History of Love

History of Lovebook by Nicole Krauss

annotation by Tina Rubin

Krauss’s energetic and imaginative novel touches the heart with its universal themes of love, grief, loneliness, the desire to make others happy, and the invisible connections among people. The lives of Holocaust survivor and author Leo Gursky, who has lost everything, and teenage brother and sister Alma and Bird Singer, who lost their father to cancer years earlier, are the main characters in an unusual story revolving around Leo’s supposedly lost manuscript, The History of Love.

The novel is a cache of literary techniques, from its book(s)-within-a-book structure and four points of view to its parallel stories meeting at the end and its lovely echoes and repetition. In some ways it called to mind Vladimir Nabokov’s works Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the first for its echoes and the latter for its book-within-a-book structure. In The History of Love, nearly everything that occurs is an echo of something else, and the passages Krauss presents from Leo and his son Isaac’s fictional works serve to more fully inform the reader of Leo’s character and the similarities, both in nature and writing style (especially the unhappy angels), between Leo and his son.

But there is more. We learn something about each character who reads the History of Love passages through the particular section he or she reads. For example, Alma Singer first reads her mother’s translation of chapter ten, “The Age of Glass,” which contains key lines such as “. . . [H]e forgot the danger he was in, grateful for the world which purposefully puts divisions in place so that we can overcome them. . . .” Alma is about to do just that in order to alleviate her mother’s unhappiness. Or Zvi Litvinoff, Leo Gursky’s friend who has plagiarized his work by translating it from Yiddish to Spanish and calling it his own, who reads chapter fourteen, “The Age of String,” which begins, “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.” On the previous page, the narrator has just told us that there was something Zvi wished to say (the truth), but the more time passed, the more he longed to say it and the more impossible it became to do so. (This is a bit too obvious for my taste, but it’s part of Krauss’s technique.)

There was much to learn from this book in terms of craft, particularly Krauss’s skilled use of multiple points of view and the mysteries she gradually unravels as to how the parallel stories (Alma Singer searching for her namesake from The History of Love and Leo Gursky looking for clues that his son, Isaac, knew of his existence before the son died) will come together. The novel is so tightly structured and wildly imaginative that I had to read it a second time to pick up all the clues. This work helped me see that a second point of view actually would be of value in my own novel to tell the full story and heighten the irony. It also confirmed for me, once again, that a reader who has to work at unraveling the story is a much more engaged reader.

A huge triumph of Krauss’s novel was her creation of Leopold Gursky, an unforgettable old man whose attitude, spunk, and enduring love are a joy to experience. Another was the novel’s uplifting ending. This is the type of book I tend to want to write, but it’s the first one that showed me how it can be done successfully with equal doses of loss, anguish, and loneliness. Touché, Nicole Krauss, in more ways than one.

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