosom? Vat happened?’ At the Wailing Wall, grandmother and granddaughter place their prayers in the cracks of the bricks. Alma’s prayer, she tells us, is addressed to her late father. Once her grandmother has walked away, Alma sneaks a glance at her prayer: ‘Baruch Hashem, I and my husband should live to see tomorrow and that my Alma should grow up to be blessed with health and happiness and what would be so terrible some nice breasts.’ Bubbe is no more real than anyone else in this book, merely a coarse version of fat Auntie Bobka in Babel’s Odessa stories. (Also, wouldn’t her prayer be in Hebrew or Yiddish, languages incomprehensible to Alma? Why, then, this stagey, absurdly ‘Jewish’ English?)
"No one talks like this in real life” … “ deeply untrue” … “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU” … Certainly, Wood’s devotion to realism comes as no surprise to anyone who's read his reviews. (Carrie and I both noted similarities between this review and his review of Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man.) But here he seems to extend his initial objections to what he calls “hysterical realism” to another (perhaps) inevitable level – and although I’m very sympathetic to his HR arguments (which strike me as being essentially about noise), this newest point (belief and plausibility) is where we finally diverge.
For Wood, realism is clearly the novel’s sine qua non – note his devotion to Chekhov’s stories. This is a passion that I certainly share – I’ve written as much here before. But I’m content to give novels a wider latitude. I don’t necessarily mind if characters do not always behave as one might in real life – provided that they still observe some sort of internal logic within the world of a particular novel. (And in this regard, perhaps comparing The History of Love to Jeanette Winterson’s early books – The Passion and Sexing the Cherry in particular – would have been more instructive than drawing a line back to her husband, something even Wood is unable to resist. Speaking of married writers, what sort of arguments do you suppose unfolded over the dinner table in the Messud/Woode abode, given that she wrote a positive review of the same book for the LA Weekly.) The obvious term that comes to mind is "willing suspension of disbelief" (something Wood seems reluctant to embrace, perhaps understandably given his literary preoccupations), and I am willing to place myself in skilled hands – and I find that at the halfway mark, I'm quite comfortable in Krauss'. Further, following Wood’s formulation, one begins to think of numerous novels – great novels – in which people do not act or talk as “in real life” … What would become of One Hundred Years of Solitude … The Master and Margarita … Surely, a case can even be argued against Wood’s beloved Don Quixote?
There’s more. Wood raises the legitimate question of sentimentality and, again, Krauss is scarcely without fault here. But for every mawkish note she strikes, there is a balancing supply of graceful prose. (Perhaps the best test is whether you find a line like "Her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering" moving or sentimental.) As someone who has decried the chilly emotional terrain of much contemporary fiction – and as someone writing a book that surely has the potential to lapse into sentiment – Wood’s essay does leave me wondering about precisely how (and whether) sentiment should figure in The Novel. On the one hand, I’ve been a vocal admirer of Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli – which many have taken (probably not without reason) to be quite a sentimental book. On the other hand, how likely is one to say they’ve been moved by, say, David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion? One imagines this comes down to matters of personal preference - as a reader, I do seek to be moved, even as I remain alive to the traps of sentiment that are cheap and easy and, worst of all, manipulative.
I’m curious what other readers think. Where does emotion cross the line and become sentimentality? What’s the place of all of this in today’s contemporary fiction landscape? When I interviewed Andrew Greer, I told him that writing an old-fashioned heartfelt book might be the most radical thing a young novelist can do today. Wood’s review raises its usual interesting points, and though I disagree this time, I’m curious to know what you think – How “real” does it have to be? How much heart is too much?
The comments field awaits you.