Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Man Walks Into A Room, by Nicole Krauss

Somewhere many miles away, in the heart of the desert, a man was recording memories, preserving them as another desert air once preserved scrolls of parchment. Creating a vast library of human memory, and so that that library should not be lost – so that it should not combust in fire or vanish into dust and light – he was learning how to inscribe those memories in the one place they were ensured survival: in the minds of other people. A purely scientific project, but off the record he would say that he believed he had found the key to human compassion. To step into another man's skin. He would say he believed he had found a way to inspire empathy, a sense of cosmic belonging, that at some near point in the future human beings could be immunized against alienation as they were once vaccinated for smallpox, polio.
page 236, Man Walks Into A Room by Nicole Krauss

Lately I've been obsessed with the idea of memory, of our struggles to remember and to forget, and how our memories determine the substance and the quality of our lives. Nicole Krauss' Man Walks Into A Room is a fascinating exploration of these topics, but more than that it is a beautiful and moving book. As Michael Silverblatt noted in a radio interview with Krauss, it is the kind of book that reminds you of the powerful sense of consolation that literature can offer.

I don't want to give away too much of the book, since I'm hoping everyone will be intrigued enough to read it themselves! Here is a bit from that radio interview, though, which gives some insight into Nicole Krauss' characters. She is speaking about her more recent novel, The History of Love:

MS: Both books in essence are about how you communicate unconquerable sorrow.... Do you feel that that kind of compassion finds a place in the world?

NK: I have to believe that it does and certainly it’s the thing that, whether I know it at the time when I’m writing or not, that I continue to write novels about. And I realized at the end of The History of Love, looking back on both novels that almost all of my characters are in some way either radically alienated or just very, very lonely, they fall somewhere on that spectrum. And yet all of them are desperate to connect to other people. They need to find some way to communicate in order to be understood.

There’s a wonderful quote by Cynthia Ozick which is in the introduction to a Saul Bellow novel which I just read very, very recently but which seems so right according to the things I was thinking about when I wrote The History of Love. She talks about the underground tunnel that is dug between the minds of two people who have read and been moved by the same book, and the unsuspected current that runs between them. And there is this sense in The History of Love that these people have all been in some way moved, their lives have all been changed by this book and it becomes the vehicle, the tunnel and the way out of their loneliness. And I suppose that’s been my experience in life; that has been my experience since I was a child with books.

In addition to the radio interview linked above, Nicole Krauss has a short essay "On Forgetting" and a long excerpt from The History of Love, "The Last Words on Earth", both published online and well worth reading!

1 comment:

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

I remember reading "To Kill A Mockingbird," that standard classic for many schoolchildren, and being struck by a similar phrase, of finding empathy for others only by "walking in another person's skin." That idea has stuck with me since then (I think I was 12 at the time) and I still believe in its wisdom. Amazing.