Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

In 2005, Nicole Krauss’s layered work The History of Love was published. As in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel The Shadow of the Wind, we have an intergenerational mystery of lives in danger, at its heart a love story. 

In The History of Love, the mystery is about a book of that title being translated by a girl’s mother. Who actually wrote it, why is our young heroine, Alma, named after the girl in the book, what happened to the girl in the book? 

Krauss fully captures the voices of her three narrators: 
Leo Gursky (an old Jewish man, WWII refugee living in New York. We see a boy from a village in Poland, in love with a girl whom, in the chaos of the buildup to war, he lost track of): “Then one day I was looking out the window. Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza. The afternoon passed, darkness sifted down. I reached for the chain on the bulb and suddenly it was as if an elephant had stepped on my heart. I fell to my knees. I thought: I didn’t live forever. A minute passed. Another minute. Another. I clawed at the floor, pulling myself along toward the phone.” 

Alma Singer: “I WAS SIX WHEN MY FATHER WAS DIAGNOSED WITH PANCREATIC CANCER. That year my mother and I were driving together in the car. She asked me to pass her bag. ‘I don’t have it,’ I said. ‘Maybe it’s in the back,’ she said. But it wasn’t in the back. She pulled over and searched the car, but the bag was nowhere to be found. She put her head in her hands and tried to remember where she’d left the bag. She was always losing things. ‘One of these days,’ she said, ‘I’m going to lose my head.’ I tried to picture what would happen if she lost her head. In the end, though, it was my father who lost everything: weight, his hair, various internal organs.” 

Bird Singer (Alma’s younger brother, who believes he is one of the 36 lamed vovniks, holy people on whom the existence of the world depends): “I have been a normal person for three days in a row. What this means is that I have not climbed on top of any buildings or written G-d’s name on anything that doesn’t belong to me or answered a perfectly normal question with a saying from the Torah. It also means I have not done anything where the answer would be NO to the question: WOULD A NORMAL PERSON DO THIS? So far it hasn’t been that hard.” 

Their stories are braided with misunderstandings and grief, resolving at last after many blind crossings. This novel is beautifully written, leavened with both humor and pathos as readers stumble alongside characters learning, being wrong, learning more, still wrong…