Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2005.
Sometimes you pull a book from your shelves not really knowing what to expect and before you know it you’ve read 100 pages and are so absorbed in the story you’ve forgotten all sense of time. This is what happened to me when I began Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love earlier this week.
It is one of those wonderful stories that celebrates survival, love and literature, and cleverly weaves in a literary mystery with a moving story about unrequited love and grief.
Told from two divergent view points — a young girl mourning the loss of her father and an elderly Jewish man mourning the loss of his lover and the son he never got to know — it’s a wise and tender book framed around an original and inventive structure.
A literary mystery
At the heart of The History of Love is a mystery around a book, also entitled The History of Love. The manuscript, written by Polish man Leo Gursky about the woman with whom he had fallen in love, was considered lost during the turmoil of the Second World War and horrors of the holocaust. But, unbeknownst to Leon, it was published in South America under another man’s name at a later date.
Now, more than 50 years later, a single and much-loved copy of the book is in New York, where it is being translated by a woman who named her first child after the lead character in its pages. Recently bereaved, the translator’s task is a pleasant distraction from thinking about the early death of her husband, but for her daughter, Alma, it offers a chance to play matchmaker — between her grieving mother and the mysterious benefactor, based in Venice, who is paying for the book to be translated chapter by chapter.
Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Leo, now an elderly man living a solitary existence in a New York apartment block. He spends his days trying not to be invisible — deliberately spilling coffee when he goes out, for instance, and taking a freelance job as a life model for an art class — all the while dreaming of his lost manuscript and wondering if he might have been able to make it as a writer if it hadn’t got lost in the first place.
It’s a rather convoluted, albeit very clever, plot that expertly draws these two narrative threads together, along with a third storyline that explains how the manuscript was plagiarised and published under a rival’s name.
The book’s strength lies in its distinctive narrative voices. Both the teenage girl Alma and the elderly Jewish Leo, who tell their stories in alternate chapters, are wonderfully realised with recognisably different personalities and ways of thinking. The supportive cast of family and friends are equally well drawn. (Alma’s troubled younger brother Bird is a particular delight.)
Through Alma’s and Leo’s day-to-day struggles we learn so much about human persistence, curiosity and love. It’s heartbreaking in places, particularly when you realise the scale of Leo’s loss (and not just in terms of a manuscript he had poured his heart and soul into), but it’s also full of wise and tender moments, and lightened by self-deprecating humour that often had me chuckling throughout. And the ending, which draws everything so neatly and cleverly together, is a deeply satisfying one.
The History of Love is a wonderful read. It is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Book to Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “sad and achingly beautiful book”, to which I wholly concur.
This is my 7th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand more than 10 years ago and it has lingered on my shelves ever since, surviving dozens of book culls along the way, probably because I knew I would read it due to its listing in Peter Boxall’s ‘1001 Books to Read Before You Die’. You can see all my reviews of books listed in Boxall’s book on my 1001 Books page.