“I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I’d bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I’ll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.”
In his eighties and living alone, as the book opens, Leo already had a serious heart attack, and wants only “not to die on a day I went unseen.”
The novel is a story about love, obviously, it is also a story centred around a book. The book entitled The History of Love, written by Leo Gursky at age twenty in Slonim, Poland, is a book he has written to celebrate the extraordinary love he has shared with Alma Mereminski, whom he has known since childhood. When the Nazis threaten Poland and Alma flees, Leo, unsure of whether he will escape, gives the book for safekeeping to his best friend, who has secured a visa and is sailing to Lisbon. Alma M escaped to America too and promised to reunite with Leo.
Unfortunately, when Leo eventually does escape to New York, his Alma was married to another man and had children, thus began decades of Leo’s regret and loss over his only love. Leo later trained as a locksmith and quipped as a “man who became invisible.” His book about Alma, he eventually learns, has disappeared in a flood (there is a twist to this fact).
Leo’s story moves back and forth in time, runs in parallel with the story of Alma Singer, a 14-year-old girl whose parents have named her “Alma” in honour of the character from a book entitled, ironically, The History of Love. Her father bought this Spanish-language book in Valparaiso, Chile, and gave it to her mother before Alma’s birth. After the premature death of her father, Alma and her younger brother Bird are at loose ends, needing some way to control the uncertainties of their lives. Alma begins writing How to Survive in the Wild, a book in which she attempts to list all the ways she could survive disasters, while her brother Bird, eleven and a half, loses himself in religion and immersed in parachuting. One day a man named Jacob Marcus requested their mother to translate the book titled, none other than The History of Love.
Gradually, the two stories begin to converge, and how the book published in Spanish in Chile by a Zvi Litvinoff, a Polish exile in Chile, is related to The History of Love.
With both humour and sympathy, Krauss creates a cocktail of quirky characters, especially so for Leo. The History of Love illustrates the many different kinds of love-that of parents for children, children for parents, sisters and brothers for each other, friendships among acquaintances, and, of course, the love between lovers.
Although Krauss’ The History Of Love cited the Holocaust as the catalyst, it did not fall into the abyss of despair. I feel that because Krauss’ major in poetry, her prose feels like pure poetry, and it can be challenging for someone like me who is trained in management theory to get what she really means. It is by no surprise that some feedbacks from readers echoed my occasional thought of “I didn’t get it.” I think it is a combination of poetry and magic realism that I can’t quite place my head on whose voice Krauss is trying to speak in and by the time I get it by the middle of passage, I have lost the essence of the message conveyed before. I blame the muddle for reading this book while commuting to and fro to work. The numerous interruptions may have detracted me from immersing into the flow of the story. This is a novel which is meant to be read more than once, I think.
So I drew a chart to clear my head and if you want to read this book, beware that this may contain spoilers:
The main draw for me was Leo’s voice. At age eighty, Leo feels compelled to make himself seen at least once a day. He fears dying alone in his apartment, on a day when no one sees him at all. And he is capable of doing outrageous things to get that attention, including posing in the nude for a life drawing class, knocking on the pipe to Bruno and hear the answer back so that both of them could check on each other if they are still alive.
“In my loneliness it comforts me to think that the world’s doors, however closed, are never truly locked to me.” Leo’s son, Isaac, who died before him, the thought of Leo walking into Isaac’s house, touched his books, tried on his shoes and yet feel no presence of himself in his son’s life, breaks my heart.
Imagine a young man in love, in hiding, robbed of talent and opportunity. Imagine the fame and adulation Isaac Moritz (Leo’s son) earns for his novels, while Leo, an unknown ghostwriter, gets no recognition. Leo’s book had written had made such a huge impact in many people’s lives but he remains unrecognized for his work. Imagine the Holocaust allowed him to survive, but without the core of himself (his Alma, validation, love), Leo lives in the shell of a man, withered and waiting for death. The thought of ending one’s life without any validation and without core, just… just shatters me.
So as the half blank pages flipped over (another special feature of the novels, pages that contains only one paragraph or one sentence) on Leo’s last thoughts before the end of his life, the impact of the words on me becomes greater and greater….
“Sometimes I thought about nothing and sometimes I thought about my life. At least I made a living. What kind of living? A living. I lived. It wasn’t easy. And yet. I found out how little is unbearable.” – page 224
Placard says: My name is Leo Gursky I have no family please call Pinelawn cemetery I have a plot there in the Jewish part. Thank you for your consideration.
…….until it culminates into a surprise and disappointment, but a very appropriate end.
Some of my favourite passages:
- “Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness… Desire was born early, as was regret. Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt…People become addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art is born.” – The Birth of Feeling, (page 104)
- “…there are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone.”
- He learned to live with the truth. Not to accept it, but to live with it. it was like living with an elephant. His room was tiny and every morning he had to squeeze around the truth just to get to the bathroom. To reach the armoire to get a pair of underpants he had to crawl under the truth, praying it wouldn’t choose that moment to sit on his face. – page 156
- “At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that’s why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.” – page 165
- “I want to say somewhere: I’ve tried to be forgiving. And yet. There were times in my life, whole years, when anger got the better of me. Ugliness turned me inside out. There was a certain satisfaction in bitterness. I courted it. It was standing outside, and I invited it in.”
- “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.”
- “Now that mine is almost over, I can say that the one thing that struck me most about life is the capacity for change. One day you’re a person and the next day they tell you you’re a dog. At first it’s hard to bear, but after a while you learn not to look at it as a loss. There’s even a moment when it becomes exhilarating to realize just how little needs to stay the same for you to continue the effort they call, for lack of a better word, being human.”
- Uncle Julian tells Alma, “Wittgenstein once wrote that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.” – Uncle Julian tells Alma
- “So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves.”
Rating: 4 / 5
What I like most about the book:
It is humourous and deeply affecting. I like the quirkiness, especially the pages of pie charts that illustrate proportion of lineage from different nationality groups (3 quarter Polish, one quarter Russian or half Jewish, half Russian…). I like Leo. I like how Krauss handles the plot line, the blurring of boundaries between reality and fantasies, and making the unreal so real. I suppose this is a kind of magical realism, with elements of fantasy which intertwine with reality, and that there is not too much of it. I also like little Alma Singer and suspectlittle Alma is the biographical voice of Krauss.
What I like least about the book:
There is a lot of love in this book and a lot of sympathy. There is the love between Alma Singer’s parents, the love between Leo Gursky and Alma Mereminski, the love between Zvi Litvinoff with Alma, Zvi Litvinoff with wife. Alma and Misha adolescence love. The love of Leo to his son Isaac. The friendship of Leo and Bruno. If I was a romantic, I suppose I will be swooned over by the book. Unfortunately I am not and there appears to be a sort of love overkill happening here.
There are just too many different voices contribute to the story of The History of Love, and they are not necessarily unique. Anything more than 2 voices do have the tendency to do my head-in! The book wow-ed me in parts, and underwhelmed in other parts. It feels a bit choppy and perhaps Natasha Walter’s review at Guardian expresses it aptly about my adversion towards charming novels:
The very fact that Gursky carries the candle for his own Alma until his dying day – even though she marries somebody else and has children he stays faithful to her – gives a rather fairytale feel to the whole novel. When the old Alma is dying in Manhattan he goes every day to sit at her bedside in the hospital after hours. “She was tiny and wrinkled and deaf as a doorknob. There was so much I should have said. And yet. I told her jokes.” This moment should carry a massive emotional punch, but it is so charming that it slips into a purely literary convention. Krauss is undoubtedly an entertaining, humane and intelligent writer, but this novel is just too neat and too sweet for her talent to fly freely.
Like I said, I really like the book but I am not crazy about it. I would still highly recommend the novel to anyone who loves a (or many) good love stor(ies).
Second opinion (and there are plenty of them!):
Book of Mee – “I loved this book. I really really loved it. Hopelessly fell in love with it. There, I need to get that off my chest.”
Claire of Kiss a Cloud – “I’m hopelessly in love with this book that I want to tape it to my heart.”
Michelle of Su[Shu] – “It’s a book that cuts, deep. But it’s also a book that heals. Like Ali Smith said, it’s a book that restores all sorts of faith.”
Soul Muser of Lifewordsmiths – From the other reviews I have read about this book, there seem to be two sets of people : one set absolutely loves and adores the book and the other set is a bit confused, wondering if they have missed something. I fall into the second set.
Nymeth of Things mean a lot – “I’ll appreciate the ending more on a second read.”
In Spring it is the Dawn – “it’s definitely a book that would suit rereading. I’m sure I’d get more out of it a second time.”
Vulpe Libris – “The History of Love is a really good read, emotionally rewarding, structurally precocious, and intellectually thought provoking.”
Theresa of Shelf Love – “The disconnect created an emotional gap between me and the characters that couldn’t quite be breached.”
Steph’s interview with Nicole Krauss on her new book, Great House
Hardback. [Viking 2005], [176 pages], [Contemporary New York City], [Library loot], Finished reading at 9th October 2010.
About the writer:
Krauss was born in New York City to an English mother and an American father who grew up partly in Israel. Krauss’s maternal grandparents were born in Germany and Ukraine and later emigrated to London. Her paternal grandparents were born in Hungary and Slonim, Belarus, met in Israel, and later emigrated to New York. Many of these places are central to Krauss’s 2005 novel, The History of Love, and the book is dedicated to her grandparents who “taught her to do the opposite of disappearing”.
At the age of 14 Krauss became serious about writing. Until she began her first novel in 2002, Krauss wrote and published mainly poetry. Krauss enrolled in Stanford University in 1992, and that fall she met Joseph Brodsky who worked closely with her on her poetry over the next three years. He also introduced her to such writers as Italo Calvino and Zbigniew Herbert, who would have a lasting influence. Krauss majored in English and graduated with Honours, winning a number of undergraduate prizes for her poetry as well as the Dean’s Award for academic achievement. She also curated a reading series (with Fiona Maazel) at the Russian Samovar, a NYC restaurant co-founded by Brodsky.
In 1996, she was awarded a Marshall Scholarship and enrolled in a Masters program at Oxford University where she wrote her thesis about the American artist Joseph Cornell. During the second year of her scholarship she attended the Courtauld Institute in London, where she received a Masters in Art History, specializing in seventeenth-century Dutch art, and writing a thesis on Rembrandt.
Krauss’ new book Great House will be out this November 2010 in the UK.