BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Author: Nicole Krauss
2005, W.W. Norton & Company
Filed Under: Literary
Nicole Krauss was recently named one of the “20 Under 40” writers in the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue. After reading The History of Love, it’s easy to see why. This is a beautifully crafted, multifaceted novel about love, survival, and deceit. The writing is consistently strong across a number of distinct voices, each one funny and lyrical without being indulgent. It’s a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to know that such a talent is at work today.
Leopold Gursky is a lonely aging immigrant living on his own in Brooklyn. Alma Singer is a lonely teenage girl living with her withdrawn mother and eccentric brother also in Brooklyn. Besides geography, all that connects them is a book called The History of Love, a book about another Alma and all the ways to fall in love with her.
The chapters told from Leo’s and Alma’s perspectives carry the novel. A third omniscient voice provides important backstory, the history behind The History of Love, how the manuscript came to be published and how it made its way into the lives of the main characters. These chapters are essential, but they play mainly a supporting role.
Leo is a willful stereotype of an elderly man. It’s a role he plays to perfection, in part because it’s who he is, and in part because it’s the only role left for him to play. He keeps to himself, worries constantly about his own imminent death, and makes regular public scenes in cafes and shoe stores. “All I want,” he says, “is not to die on a day when I went unseen.”
Alma is obsessed with outdoor survival and her mother’s sadness, a state of perpetual mourning for Alma’s father who died when she was seven:
She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she’s turned life away. Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have species named after her.
It’s their desires, their need to make change, to connect, that drive the novel forwards. Where it’s going isn’t always clear, and a fourth voice appears towards the end in a sort of ad hoc way to guide things along, but the final moments are well-earned by the depth of the two main characters alone. The History of Love is equally a history of loneliness, and the two feelings follow each other throughout the novel, one trailing the other like a shadow.
Similar reads: Man Walks Into a Room (Nicole Krauss), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)