The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Maybe I'm a little dim, but I had trouble following The History of Love, Nicole Krauss's ambitious, heartfelt but ultimately frustrating novel about three generations of lovesick loners who must, you assume, somehow all be related to each other. And they are. I think.
The two principle protagonists here are Leo Gursky, an aged, ailing Polish immigrant living in Brooklyn who had his heart broken as a young man and never recovered; and 14-year-old Alma Singer, whose father died when she was seven and who now spends much of her energy trying to save her despairing mother and crazy brother, nicknamed Bird because of his penchant for jumping out of windows. Then there's the whole story of Zvi Litivinoff, who grew up in a small village in Poland, and who wrote a book called The History of Love, whose heroine is a woman named Alma....
Krauss tells these potentially intertwined stories in alternating chapters—not an uncommon strategy, to be sure, but in this case I found the technique to be disengaging, and a momentum killer. And, like I said, I had difficulty making the connections between these people's lives. Don't get me wrong: there are many lovely moments here, as when Leo, making sure he's still a part of the planet, calls attention to himself by pretending to be confused when ordering Starbucks; or when Alma makes up stories about her dad to tell to Bird; or when she and her Russian "boyfriend" build a snow cave in the park, and hold hands for the first time; or when Leo, after overhearing a mother tell her son, "the plural of elf is elves", has an epiphany that, yes, in fact, it is an amazing, wonderful thing to be alive. But small moments, as funny or as touching or as well-crafted as they may be, are not enough to carry the narrative responsibility of the novel. But I do look forward to reading whatever Krauss comes up with next.
Here's a short excerpt, of Leo after one of his last dreams has died, looking for a manuscript he wrote years ago, taking stock of his situation:
Once my father told me: When a Jew prays, he is asking God a question that has no end.
Darkness fell. Rain fell.
I never asked: What question?
And now it's too late. Because I lost you, Tateh. One day, in the spring of 1938, on a rainy day that gave way to a break in the clouds, I lost you. You'd gone out to collect specimens for a theory you were hatching about rainfall, instinct, and butterflies. And then you were gone. We found you lying under a tree, your face splashed with mud. We knew you were free then, unbound by disappointing results. And we buried you in the cemetery where your father was buried, and his father, under the shade of the chestnut tree. Three years later, I lost Mameh. The last time I saw her she was wearing her yellow apron. She was stuffing things in a suitcase, the house was a wreck. She told me to go into the woods. She'd packed me food, and told me to wear my coat, even though it was July. "Go," she said. I was too old to listen, but like a child I listened. She told me she'd follow the next day. We chose a spot we both knew in the woods. The giant walnut tree you used to like, Tateh, because you said it had human qualities. I didn't bother to say goodbye. I chose to believe what was easier. I waited. But. She never came.
Since then I've lived with the guilt of understanding too late that she thought she would have been a burden to me. I lost Fitzy. He was studying in Vilna, Tateh—someone who knew someone told me he'd last been seen on a train. I lost Sari and Hanna to the dogs. I lost Herschel to the rain. I lost Josef to a crack in time. I lost the sound of laughter. I lost a pair of shoes, I'd taken them off to sleep, the shoes Herschel gave me, and when I woke they were gone, I walked barefoot for days and then I broke down and stole someone else's. I lost the only woman I ever wanted to love. I lost years. I lost books. I lost the house where I was born. And I lost Isaac. So who is to say that somewhere along the way, without my knowing it, I didn't also lose my mind?
My book was nowhere to be found. Aside from myself, there was no sign of me.