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Nicole Krauss, The History of Love (London: Penguin, 2006, £7.99, 272 pages, ISBN 0141019972)—Toni Saldivar, Mount Saint Mary College




In The History of Love, Nicole Krauss’s engaging second novel, books—and one book in particular—are the catalysts for almost everything good that happens. Leo Gursky, a young Jew in the Polish village of Slonim in the years prior to World War II, wants to be a writer “because to live in an undescribed world is too lonely.” Leo falls in love with a girl named Alma when they are still children. As they grow up, they become intimate friends; when they are almost twenty, they become lovers. Leo loses Alma when her father sends her to America just before the Nazis invade. Alma does not want to leave Leo, but he promises to find a way to follow her. He fills the void of her absence by writing a celebration of his love for Alma through a myriad of fictional girls all with her name. Leo then must save himself as the Nazis arrive. Before going into hiding, he gives his Yiddish manuscript to another aspiring writer and fellow Jew on his way out of the country. Thus begins the mysterious journey of Leo’s book. We learn that his manuscript was published some years later as a novel with Leo’s title, The History of Love, but in Spanish and under another author’s name. Nicole Krauss’s novel, with the same title, is the story of Leo’s book and the lives it touched and changed.


The plot unfolds through multiple first person narrators who are all writers of some sort. Leo Gursky, still faithful to his Alma, addresses his ideal reader, someone like Bruno, Leo’s elderly neighbor, also a Holocaust victim, with whom Leo is both tender and candid. Leo speaks as a solitary octogenarian living in the lower East Side of Manhattan. Fearing to die alone but knowing he probably will, he  wears a note pinned to his clothes: “MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A LOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART. THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.” All his family was killed in the Nazi purges of his Polish village, but Leo survived by hiding for three and a half years, in “woods, trees, cellars and holes.” After the war, he made his way to America to find Alma. She had told him in a letter sent right after her safe arrival in New York that she was expecting their baby. When he finds Alma, they are both twenty-five. He has remained faithful, but she tells him that without word from him for years, she believed him among the Jewish dead in Poland. She married a kind man, also a Jewish immigrant, who raised her first son, Isaac, as his own and gave her a second son. Leo learns all this from Alma while standing in her Brooklyn living room. She cannot undo her life; he cannot undo his. He continues to love her and now also their son who will never know he exists. He obeys Alma’s wishes and disappears, invisible to them, but his devotion to Alma and Isaac remains the vivid core of his being. Leo’s story is saved from the maudlin by his voice:  funny, sad, and true.


Another narrative voice, a somewhat less convincing one, is that of Alma Singer, a precocious fourteen-year-old who addresses herself in her diary. Her parents named her for all the Almas in the novel her father had given her mother to win her love. Alma Singer knows the source of her name: The History of Love. She has decided to write her own book which she titles How to Survive in the Wild and which draws on information gleaned from such published sources as Edible Plants of North America. When Alma was only seven, her father, an Israeli engineer and skilled outdoorsman, died of pancreatic cancer. Filling several notebooks with a naturalist’s survival skills is Alma’s way to deal with his loss and to prepare herself to meet life’s challenges as she imagined her father would.


The third major narrative voice in Krauss’s novel is Alma Singer’s younger brother, Chaim, known as Bird for his unwise attempts to fly like one. Three years younger than his sister, Bird is also precocious and traumatized by their father’s death. When Bird at age nine finds a volume of The Book of Jewish Thoughts, given to his father at his Bar Mitzvah, Bird learns it by heart. His religious education and his loneliness feed his sense of exceptionalism: he thinks he may be a lamed vovnik, one of the “thirty-six holy people […] that the existence of the world depends on.” Convinced that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent, he does what he can to prepare for it. He is soon under the care of a child psychologist. We learn much about Bird because he, too, speaks as a writer in his diary. The Singer children are exceptional. Their mother’s debilitating suffering of unresolved grief has led each child to cope essentially alone through writerly self-reflection and in imaginative leaps. Their mother, Charlotte, fluent in several languages and a translator by profession, begins to come out of years of depression when a mysterious correspondent, whose letter is postmarked Venice, asks her to translate The History of Love from Spanish into English, not for publication but for his personal use. He has approached her because he has just read her translation of a collection of poems by Nicanor Parra which moved him deeply. Amazingly, he offers her $100,000 and the copyright. We hear his voice only in his letters, but he is obviously a gifted writer. He wants the book in English because, as he writes to Charlotte Singer, “a very long time ago someone read to me as I was falling asleep a few pages from a book called The History of Love, and that all these years later I haven’t forgotten that night or those pages.” We know from Alma Singer’s diary that Charlotte used to read to her from the History of Love. This uncanny connection to another reader of this book works to benefit the bereft Singer family.


Besides the distinct voices of the elderly Leo, and the young Alma and Bird, the ageless voice of an omniscient narrator takes us back in time and into the private thoughts those who both stole Leo Gurksy’s book and gave it a chance to be read, though very limitedly, in the public sphere. Zvi Litvinoff, the journalist colleague to whom Gursky entrusted his Yiddish manuscript as Litvinoff fled Poland, published the manuscript as a novel under his own name. Litvinoff’s Chilean wife, Rosa, helped him translate the Yiddish into Spanish. She believed the novel was her husband’s original work. When Zvi is dying, Rosa discovers her husband’s fraud, but, because she loves him, finds a way to keep that knowledge from Zvi and from the world. The omniscient narrator tells the reader, “What is not known about Zvi Litvinoff is endless,” and then proceeds to tell more of what the world does not know—from “his favorite flower was the peony”  to his being wracked with survivor’s guilt. Only his wife’s devotion kept Zvi from complete despair and oblivion. We learn that of the 2,000 copies of The History of Love, only a few were treasured because there were few responsive readers. One was David Singer, just out of the Israeli army, traveling in South America, who bought the book in a Buenos Aries secondhand bookshop and read this dusty copy with “restlessness and longing.” Later, after he had become an engineer, he gave The History of Love to a gifted young English woman whom he had met on a kibbutz the summer before she began her studies at Oxford University. While at Oxford, she learns Hebrew to understand her Israeli suitor better and she learns Spanish to read the novel he gave her. After only one year, she gives up Oxford to marry him. They name their first child Alma, the only name not changed from Leo’s original version, the name of Leo Gursky’s first, only, and lost love. But this is only the beginning of Krauss’s intricately plotted novel.


The Singer children must deal with the loss of their father. How they do that leads to a surprising conclusion that seems both miraculous and inevitable, both heartbreaking and transcendent. Leo Gurksy has dealt all his adult life with the loss not only of his Alma but also of their son he can know only through his son’s books. Over the years, Leo watched his son whenever he could from a distance. He comes face to face with him just once, at a book signing. The son, now the famous Isaac Moritz, does not know he is inscribing his latest novel to his biological father from whom he inherited his talent. This is one of the many ironies in Krauss’s novel. All are occasions for the reader to ponder the abyss of incomprehension between persons and the phenomenon of how even the misreading of signs, if done in the right spirit, can construct a hopeful future.


After a near fatal heart attack, Gurksy decides he must himself write another book and he does. This one he dedicates to his son and mails it to him. There is no response. Leo soon reads in the newspaper in his neighborhood Strarbucks, that Isaac Moritz, aged sixty, has died of Hodgkin’s disease. The novel becomes a mystery the reader wants to solve. Did Isaac read Leo’s second manuscript before he died? If so, he would have learned that Leo is his father? Was Isaac the mysterious correspondent who, using a name from one of his own novels, pays Charlotte Singer to translate The History of Love and who thus, in trying to relive the closeness he felt to his own mother, is unwittingly bringing Alma and Bird’s mother out of her despair? Will Alma Singer and Bird Singer themselves survive the blight on their young lives? As characters, they seem drawn from J. D. Salinger’s fiction—highly intelligent, idealistic, self-sufficient children who can   navigate New York City with fearless élan, but who are also deeply troubled and at risk. Their eloquence is frequently marred by the use of “snuck” instead of the grammatically correct past tense, “sneaked.” As independent sleuths, they do a tremendous amount of sneaking around, but this is a mere quibble. Krauss has none of Salinger’s post World War II rage at a phony adult world. Her adults are flawed beacons but givers of light nonetheless. Krauss gives the reader much to delight in: the central mystery in love’s “history” in her novel is not so much solved as fully lived out.


Allusions pay homage to other writers. Zvi ends his days blessed by the love of Rosa in Valparaiso, Chile, home of Neruda. David Singer buys The History of Love in a shop near the home of Borges. The man paying Charlotte to translate The History of Love reads In the Street of the Crocodiles, fiction by the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, killed by the Nazis. The elderly Leo’s sole confidant and comforter, Bruno, is perhaps alive only in Leo’s imagination. If so, Bruno’s presence seems to say that writers care for others, serve others, even from the grave, when they cultivate readers’ capacity for compassion.


Krauss writes in the post-Holocaust world characterized by indescribable pain and intolerable loss, but also by a stubborn hope that the worst of times can be redeemed by words and deeds of love. A book may be an act of love, as Leo Gursky’s was:  a book of poetry, prose, religion, or science; a private manuscript, notebook, or diary; a text in the original language or in a translation. Numerous discourses work their powerful effects in Krauss’s novel which also works, in the best sense, not because it is clever (which it is), but because Krauss gives her multi-layered, multi-voiced mystery of love lost and found the luminous aura of truth.

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