Nicole Krauss, an acclaimed poet who has worked on her verses with Joseph Brodsky, negotiated a six-figure deal to write two books after her first novel, A Man Walks into a Room (2002), garnered rave reviews. An excerpt from The History of Love, called “The Last Words on Earth,” was published in The New Yorker in February, 2004; subsequently, Krauss sold the book rights to The History of Love in almost twenty countries and the film rights to Warner Bros. studios.
The History of Love is the title of a book within a book. Some people’s lives have been wrapped by the book, which has shaped their destinies. The reader enters that magical world, and it opens views to other worlds. The novel is about reading and writing, the way a book can change lives, love, and loss. Witty and emotional, it is also about nostalgia for the places one cannot revisit because they are lost forever. In the end, however, it is about living and survival, often creatively accomplished.
This ambitious and remarkable work depicts unconventional life journeys; its themes include love lost but never forgotten, human destiny charted by the atrocities of war, and loneliness of the “invisible” people. Leopold Gursky survives the massacre of the Jews in his native village of Slonim, in Poland, by hiding in the woods for more than three years. His girlfriend Alma Mereminski, the love of his life, escapes to the United States. Leo follows and finds her, but he arrives too late. Because his letters did not reach her, she thought he was dead, like many others. Now she is married, with two sons. One is Leo’s.
A locksmith and a writer, Leo lives in Manhattan, not far from Alma and her family but without any physical contact with them. After having lost his parents, his native land, his only love, his son, and the book he wrote while a young maninspired by his first and only lovehe is now retired. The book opens with him at eighty years old, brooding over his wasted life and approaching death. He often wonders who will be the last to see him alive. He makes a point of being “seen” and sits as a model in a nude drawing class. Most of the time, however, he is alone and philosophizing: “Put even a fool in front of a window and you’ll get a Spinoza.”
Leo and Alma’s son, Isaac Moritz, a famous writer, dies at age sixty from Hodgkin’s disease. Until Isaac’s death, Leo wonders if Isaac knew who his own father was. Once, in order to attend his son’s book reading, Leo had obtained tickets months in advance. He joined Isaac’s fans in lining up to meet the writer. Once face-to-face with Isaac, however, he could not say a word. Isaac was kind and patient, but a security guard firmly grasped Leo’s elbow and escorted him out. Only after Isaac’s death does Leo find himself in his son’s home, touching and sniffing his clothes, trying on his shoes, which are larger than his own.
There are two major, and several minor, life stories flowing, like blood, through this book. Unknown to one another, and Leo, the characters all meet in the heart, symbolized by his book. Leo had given his old manuscript to his childhood friend, Zvi Litvinoff, in Minsk. Since then, Litvinoff has lived a refugee’s life in Chile. A young woman, Rosa, falls in love with him and marries “her dark crow.” He reads the manuscript to her, and she helps him translate it into Spanish, assuming it is his. After it is published, the book takes on its own life, touching people with its powerful energy of love. Litvinoff gains notoriety, which improves his life. He lives with his secret, never finding a suitable moment to tell Rosa, unaware that she had found out and deliberately destroyed the evidence....