Monday, January 29, 2007

The History of Love

I've been reading Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, but this weekend my wife coerced me into putting Prose down and starting The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. She read the book for her book club blog and finished it in three days. Ever since, she's been telling everyone she knows to read it. She's been describing it as a puzzle that sort of fits together by the end. I'm only on page 15 so I can't really weigh in yet. But I can say that I'm going to use the following description in my freshman class for an exercise in description as well as a self-portrait assignment. Here, Leo Gursky is describing what he sees as he rehearses disrobing to model for an art class:

The night before I was scheduled to model for the art class I was nervous and excited. I unbuttoned my shirt and took that off. Then I unbuckled my pants and took off those. My undershirt. The underpants. I stood in front of the hall mirror in my socks. I could hear the cries of children in the playground across the street. The string for the bulb was overhead, but I didn't pull it. I stood looking at myself in what light was left. I've never thought of myself as handsome.

The passage is economical and precise and walks the reader through the process. But the choices Krauss makes here really give insight into Leo's self-image. And for my class, it raises questions about how we see ourselves. First, Leo rehearses by himself, no one can see him, there are no consequences. Yet, once the clothes are off, an act described with few words and sentence fragments, mirroring the clothes' inability to cover Leo in any indelible way, even though Leo is out of sight and light, Krauss brings the outside world into Leo's room to stare at him, and maybe laugh. Here's some more:
As a child my mother and my aunts used to tell me that I would grow up to become handsome. It was clear to me that I wasn't anything to look at then, but I believed that some measure of beauty might come to me eventually. I don't know what I thought: that my ears, which stuck out at an undignified angle, would recede, that my head would somehow grow to fit them? That my hair, not unlike a toilet brush in texture, would, with time, unkink itself and reflect light? That my face, which held so little promise--eyelids as heavy as a frog's, lips on the thin side--would somehow transform itself into something not regrettable?

In this section, Krauss shows how parents influence the development of self but also how eventually Leo realizes that his parents were wrong. And she uses an interesting series of questions to put a twist on a physical description, at the same time empowering superficiality. In freshman English, we've been talking about what makes us who we are and to what extent we have a choice about these factors.
For years I would wake up in the morning and go to the mirror, hoping. Even when I was too old to continue hoping, I still did. I grew older and there was no improvement. If anything, things went downhill when I entered adolescence and was abandoned by the pleasant attractiveness that all children have. The year of my Bar Mitzvah I was visited by a plague of acne that stayed four years. But still I continued to hope. As soon as the acne cleared my hairline began to recede, as if it wanted to disassociate itself from the embarrassment of my face. My ears, please with the new attention they now enjoyed, seemed to strain farther into the spotlight. My eyelids dropped--some muscle tension had to give to support the struggle of the ears--and my eyebrows took on a life of their own, for a brief period achieving all anyone could have hoped for them, and then surpassing those hopes and approaching Neanderthal. For years I continued to hope that things would turn out differently, but I never looked in the mirror and confused what I saw for anything but what it was.

In the last section of this passage, Leo is completely at the mercy of his looks. But we get the sense that the real Leo is not all of these things. He has no choice. He is not what he looks like. And Krauss has switched from questions to personification of Leo's physical aspects.
I'm not sure where this story will go. But I have to say that it had me from the first sentence. And the juxtaposition of Reading as a Writer with other great writing has made for a new, rich reading experience.

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