Main image
26th October
2010
written by Steph

With all of the hubbub surrounding Nicole Krauss of late – her newest novel Great House was published at the start of the month and has since been officially named as a contender for the National Book Award – I’m sure many readers who are new to her work may be curious about her earlier works of fiction. The History of Love is one of my very favorite books, as I find it to be a perfectly lethal combination of heartwrenching emotion and gorgeous writing, and it’s just one of those books that I truly savor every line of. Ever since I read it (well before my blogging days), I knew I’d happily read anything Krauss wrote, because she’s exactly the kind of writer I love; thoughtful, sensitive, and a true artist when it comes to choosing her words. If I could write half as well as her, well, I’d be very a happy woman. Instead, I satisfy myself by reading her books, and that’s not a bad condolence prize, truth be told. When I was preparing for my interview with Nicole Krauss for the October issue of BookPage (which you can read here, if you haven’t already), I wanted to make sure I had read all of her published works. I was lucky enough to come across a copy of Man Walks Into a Room a while back at McKay’s, and I used my impending conversation as the catalyst to finally read the darn thing. You see, I’m what you might call a book hoarder. I not only buy more books than I can read, but I also tend to do this thing where I save books that I think I’ll love so that I know they’re waiting for me. I like knowing there are still bona fide good books that I’ll enjoy ahead of me, and I’ve gotten very good at delaying gratification. Hence why despite loving Jane Austen, I’ve still never read Mansfield Park or Persuasion (or any of her shorter works)… I just need to know there is still some Jane out there for me to freshly discover. I don’t like the idea of living in a world where there’s no more new Austen for me. So I wait. And I did this with Man Walks Into a Room for a long time too. The general idea behind the novel is that the main protagonist, Samson Greene, has had a tumor removed from his brain (one that caused something reminiscent to a fugue state in which Samson travels across country to a site in the Nevada Dessert without any sense of who he is or what he is doing), only to find that the operation has sacrificed all memories of his past the age of 12. He remembers nothing of the intervening years – not the death of his mother, or the face of his wife. Everything has been lost. Unable to reintegrate into a life that now feels foreign to him, Samson takes off again, this time for the California dessert where, in a bid of desperation and disillusionment, he undergoes some radical memory experiments, hoping to finally find a purchase on a world and a man he no longer understands. I think it is sometimes used as a pejorative to refer to an author as “intellectual”, but for me as a reader, there is hardly higher praise. One of the many things I love of about Krauss are the ideas she grapples with as a writer. Memory. Loss. Human Connections. Love. These are all things that fascinate me, and most of my favorite books deal with these notions in some capacity or another. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Krauss is one hell of a writer, so she treats these subjects with an intelligence and emotional sensitivity that few possess; she’s just wonderfully insightful, so her books are always interesting journeys. The writing here has the shrewd precision that marks Krauss’s later works and the ideas are provocative, but I did feel that on an emotional level I struggled with Man Walks Into a Room. Perhaps it’s ironic that so much of the book focuses on how we as humans can form genuine emphatic connections with others, while I myself struggled to connect with the book, but I really felt like there was a wall between myself and the characters as I read. My mind kept drifting off, and although I felt there were some great turns of phrases, the book as a whole felt somewhat hollow to me. It’s kind of like how someone can play a piece of music technically perfectly and yet the work is devoid of any soul or emotion… that’s how I felt about this book. It was technically proficient, but it just didn’t quite come home for me. I could see how thematically it was a precursor of History of Love and Great House, and I could never say it was a bad book, and yet I didn’t love it. I wanted so badly to be moved by it, and yet I was stolid throughout. It was a book I could appreciate on its technical merits, but one that I didn’t really enjoy, which is always a shame. Like I said, I don’t think Krauss can write a bad novel so it’s not like this was a waste of time, but in the face of her other two novels, I’d say this was disappointing. Required reading for Nicole Krauss completists only. Rating: 3 out of 5

16 Comments

  1. Aww, I’m bummed this one didn’t live up to your expectations! I wanted to read some Nicole Krauss after Great House made the list, but was thinking backlist since I don’t do well reading books with a lot of hype. If now this one, which book would you suggest? Is History of Love the only other one?

  2. 10/26/2010

    I’ve actually never heard of this author or Great House, but this book sounds very interesting. I was surprised to hear that you didn’t connect with it on an emotional level, because it sounds, from the description, to be a very emotional sort of book. Perhaps I should give it a chance, even if it disappointed you? See if I connect with it?

  3. 10/26/2010

    I end up saving books once I buy them! I’m much more likely to read a library book than one I already own. I like knowing certain books are waiting for me, too.

    I loved History of Love. I haven’t read Great House and hadn’t even heard of Man Walks Into a Room before I read your post. From what I’ve been reading, History of Love seems to be the favorite, which makes me a little hesitant to try Krauss’s others.

  4. krauss was recommended to me during my summer readathon 2009, and i borrowed ‘the history of love’ from the library. i think it was too heavy for ‘summer reading’, so i returned it without even cracking the spine.

    i trust your reading judgment and will try ‘HofL’ soon. 🙂

  5. 10/26/2010

    Great review Steph – your analogy to music is so right on and helpful, because I think it is easier to “get” that someone with a not so great voice can move you more than someone with a technically better voice, or someone who plays the violin to perfection can somehow lack “feeling.” And how meritorious of you to read the backlist before you review – I’ve always thought that was the best thing to do even though I rarely do it! :–)

  6. 10/27/2010

    @ Kim: Well, History of Love is my favorite, but it is a book that has tons of hype surrounding it… It’s the first Krauss I read and I love(d) it dearly, so that’s naturally where I’d point you, but I will also say that despite the hype, I don’t think you’d be disappointed with Great House. Krauss is one of those authors who is just remarkably strong! But if you really don’t want to read something everyone else currently is, start with History of Love, I think.
     
    @ Amanda: Yes, I was surprised I didn’t connect with this book as well, not just because of the subject matter which is inherently emotional, but also because I found History of Love SO moving. If you think the premise sounds interesting, I do recommend you give it a go, because as I said, there is no such thing as a bad Nicole Krauss novel. This just wasn’t my favorite!
     
    @ Erin: Glad to hear I’m not the only one who hoards books by loved authors! 😀 Also, I think that although History of Love is my favorite, I never regret time spent on any of Krauss’s novels. Great House is pretty, well, great, so you may want to try it at some point!
     
    @ nat: I think History of Love is very much a Fall/Winter book, though I would happily read it any time of year. I personally found it a really quick read, despite wanting to copy down every line in the book, so I hope you do try it again… for real this time! 😉
     
    @ rhapsody: I’m glad the music analogy worked for you – it just seemed the most apt way of describing the trouble I had with this book. Technically there isn’t anything wrong with the book, and yet it just didn’t resonate.
    Also, I’m really glad I had read all of Krauss’s works going into our interview, simply because it gave me a better picture of what she does as an author and the issues that interest her. Plus, it’s not like reading everything she’s written was a hardship! 😉
     
    @ Mystica: It’s currently the hot book to read, so I doubt you’ll have trouble finding it! I hope you enjoy it!
     
    @ Claire: Toni Morrison is another author I hoard – currently have Jazz, Paradise, and Beloved waiting to be read at home, but I just know I need to pace myself with her!

  7. 10/26/2010

    I had heard of Great House but never read it – I think I will go look for that first.

  8. I hoard books by favourite authors too, Steph; not all but some. Toni Morrison is an author whose work I want to devour but also desperately need to hold back; Austen is a novelist whose work I have read all of (I hoarded Persuasion until last year but couldn’t hold out any longer) but I am currently enjoying a reread of S&S.

    I have only read (and need I say loved?) The History of Love by Nicole Krauss so far although I do have a copy of Man Walks Into a Room; I have heard disappointing feedback of the latter so in no rush to pick it up.

  9. 10/27/2010

    Like Amanda, I find it interesting that you had a hard time connecting with this book given the fact that it seems to deal with some very emotionally heavy themes, and I also think that your description of it as being “hollow” is a very descriptive and interesting way of interpreting your feelings on it. I still have not read any Krauss, but do have The History of Love on my shelf. I also wanted to let you know that I totally relate to the book hoarding thing. I do exactly the same thing, but it is a bit out of control as the book population has swelled alarmingly.

  10. 10/28/2010

    @ zibilee: This one definitely seemed like it would be a homerun in terms of how it would affect me, so no one was more surprised than I to find there was a large chasm between myself and the story/characters. The last thing I expect when reading a Nicole Krauss novel is to feel nothing!
     
    @ claire: Oh, I’m so glad to hear you felt similarly to me about this one. I talked to another friend who tried this one (and who LOVED Great House), and she had the same problem – just couldn’t connect with the characters. I think you make a good point that maybe we are meant to feel the detachment that Samson feels, but that’s a hard thing to instill in your readers when they are meant to empathize with the characters… Then again the whole book is an exploration of being connected and empathizing with others, so maybe I don’t give Krauss enough credit for alienating her readers. Maybe that was the point! 😉 I actually got rid of my copy, though, so I don’t remember what the last sentence was. D’oh!

  11. 10/27/2010

    I agree, this should be read by devoted Krauss fans only! I think if I hadn’t read The History of Love that I wouldn’t have appreciated Man Walks into a Room that much. As it is, I felt the same as you in so many ways, as it felt very technical somehow, barring a few gorgeous, enlightening passages. I also felt a little disconnected with the book, but somehow attributed it (well, somewhat) to the disconnect between him and his wife. It felt all the more real, and sometimes felt like Krauss almost meant the reader to feel that distance, just to experience what Samson was going through. But it clearly is no History of Love. In fact, as I was writing the sentence above I had to check your review again for the protagonist’s name as I’d forgotten it, whereas Leo Gursky will forever be remembered for sure. But then again, I thought this was a very Krauss-y novel and can see aspects of History of Love coming through. Still, while I didn’t love it, I really still think it a keeper. I thought the last sentence was perfect and wrapped the whole book beautifully.

  12. 10/27/2010

    P.S. In a way, I actually did love it, but not as much as you know what. It doesn’t feel right to say I didn’t love it because it made me cry in the end..

  13. 10/28/2010

    First of all, I’m a little surprised you have such strong feelings for History of Love. Granted I read it a couple years ago, but I can remember absolutely NOTHING about it. I remember really wanting it to be heart-wrenching and memorable but it was completely forgettable to me. (Apparently.)

    Second of all…MCKAY’S. Man I miss that place. Took the boyfriend there last time we were home, had to give him a time limit so we could make it to Radnor Lake before the sun set, and am now fully expecting a McKay’s list from him every time I go home in the future.

  14. 10/29/2010

    What you do with Jane Austen, I do with Dorothy Dunnett. I’m holding the last books of her Niccolo series because I don’t want to live in a world where there are no new DDs for me to discover.

    Did you follow Lost? Desmond was a great Dickens fan and he saved Our Mutual Friend for the same reasons.

  15. 10/30/2010

    This is the only work of hers I’ve yet to read! I’ve been meaning to get my hands on it.

  16. 11/01/2010

    @ Alex: I watched the first season of Lost but then quickly lost interest with it (no pun intended!)… But it’s always nice to hear that others who are passionate about reading understand my book hoarding… even if they are fictional characters… 😉
    @ Jamie: If you’re a big Krauss fan, then by all means give it a go! I actually did a little dance when I found this one at my favorite used bookstore! 😉

Leave a Reply