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Q&A: Author Nicole Krauss

By Elana Estrin

While studying art history in graduate school, novelist Nicole Krauss spent hours in the library researching Rembrandt, only to find that she preferred imagining the details of his life instead.

“Beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might,” Krauss said.

Krauss’s vivid imagination has resulted in three critically acclaimed novels: Great House, The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room. Krauss was named a National Book Award Finalist for Great House, her most recent novel. In 2010, The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under 40.

On Tuesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. CST, the Harry Ransom Center presents Krauss at Jessen Auditorium where she will read from Great House and speak with James Magnuson, Director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. A book signing follows. A live webcast of the event airs at approximately 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST.

Cultural Compass spoke with Krauss about her thoughts on art, what she’s currently reading, a Rembrandt self-portrait that reappears in her novels, the burden of inheritance, her advice for writers, transplanted rooms, and more.

Nicole Krauss. Photo by Joyce Ravid.
Nicole Krauss. Photo by Joyce Ravid.

Alma Singer from The History of Love shares the same name as the wife of Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose archive resides at the Ransom Center). Your works have been compared to those of Singer. Did you deliberately name Alma after I. B. Singer’s wife?

No, that was a happy accident. I wondered later whether it was an unconscious decision, but I don’t remember ever learning that her name was Alma until after I finished the book. I cast around a lot for names in the beginning; it’s difficult to name a character because almost every name feels artificial. I had chosen Singer because it was the name of someone I knew when I was the character’s age, 14, so it seemed natural to me. Alma just rolled off the tongue in the right ways. And of course it has all these wonderful meanings. It was a beautiful name, and it sat well with me. So I put the two of them together, and that was that.

Strangely, Isaac Bashevis Singer was never a big writer in my life. I still haven’t read many of his works, though I mean to. It surprised me that that book was compared to him so frequently. When David Grossman wrote his first novel, everyone told him that he had been influenced by Bruno Schulz. But he’d never heard of Schulz. He sat down and read him and had to agree.

You mention the same Rembrandt self-portrait in both The History of Love and Great House. In The History of Love, Uncle Julian says “there’s a serenity in his face, a sense of something that’s survived its own ruin.” In Great House, Arthur says he associated the portrait with the phrase “a ruined man.”

That’s interesting. You’re the first person who’s noticed that. I didn’t even notice that, though I knew that I had mentioned it in the other book. Obviously, it’s an important painting to me. It will probably end up in other novels as well.

Rembrandt is an artist whose work I’ve thought a lot about. I did a Master’s in Dutch seventeenth-century art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and I wrote my thesis on Rembrandt. I’ve always been moved, especially, by the late self-portraits as they get more and more honest. In the early self-portraits, you have this painter who’s putting on airs and costumes, modeling himself as a wealthy burgher or a famous artist, but he’s really just a young, scrappy, ambitious guy. And then late in his life, once he’s bankrupt and alone, there come these amazing self-portraits that are quite brutal, frank, and unadorned. You feel a hurriedness in the brushstrokes. He’s scratching into them with the back of the brush. You feel the sense of someone facing his death. Obviously, that’s a position that I am drawn to in my work. A number of my characters have been older people who are confronting the end of their lives, the final calculation of who they were, how they lived, their mistakes and regrets. I lived near that particular painting I mention, which hangs in Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. I used to walk on the Heath daily, and you can visit Kenwood House without paying. You could go in everyday if you felt like it, which I often did just to see that painting. I guess you could say that I have a long history with it.

In your essay on writing Great House, you say that Weisz came out of your interest in transplanted rooms, specifically those of Freud and the painter Francis Bacon. This strikes a chord here at the Ransom Center, where there are two transplanted rooms: the study of Fleur Cowles and John Foster Dulles’s study and living room in D.C.

I realized at a certain point that there were some preserved rooms that I had always been drawn to in my life. I became fascinated with Bacon’s studio partly because it’s such an extreme example, such a complex room. He was infamously messy. He left everything wherever it dropped, so the studio was full of thirty years of stale sandwich crusts, half-drunk bottles of alcohol, old clothes, garbage. He kept this huge archive of photographs, but they were all crumpled up on the floor. There was a kind of violence to the mess, sometimes literally; he would slash a lot of his canvases. Over time, he wore paths through all of this material. For whatever reason, after he died his studio was moved from London to Dublin. You can imagine the archeological work involved with breaking it down into tens of thousands of pieces and then reconstructing it. I was drawn to the question of whether such a transplanted room retains its original power. Is it even the original, or is it a kind of simulacrum? It’s exactly the same, only it’s been taken apart and put back together, and now it’s in a new place: an uncanniness has been introduced.

That made me think about Freud’s room in London, which I lived near and also spent a lot of time in. It was a comforting place to me, as you can imagine Freud’s study might be for anyone [laughs]. I was thinking about how his wife and daughter tried to make upheaval easier for him by creating a replica of the study he had left behind in Vienna. When he died the following year, everything was left exactly where he last put it down, frozen in time, the glasses on the desk and all that, obsessively preserved until now.

I wanted a room of my own like that to experiment with. I was curious about the urge to preserve or reconstruct such a talismanic room. Weisz’s room—his father’s study in Budapest which is dismantled by the Nazis and which the son spends fifty years reconstructing in Jerusalem—became a way of experimenting with that. I once listened to a graphic artist give a presentation about a book he was working on, all of which takes place in the living room of his childhood house, and the book stretches from prehistoric time into the future. He built a little model of it so he could figure out how the sun would move through it. I remember thinking that that was similar to what I did with Weisz’s room. Only I wasn’t interested in how the light moved through it. I was interested in something else: what does it mean to try to recreate what has been lost, and can one ever recreate it? There remains the question of what’s missing, the imperfection that can’t be gotten around or erased. And what about those who instead reinvent themselves in the face of loss? And is recreation always a form of reinvention? I wanted to experiment with that idea, and I wanted to see what was at the bottom of my fascination with it.

Did you find what was on the bottom?

I found lots of things. One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all. It’s really about posing questions. Great House is a novel about uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt almost more than anything else, what it means to commit to a life regardless of those conditions.

The desk in Great House also strikes a chord at the Ransom Center because we have the desks of Edgar Allan Poe, Evelyn Waugh, John Fowles, and others. You’ve said that your desk is similar to the desk in Great House, but you didn’t realize it until later.

Yeah, you want it? I’m trying get rid of it [laughs]. It’s pretty big. It was a desk that was in the house I moved into. It was built by the house’s former owner to his esoteric specifications. It’s a bulky desk, overbearing in every way. It extends all the way up the wall. It has all of these shelves and drawers. But at least for a while I was completely unaware of its echo in the book I was writing it on.

At some point I realized, of course. Not only the physical resemblance, but that I was writing about inheritance. I didn’t realize until much later than I should have because the mind has a way of guarding itself from the origins of what it’s fictionalizing; otherwise it would be hard to have the balls to write about much of anything at all. The mind obscures, especially, the psychological origins of the work, I find. Later one discovers them.

My desk has always been almost comically burdensome to me because in order to get rid of it, which I always toy with the idea of doing, I’d have to have it destroyed (it’s on the top floor of the house and there’s no way to get the monster down the stairs). That always felt too wasteful to me. So there’s the absurd tension of not wanting it but feeling somehow bound to it. On top of all that, the former owner built it around this painted panel which he wrenched out when he moved out, so there’s this large, gaping hole in the desk right above my head, which has taken on obvious symbolic meaning to me [laughs] and which I still, daily, write under. All the same, it did me the good turn of giving me a means to approach a graver concern lurking below, having to do with the burden of the emotional furniture we inherit and pass on to our children. In other words, it gave me a novel, and so now I’m stuck with the thing, unless you want to come and relieve me of it.

In your essay, you described this phenomenon of not realizing until later the origins of what you’re writing about as a “blind spot.” Have you found examples of other blind spots?

I’m not drawn to writing autobiographically because it cramps me and comes at the cost of the freedom that writing otherwise allows–to go places that I haven’t gone, to invent, to experiment, to imagine, to push boundaries. But if I stray too far in that direction, then the work loses the urgency and necessity of the personal, and in the end it doesn’t work or come fully alive for me. So it’s a delicate balance, and there is very often that moment of revelation when I become aware of the ways in which my fiction reflects my own experience, or how it evolved from certain interior conditions or needs. It isn’t always a direct reflection, it’s rarely one-to-one, but there is always a moment where I become aware of the correspondence.

We’ve talked about your interest in transplanted rooms and writers’ desks. What’s your experience with archives?

I’m not a big researcher. When I was in graduate school in England, I found myself always bumping up against the same wall. I’d spend a lot of time in libraries, reading and aimlessly semi-researching, but then my mind would start to improvise. When I wrote about Rembrandt, for example, I found myself wanting to makes claims about interior life, or at least trying to imagine it. But beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might.

I’m often asked about the research I’ve done for my novels, but the truth is that I did very little. Most of the places I’ve written about I know intimately; in the case of Chile, which I don’t, I went through an intense period of reading about the nightmare of the Pinochet regime long before I ever thought about writing about it. You might say that in the end, writing about it was the only solution for me. A novel grows to fit the author’s concerns.

“The Birth of Feeling” section of The History of Love reads: “Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born.” How does this reflect your views of art?

There are moments in one’s reading when one encounters a passage that so precisely captures some aspect of existence, great or small, never previously articulated to you, but which you instantly understand and recognize nonetheless. It’s a little shocking, and it’s joyful, and one feels, suddenly, access to the underpinnings of everything. I think art is that–an enhancement, often a spiritual one.

Tell me about your visit to Israel in 2010 for the Jerusalem Cultural Fellowship. I understand you met with Yoram Kaniuk.

This was a pilot program, an academy at a wonderful place, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where a small part of Great House takes place. It was the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem; nobody wanted to live outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time, in 1860, because it was so dangerous, gangs of marauding bandits and so on. In 1973 it became a place where artists were invited to stay and work, and now it’s one of the most beautiful places in the city. All kinds of writers, artists, and musicians have stayed there. [Saul] Bellow had a residency there. It’s likely that Singer stayed there at one point or another. Basically the director had the idea of reviving those residencies. It was a wonderful place to be, especially since I spent so much time in Jerusalem growing up.

Unlike Israeli writers like [David] Grossman, Amos Oz, Yoel Hoffmann, or others I’ve been reading for a long time, I hadn’t been familiar with Kaniuk. I stumbled onto one of his books in a bookstore, as one used to do [laughs]. It was called The Last Jew, and I couldn’t resist the title. I picked it up, and there was this incredible endorsement on it from Susan Sontag who said of all the books in translation she’d read, Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Kaniuk were the greatest, or something along those lines. So then I had to read it. It’s an incredibly complex book, demanding in all kinds of ways, but absolutely remarkable; it’s like nothing else I’ve read. After I read everything of his that I could find, I got to know him in Israel. He’s a warm, old, cantankerous, stubborn, complicated soul and an incomparably great writer.

What advice do you have for writers?

It depends on who the writer is. Writing is incredibly hard work. Thinking itself is hard, and growing harder and harder under the tyranny of technologies of distraction. Writing, which is an elevated form of thinking, is even harder, and doing it in a sustained way over the course of a few years isn’t exactly a walk in the park. People often ask about the physical details of how a writer works–where, when, with what mechanism–as if it will reveal some hidden mystery as to how it’s done. But all of that is, of course, largely irrelevant. So, to begin with, writing requires time and tremendous will. Just to do it regularly, to persevere and not give up. The other necessary element, for me, is freedom, a spirited conviction that you are going to allow yourself to do whatever you want to do in the work, however unpromising or ill-advised it may seem.

I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere in which so many young writers start off, in writing and MFA classes, isn’t problematic for that reason. Before their work is even finished it’s put before a jury of their peers. If I had to submit my work to such a jury once a week, to any jury, I’d have to spend the rest of the week resuscitating the stubbornness that keeps me writing. It takes a certain courage, or perhaps just obliviousness, to pursue things that feel risky or poised to fail. But in my experience, it’s those efforts that lead to the most interesting things, the things that I end up sticking with and which take me places that feel most worth going to.

What are you reading now?

The Sermon and Other Stories by Haim Hazaz, who was the first writer to win the Israel Prize. This summer, I read a lot of Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer most famous for her books for children, the Moomintroll series. But later in her life she started writing books for adults, and The New York Review of Books has recently been publishing them in English. The Summer Book is wonderful. It’s about a grandmother and her granddaughter on a remote Finnish island. This girl’s mother has died, but that’s never spoken of. It’s only reflected through the very unique relationship between this stubborn, unconventional older woman and the young girl, equally stubborn, and the unusual things that absorb their attention. Jansson is also one of the best nature writers I’ve ever encountered.

Who are some of the writers you admire?

Bruno Schulz, [Franz] Kafka, [Samuel] Beckett, [Saul] Bellow, [Georges] Perec. In the last few years, I read all of Thomas Bernhard and became consumed by him for awhile, fascinated, in particular, by his penchant for upsetting or offending people; it runs so contrary to the contemporary American climate of appealingness, charm, lightness, of all that goes down easily.

There are also poets who matter very much to me. Yehuda Amichai and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert both impacted me deeply when I was younger and taught me something about the kind of writer I wanted to be. To remind myself, I still return to them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

By Elana Estrin

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.

Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.

According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.

“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”

If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.

For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.

Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”

In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.

The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.

In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.

Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”

Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”

Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”

Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”

Student (angered): “I’m serious.”

Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

Gown of a different feather: Conservators investigate feathers on the burgundy gown from "Gone With The Wind"

By Elana Estrin

The burgundy ball gown Scarlett wears to Ashley’s birthday party in Gone With The Wind is meant to be provocative (“not modest or matronly,” Rhett snarls) yet glamorous. But when the gown arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, something wasn’t quite right.

“It looked more like a dance-hall girl, a cartoon character, as opposed to how beautiful this dress really was,” says Cara Varnell, an independent art conservator who is conserving the five Gone With The Wind dresses housed at the Ransom Center.

Varnell quickly realized that the discrepancy was due to unoriginal feathers that someone added to the dress at some point between the film’s production and the dress’s arrival at the Ransom Center. Varnell says that the film provides an essential clue verifying that someone did, in fact, add feathers: jewels decorating the feathers on Scarlett’s sleeve are visible in the film, but replacement feathers block these jewels today.

Several clues led Varnell to distinguish the original ostrich feathers from the unoriginal ostrich feathers. The biggest clue was that the original feathers curl at the ends but the replacements do not. Varnell discovered that threads attached to each feather’s shaft created a slight bend, curling the feather. A second clue was color: the original feathers are blue burgundy, whereas the replacement feathers are red burgundy. Texture was a third clue: the original feathers are thicker and fluffier than the replacements. Lastly, the sewing thread affixing the replacement feathers doesn’t match the thread used for the original feathers.

All of these unoriginal feathers raise the question: why were replacement feathers added in the first place? Since the elastic straps had stretched out over time, Varnell posits that someone added feathers because it seemed like the straps were missing more feathers than they actually were. Another possibility is that someone added feathers to cover up original feathers that weren’t “perky” anymore.

Upon examination, Varnell determined that one such feather lost its perk because it broke at the point where it was sewn to the gown. After six hours mending the feather with three layers of Japanese tissue, acrylic archival adhesive, and polyester filament, Varnell will be able to reattach the feather to the gown.

So far, Varnell has removed seven unoriginal feathers because they were damaging the gown. One of these feathers was covering a stitch placed much higher than it should have been, making the bustle almost asymmetrical. Once Varnell removed the feather, it was clear where the stitch should be placed instead to fix the bustle.

As they stabilize the gown, the conservation team is discussing future options, including the fate of the feathers.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

 

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