Selected Edition: Paperback
No. of Pages: 252
SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION 2006
I had heard good things about Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love and it had been on my To-Be-Read list for a while, so when I stumbled across it last week in my local Oxfam bookstore I grabbed it greedily off of the shelf. I was not disappointed. In fact, I think it might be one of my favourite books of the year so far, and that it has changed the way that I feel about reading and writing. But first, what is the story of The History of Love?
In New York, Leo Gursky, a Polish immigrant is living each day as it comes, trying to survive in a lonely world, spending his days going out just in order to be seen and prove to himself that he still exists in the world. He passes the time thinking about his first and only love, Alma, and desperately trying to hold on to anything that connects the two of them.
Meanwhile, Alma Singer, a fourteen-year-old girl is trying to deal with her own loneliness and grief after losing her father, and help her mother through her grief. She spends her days researching how to survive in the wilderness, keeping her father alive in her memory as he had been a bit of an adventurer. Her brother, Bird, is losing himself in Jewish religion and clinging to a janitor as a replacement for the father he barely knew.
Alma’s mother is a translator and has recently received a request to translate a book called The History of Love, written originally in Spanish by a Polish writer living in Argentina. The book had been given to her by her husband in the first days of their relationship and feeling a special sentimental attachment to it, she agrees. What follows are stories of lives that intersect and influence each other, leaving behind a trail of coincidences, contradictions and fictions.
I got to about page 14 of The History of Love and I realised that I would love this book. The characters are incredibly well drawn, and you come to know them through the small actions they make on a daily basis. Leo is constantly looking back on his life, contradicting what he says in a self-deprecating manner, following statements with a telling sentence: “And yet.” I particularly love the episode where he goes to a life drawing class as a model:
It seemed too good to be true. To have so much looked at. By so many.
Leo is obsessed with who will be the last person to see him alive and goes out each day to make sure that someone has seen him – “All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.” This idea of negating existence is a heavy presence throughout the novel, even coming up in a game played by Alma and her little brother:
I’d point to a chair. “THIS IS NOT A CHAIR,” I’d say. Bird would point to a table. “THIS IS NOT A TABLE.”
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!” “But you’re only seven,” I said.
Everyone in the book is experiencing loss and there is a sadness that lies at the bottom of the whole book, although the characters aren’t wallowing in pity, they seem resigned and accept this grief as part of their life. Leo gets through with the help of his friend Bruno; Alma, by trying to think up ways of surviving in the wilderness and trying to find out the story behind The History of Love; Alma’s mother, by burying herself in translating the novel; and Bird, who finds solace in religion and selling lemonade. He is a dedicated young boy, whose seriousness is quite saddening as we find out later in the novel the reason for his scrimping and saving and his subsequent disappointment.
Alma is an incredibly tender and loving young girl, overwhelmed by what life has given her, but determined to make something of it and find things out. She sets out her thoughts under a series of headings, trying to categorise things and make sense of them. She watches her mother carefully, and sees the translations as the only way that her mother can survive:
Sometimes pages of the dictionaries come loose and gather at her feet […] When I was little, I thought that the pages on the floor were words she would never be able to use again, and I tried to tape them back in where they belonged, out of fear that one day she would be left silent.
I loved the images of Alma’s mother (“Empty teacups gathered around her, and dictionary pages fell at her feet”) and the devotion which Alma shows her is touching, even while she struggles to handle the depth of emotion her mother displays, as when her mother embraces her, clinging on to her, asking what she can do to help her, Alma revealingly thinks “Love me less.”
Beautiful moments exist in this novel in abundance – the novel Alma’s mother is translating describes how communication was first done through hand gestures, and how:
Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together. And at night, when it’s too dark to see, we find it necessary to gesture on each other’s bodies to make ourselves understood.
And the image of words getting lost, and guided back to their destination on pieces of string which tie people together:
So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. […] Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.
These strings are attributed to the invention of cups at the end of strings to communicate across a void, and the invention of the telephone to communicate across continents, a way of communicating when other methods are lost to us.
The novel is written in a very experimental way, and each character has a distinctive voice; there are diagrams, pages that unravel as if they are unfolding in the mind of the character, excerpts from letters and novels and retellings of short stories. It was a breath of fresh air to see an experimental, yet affecting novel. The last part of the novel is particularly gripping and I love the way it flips back and forth between Leo and Alma, giving each a new page for their viewpoint, giving them equal prominence.
I have far too much to say about this book and I am struggling to keep it concise. Suffice to say, I thought it was a beautiful book, written in a different and compelling way that actually makes me want to re-read it and re-re-read it. It is up there with one of my favourite books of the year, if not my favourite book of all time and I cannot tell you how touching I found it. I would love to hear your comments, hope you love it as much as I did!