A perspective on The History of Love by Nicole Krauss:
Rubric: One of your peers made the claim that rather than being about “The History of Love,” this novel is largely about the history of loss. Argue for or against this assertion. Whether you support or refute this claim, be sure to explain the significance of yours.
The History of Love: A Novel is the second work of fiction by American novelist Nicole Krauss. First published in 2005, the book has since received both critical and commercial acclaim. The novel is full of “conflicting storylines, occasional episodes of funny typography and coy references to actual writers such as Borges and Babel”. (Chisholm, 2005, p.65) The novel can be considered a literate tribute to Jewish roots and Holocaust survivors. Leo Gurksy, the protagonist, “is an elderly Pole living in New York and mourning the loss of Alma, his childhood sweetheart, and of the epic novel he wrote about their affair, apparently swept away in a flood.” (Shoard, 2006, p.33) This essay will back up the assertion that the novel, quite contrary to its title, is ‘largely about the history of loss’.
Leopold Gursky is a central character in the novel. A septuagenarian now, he’d fallen in love with his neighbor Alma Mereminski when he was barely a teenager. During the course of their strong relationship, Leo writes three books and hands them to Alma who was his entire world. Two of the books were drab and boring, whilst the third one, titled “The History of Love”, is the most intriguing. The plot and narrative structure is very complex and tightly inter-woven. This makes it a heavy read, but one that is worth the effort. The History of Love is in short a search for the identity of the character in a fictional novel, intentionally and playfully also called “The History of Love”. The labyrinthine complexities of the plot and narrative are borne from the fact that the two novels of the same name were written by
“two different characters and translated by a third, at the request of a fourth (who happens to be the son of one of the first two, who also happens to be a writer, who has created a character who has asked the mother of the teenage girl to translate the novel).” (Herman, 2011, p.49)
A sense of loss is built into the very fabric of the characters – in the way in which they are defined. Leo’s loneliness, for instance, is evident in the following line, “I often wonder- who will be the last person to see me alive.” Each day “he taps on the radiator in his kitchen and waits for his upstairs neighbor, also an elderly Pole, to reply, in affirmation that they are both still alive. There is something touching about him…” (Chisholm, 2005, p.66) There is also loss in the form of a cherished work of art, namely the original 2,000 copies of the fictional “History of Love”:
“A good many were sent to the paper compacter, where they were shredded to a pulp along with other unread or unwanted books, their sentences parsed and minced in the machine’s spinning blades – [but] at least one copy was destined to change a life – more than one life.” (Krauss, 2005)
Nicole Krauss’ novels, including “The History of Love”, pay particular attention to the struggle of the individual in overcoming their sense of loneliness and alienation. As Krauss notes in an interview to Elmhirst Sophie, ‘transcending the solitary position’ has been at the center of all her novels so far. In her own words,
“I don’t mean that in an overly dramatic way–but I think there is an enormous effort involved, for everyone, in becoming known to others. I have always written about characters who fall somewhere in the spectrum between solitary and totally alienated.” (Krauss, as quoted by Sophie, 2006, p.43)
Krauss’ first novel “Man Walks Into a Room” was about a man who suffers severe memory loss, wiping out 24 years of accumulated experience. He feels desperately lonely due to this condition. Similarly, in “The History of Love”, both Leo Gursky and Alma Singer are, in their unique ways, quite lonely and trying ways of escape from that condition. Throwing light on the role of solitude, loneliness and loss in her novels,
“I think it’s not so much about shining a light on solitude–which, I imagine, everyone must feel in some way–but rather focusing my interests in how one moves beyond that. There is a tremendous desire on the part of all my characters to be seen and to be heard. I guess that division interests me. Obviously in my characters I make it more aggravated than it is in my own life: I have a family and I am surrounded by my children. But I have my own interests as a writer and they guide the work.” (Krauss, as quoted by Sophie, 2006, p.43)
It is interesting to note that the story of Leo and Alma span across two continents beginning with the developments in Nazi Germany. The World War II and the attending Holocaust is an unlimited repository of loss and sorrow, which novelists have amply exploited ever since. For example, “many of the characters in this fiction are haunted by the dark history of 20th-century Europe. Often they are refugees, or else young Americans who are fascinated by their parents’ and grandparents’ pasts.” (Herman, 2011, p.49) Nicole Krauss is no exception to this rule, although her inclusion of these historical events is done primarily for balancing the plot and making it credible.
Although the novel is not explicitly about Holocaust victims and survivors, “the subtext carries the lingering impact of what happened to their generation of Polish Jews”. (Shoard, 2006, p.33) For example, Leo was forced to learn how to survive in the forests on a diet made of berries and rats; Alma too has to learn the same things via books. Krauss should be appreciated for not using the historical literary device of the war for melodramatic purposes. For example, although they speak of irreparable loss and confusion, the characters in “The History of Love” have come through their ordeals with their humor intact:
“Leo Gursky, is a tragic figure who escaped from eastern Europe, but left much behind and never recovered. However, Leo at times is also ridiculously funny, a true suffering joker–like Saul Bellow’s Herzog, or Zuckerman and Portnoy in the novels of Philip Roth–head buried in books and bowels in disarray.” (Herman, 2011, p.50)
Hence, in conclusion, it is fair to say that “The History of Love” is as much about loss and suffering as it is about love and longing. Author Nicole Krauss deserves admiration for the skillful manner in which she articulates a complex and loopy plot. While retaining emphasis on the story and narrative, the author does not sacrifice literary embellishments either. Overall, the novel is one of the best to have come out in the last decade.
Chisholm, “Will This Book Change Your Life?.” The Evening Standard (London, England) 13 June 2005: 65. Print.
Herman, David. “New World Reorder: David Herman Hails the Younger Generation of Jewish-American Writers.” New Statesman (1996) 18 Apr. 2011: 49+. Print.
Krauss, Nicole, The History of Love. Penguin, 2005. Print.
Shoard, A. “Paperback.” The Evening Standard (London, England) 23 Jan. 2006: 33. Print.
Sophie, Elmhirst. “The Books Interview.” New Statesman (2006) 7 Mar. 2011: 43. Print.
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