Nicole Krauss


(We are so impressed with this book, we have posted 3 reviews for the same book.
Jump down to read a review by Jana L. Perskie or Jennifer LeBlanc)

"The History of Love"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 12, 2005)

"I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I'd bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I'll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep."

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Believe the hype. The History of Love is one of the most imaginative and engaging pieces of literary fiction of the past year (at least!). The novel is the story of a book entitled The History of Love, written by Leo Gursky at age twenty in Slonim, Poland, a book he has written to celebrate the extraordinary love he has shared with Alma Mereminski, whom he has known since childhood. When the Nazis threaten Poland and Alma flees, Leo, unsure of whether he will escape, gives the book for safekeeping to his best friend, who has secured a visa and is sailing to Lisbon.

Leo eventually does escape to New York, where as a locksmith, he is a "man who became invisible." His book about Alma, he eventually learns, has disappeared in a flood. In his eighties and living alone, as the book opens, Leo has already had a serious heart attack, and wants only "not to die on a day I went unseen."

Leo's story, which unfolds through his memories and moves back and forth in time, runs in parallel with the story of Alma Singer, a 14-year-old girl whose parents have named her "Alma" in honor of the character from a book entitled, ironically, The History of Love. Her father bought this Spanish-language book in Valparaiso, Chile, and gave it to her mother before Alma's birth. After the premature death of her father, Alma and her younger brother Bird are at loose ends, needing some way to control the uncertainties of their lives. Alma begins writing How to Survive in the Wild, a book in which she attempts to list all the ways she could survive disasters, while her brother Bird, eleven and a half, loses himself in religion, believing that he is either one of the thirty-six holy men of Judaism who hold the world together or the Messiah himself. Their mother becomes a translator of books.

Gradually, the two stories begin to converge, and the reader learns how a book written in Poland ended up being published in Spanish in Chile, then translated into English by Alma's mother for a client living in Venice.

The relationships of the characters as they age and mature, their attitudes toward life, their goals for the future, and their need for love create a fluid thematic structure in which characters spring to life, and it is these life stories which ultimately become the primary focus. Using humor, absurdity, and a variety of points of view, Krauss creates enormous sympathy for these often sad characters, at the same time that the reader recognizes the humor of reality. Her unique imagery is always keyed to the point of view of the speaker, from Leo's farcical experience at a funeral and its aftermath, to young Alma's meeting with an officious clerk at the City Clerk's office.

Though the novel contains much humor, Krauss is not writing farcical light comedy. Accompanying the unique and often hilarious images and events are moments of profound emotion as Leo remembers the past and all the opportunities he has missed; as Alma tries desperately to cope with her father's loss, find the person for whom she is named, and deal with puberty; and as Bird, Alma's brother, tries to sell enough lemonade to enable him to go to Israel to see if he might really be the Messiah. The experiences of the characters as they go about their daily lives parallel many of the experiences described in Leo's book, The History of Love, and ultimately the reader recognizes that Krauss's novel, like Leo's book, illustrates the many different kinds of love-that of parents for children, children for parents, sisters and brothers for each other, friendships among acquaintances, and, of course, the love between lovers.

With an opening page guaranteed to pique the interest of even the most jaded reader, this confident novel, written with assurance and panache, is fresh and full of charm. Writing about some of the oldest themes in literature, Krauss gives us characters who observe life in unique ways. Filled with genuine emotion which never stoops to sentimentality, this is surely one of the best novels of the year, written by an author who has just celebrated her thirtieth birthday.

(back to top)

"The History of Love"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUN 12, 2005)

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss Nicole Krauss' History Of Love is one of the most poignant and beautiful novels I have read in many moons - dare I say years? I do not exaggerate. Her prose is pure poetry, and her writing is a wonderful example of literature as an art form. Although this is not a Holocaust novel, per se, the Shoah casts a long shadow over the narrative. I think the book is much more a remembrance of those who died, a memorial of sorts, than a book about death. Actually, the themes here are love, survival and loss. I shed many a tear while reading, sometimes because of the author's exquisite use of language, and others because of a character's terrible sadness, but I found myself bursting into laughter more often than not at the wonderful humor. Some of the dialogue is especially witty. Oddly, I was reminded of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work. Perhaps the sense of wonder Ms. Krauss conveys, along with elements of fantasy which intertwine with reality, form a kind of magical realism.

"The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma." So wrote young, aspiring author Leopold Gursky. He actually wrote three books before he was twenty-one, before WWII invaded his hometown of Slonim, which was located "sometimes in Poland, and others in Russia." Now, years later in Brooklyn, NY, Leo has no idea what happened to his manuscript, The History Of Love, his most important work. He wrote the novel about the only thing he knew, his love for Alma. "Once upon a time there was a boy and a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering." He continued to write their story long after Alma's father sent her to America, where she would be safe from the Nazis. He even wrote after the Germans pushed East, toward his home.

At age eighty, Leo feels compelled to make himself seen at least once a day. He fears dying alone in his apartment, on a day when no one sees him at all. And he is capable of doing some pretty outrageous things to garner attention, including posing in the nude for a life drawing class. Ever since the war he has felt invisible. He survived by becoming invisible. And now, he needs to be sure he exists. When he came to America, his cousin, a locksmith took him in and taught him the trade. He did so because he knew Leo could not remain invisible forever. "Show me a Jew that survives and I'll show you a magician," he used to say. Leo finds some solace in his work. "In my loneliness it comforts me to think that the world's doors, however closed, are never truly locked to me." Unbeknownst, to Leopold Gursky, his book has survived also, and has inspired others in many ways, especially to love.

Alma Singer is a precocious teenager who lives in New York City. She is named for all the female characters in her father's favorite book, A History of Love. Singer, an Israeli, bought the only copy in a store in Buenos Aires, while traveling in South America. Alma's mother, Charlotte, is an Englishwoman who met her husband while working on a kibbutz in Israel. He gave her the book, a gift, when he realized how much he cared for her. He died of pancreatic cancer when Alma was seven. Seven years later, his family is still adjusting to their loss. The sensitive girl desperately wants to ease her mother's loneliness. She also wants to learn how to survive in the wilderness, and help her brother, Bird, be a normal boy. Bird believes he may be the Messiah. Charlotte, a translator, receives a request from an anonymous stranger to translate an obscure book by a Polish exile, Zvi Litvinoff, who immigrated to Chile. She accepts the commission. The book, written in Spanish, is titled The History of Love. Alma reads her mom's English translation and sets out to find her namesake. Her literary detective work is hilarious and her tenacity is admirable.

Ms. Krauss is a master at linking her various storylines seamlessly. Her characters are a delight - all vivid and memorable for their humanity, their eccentricity, and their inner strength. The author brings them to life on the page. They have all experienced sorrow and loss, yet there is not a self-pitying voice among them. And it is impossible not to love Leo Gursky. I hear my grandmother's voice, at times, when he speaks. She died years ago, and was probably a generation older than the author's grandparents, to whom the novel is dedicated.

I plan to reread The History of Love in a few weeks, over a weekend when I won't be disturbed. I made the mistake of taking the book with me to work, and between the train and the office, I felt the numerous interruptions seriously detracted from the glorious flow of the language. This is a novel which is meant to be read more than once, anyway.

(back to top)

"The History of Love"

(Reviewed by Jennifer LeBlanc JUN 12, 2005)

The History of Love by Nicole KraussOne of the characters in The History of Love believes certain dead writers should receive posthumous Nobels. Nevermind posthumous, I think Nicole Krauss deserves the award now.

Before the Nazis invaded Poland when Leo Gursky was 20, he wrote a book called the History of Love. He named every woman Alma, after his love, who had gone to America. For safe keeping Leo entrusted his book to a friend, Zvi Litvinoff, who was escaping to Chile. Leo stayed behind, hiding in the woods for 3 years, learning to become invisible to stay alive. Thinking Leo had been killed after the invasion, his loved ones abroad moved on; Alma gave birth to their son, Isaac, and married another man. In Chile, Zvi translate Leo’s book from Yiddish to Spanish to pass as his own and make a woman fall in love with him.

Decades later, after the book is published and failed, a traveling young Israeli named David Singer buys a rotting copy in Buenos Aires and gives it his new love, Charlotte, a miserable first year Oxford Student. While learning the language to read the book, Charlotte finds her calling as a translator and falls for David. They name their first child Alma; as the book says, “the first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma.”

But Leo did survive, and made it to New York where he found new benefits to being unseen-- watching Isaac grow up to be a famous writer; staying with Alma in her hospital as she dies. Now at 80, after a heart attack, Leo just wants to be seen by anyone anywhere. He makes scenes in public places, hassles deliverymen and even poses nude for an art class, just to avoid dying “on a day when I won’t be seen.”

Also in New York is now 15-year-old Alma Singer who lives with her widowed mother and younger brother. When Charlotte receives a letter asking her to translate The History of Love for a private party (whose identity is a charming surprise) Alma sees it as a sign-- to unite her mother with this mystery man. This includes uncovering everything about him and the book, including who the real Alma was.

Some of the most profound parts come as Alma (and we) get to read some of Charlotte’s translations from Leo/Zvi’s book. The most impossibly beautiful section, from “The Birth of Feeling,” reads:

Just as there was a first instant when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness… Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt… They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art is born.

These excerpts will draw you back to read again and again, imaging a young man in love, in hiding, robbed of talent, opportunity, and connections only to inspire all that and more for others. (Krauss dedicates the novel to her own immigrant grandparents, “who taught me the opposite of disappearing.”)

Instead of rushing towards any surprise twists or writing with the heavy-handedness other authors might lapse into, Krauss lets her characters lead us to certain heartbreaking or joyful truths about life and love, things we can only think and feel when we read such a novel.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 344 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The History of Love at NPR



(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Co-Edited:

 

(back to top)

Book Marks:

 

(back to top)

About the Author:

Nicole KraussNicole Krauss was born in New York in 1974. She graduated from Stanford, and went on to receive degrees from Oxford University and the Courtauld Institute in London. Her first novel Man Walks into a Room was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, and Best American Short Stories.

Nicole and her husband Jonathan Safran Foer live in Brooklyn, New York.

MostlyFiction.com About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014 MostlyFiction.com