“When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.”
I read Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love in a Large Print Edition for the partially sighted (it being the only copy my library had readily to hand) and so the above is literally what it looked like. It never struck me before how disconcerting it would be to read a novel printed in such huge letters, with pages that only have 20 lines on them and chapter titles that swamp the text below. It actually slowed me down; I found it quite difficult to focus on it or to read it for any length of time. And my enthusiasm for the novel was already dampened by the fact that, as well as being on the shortlist for the 2006 Orange Prize, The History of Love is a Richard and Judy Book Club Pick. Now it’s true that my prejudice against this most stalwart institution of the British publishing world (apparently 1 in every 8 paperbacks purchased in the UK is featured on R & J) is a product my suspicion of populism. I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad if a) Britain’s No 1 daytime TV couple actually chose the books they champion and b) they weren’t so inexcusably smug about the whole process. As it is they don’t (although, apparently, they do read them) and they are.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that I wasn’t expecting overmuch from this, the last novel from the Orange Prize shortlist on my shelves (I am, of course, still ploughing through the last New Writer’s Award finalist: Olga Grushin’s Dream Life of Sukhanov). I imagined: sensationalism and sentimentality, perhaps a heart-warming ending, at best a pleasant crowd pleaser.
I was really, really wrong. (Demonstrating yet again that I should abandon my suspiciousness...)
In reality History of Love is a pearl of a novel - beautifully and incisively written, playful and witty but also incredibly moving. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if it *won* the Orange Prize; I’d certainly place it up there in my top three along with Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Sarah Water’s The Night Watch (links are to my posts).
It is basically a story of two halves, the first of which belongs to 80 year old Leopold Gursky, a Holocaust survivor who escaped death in Poland only by hiding “in trees, in cellars, cracks, holes” and foraging for food:
“There was a time I lived in the forest, or in the forests, plural. I ate worms. I ate bugs. I ate anything that I could put in my mouth. Sometimes I would get sick. My stomach was a mess but I needed something to chew. I drank water from puddles. Snow. Anything I could get hold of… To say that I ate raw rats – yes, I did. Apparently, I wanted to live very badly. And there was only one reason: her.”
“Her” was Alma Mereminski, his neighbour and fiancé, who had been sent to America in the years before the Nazi invasion, and who, unbeknownst to him, had been pregnant with his child. However, when he finally arrived in America his son Isaac was already five years old, and Alma, desperate and believing him dead, had married another man. (So far, so predictable?) Leo eventually became a lock-smith, opening doors into other people’s homes, onto other people’s families but never having one of his own and never finding comfort for his loses. When we meet him, well into his retirement, he has started to fret about dying unnoticed and begun forcing himself out for the purpose of making a gaze-drawing spectacle – dropping his change in busy stores, ripping his clothing, even volunteering to pose nude for local life-drawing classes. When he isn’t making himself noticed or waiting to die he’s working doggedly on his second novel: “Words for Everything”, a sequel to his first – entitled “The History of Love” – which he wrote in Poland for love of Alma and which was irretrievably lost in a flood many years later.
The second thread belongs to the family of Alma Singer, aged fourteen and named “after every girl in a book my father gave [my mother] called The History of Love”. This book, she tells us, was written in Spanish by a Polish man named Zvi Litvinoff who escaped from Poland to Chile during the Holocaust. Alma’s father died of pancreatic cancer when she was seven, and her mother Charlotte, a book translator, has alternately smothered and whimsically ignored her ever since. Now in the early years of her adolescence she is determined to make her mother happy again, to find her new love and complete their disjointed family unit. So when a mysterious letter arrives from one Jacob Marcus asking Charlotte to translate The History of Love into English, Alma settles on him as the perfect suitor. First, though, she has to track him down and, in doing so, unwittingly embarks on an investigative quest that carries her inexorably towards Leo and the unravelling of the mystery of the writing of The History of Love. Incidentally, and rather essentially for the plot, Alma’s younger brother “Bird” (he refuses his given name) suspects he might be the Messiah.
Krauss’s book turns out to be many things – a mystery, an elegy, a celebration of life – as it oscillates between the half-cynical, half-ecstatic tones of Leo to Alma’s sweet comedy to Bird’s naively deranged diary entries and back again. It is, in the end, incredibly neat, resolving its plot smartly through the agency of Bird and bringing Leo and Alma together for a heart-wringing denouement. What strikes me though is that Krauss is extraordinarily good at emotion, at making it stink of the real thing. What could quite easily have been simple and saccharine is made composite by her stylistic kinks – chapters of only a few lines, rapid chops between characters, narratorial tics – and by her clean, plainspoken, short-sentenced prose. There is nothing quite like love, fear, disappointment, joy described so sparingly as this.
And part of the point of The History of Love is to illuminate how difficult it is to speak love, indeed to speak any strong emotion. Krauss excerpts part of the titular novel in Alma’s thread and puts the writing into Gursky’s pen:
“Later much later, he found that he was unable to relieve himself of regrets….that in the most important moment of his life he had chosen the wrong sentence.”
All through the novel the rightness of humane emotions is foregrounded but throughout Krauss’s characters struggle to enact and explain them. The History of Love is, in fact, the history of unstable articulation and the inability to turn feeling into expression. Still it suggests, in good faith, that novels – in this case Krauss’s and Gursky’s - are the most conducive of mediums for conveying true emotion because words, written, encode things that the writer, under other circumstances, would find impossible to say. A novel, if you imagine it as an object, is like a physical act, encoded with significance. We understand that when Leo taps Alma’s arm and she taps back, they’re expressing their love for one another, as well as saying: I exist and am real and I comprehend. When The History of Love encodes Leo’s wordy love in a lost text or testimony, also called “The History of Love”, it emphasises the distancing and disassociation required in order to speak feeling. Truth, in these circumstances, is fiction.
I read a review on Amazon that suggested the characters in The History of Love were ciphers and nothing more, all alike and only pinned in different poses. The reader had been disturbed perhaps by how individuals become confused and naming in the novel is destabilised – two Alma’s, a boy called Bird whose name is actually something else, characters whose designations change or are hidden. In fact Krauss’s characterisation is very gently executed, subtle but clear. It reminded me a little (only a little, I’m not suggesting the novel’s are of similar quality) of the way Woolf characterises in Mrs. Dalloway: that is, obliquely, approaching individuals via angles and back-ways that suddenly, unexpectedly bring you square up in front of them.
Finally, atrocity is always lurking powerfully behind the patter. The Holocaust looms large for Leo and for all his friends and relatives; for most it means death, and even for those who survive, a half life:
“…I lost Mameh. The last time I saw her she was wearing her yellow apron. She was stuffing things in a suitcase, the house was a wreck. She made me go out into the woods. She packed me food, and told me to wear my coat, even though it was July. “Go” she said. I was too old to listen, but like a child I listened. She told me she’d follow the next day. We chose a spot we both knew in the woods. I didn’t bother to say goodbye. I chose to believe what was easier. I waited. But. She never came. Since then I’ve lived with the guilt of understanding too late that she thought she would have been a burden to me. I lost Fritzy. He was studying in Vilna – someone who knew someone told me that he’d last been seen on a train. I lost Sari and Hanna to the dogs. I lost Herschel to the rain. I lose Josef to a crack in time. I lost the sound of laughter. I lost a pair of shoes… I lost the only woman I ever wanted to love. I lost years. I lost books. I lost the house where I was born. And I lost Isaac. So who is to say that somewhere along the way, without knowing it, I didn’t also lose my mind?”
This, late in the novel, comes as Leo searches frantically for himself in his lost son’s house; it erupts out of something as ordinary as the sound of rain. These violent, wrenching monologues are used sparingly, tenderly and I liked that; I respect that – an author who knows when to move you. Equally with Alma, for whom the loss of a father has been a devastating psychological blow - she spends hours on weekends practising putting his tent up (he was an outdoor’s enthusiast) as quickly as possible, just in case. I want to ask: just in case of what? These poignancies are so well-balanced, not overdrawn or overworn, that they mean something.
I think the lesson I take away is this: that the line between sentimentality and affectation and being tangible and moving is a thin one and Nicole Krauss has found the right side of it.
Just wanted to mention that over the last day or so the issue of honesty in reviewing, which I addressed below, has elicited some thoughtful blogging over at Of Books and Bicycles (a blog I only recently discovered and which I urge you to read). I think I can also say that since all this began I've had some graceful and understanding e-mails from Zadie Smith (and from Jay, one of the original commenters) which have cleared up any anxiety I might have had about the rightness of my original piece, reassured me that writers can take the rough with the smooth and that we all benefit from thoughtful discourse. I hope everyone who came here during that controversy keeps coming back. ;-)