What is The History of Love? A novel by Nicole Krauss? A manuscript published as written by Zvi Litvinoff even though he didn’t write it? A work translated from the Spanish by Alma Singer’s widowed mother. A work written by Leo Gursky? A kind of palimpsest of experience? All of the above.
It is as its title suggests the history of loves: the stories of lovers separated by circumstance and by death. It is the stories of the love those who remain have for those who have gone. It confronts grief and memory. It is the story of a man who in youth wrote a book for the woman he loved, who gave the manuscript into the care of a friend who translated it into Spanish and published it under his own name. It is the story of a girl whose father bought a copy of that Spanish book for his wife her mother. His death too young left a grieving widow, the daughter named Alma after a character in the book, and a son nicknamed Bird who believes he is a lamed vovnik. It is the story of a daughter’s search for her mother’s happiness, for explanations; a story of an old man seeking connection with his son, and of a son’s attempts to make sense of the world without the father he hardly knew. It’s a story of New York, a story of the Holocaust. It’s stories of loss and absence.
The interlocking narratives span continents and decades. The book employs different typefaces and depends on white space for meaning at times. The chapters are often introduced by recurring images and sometimes only a few words appear on a page. For some readers, this variety and apparent fragmentation may sound off-putting, too self-conscious. But it isn’t. Some may find the conclusion somewhat ambiguous, but this very ambiguity is somehow satisfying. The various threads of narrative draw together, and the craft of the work is intensely intellectually pleasing.
Although Krauss draws us in to the worlds and minds of her characters, and while her evocation of time, place, and situation is compelling, it is not these aspects of the work that are ultimately the most engaging. Even while the initial mood engendered by the novel may feel melancholic, the overall effect of the work is celebratory and playful. Joycean in its erudition and allusion, The History of Love demonstrates the possible subtlety and flexibility of the novel form and invites us to contemplate the creative resonance and power of both words and silence.*
There is so much more I could have written and initially wanted to write about such aspects of this novel as its significations, its narrative strategies, references, allusions, and dedications, but . . . . and how did I miss this book in 2005?