Nicole Krauss' novel offers a haunting look at love and loss
For her inventive second novel, The History of Love, Nicole Krauss set herself "two small personal rules." The first was that she wouldn't do any research for the book. "I just didn't want to," Krauss says firmly in a soft, lilting voice during a call to her home in Brooklyn's Park Slope, where she lives with her husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer. In her well-regarded first novel, Man Walks into a Room, Krauss had written of the experiences of Samson Greene, a man whose memory is erased after removal of a tumor. It was a book that had a whiff of research but nary a hint of autobiography within its pages. "The second time around," Krauss says, "I felt very thoughtful about what kind of writer I want to be. I didn't want to write a novel just to write a novel or just to be a writer. I decided to write something for myself. I wanted to really use the things that I know."
Krauss' second rule was that she would never let herself be bored. "Writing the first novel, I thought it was sometimes necessary to write though a boring moment just to move the characters from point A to B. This time I felt that if I was bored, the reader would be bored. So I decided that as soon as something felt a little dull I would invent a new story, vignette or character."
In the hands of a less skillful writer, Krauss' rules might have blended about as well as oil and water. But in The History of Love, Krauss achieves an uplifting alchemy of surprise and recognition. The result is a haunting novel that has generated considerable excitement even before its publication. The New Yorker ran a much talked-about excerpt in 2004, and movie rights have been sold to Warner Bros., with Alfonso Cuarón (best known for Y Tu Mamá También) set to direct. Foreign rights have also been sold in nearly 20 countries.
Krauss, 30, a Stanford graduate who also studied at Oxford, achieved acclaim as a poet before turning to fiction in 2002 with the publication of her first novel. Though her marriage to Foer (author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) is the source of considerable curiosity in literary circles, she prefers not to discuss it—obviously reluctant to be seen as capitalizing on her husband's renown.
With The History of Love, however, Krauss proves that her literary reputation can stand on its own. The novel focuses mainly on the slowly converging stories of Leo Gursky and Alma Singer. Gursky is an 80-year-old retired locksmith in New York, a lonely survivor of a Nazi massacre in the Polish village where he grew up 60 years before the novel opens. Alma is a 14-year-old girl whose father has recently died, whose mother shields herself from loneliness by working without stop as a literary translator, and whose nine-year-old brother, Bird (over whom she vigilantly watches), thinks he might be the Messiah.
Leo and Alma—and all the many other characters in this slender, densely woven novel—are connected across time and space by the impact on their lives of an almost-forgotten novel called The History of Love.
"In the beginning," Krauss says, "this book was very much about writing. I was thinking, well, how many readers does one really need? If it reaches one person and changes her life, is that enough? Or two people? The idea that there is a book that has a print run of under 2,000 and that nobody reads but in the end a single copy of it connects and changes all these lives was very moving to me," she says. "I write because I want to reach people and have the kind of conversation with them that can happen only through a book. It's one of the most beautiful conversations there is, I think. So as the book progressed, I realized that I was writing as much about reading and being a reader as about writing. And I became unabashed about occasionally putting in lines from all the writers I love."
This undercurrent of reference and allusion, even when unannounced, buoys and intensifies the story Krauss tells. Yes, The History of Love is about writing and reading. But more importantly and more essentially, it is about love and loss. As Krauss says, "It's what we know and have experienced of love that give depth and shape to our solitude. The book is about the necessity of imagining in the space of loss and of filling silence with made-up things—thoughts, feelings, images. Everyone in the book invents things to survive."
Interestingly, Krauss found it easier to invent Leo than Alma, whose life experiences were closer to—but not the same as—her own. "I struggled with Alma's voice, I think, because I remember very well what it was like to be 14 years old and someone not unlike her," Krauss says. "It took me a long time to feel I could abandon the sometimes dull circumstances of my own experiences and freely imagine this character. With Leo, conversely, I felt immediately and totally at home in his voice. There was never a question of wondering what would an old man from Poland do here. I always felt with him that I was writing about myself, as strange as that may seem."
Krauss dedicates her novel to her grandparents, "who taught me the opposite of disappearing," and includes photographs of them in the book. Like her character Leo Gursky, Krauss' grandparents fled Europe before the start of World War II. "I put in the photographs and the dedication line because of the scene in the book where Leo . . . realizes that he has lost the ability to be seen by other people. He is a person who thinks a lot about his invisibility. And for that reason I wanted to use passport photographs of my grandparents," she says.
"In my mind the opposite of disappearing is survival. The book is shot through with odes to survival, to the strength it takes to survive, and to the joy of those who have survived," Krauss says. "My grandparents are people who love life. Every conversation I remember having with them as a child was about life—not about tragedy, not about history, not about what had happened to their families—but simply about living."
At the end of the novel, Leo's and Alma's lives unexpectedly converge. And The History of Love becomes not simply a story of love and loss but also a moving history of survival, visibility and the joy of living.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California. Copyright 2005 BookPage Reviews.
BookPage Reviews 2006 May
The History of Love
A unique and timeless love story, this critically acclaimed novel spans six decades. An elderly immigrant who fled his native Poland to get away from the Nazis, Leo Gursky is a former locksmith living in New York City. Displaced and lonely, he faces old age with remorse—for his former love, for his missing son and for a novel he wrote long ago and lost. The novel, as it happens, is called The History of Love, and it was published years before in Chile under the name of a different author. Paralleling Leo's story is that of another New Yorker, 14-year-old Alma Singer, who is named after the heroine in The History of Love. Alma struggles to hold her family together, and she describes her efforts daily in her diary, pages of which form part of the narrative. Her mother, Charlotte, pines for her late husband and supports the family by working as a translator. Charlotte receives an interesting proposition from a stranger: She is offered a large amount of money to translate The History of Love from Spanish. Portions of her translations are included in the novel. As the book progresses, Krauss deepens the connections between her cast of characters in a way that's surprising and magical. Chosen for the "Today" show book club, this is a remarkable work about love and loss marked by startling plot twists and singular characters.
A reading group guide is included in the book. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2005 February #2
The histories of several unresolved, inchoate and remembered loves.The first of the stories here is that of New York City octogenarian Leo Gursky, a Polish war refugee who came to America seeking Alma, the girl he had loved, who had emigrated before him. Following a bleakly funny opening sequence that sharply dramatizes Leo's undiminishable vitality, and also reveals teasing details about Alma's American life, second-novelist Krauss (Man Walks into a Room, 2002) shifts the focus to adolescent Alma Singer, who's edging cautiously toward womanhood while dealing with her unstable younger brother Emanuel (aka "Bird") and widowed mother Charlotte (a literary translator). Alma's memories of her late father, a cancer victim, take the forms of a fixation on survival techniques and an obsession with an autobiographical book (which Charlotte translates): a homage to another Alma, and the work of Holocaust survivor Zvi Litvinoff, whose resemblances to and connections with Leo Gursky lie at the heart of this novel's unfolding mysteries. Suffice it to say that each of Krauss's searching and sentient characters is both exactly who he or she seems to be and another person entirely, and that that paradox is expertly worked out as Krauss gradually reveals the provenance of the eponymous History; the relationship that embraces Litvinoff, Gursky and the latter's mysterious upstairs neighbor Bruno; and the woman or women they "all" loved and lost. These enigmas are deepened and underscored by the chaotic "diary" in which Bird records the apocalyptic fantasies that are at heart his own history of love and loss, another son's search for another father, and an affirmation of the compensation for loss through exercise of the imagination that this brilliant novel itself so memorably incarnates.A most unusual and original piece of fiction-and not to be missed. First serial to New Yorker; film rights to Warner Bros., David Heyman to produce and Alfonso Cuar-n to direct; Book-of-the-Month Club, Quality Paperback Book Club selection; author tour Copyright Kirkus 2005 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 January #1
Decades ago, in his little Polish village, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. Now a girl named for the book's protagonist wants to find him. Norton's lead fiction for the season; rights have been sold in 14 countries. With a 13-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2005 April #2
A boy in Poland falls in love and writes a book when World War II arrives, and both the love and the book are lost. Leo Gursky, now in his eighties and living in New York City, struggles to be noticed each day so that people will know he has not yet died. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Alma Singer wants her brother to be normal and her mother to be happy again after the death of Alma's father. In a quest for the story behind her name, Alma and Leo find each other, and Leo learns that the book he wrote so long ago has not been lost. Krauss (Man Walks into a Room) develops the story beautifully, incrementally revealing details to expose more and more of the mystery behind Leo's book, The History of Love. At the end, some uncertainty remains about a few of the characters, but it does not matter because the important connections between them are made. Recommended for literary fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/05.]-Sarah Conrad Weisman, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2005 February #3
The last words of this haunting novel resonate like a pealing bell. "He fell in love. It was his life." This is the unofficial obituary of octogenarian Leo Gursky, a character whose mordant wit, gallows humor and searching heart create an unforgettable portrait. Born in Poland and a WWII refugee in New York, Leo has become invisible to the world. When he leaves his tiny apartment, he deliberately draws attention to himself to be sure he exists. What's really missing in his life is the woman he has always loved, the son who doesn't know that Leo is his father, and his lost novel, called The History of Love, which, unbeknownst to Leo, was published years ago in Chile under a different man's name. Another family in New York has also been truncated by loss. Teenager Alma Singer, who was named after the heroine of The History of Love, is trying to ease the loneliness of her widowed mother, Charlotte. When a stranger asks Charlotte to translate The History of Love from Spanish for an exorbitant sum, the mysteries deepen. Krauss (Man Walks into a Room) ties these and other plot strands together with surprising twists and turns, chronicling the survival of the human spirit against all odds. Writing with tenderness about eccentric characters, she uses earthy humor to mask pain and to question the universe. Her distinctive voice is both plangent and wry, and her imagination encompasses many worlds. Agent, Bill Clegg at Burnes & Clegg. First serial to the New Yorker; BOMC, QPB and Reader's Subscription selections; author tour; film rights to Warner Brothers; audio rights to Recorded Books; foreign rights sold in 15 countries. (May 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.