One thing the book club taught me (so far)

reading

Thanks to our book club (Literary Ladies), my reading selection has expanded dramatically, because I read books which I would have never come into contact otherwise. Our discussions also prompt many thoughts regarding reading which I have been interested in throughout my life. What follows presents the results of thinking about our two meetings and the conversations we had about the two books chosen.

As far as readers are concerned, there seem to be two main perspectives underlying the act of reading (fiction, but perhaps other genres can be included here too). These perspectives underpin the interpretation of themes, settings, actions, descriptions, and allow for very different types of enjoyment/disappointment/expectations of the book which all contribute to delightful discussions. The two perspectives are mutually exclusive but neither is “better” than the other. Each, however, lets us understand the world differently, although often without any possibility of rapprochement.

  1. Some readers identify themselves with a character. This is reading and thinking/feeling with one’s own mind: the reader looks for validation of her/his own ideas through a character’s language, race, gender, religious affiliation, social class, education, familial status, etc. (Pace Steven Pinker and other psychologists). Clearly, affection for a character of identical background reaffirms one’s situation and makes one exclaim: “I am not the only one that is experiencing these troubles/joys”. Women who went or are undergoing separation from a partner read The Love Warrior and find the “memoir” meaningful as they feel their life experience is reaffirmed since they can identify with Glennon. The book’s content, then, is part of the real world of suffering/joy. It is almost a given that this type of reading makes it much less probable that the readers would actually criticize the character with whom they identify. Conversely, if the readers do not identify (but would very much like to ) with a character (usually a protagonist), they are more likely to criticize the character’s  choices and lifestyle. Those readers who “could not” identify with Leo Gursky in The History of Love were more likely to find his quirks and life choices not understandable.
  2. Some readers suspend their way of thinking and stand back, so to speak, which makes them read and think/feel using the author’s mind. In other words, for them, “reading is thinking with someone else’s brain”, as Schopenhauer apparently claimed. This perspective does not seek to validate any aspect of the reader’s personality through an identification with a character. The characters are perceived purely on the strengths or weaknesses of the artistry of their description and on the intrinsic web of relationships they form with other characters. Readers who did not identify with Glennon of The Love Warrior and who read the “memoir” purely on the strengths of the description were more likely to detect the fact that the author was not entirely honest. This type of reading made it therefore possible to find faults, for example,  with Glennon’s abandoning her family and going off to expensive yoga sessions. As for The History of Love, those readers who found Leo Gursky’s life interesting or poetic, were more likely to find enjoyment and appreciation of the description of his quirks and life choices. This perspective interprets the book’s contents as an enrichment of one’s real life, rather than a confirmation of it; and therefore the farther the book’s content is from the reader’s experiences, the more chance it has to mold critical skills.

These two types of reading, however, leave various questions unanswered. For example, what are the criteria for constructing the countless book classifications, suggestions, lists? Do they measure the contents from the perspective of identity or from the perspective of detachment? Moreover, and, more significantly, the algorithms which are forced on us by the digital technology surely support our “preferred” type of reading and therefore the destruction of the boundaries (identity vs detachment) we as readers fall prey to becomes ever more impossible. Also, do the genres themselves force us to read from one perspective or another, as Edgar Alan Poe suggests? What do you think? You are welcome to leave your reactions by clicking on the “Comment” button below.

Love, lose, live (not necessarily in that order)

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, 2006) offers all that an entertaining, thought-provoking, and richly-styled fiction should contain. Unlike other cases, its inclusion on The New York Times 2005 bestseller list is well deserved.

krauss

There is no doubt that the novel is entertaining and deceptively uplifting: the backbone of these positive reactions is created by the protagonist of one of the three main distinct but intertwined sections of the novel: the lovable, witty, imaginative, sensitive octogenarian, Leopold Gursky.  Despite all the adversities history tests him with (fleeing from the SS, leaving his family behind, disappearing from his Yiddish Polish hometown, living an immigrant’s life in New York, losing his one and only love to another man by coming to her too late, shadowing his son who never knew him, giving up one book he authored and losing the authorship of another he wrote), Leopold Gursky attempts to survive these painfully traumatic events and go on living as best as he knows.  His coping strategies are varied. For example, he is “trying to make a point of being seen”, such as dropping his change all over the floor in a crowded store. Clearly, this plan of action not only covers up his present loneliness but also balances out the times he was utterly alone while hiding in the forests.The act of appearing and disappearing,  being a leitmotif of the novel,  is also true of other people and things. He often imagines his death which in his opinion should happen on a day when he was seen. His witty comments open up different sides to him (for ex., “Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza”, p. 5; “I consider it a small victory that he [the husband of his love] kicked the bucket first”, p. 85).   After ending up in New York, he became a very competent locksmith and the only time he is tempted to and actually does open a locked door was to get inside of a Broadway theatre where he could imagine his love Alma play her violin to a full house. Significantly, he writes one book to Alma, when in his twenties, then life gets in the way, and he starts writing again after his heart attack in his fifties.

The sections of the book devoted to his life are expressed in the first person narrative and labeled with an anatomical heart. Needless to say, Leo Gursky’s personality is made more complex by his use of the adversative conjunction which he is fond of in a phrase like “And yet.” which he ends with a full stop. This stylistic device, stopping the narration and seemingly adding a contradicting value to what was stated previously, illustrates Leo Gursky’s  humanity, fallibility, insecurity, and in the final analysis makes the reader question everything he narrates. This attitude is similar to that of the Italian author Leonardo Sciascia who is often referred to by the phrase Disse e si contraddisse (which, loosely translated, means “He stated something and then he contradicted himself”).

The thought-provoking aspect of the novel leaves the reader with numerous questions relating, for example, to the title, the meaning and force of words, the inspiration for and the function of writing. The title (not only of the novel but also of the first Leo Gursky’s book) is interesting: The = the definite article points to one definitive explanation; History = process of modification through time; of  = belonging to; Love = feeling of tenderness and affection. And yet, the novel contains many personal histories of the feeling of tenderness and affection, not  the definitive one. The three narratives of Leo Gursky, Alma, and Emanuel/Bird) all deal with the meaning and force of words.  Leo Gursky’s second novel is entitled Words for Everything, underlying the cognitive importance of language for the possibility of explaining and understanding our place in the world. The girl Alma’s narration is devoted to the search for her father’s past in order to comprehend the force that binds her mother to her father. This can only happen through Alma’s deciphering  of the contents of the book her father gave to her mother: The History of Love. Alma, as it happens, is the name of all the women in the book, and, importantly, means “soul” in Spanish.  The book is indeed the virtual meeting place between the teenager Alma and Leo Gursky who do not know about each other until the end and whose destinies intertwine on a number of levels.  The meaning and function of writing is dealt with both openly and also less so. When Leo Gursky, in his youth, offers to Alma, his love, his first written piece which deals with their village Slonim and the people who live there, “she shrugged and said she liked  it better when I made things up”. Then he gives her his second piece of writing, which contained all made-up things,  she reacts by saying that maybe he “shouldn’t make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything” (p. 8). His third attempt becomes his final version of The History of Love, which destiny did not let her read.

Stylistically, this novel proposes a complex, rich, and varied narration. Each character (Gursky, Alma, Emanuel/Bird) has a special voice, expressive communicative strategies, and particular flights of poetic expression. There is also the unnamed author of the introduction to the Spanish version of The History of Love. Bird’s voice is that of a very young boy who looks for his place in the world by constructing his function as one lamed vovnik,  by engendering mystical, helpful, but also impractical attempts at what others construe as sublimation of the loss of his father. Bird’s love does not have one specific outlet, and it finds its place in mysticism. The teenage Alma’s drive to find out what underlies her parent’s  love for each other propels her to understand her father by learning to do things he used to do: camping, surviving in inhospitable places, knowing which plants are edible. The most intricate voice is that of Leo Gursky because he has two functions in the novel: he is the protagonist of Krauss’s vision and he is the author of his The History of Love, in this way, his voice is both biographical (in the first person narration of Leo Gursky’s life) and authorial (as the one who wrote the first The History of Love). The first person narration offers a number of poetic passages (such as Leo trying to burden his heart as little as possible by taking humiliations, displeasure, hardships to his other organs; p. 10). The most poetic is Leo Gursky’s The History of Love, which we as readers do not get to enjoy in its entirety (a pity), and we have to be satisfied with Alma’s mother’s English translation  of Zvi Litvinoff’s Spanish version of the original Yiddish (which apparently was lost). Gursky’s The History of Love contains poetic, comical, sarcastic gems which intrigue the reader and leave us wondering what else we are missing. The book contains parts dealing with humanity’s (love’s?) growth in stages (reminiscent of Giambattista Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Humans), such as Chapter 10, which describes The Age of Glass, when

“…everyone believed some part of him or her was extremely fragile. For some, it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. This period lasted a relatively short time in the history of love – about a century – until a doctor named Ignacio da Silva hit on a treatment of inviting people to recline on a couch and giving them a bracing smack  on the body part in question, proving to them the truth. The anatomical illusion that had seemed so real slowly disappeared and … became vestigial. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, it surfaces again, suggesting that the Age of Glass, like the Age of Silence, never entirely ended.” (p. 61).

In the final analysis, Krauss wrote about the multifaceted and yet specific meanings of the words love and loss: love of a father (for a son who he did not get to raise), love of a mother for her children, love of the daughter for her mother and father (who passed away), love of a young man for a young woman, love of a young woman for an older man, love for a friend; loss of a loved one on account of political circumstances, loss of a son, loss of hope, loss of a father, loss of a manuscript.  The loves and losses are intertwined and their metaphorical meeting point is the original The History of Love. One can discern echoes of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka. Entertaining and seemingly uplifting, the novels ends with an indirect commentary on loneliness and vastness of the cultural loss suffered by  immigrants. Moreover, the book is also a statement about the various possible but really important  connections among humans of which they do not have any knowledge.  In conclusion,  Krauss succeeded in drawing this reader into her interestingly constructed fictional world.