Thursday, March 15, 2012

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love is my second venture into the world of audiobooks. This turned out to be an interesting choice because the book has multiple narrators--each voiced by a different "actor." We first meet Leo Gursky, an elderly Polish Jew who fell in love with a girl named Alma when he was ten. He wrote a book (in Yiddish) for her--The History of Love--in which every female character is named Alma. He gave the book to a friend for safe-keeping during the war years, which turned out to be a bad idea--his friend, who immigrated to South America, published the book in Spanish under his own name (a fact that Leo discovers about midway through this book). Meanwhile, Leo moved to New York and tracked down Alma. To his surprise, he learns she had their son--but then married someone else. He follows his son's progress as a student and, eventually, as a writer, but the two do not meet.

The second narrator, Alma Singer, was named after the character in The History of Love. Her late father fell in love with the book and owned one of the few extant copies of the Spanish edition. His widow, Charlotte, is asked by a mysterious stranger to translate the Spanish version into English. Alma becomes interested in who this mystery man is--thinking that he might be a match for her lonely mother--and begins investigating both him and the book he and her parents all are fascinated with.

Alma and Leo are both lonely, though their loneliness plays itself out in ways shaped by their ages and life circumstances. Leo occasionally makes a nuisance of himself in Starbucks, Walgreens, and other local haunts because he does not want to die on a day when no one sees him; he tries his hand (so to speak) at nude modeling, and still writes and occasionally practices his trade of locksmithing. Alma compiles notebooks of information about surviving in the woods (her father liked to camp), plays matchmaker for her mother, becomes pen pals (and eventually real friends) with a Russian boy who lives in Brighton Beach, and watches out for her brother Bird, who believes he is a lamed vovnik (a holy man) and may even be the Messiah. He is building an ark for the family from scrap materials he scavenges around the city.

If all of this sounds incredibly complex and quirky, consider that I haven't mentioned the third point of view--that of Zvi Litvinoff, the friend who stole Leo's book, and his wife Rosa. Nor have I mentioned that Krauss includes many of the chapters from that book--which appears to be a collection of varied vignettes, some telling almost mythic stories, others sounding like anthropological explorations of the languages of love, others providing straightforward narratives from the early life of Leo and his Alma. As the book progresses, you wonder if Leo and young Alma will somehow cross paths and whether either will find the antidote to their loneliness.

When Bird enters the picture as the fourth narrator, I was actually somewhat irritated. I did not want a fourth narrator--nor did I appreciate the comedic aspects of his misinterpretation of almost every piece of evidence he comes across. This misinterpretation proves to be key to the climactic event that draws the threads of the story together. While that event is satisfying, I would have preferred that Krauss find a way to make it happen without cluttering up the book with a fourth point of view. Given the skill with which she balanced the strands of the story up to that point, she is more than capable.

My reservations about the set-up to the ending notwithstanding, I recommend this book. Krauss has created a complex and intricate work about two deeply human characters at very different moments in their lives--yet experiencing the same loneliness and need to be seen.

Favorite passages:

The book is beautifully written--but I can't figure out how to bookmark the audio files and since I'm mostly listening while walking, can't take notes. Consequently, I can only remember the last lines of the book, which did bring tears to my eyes. They are from Leo's obituary--written by himself as a young man.

He was a great writer. He fell in love. It was his life.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Article, the story was so superb and make my mind wider.