Words by Elaine Mead
“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.”
A dalliance of popular #Bookstagram accounts put Nicole Krauss’ second novel ‘The History of Love’ on my book radar late last year, and I finally got around to plucking it from my ever-looming pile of unread this month.
And now a part of me wishes I could put it back in the unread pile, purely so I can experience reading it for the first time all over again.
‘The History of Love’ begins by introducing us to Leopold (Leo) Gursky, an elderly Jew living alone in Manhattan, convinced that he is nearing the end of his life and who spends most of his days afraid that he has not been seen. This fear causes him to act out in public, knocking over display shelves in stores, dropping all his coins, confusing wait staff with his demanding orders, and generally attempting to ensure every interaction becomes one that will be a memorable one.
It’s interesting to see this behaviour acted out. Having survived the Holocaust through hiding “mostly in trees, but also cracks, cellars, holes” and eventually escaping to America, the visibility Leo craves stems from spending most of his life hiding who he is. Something that becomes more apparent as the novel moves to examine other parts of Leo’s life – present and past.
Through Leo’s narration, we learn he used to be a man, rich with the promise of life. A girl – Alma Mereminsky -he fell in love with at 10 years old, grows to love him back until they are separated by the war. Alma is sent to America at the outbreak, and Leo promises he will come and find her, sending her letters and draft chapters of the book he is writing about her – The History of Love. Fearing he will not survive Leo leaves the final manuscript for his book in the hands of his friend who has secured safe passage to Chile. After spending years hiding and surviving, Leo tracks Alma down in America, only to discover she has remarried. She turns him away. Leo becomes a shadow.
Moving away from Leo’s story, we meet Charlotte, a widowed mother of two children – Alma and Bird. Alma, so named after all the characters in a book her deceased father gave to her mother when they first met (you guessed it, The History of Love). Charlotte is translating the novel from Spanish to English for a mystery gentleman, who calls himself Jacob Mathers. At this point it is the young Alma who takes over our intrigue with a naive and passionate fervour, emerging into adolescence and longing for a return to ‘normalcy’ in the wake of her father’s absence in the family home.
And it is here that the tangled narratives of all those involved slowly slowly begin to unweave. Krauss has created a delicate novel within a novel. At points, the list of characters begins to stack up and I found it a little tricky to keep them in place in my own reading, but like a knotted ball, as I read on, they unthreaded in imaginative and engaging ways. The layering of the story is unlike much I’ve read before, but it’s delivered in a way that has you both reaching desperately for the end and yet not wanting the story to end.
Leo is a fruitful and encouraging depiction of a cranky old man, who we come to feel sincere heartbreak for as we learn more about the love he lost, but never let go of. Alma is an endearing evocation of youth, emerging and discovering the perils of love for the first time.
Love lies deep at the heart of this book, in all its variations including loss, longing, grief, the love between family, first love, old love, forgotten love, unrequited love. Krauss poignantly and succinctly conveys all of these experiences with humour and tenderness. There is a poetic simplicity to Krauss’ writing, and although I’ve seen this criticised for not ‘hitting hard enough’ around some of the subject matter contained, I felt it was this simplicity that made this novel what it is. The focus is indeed on love throughout, the experiences of the characters are planted firmly in reality but Krauss weaves in a little fairytale magic that we all would perhaps like to be a part of the reality of loving and losing the people we care about.
Since finishing this book I have been forcing it on to anyone I can think of to read it. Heartbreaking and warming at the same time, this is a book that will restore your faith in the power of love to leave deep imprints across a lifeline. No matter what form it takes.