Book Review: Inventing Paired Languages of Loss
The spring of 2005 saw the publishing of two novels: “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “The History of Love.” Both books revolve around themes of loss and alienation. Both feature elderly characters who struggle with the painful legacy of Jewish heritage. And young narrators who have lost their fathers. And quests for lost treasures.
It also turns out that the novels were written by the two halves of “New York’s golden literary couple”: Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. And though, according to a Guardian interview with Krauss, the two writers “don’t read each other’s books until they’re in proof form,” the similarities in style and content between their two works are striking. Exploring these similarities, however, is not intended as a disparaging exercise (see The New York Times); rather, tracing the ways in which these two exemplary novels resonate with each other unearths a rich literary engagement with loss that somehow manages to simultaneously provoke and assuage anxieties of a post-9/11 generation.
In “Extremely Loud,” nine-year-old Oskar Schell, in the wake of his father’s death on 9/11, searches all across New York City for the lock corresponding to a key his father left behind. Foer’s novel also explores the thematic and emotional connections between the first-person narrative of Schell and the perspectives of his two grandparents, survivors of the Dresden bombings of 1945 who continue to struggle with the aftermath of the Holocaust and the death of their son (Schell’s father).
“History of Love” traces fifteen-year-old Alma Singer and elderly Jewish immigrant Leo Gursky’s emotionally parallel relationships with a novel-within-a-novel entitled “A History of Love.” As Singer searches for the author of the novel, which Singer’s deceased father gave to her mother, Gursky works through the tragedy of his past—he, like Foer’s characters, lost his family to the Holocaust—and the loneliness of his present.
What is immediately evident even from a comparison of these brief synopses is each writer’s engagement with a sustained experience of loss, extending from the horrors of World War II into the present, more modern sorrows of terrorism and alienation. Krauss, in the Guardian article cited above, suggests how their two works sprung from this shared legacy:
“First, it has to do with why we love each other, long before we ever get to the fact that we’re writers or write about similar things,” she said. “I think we come from such a similar place. [Foer’s] grandmother survived the Holocaust. I think we intuited a lot of the same things in the silences of our childhood.”
Clearly, both authors felt drawn to their Jewish heritage. A biography of Krauss on Bookbrowse.com reports that the author interviewed her grandparents for a prospective “semi-fictional” piece, while an interview with Foer in The Morning News states that he traveled to the Ukraine to research his grandfather’s life. However, Krauss’s statement indicates that the authors’ fascination with their ancestry goes beyond mere chronicling. Both authors are preoccupied by the “silences” from their past, the overwhelming tragedy weighing on the daily lives of their grandparents that remained, out of necessity, unspoken.
Having Jewish ancestry of my own, I can relate somewhat to the transfixing power of such silences. Before the start of World War II, my great-grandfather left his tiny Russian town for the Americas and urged his parents and siblings to move with him. Accustomed to decades of pogroms, they declined, only to be killed by invading Nazis soon after. To this day, my grandmother cannot listen to recordings of her father tell his story without tears streaming down her face; for most of my childhood, the tale of Abe, the man whose name inspired my own, remained untold.
Foer’s and Krauss’s novels convey similar stories through first-person, non-verbalized accounts. In “Extremely Loud,” an older man writes a letter detailing the experience of stumbling among the dead and the dying during the Dresden Bombing, an episode he never speaks of to his wife even though she survived the same event. Gursky from “History of Love” also struggles to verbally express his past, detailing memories of his Polish childhood merely through the written word. He never discusses these memories with others, sifting through the sorrows of his past as he shuffles around the apartment, in which he lives alone.
Both writers tellingly employ as central characters children who, besides grappling with the loss of their fathers, must also process a historical legacy of tragedy through a modern lens. This is not to say that Foer and Krauss write of a specifically Jewish sorrow—as Krauss recounts in the Bookbrowse.com biography, both she and her husband resist being characterized as Jewish authors. Foer tackles the emotional shockwaves of 9/11 and Krauss weaves a story international in scope, jumping from Israel to Chile to the United States in her efforts to crystalize diverse struggles with sorrow.
Their efforts to universalize their articulations of tragedy can also be traced to stylistic decisions common to both novels. Both “Extremely Loud” and “History of Love” alternate among three different first-person accounts (though Krauss introduces one additional narrator toward the end of her book), expressing the multi-faceted nature of loss through the very structures of their novels. Additionally, the authors botwh employ elderly and child perspectives, evoking the generational inheritance of loss so endemic to human experience.
More crucially, both novels sound strikingly similar—whether it be their poetic diction, the “foreignness” of their elderly narrators’ vocabulary, or the use of interjections (“and yet,” “anyway”) to periodically punctuate the flowing quality of their sentences, Foer and Krauss together invent a unique literary language of loss.
Consider these quotations selected from both novels:
“I like to see people reunited, I like to see people run to each other, I like the kissing and the crying, I like the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone.” (Extremely Loud)
“She was gone, and all that was left was the space you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.” (History of Love)
“The secret was a hole in the middle of me that every happy thing fell into.” (Extremely Loud)
“...An average of seventy-four species become extinct every day, which was one good reason but not the only one to hold someone’s hand...” (History of Love)
In recognizing the parallels between their styles, I hope to demonstrate the ways in which Krauss and Foer have pinpointed the universal experiences of love and loss. To read these novels, then, is to read ourselves: our complex struggle to discover hope within overwhelming tragedy and impending doom to preserve a childlike innocence within each of us, so that maybe, just maybe, there truly exists a key to unlock the secrets of our past and the blueprint for our future.