Did a book ever grab you so quickly that, three pages in, you were already scrambling for a notebook and pen to start noting things you wanted to remember?
I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty. If the store is crowded I’ll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I’ll get down on my knees. It’s a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up. And yet. Maybe I look like a fool. I’ll go into the Athlete’s Foot and say, What do you have in sneakers? The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck I am and direct me over to the one pair of Rockports they have, something in spanking white. Nah, I’ll say, I have those already, and I’ll make my way over to the Reeboks and pick out something that doesn’t even resemble a shoe, a waterproof bootie, maybe, and ask for it in size nine. The kid will look again, more carefully. He’ll look at me long and hard. Size 9, I’ll repeat while I clutch the webbed shoe. He’ll shake his head and go to the back for them, and by the time he returns I’m peeling off my socks. I’ll roll my pants leg up and look down at those decrepit things, my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I’m waiting for him to slip the booties onto them. I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.
I know it’s a long quote, but it drew me in so quickly that I couldn’t resist including it. The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss, opens with Leo Gursky, whose words are above. He is an older Jewish man, who grew up in Poland and moved to the US in his twenties. When he was still in Poland, he wrote a novel about a girl named Alma, which he entrusted to a friend before he left for the US. Like so much of his life, he believes it was lost as an indirect result of the Holocaust. Leo now lives in a tiny, cluttered apartment in New York, trying to live for just a bit longer. His friendship with Bruno, another older man living in the building, is almost the only spot of joy in his life, and sixty years later he is still grieving the loss of the love that inspired his book.
The next point of view character is 14-year-old Alma Singer, named after a character in a book called The History of Love that Alma’s mother, Charlotte, once received as a present from her husband. Charlotte is desperately lonely after the death of her husband six years ago, and her children are struggling to cope with her ongoing grief, which is now so tangible that it has become the most important member of the household. Alma finds herself stepping in to parent her younger brother, Bird, who is dealing with his own sorrow, and has started to think he may be the Messiah. If only they could get Charlotte to meet the right man, Alma thinks, everything would be better. Out of the blue, a solution seems to present itself: a mysterious stranger offers Charlotte a huge amount of money to translate a manuscript from Spanish. It is The History of Love, which someone read to him many years ago.
27. ONE THING I AM NEVER GOING TO DO WHEN I GROW UP
Is fall in love, drop out of college, learn to subsist on water and air, have a species named after me, and ruin my life. When I was little my mother used to get a certain look in her eyes and say, “One day you’re going to fall in love.” I wanted to say, but never said: Not in a million years.
Of course, these become the central questions of the book. How did Leo’s original Yiddish manuscript end up translated into Spanish without him knowing, how did it get published, and why has it reached these strangers? The plot of the book unfolds through a number of point-of-view characters, and one of the things that I found most successful about the novel was the creation of the different voices. Alma Singer (above) sounds exactly like a rather cynical 14-year-old who has been already been burnt by life, but is simultaneously full of promise and optimism despite herself. Leo’s voice is very distinctive, punctuated by all the “buts” and “and yets” that have characterised his whole life. The other voices blurred a little more, but since Leo and Alma were the two main characters, they were more than able to carry the book.
The novel could just as easily be called The History of Loss or The History of Grief. Other than the manuscript, the theme that ties the whole novel together is the loneliness that comes from having your life uprooted – both on a small scale, in Alma’s family, and on a massive scale, among the older Jewish community in New York who are still dealing with the huge loss of the Holocaust. Although the losses themselves are not discussed in much detail in the book – I don’t think the word Holocaust is ever actually used, for example – their impact is explored throughout. None of these griefs affect only the person who is grieving: for example, Leo’s loss of the original Alma drastically changes the life of a woman named Rosa, who was living in Chile during the Second World War and never met Leo, let alone Alma herself. Charlotte’s loss of her husband affects not only her children, but indirectly her brother Julian, who has to learn how to be a more proactive uncle, trying to make up for his sister’s psychological distance from her children. All the individuals in this book are deeply interconnected, not just by the History of Love manuscript but by the way that death and loss touch every human life – some sooner than others.
One of the things that will normally put me off a book extremely quickly is the feeling that the author wants me to know just how clever they are. In the general way of things, novels that play extensively with style and formatting tend to lose me – I can’t stand a book that feels like its only purpose is to be taught at universities. In this case, though, I found the novel extremely readable, and the stylistic choices made it more rather than less so. Excerpts of manuscripts, diaries, and letters are incorporated in throughout, and in a way that helped rather than hindered the storytelling. I did find that the novel lost its way for a while in the third quarter, and it did one of my least favourite things, which is that it introduced a new plot late on that was never properly resolved. The lack of resolution for that element didn’t feel intentional to me. It seemed more like Krauss had just forgotten to weave it in at the end, because everything else is brought together so well. Despite this, which kept the book from being immediately added to my favourites list, I thought the ending was brilliant – heartbreaking and lovely simultaneously.
I loved this book, and raced through it – I only started it on Sunday night, when I couldn’t sleep, and I’d finished it by the time I went to bed last night, despite working a lot of hours yesterday. It was compelling and immersive and I found myself wanting to read just a few more pages in a way that I haven’t for a long time. A note if you are interested in reading it: don’t judge it by the trite quotes that come up when you google. The most liked quote on Goodreads is Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. That is not a fair representation of the book – if that had been its tone throughout, I wouldn’t have liked it nearly as much. You could argue that the book is as much an exploration of the inadequacy of romantic love as it is a glorification of it. Both Leo and Charlotte damage the relationships that matter in their lives by dwelling so single-mindedly on their lost romances. Somehow, the book manages both at once – critique and celebration – and it is just beautiful as a result.
It sounds like part of the success of this novel is the way it creeps into different genres: the historical fiction of WWII, the mystery of the published novel, a drama due to loss, etc. When authors can blend so many genres that I have a hard time pinpointing what the book is doing style-wise, but does it so well, I think of that as literary fiction.
Yes, I agree – and the blending of the genres was seamless. I also really appreciated some of the stuff she was saying about language and translation that she somehow managed to incorporate into the book. There was a lot in there, but it was only 250 pages and it didn’t feel bloated – to me that’s very good writing.
I looked up more info on this book and learned that she’s married to Jonathan Safran Foer, and apparently they have fairly similar writing styles. Have you ever read his work?
I haven’t – I’d heard that he relies heavily on child narrators who sound exactly like adults, which is a pet peeve of mine. But I do like her style a lot, so maybe I will have to give him a go.
Isn’t it wonderful? I loved it so much, glad you did too
It’s so great! Thanks for drawing my attention to it via your review!
I feel like I read a completely different book! It was years ago & bored me to tears – a real struggle to finish. I thought I would never consider a reread, but your review now has me wondering if I read it at the wrong time in my life?
My patience with weird stylistic literary things waxes and wanes – I can see that if I’d read this at another time I might have found it tedious and self-indulgent. So maybe!