Nicole Krauss's tragic-comic novel The History of Love (2005) has been called a book of love and loss, a mystery, and a great literary work. Through vaguely connected storylines, it follows the lives of an old man, Leopold Gursky, and a young girl, Alma Singer. The thing that ties their lives together is a novel that Leopold has penned called The History of Love. Krauss's novel and Leo's novel are intertwined creating a lively novel-within-a-novel text.
The novel begins with an introduction to Leopold, who has suffered two devastating, emotionally crippling personal loses that make him feel invisible. First, he has lost the only woman he ever loved. Then he watches his only son grow up and then die without ever knowing him. He stands on the street corner at times, wondering if anyone notices him. Gursky often does things to force other people's acknowledgement of his existence, such as spilling food on himself or dropping money all over the floor. He even volunteers to work as a nude model because he likes the feeling of being studied. Gursky is both a comic and a tragic figure.
Alma Singer has no such problem about being seen, but visibility does not matter to her one way or the other. What Alma wants is to find a man for her mother to love. At least, that is her motivating force in the beginning. Alma's father died several years ago and ever since then her mother seems to be perpetually sad. In the process of her search for a husband for her mother, Alma makes some interesting discoveries, including the woman for whom she was named. That woman is the only love that Leo Gursky ever had, the woman he writes about in his novel, The History of Love.
As the story unfolds, the two main characters move closer and closer to one another. At the end, they finally meet.
Krauss's The History of Love begins with Leopold ("Leo") Gursky, who constantly ponders his own death.
Leo had written three books by the time he turned twenty-one, and while he lived in Poland. His last book, called The History of Love, was about Alma, his childhood girlfriend. Leo wrote it for Alma. After she left Poland for the United States, he would send passages of the book to her. Leo never intended to publish this book. Concerned that he might be captured by the Nazis, before fleeing Poland, Leo gave the manuscript to a friend, Zvi Litvinoff, and asked him to hold it for him.
Leo goes to the United States. When he finds Alma, she tells him that she had been pregnant with his child when she left Poland, and that a man took pity on her and married her. Alma and Mordecai Moritz now have a son of their own. Alma explains that she had written to Leo and was committed to waiting for him, but Leo never answered her letters. Leo did not answer because he never received them. It was a time of war. The Nazis had overtaken Poland and were killing all the Jews. Leo's mother had told him to hide in the forest and she would meet him later. She never came. Leo spent three years eluding the Nazi before coming to America. His cousin, a locksmith, had taught him a trade. He wanted Alma to come live with him, but she would not consent.
In the present time, Leo is an old man. He has had a heart attack and does not expect to live much longer. He decides to write again. Leo has never married but has, from a distance, followed the development of his son, Isaac. Leo used to stand outside Isaac's school to catch a glimpse of him. Now Isaac is a professional writer. Leo has read all of Isaac's books.
When Leo completes his autobiography, he sends the 301-page manuscript to Isaac. Leo waits but never receives a response from his son. One day, Leo sees an obituary. Isaac has died.
Leo goes to Isaac's funeral and mentions to Isaac's half-brother, Bernard, that he knew Alma. Bernard invites him to his house after the funeral. There Leo sees a picture of Alma and himself when they were teens. He stuffs the picture under his clothes and leaves. Later, Leo, using his skills as a locksmith, breaks into Isaac's now-empty house. He puts on some of Isaac's clothes and rummages through the house, fruitlessly looking for signs that Isaac has read his life story.
The other main character of this novel is Alma Singer, a young teenager who has been named for the Alma in Leo's The History of Love....
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The History of Love (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
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....
(The entire section is 1532 words.)