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the history of love

13 april 2008

Nicole Krauss's novel The History of Love has been chosen as my university's "One Book" for next year, meaning that everyone at the university is encouraged to read it, and first-year composition instructors like myself will be expected to assign the book in their courses. I was so not taken with the book when I read it that my task will be difficult: how to get students engaged with a book that I myself don't find interesting or absorbing – that, in fact, I find actively irritating? The only way I can see through the dilemma is to approach it head-on. I will have to challenge students to write critically about The History of Love, either elaborating my own negative critique or responding with a positive critique of their own. So there's nowhere else to begin but to articulate why I find The History of Love to be lacking as fiction, and hope that this articulation serves as a point of departure for further study.

The History of Love is hardly a poorly-written or incompetently crafted novel. My irritation is not provoked by lapses in style, solecisms, or lack of finish. (Well, except for narrator Leo Gursky's infuriating verbal tic of breaking into his internal monologue by saying "And yet.") Nor do I think the book insincere, manipulative, or politically objectionable. Its heart and head are in the right place, and it means what it says. Unfortunately, qualities that might make for an "A" in a first-year essay about The History of Love do not redeem the novel itself.

I don't like The History of Love, first of all, because it is suffused with clichés. I have to add the qualification here that clichés are not necessarily bad. Much of postmodernism depends on them, as does much genre fiction and much Hollywood film. And I also have to proceed by acknowledging that clichés are in part a function of a reader's expectations, not of the text itself. Gun enthusiasts are fond of saying that a liberal is a conservative who hasn't been mugged yet. By something of the same logic, a reader who finds a book original hasn't read enough books yet. We were all that reader once, and with reference to wide swaths of world literature, we are all that reader still.

A book that embraces cliché, however, must do so deftly, or parodically, or with irony, or with brio. The History of Love, unfortunately, embraces cliché with melodrama and bathos. Eighty-something Leo Gursky is a retired locksmith on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a Holocaust survivor. He's a walking, talking cliché to start with, a constantly kvetching old guy pieced together from Vladek Spiegelmann in Maus and Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. And yet. Leo is also a sweetheart: humanist, colorblind, endearingly cranky, and above all an artist.

Leo, you see, has written novels, two of which are extant. One, The History of Love, is the story of his soulmate Alma Mereminski, written before the Second World War, and entrusted to Leo's friend Zvi Litvinoff, who ultimately translated it from Yiddish into Spanish and published it under his own name in Chile. The History of Love languishes in Spanish, known to only a few fans. Leo's second novel is written nearly 60 years later, and for reasons known only to Nicole Krauss, is mailed anonymously by Leo to his and Alma Mereminski's son Isaac Moritz, a famous writer who does not know that Leo is his real father, because Isaac was adopted by Alma's American husband, a man she'd married while under the impression that Leo was dead at the hands of the Nazis back in Poland. (Cryptic parentage, a staple of Bette Davis vehicles at Warner Bros. in the 1940s.) As soon as Isaac gets the new manuscript, Isaac drops dead, leaving his executors to presume that Leo's second novel is really Isaac's. One preposterously purloined masterpiece may be regarded as a misfortune; two begins to look like carelessness.

But Isaac had finally pieced together his ancestry, and before dying had asked a translator to make a single copy of an English version of The History of Love. That translator is the neurotic, widowed mother of a girl named Alma Singer, the book's second principal narrator. Alma Singer is one of these preternaturally gifted girls who populate contemporary fiction – Eliza Naumann, in Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (a better novel), is one of her precursors. Unconscious poetry flows from her as she constructs a precocious written world (she must, naturally, be a diarist) from various suggestive scraps of adult language.

Young Alma Singer trains her Harriet-the-Spy-like attention on the problem of The History of Love, both original and translation. Eventually (with the help of her younger brother Bird (a diarist too, obsessed with his Jewishness, a character borrowed from the general vicinity of Chaim Potok), Alma works out the complicated provenance of The History of Love, and ultimately meets Leo at the novel's end, after a breathless series of paragraph-long chapters floating on separate pages full of white space.

Where do I begin (though I haven't been able to resist beginning already)? First of all, the entire conception of the story is pure fairy-tale stuff, though studded with realistic details and effects. The setting is a somewhat-verisimilar Manhattan of the early 21st century, ubiquitous Starbucks and all; the story is Arabian Nights. "Authentic," "piercingly true," "compelling and true," say some of the scores of blurbs collected from reviews in the paperback edition of The History of Love, but if we are to take them seriously, they can only mean the authenticity of extreme stylization, where characters do heroic, tragic, infinitely heartbreaking, and cosmically absurd things on an hourly basis. Yet The History of Love presents itself as realistic fiction, not as fairy tale.

And then there is the overall conceit of this fairy tale. The (interior) History of Love is a great book, a miraculous book, though almost completely obscure; it is a book you name your children out of, or spend a fortune to become the only person in your language who can read it. We have seen this before, too, notably in Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind. In Ruiz Zafón's 2004 novel, a motley cast of characters spends its time tracking down a mysterious novel-to-die-for that, like The History of Love, shares its title with the novel that conjures it up.

Ruiz Zafón, however, makes two choices that Krauss eschews. First of all, he avoids having The Shadow of the Wind fold back neatly upon itself. It's a headlong, garrulous, asymmetrical story that incorporates overtly magical elements and is aggressively postmodern; you don't know where The Shadow of the Wind is going. And second, Ruiz Zafón resists the temptation to show us bits of the novel within the novel. Krauss, however, embeds excerpts from Leo Gursky's History of Love (trans. Litvinoff, trans. Singer, presumably), and since they are forgettable, you wonder what all the fuss was about.

The History of Love (Krauss's, not Gursky's) is essentially a book that tells us (as so many Young Adult and children's fictions seem obliged to do) that we are all writers at heart. By writing (nearly every character in the book writes a book of some sort), we become better and more humane people just through the process of composition itself. There is nothing, ever, wrong with writing in Krauss's world, and the best kind of writing is writing about writing. Even Litvinoff's plagiarism, if you think of it, is of a piece with the other compulsive writing in the novel (and it is no mean feat to translate a Yiddish original into a minor Spanish masterpiece). As a writer and as a literature professor, I can hardly argue against those values, but it strikes me that the world of The History of Love is curiously hermetic. Outside of literature, nothing of value seems to exist for Krauss or her characters. She never shows us a whole person who is not a gifted writer, and the greatest betrayal in the book comes when someone does not write (when Rosa Litvinoff fails to tell Leo about her husband's plagiarism, and destroys the Yiddish original of The History of Love). Now, writers' groups and lit professors there are in great abundance in this country, and this novel may have enduring appeal with them. But I feel somewhat of a verbal claustrophobe in its world. Enough with the writing, already.

I have more minor peeves. I don't like novels where a key figure is a great novelist – Proust, by contrast, presents himself as a writer manqué, Joyce as the idle, pub-crawling Stephen Dedalus – but The History of Love asks me to believe in two great novelists, father and long-lost son. Nor do I like books that use Holocaust and war as a plot gimmick. Given the excessively melodramatic theme of a fatal loss of a lifelong love because of signals missed during wartime (Casablanca, anyone?), the entire war is basically a plot device here, introduced to get people thinking that Leo is dead so that they can plunder his manuscript and marry his baby mama.

And then there's Leo's missing fifty years, during which he has done nothing much but think of Alma Mereminski; he has apparently imbibed no American prejudices, made no impact on any other living people, been but a shadow and a cipher the whole time (yet one capable of writing a second great novel!) He has even seen his Lower East Side washed over by waves of newer immigrants, absorbed into Chinatown, without even remarking on the fact (think of The Pawnbroker, again, for a somewhat lurid but much more plausible picture of a Jewish small businessman hanging on as the city's demographics change around him). Leo is a stock character taken out of the senior-citizen ranges of the casts of Malamud, Philip Roth, or Grace Paley, and unwrapped in the 21st century. I just don't buy him.

As you may have noticed by now, I don't buy much about The History of Love at all. If it has a theme behind the surface irritations, it's the theme of lifelong love despite all obstacles, even the obstacle of death itself. (Love in the Time of Cholera, perhaps?) Leo loves Alma with an obtuse finality. Alma Singer's mother loves Alma's father with a passion that can never be shaken or substituted for. Yet in Krauss, this love is fairly contentless, and to say that it lacks an objective correlative is to put it very mildly; we never get shown why these characters fall so deeply and irrevocably in love. I think of Proust, again, the realist (where García Màrquez is the avowed magical thinker). It takes Proust's narrator four novels to fall into the greatest love of his life, and an entire novel (Albertine disparue) to get over her; but get over her, despite the huge build-up, he does.

That's what I mean by melodrama and bathos: taking a fairy-tale idea and trying to make us care about it as if it were real. Love in the Time of Cholera succeeds because it is floridly fantastic. Florentino Ariza, who loves Fermina Daza hopelessly for a half-century just as Leo loves Alma, simply cannot exist, and the fiction is spellbinding because García Màrquez pulls out all conceivable (and a few inconceivable) stops in the course of portraying that impossible love. Nicole Krauss, on the other hand, wants to have it both ways: wants her postmodern hall-of-mirrors plot and wants it to be believable in a slice-of-life, lovingly observed New York of the present day. Instead of an imaginary garden with real toads, we get Grand Street and the Bowery populated by utterly imaginary creatures.

Krauss, Nicole. The History of Love. 2005. New York: Norton, 2006.