“A long-lost book reappears, mysteriously connecting an old man searching for his son and a girl seeking a cure for her widowed mother’s loneliness.
Leo Gursky is just about surviving, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbor know he’s still alive. But life wasn’t always like this: sixty years ago, in the Polish village where he was born, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. And though Leo doesn’t know it, that book survived, inspiring fabulous circumstances, even love. Fourteen-year-old Alma was named after a character in that very book. And although she has her hands full — keeping track of her brother, Bird (who thinks he might be the Messiah), and taking copious notes on How to Survive in the Wild —she undertakes an adventure to find her namesake and save her family.
With consummate, spellbinding skill, Nicole Krauss gradually draws together their stories. This extraordinary book was inspired by the author’s four grandparents and by a pantheon of authors whose wo
rk is haunted by loss — Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and more. It is truly a history of love: a tale brimming with laughter, irony, passion, and soaring imaginative power.”
Before I delve into what I observed regarding craft in Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love and the applications of that novel to my own craft, I have to clear the air with some straight-up praise. I love this book! I read it eagerly, woke at three in the morning one Saturday to pick up the story where I left off when I’d fallen asleep at midnight. I underlined gratuitously, drew smiley faces in the margins and wrote things like: WOW, LOL, and Yes! Let me see if I can boil down my infatuation with this book that like a new love seems to hold not a single flaw, to some element of style that holds uniqueness, importance.
I can get at this, I believe through a couple of lines from the book that seem to me to not just apply to the situation to which they refer, but to reveal something of the writer’s talent, that can be observed in her style. Zvi Litvinoff, when he comes upon his friend Leo Gursky’s (protatgonist) manuscript while nursing him to health, observes something that though he was “wrong in every way about”, resonates with me beyond just the story itself, “Where he [Gursky] saw a page of words, his friend saw the field of hesitations, black holes, the possibilities between words” (116). Within that manuscript, Gursky himself writes of the deceased writer Isaac Babel, “When he read a book he gave himself over entirely to commas and semicolons to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next senetence” (114). It is within those spaces between word in Krauss’s novel where I found myself sighing, laughing, welling up with tears. Her language is joyful and I couldn’t help seeing the writer behind Gursky’s outburst, “The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!” (76). Extremely varied sentence lengths, the way she plays with punctuation and the space on the page, and the surprise at the end of the sentence are three of the elements that make this book an outburst of its own: What a language! What a world!
This sentence, one word with a period used throughout the novel to characterize Leo Gursky’s “butiful” (79) world, “I kept walking. I went into the drugstore and knocked over a display of KY Jelly. But. My heart wasn’t in it” (76). This word, this one sentence characterizes Leo’s life. He wrote this great novel. But. He had to flee Poland and left it with a friend who he never saw again and who published it in his own name. He fell utterly in love. But. Her parents sent her to America and by the time he found her their son was five and she’d remarried and had a second son. He never knew his son. Looking at a picture of his son in the paper, Leo “wanted him to turn his eyes just to [him] just as he had to whoever had shaken him from his thoughts. But. He couldn’t” (77). Why? Because the photo is above an article announcing his son’s death. Krauss uses fragments and short sentences throughout her novel, often to call our attention to the scene, as in “A fly landed on his shriveled penis. He mumbled some words” (158), so intentionally, so interspersed with longer sentences. This same intention is evident in how she punctuates, uses space on the page.
Colons, semicolons, dashes, lists, italics, roman numeraled lists, bulleted lists, numbered lists, letters: Krauss keeps your eyes and mind popping with her skill and her willingness to roll around in all the tools available to her. What a language! What a life! The only words on one page (Gursky is trying to think of a title, “LAUGHING AND CRYING” (27). And then the next, “I studied it for a few minutes. It wasn’t right. I added another word”, followed by only these words on the next page, “LAUGHING & CRYING & WRITING”, and on for four more pages, creating a verisimilitude to how time passed as Leo tried to come up with a title for the story of his life. The sections in Alma’s point of view are broken up into numbered, titled subchapters. There is one subchapter at the end of a section titled, “23. OUTSIDE, IT WAS STILL COMING DOWN” (152). No words follow it. And that space on the page communicatse so much about Alma’s being at a loss to understand her quirky brother (whose journal she’s just read). A third technique, but not the last that Krauss uses to express her delight of language and tell a story that has the capability to move a reader, to change a reader (as it did me) is her use of the surprise at the end of the sentence.
So many of Krauss’s sentences lead you to places you did not expect to go. About a goose that was supposedly the spirit of someone’s grandma, “It stayed for two weeks straight, honking in the rain, and when it left the grass was covered with turds” (99). Expressing how she often does how beauty and harsh reality are often intermingled. “She said all I had to do was sit naked on a metal stool in the middle of the room and then, if I felt like it, which she was hoping I would, dip my body into a vat of kosher cow’s blood and roll on the large white sheets of paper provided” (75). A sentence that expresses how sometimes overwhelming and ridiculous life can be. “Crossing the street, I was hit head-on by a brutal loneliness” (129). Car is what I was thinking. And yet, loneliness broke my heart just the same, perhaps more so, since it’s much more difficult to understand in the scheme of human tragedy.
What a language! What a life! The History of Love inspired me with its intention. To be truthful, my first reaction was to just give up now, because I just couldn’t see me ever reaching this level of prose. After my ego settled down though, I too wanted to burst out in the coffee shop where I finished the book: What a language! What a life!