Some books just need to be read. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is one of those books. My written words won't even begin to give it justice. And yet. This is a powerful novel about the universal themes of love and death - but also so much more. It is a story of stories untold, of dreams forgotten and of voices silences. And in its telling, it revokes the dreams and gives voice to the silenced.
In the story we meet Leo Gursky, an old man now, who escaped the Nazis in Poland and came to New York. He spends his days contemplating who will be the last person to see him before he dies, and he makes sure those who see him remember him: "If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction" (p. 3). After years of being a locksmith, Leo has taken up his writing again. He nurtures secret hopes of becoming famous after his death. We also learn that Leo has a son who doesn't know him. Leo yearns to get to know his son, who is now a famous author, and it is through the written word Leo hopes to finally reveal that he is his father.
We also meet Alma Singer, a girl of fourteen who is struggling to make sense of her life. Her father died when she was seven, and ever since then her mother has been sad. Her younger brother Bird has his own problems, convinced that he is a "lamed vovnik", a chosen one, a sort of Messiah. Alma is named after all the female characters in a book her father once gave to her mother, The History of Love (so we literally have a novel inside the novel). When the mother receives a request to translate the book from Spanish to English for a mysterious Jacob Marcus, Alma sets upon bringing the two together.
The structure of the novel is rather complex. We have two main focalizors: Leo and Alma, who tell their stories. Towards the end, Alma's brother Bird also enters as a focalizor. In addition, we have a third person narrative of the story of Zvi Litvinoff, the author of the novel inside the novel, The History of Love. And finally, we get excerpts from The History of Love. What impresses me is the clear distinction between all these voices. Leo, being a writer, tells his story with a certain flair and an enjoyment for dramatic effect. There's a bit of humour to his dark loneliness. Alma writes like a journal, with small headings. Bird's writing is influenced by his religious fanaticism, which is his way of making sense of the world. All the voices are genuine and very much their own.
One of the main themes in the novel is loneliness: "who doesn't wish to make a spectacle of his loneliness?" (p. 117). As mentioned, Leo has a desire to be seen, but he has lived in the shadows ever since he came to New York. He's worked as a locksmith, and likes the idea that he can gain access to any door, but the irony is that the door he most wishes to access - that of his son's heart, he dare not even approach. Alma's mother Charlotte is also lonely, and she buries her loneliness in her work as a translator, where she endlessly searches for the right words. Alma and Bird are equally lonely, both having only one friend. Bird escapes his loneliness through his mission as lamed vovnik, whereas Alma tirelessly works towards one day conquering the arctic on her own.
Loneliness is connected to silence and a lack of communication. This is turn connects to notions of language, which Krauss plays with in the novel. For Leo, he has had to leave Poland behind, and in so doing, he has also left Yiddish behind, "life demanded a new language" (p. 6). Charlotte is a translator who perfectly conveys the meanings in one language to another. However, with her children, the lines of communication are off somehow. After the passing of her husband, Charlotte has lived disconnected from the world, and she is hiding in the written word. Her children has also inherited a disconnectedness from language, and they start denying words: "I'd point to a chair. 'This is not a chair,' I'd say. ... We denied whole rooms, years, weathers. Once, at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath. At the top of his lungs, he shrieked: 'I! HAVE NOT! BEEN! UNHAPPY! MY WHOLE! LIFE!' " (p. 36). It is as if Charlotte's children feel that they have to pretend to be happy, for her, but Charlotte's own sadness remains the same.
Another important theme is love, or first love. Leo's first love is what drove him to write his novel. In many ways, Leo's love is the driving force for the whole story we are reading. He wrote a love story which travelled years and continents and ended up naming a young girl. Once Alma's love was unavailable to him, Leo transferred some of that love onto his unknown son. However, Leo never moved on from his first love. Charlotte parallels Leo in this way. After her husband David passed away, she has continued living for his love: "She's kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she's turned life away" (p. 45). Alma is experiencing love for the first time, but it is a bitter sweet feeling for her. Only too late does she realize who she is in love with, but she has already managed to ruin things between them.
And the theme we cannot escape, and which has haunted Leo for centuries, is that of death. What makes the lonely Leo live a little longer, is the notion of not being forgotten. His book will forever remain testament to his life, apart from the fact that it has another man's name on its cover. The new book he has been working on is ironically also attributed to another. What hope left of being remembered is there? Can the young Alma somehow be the one to see Leo for who he is?
This is a book about writitng and being written, of the fear of dying and being forgotten, of the past that is unchangeable, of searching for identity when you're in limbo. The ending of this novel is one of the most moving I've read in a long time. Beautiful in its subtleties, it touches my heart. This novel needs to be read.