Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The opposite of disappearing

The History of LoveThe History of Love by Nicole Krauss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Immediate thoughts after reading The History of Love: 1) Aaaaah, how can a book be so marvellous.
2) Ken Kalfus was so right when he said this book "will break your heart and at once mend it." 3) I love how this book is not only about love, but also about history.

Nicole Krauss's The History of Love is a book I've been eyeing for ages, but only read today. It's a beautiful and complex story filled with surprises and characters whose stories intertwine despite their differences (halfway through the book, I actually had to draw a diagram to stay on track). I love it when that happens.

Our protagonist is Leopold Gursky, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. In the story, he wrote the book The History of Love for his childhood love, Alma Mereminski. They have a son together, but he is eventually raised by a different father when World War 2 separates the couple and leaves Alma thinking Leo has been killed. Zvi Litvinoff, Leo's friend, shares the same belief and - as the only one with the manuscript of The History of Love in his possession - ends up publishing it in Spanish under his own name. So the book goes out into the open, a certain David Singer reads it, he names his daughter after Alma, Alma's mother is approached by a mysterious stranger to translate the book from Spanish into English after David dies, and the whole story takes off from there as young Alma sets off to find this stranger.

The whole story is about searching. Leopold spends most of his adult life hoarding any records he can find of his son, an established author. Alma's brother, "Bird," never stops searching for an impression of who his father was. And as Alma says,

"I'd started out looking for someone who could make my mother happy again, now I was looking for something else, too. About the woman I was named after. And about me."

Everything that the characters search for ebbs on the brink of the forgotten. Leo, for instance, often says that he is invisible; when his photo is taken with a polaroid camera, his face does not appear on the film. Although he is a locksmith ("I helped those in who were locked out, others I helped keep out what couldn't be let in, so that they could sleep without nightmares"), he ironically remains locked-out of life: forgotten after the war, author of a book that sells under a different name, father to a son raised by a different husband.

Krauss dedicates the novel to her grandparents, who were immigrants from Germany, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel. And at the very end of the book, it seems like it is also dedicated to the Leopold Gurskys of the world who "started dying on August 18 1920," who "died practicing a new way to sign his name," who knew the terrors of the war. In a very poignant moment, we learn that Leo's friend "Bruno," whose was always enigmatically portrayed, is actually a figment of his imagination - that the real Bruno "died on a July day in 1941." When Leo banishes Bruno from his room, he perhaps also banishes some part of the ghost of the war that haunts him.

Aside from its serious meditations on love and history, however, this novel is often humorous, such as when Alma's Judaism-enthusiast of a brother turns out to be surprisingly helpful, and when we realize that it is completely possible Alma may have sketched a naked Leopold during one of her classes. I also love how Krauss describes the only two kisses in the novel in details that vividly suggest their awkwardness: 1) "then we got it right, sort of, opening our mouths at the same time like we were both trying to say something, [...] then my shoulder got accidentally mashed against his accordion." 2) She tried to kiss him, but Litvinoff, taken off guard, backed away, leaving Rosa tipped forward at an awkward angle, neck outstretched. [...] He blindly stuck his neck out into the gulf. But by then, Rosa had already counted her losses and pulled back into safer territory." Alas, love is not easy. "Part of me is made of glass," Leopold admits.

The History of Love is beautiful and innovative. You will treasure both the young and old voices you hear in the novel (although the number of times Leo says "And Yet" is mind boggling excessive). Ah, reading is the best.
To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.
“The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely. [...] Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together.
"Having begun to feel, people's desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions.
“At the end, all that's left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that's why I've never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that's why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.”

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