My History with The History of Love


I take the High Holidays seriously, especially the parts having to do with moral bookkeeping and pleas for forgiveness. Most of what I confessed on Rosh Hashanah was personal, and I then used the 10 days until Yom Kippur to rectify what I have done wrong. All this has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the piece that follows, for what I intend to do here is ask my readers to “forgive” me for over-praising a novel that I now regard as problematic.

Let me explain. At one point in the High Holiday service we thump our chests as a litany of sins is recited. One of them is loshon hora, speaking ill about somebody. It’s a serious sin which goes from idle gossip, its mildest form, to vitriol that borders on character assassination. By contrast, we are not enjoined to ask forgiveness for over-praising, nor is there an idiomatic Hebrew or Yiddish phrase that would be the opposite of loshon hora. Why so? Because Yiddish culture has more words for “complaint” than for praise, and more important, because superstition held that anything praised too much would attract the attention of the evil eye. Hence, the origin of Yiddish grandmothers proclaiming “I have, kein a-hora [May the evil eye avoid them], seven grandchildren. “

As a reviewer I am asked to make recommendations about what books my readers should read. This makes me, perforce, a taste-maker, or more correctly an endlessly whirring cog in the taste-making machinery. No matter that deadlines make it nearly impossible for reviewers to reread, much less have time to mull over, the novels they’re writing about. Full-time reviewers do the best they can, and there are times when a sober rereading/reconsideration suggests that their initial response was well off the mark.

The previous paragraph nicely describes what happened when I reviewed Nichole Krauss’s The History of Love. With the notable exceptions of Ruth Franklin and James Wood, most reviewers, including me, slathered the book with praise. For some, the novel’s dazzling postmodernist effects made it special; for others, it was the way that love triumphed when the strings of its intricate plot were pulled together. But these bouquets thrown at Krauss were nothing compared to some over-the-top assessments. Writing for “Mostly Fiction Book Reviews,” Jana Perkins nominated Krauss for very special attention: “One of the characters in The History of Love believes certain dead writers should received posthumous Nobels. Never mind posthumous, I think Nichole Krauss deserves the award now.”

Like many other reviewers, I felt that attention should be paid to what I called Krauss’ “Jewish magical realism” (others rightly ticked off the influence of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Paul Auster) as well as to a novel that I claimed packed “enough narrative energy to carry readers into the past and around the world.” No doubt that sentence, the review’s final one as it turned out, smacks more of “book blurb” than book review, but this isn’t the sin I worry about. What I failed to mention is how manipulative the book is (I know, I know, all fiction is manipulative; when a novel begins, “John slammed the door and left his wife Dora sobbing on the sofa,” it is well to remember that there really is no John, no Dora, no sofa, and no door. ) But there is manipulation and manipulation, and in the case of Krauss’ fiction, too much of “what happens (improbably) next” is inextricably tied to the novel’s overarching sentimentality.

To my credit, I did mention these matters in passing. I pointed out, for example, that Krauss’ “fast-and-loose presentation of pre-War Poland and how the night and fog of the Holocaust moved across Europe is particularly disturbing” and that Krauss’s novel is “manipulative and sentimental.” What I didn’t do, however, is emphasize these points strongly enough.

I do not agree with Theodor Adorno, who once proposed the idea that there should be no more poetry, and by extension, no more literature, after Auschwitz. We have seen powerful examples of  Holocaust memoir and Holocaust fiction. Indeed, I vividly remember the late Irving Howe telling me that there are never too many Holocaust memoirs: “They should stretch from the floor to the ceiling.”

Others are not so convinced, arguing that all memoirs, indeed, all memories, are problematic. They prefer the rigor of Holocaust scholarship. And as for Holocaust fiction, the scholar Alvin Rosenfeld speaks for many when he dismisses most, if not all, Holocaust fiction as not worth his time and more important, likely to cause more harm than good.

Long ago I expressed the conviction that Holocaust fiction gets no free passes; as literature, it must walk like literature and talk like literature. My problem with The History of Love is that I didn’t have the space to talk about Krauss’ use (and sometimes, factual misuse of history), deciding, instead, to comment on her style and how much it had changed since her first novel, A Man Walks Into a Room. In much the same way that Leo Gursky, Holocaust survivor and New York City oddity, is largely a cliché, so too is the all-too-adorable 14-year-old Alma who is working on a manuscript entitled How I Survived in the Wild: Volume Three. If Gursky reminds us of I. B. Singer, Alma reminds us of J. D. Salinger and his precocious Glass family.

Unfortunately, all this didn’t occur to me until I had a long stretch of time to take some cultural bookkeeping about how and why books such as The History of Love became so popular. Part of reason is buzz, and if I had to portion off a few moments during Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness for reviewing sins, I would have begun with the over-praise I ladled out to Krauss’s novel. But the unvarnished truth is that I have too many other, much larger sins, to pack into a short space. Besides, as a person who reviews armloads of books, I have no doubt that I will commit similar missteps in the future. But unlike the Krauss novel, I may not have a chance to ‘fess up to my shortcomings in public.