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Posts Tagged ‘The History Of Love’

I discovered Nicole Krauss’The History of Love‘ around ten years back. I was discussing favourite books with one of my friends at that time and she said Krauss’ book was one of her top five alltime favourites. I made a mental note to read it at some point. When our book group decided to read it this month, I was so excited.

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There are three story arcs in ‘The History of Love‘. The first one is narrated by a man in his eighties, Leo Gursky. He is Jewish and he moved from Poland to America during the Second World War to escape from the Nazis. The girl he loves moved to America before the war started. He hopes to catch up with her, get married to her, and live happily ever after. The Leo Gursky of today, narrates what happened. The second story arc is narrated by a teenage girl, Alma Singer. She lives with her mother and younger brother. Her father is no more. Her mother continues to grieve for her husband while the children grieve in ways that they don’t even realize. One of the things that Alma talks about is a book called ‘The History of Love’ written by a mysterious writer called Zvi Litvinoff. The third story arc is about the writer Zvi Litvinoff and how he came to write this book. How the three arcs come together and get woven into one fabric and how this mysterious book binds them together, forms the rest of the story.

There was a time in the middle and late 2000s, say from around 2002 to around 2010, when there was an explosion of novels of a particular kind. It was hard to classify them – they were not love stories or murder mysteries or historical novels or literary fiction, though they had elements of some of these. Because they were hard to classify, they were called ‘Contemporary Fiction‘. They were written in prose which was accessible but also beautiful. In some of these stories, the narrator was a young character, maybe a teenager or sometimes even a pre-teen. But these books were not written for teenagers or pre-teens. They were written for grownup readers. Books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret History, The Dante Club, The Piano Tuner, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet, The Shadow of the Wind, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lovely Bones, The Book Thief. Many of these books were written by first-time writers and they received great acclaim. Some of these writers followed up with a second book which was less acclaimed. Most of these writers faded away after that. Some of the writers continue to publish today, but their works mostly fall below the radar. I don’t know whether this is how things happened. Or whether I am taking a collection of random facts and weaving them into my own fictional narrative. But this is how I look at it.  Nicole Krauss was one of those writers. And ‘The History of Love‘ was one of those books.

Nicole Krauss’ book has many of the elements of the books that came out during its time. It has a teenage narrator, it has some history woven in, the prose is accessible but beautiful, there is an underlying mystery in the story, and the ending is not simple and it makes us contemplate. There are digressions from the main story in which the narrator talks about life in the deepest parts of the ocean, how to find out whether a forest plant is edible, evolution, and other topics which are quite interesting to read. There are also direct and implied literary references to Kafka, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer which are fascinating to read. I discovered a new book because Alma Singer gushes about it – ‘The Street of Crocodiles‘ by Bruno Schulz. I want to read that now.

I loved the two narrators of the story. Their voices are very different and Krauss brings them authentically alive on the page. Leo Gursky has the wisdom and the humour and the kindness and the devil-may-care attitude of a person of his age, while it is hard to resist comparisons between Alma and her more famous literary cousin,  Scout, from Harper Lee’sTo Kill a Mockingbird‘. I loved the fact that there is a book behind the story and it weaves all the plot strands together.

The prose is beautiful and there are many iconic sentences. Like this one :

“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

And this one :

“It took seven languages to make me; it would be nice if I could have spoken just one.”

There were beautiful passages like this one :

“She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she’s turned life away. Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her. Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. 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.
      My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.”

And this one :

“He learned to live with the truth. Not to accept it, but to live with it. It was like living with an elephant. His room was tiny, and every morning he had to squeeze around the truth just to get to the bathroom. To reach the armoire to get a pair of underpants he had to crawl under the truth, praying it wouldn’t choose that moment to sit on his face. At night, when he closed his eyes, he felt it looming above him.”

The History of Love‘ is about love, family, relationships, history and how these things can come together and become literary art. I loved it. I am happy to report that Nicole Krauss was one of the writers of her time who didn’t fade away – her newest book came out last year, though it looks like it was very much below the radar. I can’t wait to read more books by her.

Have you read Nicole Krauss’The History of Love‘? What do you think about it?

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