Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love is a stunning book; stunning in its complexity and in the detailed delineation of the simple, plain people who inhabit its pages. One of the ever-present characters of the book is the book within the book, The History of Love, purportedly written by one of the characters. Krauss slips back and forth between two points of view, that of an aging Jew, Leopold Gursky, in the twilight of his life and that of Alma Singer, a fourteen year old child-woman on the brink of becoming an adult.

The story opens with a self-written obituary because Leo Gursky’s own death is never far from his mind. He keeps an index card in his wallet that states: “MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETARY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.”

Leo always wanted to be a writer but this is not your typical book where the writer is writing about writers writing. It is about watching over the ones you love even if, especially if, they will never know. It is about searching. It is indeed a history of a love.

In the book Leo has written, Krauss takes us to that dreaded place of the blank page in the typewriter as Leo carefully picks out and rejects various titles. Alma is writing a notebook of survival. Her guide is a book about edible plants. Her mission is to find a companion for her mother.

Leo reveals that he spent much of his life angry and picking fights with any and everyone. When we meet him he has long since left his anger behind him. Early in the book, Leo applies for a job as a nude model for a life drawing class. Our eyes smart with embarrassment and dismay at a tired old man’s initial disrobing for a circle of disinterested young artists. Does nude really mean no underwear?

Although the point of view flips back and forth between Leo and Alma, Leo, then Alma, never is the reader in any doubt of whose voice is speaking. Both Leo and Alma are so sharply drawn, there is no mistaking one for the other. Flitting among their chapters are scattered thoughts of Bird, Alma’s brother who believes that he is one of the chosen ones, perhaps even the Messiah. Will his delusion work to bring the threads that bind Alma and Leo together, or will he be the cause of them passing one another never knowing the other was right there? Occasionally the narrator shifts to a minor, but key, player in the drama that unfolds. Alma’s mother is always on her mind but we only hear her sadness through Alma.

Writer Dorothy Gilman Butters has spoken of the cosmic playfulness of fate and how the threads and webs of the universe somehow pull and push themselves so that lives cross and are forever transformed. In the beginning of The History of Love, there is no connection between Leo Gursky and Alma Singer except, we learn, the connection of the book The History of Love. The book was originally published in Spanish. We only see it as the English translation passes from Alma’s mother through Alma to the man who commissioned the translation. The History of Love was a gift from Alma Singer’s father to her mother Alma Singer was named for all the women in The History of Love.

Chapters and fragments of an interior book, The History of Love, are scattered throughout. “The Age of String,” and “The Age of Glass” chapters provide a glimpse in the writer’s view of the poignancy and power of young love when young lovers see their love lasting forever and conquering every obstacle that comes. It also lets us see the universality of human relationships. How do we show each other or tell each other how we really feel?

The Age of Silence, the opening chapter from the interior History of Love says that, “The first language humans had was gestures.” It goes on to explain what happens at a large gathering of people when “your hands hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms--if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them.” The Age of Silence believes in the power of gestures. “It’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less.”

Ultimately the book is about love; love in the here and now, love found and lost, but most importantly, love. If there had been more time, or less time. If fate had not twisted and torn lives with death and separation. The events of war have touched these people’s lives but they have survived. They have survived and continued. This book is not about war but about the very power of love and survival and the connectedness we have with each other.

The pace increases in the final portion of the book where the points of view of Leo and Alma are juxtaposed on opposite pages. We travel through both their minds wanting them to succeed and willing them to find each other. What really matters in life? What really lasts beyond our death? As Krauss says we begin to die the day we are born. What makes us human, what makes us keep going is the journey, our connection with one another, and the lives we touch on the way.

The serendipity of life and love shines in The History of Love.

16 March 2008

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