Sunday 5 June 2011, 16:32
A note from Bookclub producer Dymphna Flynn: Radio 4's Bookclub invites leading authors to discuss their best known book with readers. Broadcast on the first Sunday of every month, Bookclub is presented by James Naughtie. We let listeners know what next month's book is so they can read it ahead of the next broadcast.
Jim writes an email newsletter just a few days before broadcast, musing on some of the things that the author revealed, how the readers in the studio reacted to the book, its plot, its character - and they're not always complimentary. He also highlights the next recording dates and author names so listeners can apply to come to a recording.
Nicole talks to Bookclub about her critically acclaimed novel The History of Love, a novel with four narrators whose stories intertwine from pre-war Poland to present day New York, via Chile and London.
Jim Naughtie writes:
Nicole Krauss told us on Bookclub that she found it hard to express how 'intuitive and accidental' The History of Love was while she was writing it.
This was surprising to some of this month's group of readers, to put it mildly, because it is a book that appears at first glance to be exceedingly complicated. It has multiple narrators, and depends on a 'book within a book' device for its organisation - it's in part the story of a book with the same title that passes from hand to hand and appears to reveal the characters' personalities, almost creating them, as it moves from being an idea to a manuscript. Yet Nicole said she wrote the story 'from beginning to end...as you read' - there were no complicated flow charts to organise the story, though it did take a long time. And maybe the most useful description she offered was a comparison with baroque music 'counterpoint... distinct voices, each voice heard individually but in harmony together making a whole that could never exist in these parts.'
The History of Love has been a worldwide success, and maybe the reason is that the principal narrator, an old man called Leo Gursky, who is writing a book at the end of his life, is using the idea of writing to sort out the chaos of a life. How many of us would want to have the chance to do the same?
As Nicole put it, The History of Love is a book about the holocaust that isn't a holocaust book: it deals with the feeling of loss afterwards, that could have come about in many different ways. Loss of self, of family, of country. The question that lurks throughout is one about survival: how do we choose to go on? And against the background of a struggle (not a struggle to survive, because he knows he is approaching death) you sense that underneath the carapace of grumpiness and, sometimes, unattractiveness (not for nothing, I suspect, is Nicole a fan of Samuel Beckett) you sense the joy that has been kept alight through it all.
Nicole's own family share some of the quality of Leo's story. Nicole grew up and lives in New York. Her grandmother was deported from Poland in 1938. Her family comes from four different parts of Europe, and this story zips from Europe to New York, to Israel and what she calls 'the place of the imagination' - Chile. I won't rehearse the plot; that's for you to discover. But we were all intrigued when I asked Nicole what she thought were the book's shortcomings (being a polite fellow I only asked the question because she had spoken of understanding a book's weaknesses only after it had been finished and published).
Her answer was a little surprising. 'It's a book whose characters ask you fall in love with them.' That's what she wanted to do - the characters have sprung from nowhere and having taken on an independent life of their own on the page, despite the fact that they could say nothing, do nothing, without her. In the end, the way they try to escape the loneliness that to some degree afflicts them all, is by the process of writing. In that regard, Nicole was revealing about her own commitment to the craft. It was obvious to us all that The History of Love took shape in Nicole's mind so easily because for her the business of writing is a wholly conscious affair: she might say that the book came about as the result of an intuitive and accidental way, but it sits full square with her own approach to the writing of fiction.
There's no easy solution, only a quest that gets you part of the way there. 'I feel I was asking a lot of questions about love but not necessarily offering a solution or an answer.' The reason? There is no easy answer. That's why, although the complexities of the plot are resolved (just as a baroque piece of music would settle all those competing lines and harmonies) the book never loses the feeling of being many-layered. Pick it up three times, and you'll find three different ways of reading it, and coming to conclusions about Leo.
Do you like him or not? Some of our readers did, some didn't. And it didn't trouble Nicole at all.
I suspect that if there had been a unanimous view she wouldn't have liked it one little bit.
I hope you enjoy our discussion with Nicole on Sunday.
Saturday 4 June 2011, 17:36
Monday 6 June 2011, 13:38