The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Published in 2005
Genre: Immigrant novel, lost literature, pastiche
“When they write my obituary.”
As befits a story of difficult subject matter, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss begins with thoughts on mortality. A winding tale of love, loss, death, and life, The History of Love is not for the faint of heart; through seemingly disparate stories, the narrative twists itself in intersecting trails to come together in the end and create a story whose sum is as beautiful as its parts. Concerning writers, books, tragedy, and humanity, The History of Love is a book that views interaction and life through a clear lens.
The character speaking of his obituary is Leo Gursky, an old man who lives alone. His best friend, Bruno, lives in the apartment above and, due to their advanced age and being immigrants from the same country, they check in on each other. Leo grew up in Poland and escaped after the Nazis massacred his town before making his way to America where he learned the locksmith trade from a cousin. Leo wants to be seen, so he will go out of his way to make small spectacles in public. As a child, he fell in love with a girl who made it to America before the Nazi occupation, had their child, and married another man. Their son became a famous author, but Leo lived his entire life with this secret. Leo wrote a book after having a heart attack and mailed it to his son, but soon discovers that his son has died.
Alma Singer is a fourteen year-old named after every girl in a book called “The History of Love” (this is where the novel gets its name and I will refer to the book within the book with quotation marks). Her father passed away when she was young and she becomes interested in survival after her uncle gives her a Swiss Army knife that belonged to her father. Her little brother, Bird, is deeply religious and believes he is a Jewish Messiah; as is required by his station as the younger sibling, he gets on her nerves. Alma’s story discusses meeting Misha, a boy from Russia, and how she tries to find someone for her mother. Her mother receives a mysterious letter asking her to translate a copy of “The History of Love” into English, which her husband had given her after they first met.
The third protagonist of The History of Love is Zvi Litvinoff. A refugee to Chile after the Nazi occupation, Zvi married his wife Rosa while writing “The History of Love”. What little is known about him comes from the introduction, written by Rosa, of the second printing of the book. Krauss tells us about Zvi by explaining what people don’t know though intimate details and anecdotes. Zvi remembers his childhood friend, Leo, and how they both became writers; Zvi began writing obituaries as a journalist, but always believed Leo to be the better writer.
The book is arranged so that there is a rotation between the three main characters; it begins with Leo, then Alma, and finally Zvi before switching back to Leo and repeating. The History of Love ends with a page by page point-of-view shift between two characters that leads to the climax; I won’t say who the characters are because it would reveal too much plot, and this is also why the story details I have provided in this review describe the beginning of each character’s story. The protagonists are connected in small ways that smack of providence; there are many threads throughout the book, but they all tie together, slowly, allowing the reader to put make the connections as the characters do.
The History of Love makes heavy use of stream-of-consciousness writing in Leo’s sections and pastiche, which is when a work of literature uses methods other than those that are traditionally part of the medium. For example, excerpts of the fictional book “The History of Love” are shared within stories, and Alma’s sections are numbered like a list; her journals are volumes called How to Survive in the Wild. Another version is used later in the book with Bird’s journal entries that are dated, have run-on sentences, and lack proper punctuation.
I first read The History of Love during my final semester at college and it had a profound impact on me. Krauss’s writing is lyrical while remaining straightforward and her storytelling is masterful. As stated earlier, I don’t want to go into too many specific connections that are made between characters in the book because to do so would lessen the experience for a potential reader, but I promise that every seemingly unconnected plot point or minuscule detail serves a larger purpose within the entire work. If I were forced to name a favorite book, this would most likely be what would come to mind; it changed me as a reader, as a writer, and as a human being.
Verdict: 5 questions he wanted to spend his whole life answering out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of well written prose, those patient enough to enjoy a story that is intricate, writers, non-writers, and you!
Not recommended for: The impatient, the easily confused, people who dislike pastiche, or those who dislike books within books.