Book Review: The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
“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.” – From the book-within-the-book written by Leopold Gursky
There is something about the corn syrup-ish characteristics of love that unites all mankind. Every man may have his or her own opinion about the merits of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan but it would be hard to find a person who does not find at least one aspect of Love Actually to be charming (although he or she may deny it). It may be because stories about love, no matter how tragic, funny, melodramatic, contrived, cheesy, or any other adjective, whether it’s good or bad, a love story is something that tugs the heartstrings. Of course, not all love stories can achieve universal appeal and I am just saying that there will be a part of the story that you will connect with and that’s that.
That’s what I felt about History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Although the book has its literary merits that go beyond its corn syrup-ish sensibilities, I found the book’s major characteristic is its exceedingly charming nature. Yes, the book is trapped in a quagmire of sadness due to the individual tragedies of its characters but Krauss managed to still make her protagonists charming and funny.
The book mainly tells the story of two seemingly unconnected protagonists. First, we have Leopold Gursky who is a Polish immigrant that escaped from his home country to escape the holocaust where his family all perished. He now lives in New York as a locksmith in a rundown apartment with his best friend Bruno. Leo makes it a point to be seen every day by making scenes in shops or by posing nude for a painting because he fears that he is invisible and that he will die unnoticed. Leo loved and still loves a woman, by the name of Alma, from his childhood days in Poland but fate separated them while Alma was with Bruno’s child. Alma, despite her child with Bruno, married another man and Bruno’s son, Isaac, lived without knowing his true father. Leo, meanwhile, only observes Isaac from afar without really approaching his son. Leo is also a failed writer who does not know that, in a corner of the world, his unpublished work has attained a minor celebrity status.
On another side of New York lives the book’s second protagonist, Alma Singer who is a fifteen year-old girl whose father has just recently died. Trying to keep the memory of her father alive, Alma is trying to be an outdoors-kind of girl just like her father as she memorizes a catalog of edible plants; learn how to pitch a tent; and create lists on how to survive in the wild. She also tries to setup her mother in order for the latter to be happy again after the loss of her husband. Alma also tries to keep her younger brother, Bird (who believes that he is the Jewish Messiah), in check. In the novel, Alma’s main storyline is finding out the identity of the man who is paying her mother to translate an obscure book called The History of Love.
As the story progresses, we learn that the book-within-the-book is actually written by Leopold Gurksy but was published by his friend, Zvi Litvinoff who was acting in the knowledge that Leo has perished in the Holocaust. Zvi published The History of Love in order to immortalize Leo. Zvi also added a final chapter in the book called “The Death of Leo Gursky” as a reminder to the readers despite the objections of his publisher. The obituary, which was written by Leo himself, is Zvi’s way of making sure that Leo is never forgotten and will forever remain alive in the memory of the readers. In a twist of meta-fiction, Krauss also made “The Death of Leo Gursky” as the ending of her book. The obituary piece thus reads:
The Death of Leopold Gursky
Leopold Gursky started dying on August 18, 1920
He died learning to walk.
He died standing at the blackboard.
And once, also, carrying a heavy tray.
He died practicing a new way to sign his name.
Opening a window.
Washing his genitals in the bath.
He died alone, because he was too embarrassed to phone anyone.
Or he died thinking about Alma.
Or when he chose not to.
Really, there isn’t much to say.
He was a great writer.
He fell in love.
It was his life.
Despite its title, History of Love is not mainly about the love between two people and it is not really a romantic love story in the vein of Nicholas Sparks and Erich Segal. The book is more of an exploration about the role that love plays in the lives of our characters. We see them fall in love; fall out of love; lose their loved ones; gain new ones; learn how to love; and cease to love altogether. Love plays a very important role in their lives and this book is a sort of a chronicle on how love affected the course of their fate. The lack of love in Leo’s and Alma’s respective lives is their main driving force to action in the novel and most of the characters within the book are acting in order to avoid or gain love.
The main charm of the book comes from the characterization of Leo. He is such a combination of the tragic and the comic that he possesses a certain charm that is rarely found in novels and can only be executed by accomplished writers (although don’t take my word for it because I am not a professional). Leo gives the book a certain depth and nuance that makes the book such a joy to read. And although the character of Alma may be at times annoying, she certainly captures the angst and attitude of teenagers, especially those that had lost a loved one. She is a welcome break from the tragicomic adventures of Leo.
This book gave me a roller coaster of emotions from sadness that I felt when Leo learned that his son died without knowing his father, to the happiness that I felt when both Leo and Alma found peace and happiness in each other. Tragedy, comedy, and everything in between can be found within the pages of The History of Love. To paraphrase a line from one of the characters, nothing makes me happier and nothing makes me sadder than this book.