Parsing Love

I can’t remember the last time I encountered a book that I didn’t want ever to have to put down. But as I was reading Nicole Krauss‘s brilliant and heart-stoppingly beautiful The History of Love (Norton, $23.95). I literally held my breath as the resolution of this novel’s two apparently separate narratives drew tantalizingly closer together.

Leo Gursky, a Holocaust survivor and retired locksmith, fears that his life-long invisibility means no one will notice when he dies; he wonders “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…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.” Then there is Alma Singer, a 15-year-old who is trying to restore her mother to life after her father’s death, and help her 10-year-old brother Bird navigate their Brooklyn reality. Named after a character in a book that her father save her mother. Alma studies natural science and worries about survival in the wilderness. Leo and Alma are both fully formed, believable characters, and however death-haunted they may be, they are also tenaciously, stubbornly, desperately trying to catch hold of life.

The book that Alma’s father gave her mother is the novel within this novel. The History of Love, whose connection to Leo Gursky ultimately redeems both him and Alma. This fictitious novel, which is a philosophical riff on how various expressions of love came to be, was inspired by a girl whom Leo loved when he grew up in Poland. The book vanishes, only to reappear in South America when a published author, Zvi Litvinoff, sends it into circulation. Only one of the 2000 printed copies survives, discovered in a bookshop by Alma’s father. Alma’s quest to learn why a stranger has commissioned her mother to translate the book leads her to Leo, the book’s other hero.

Krauss offers insights into the human experiences of living and loving that will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned; “Even now, all possible feelings do not yet exist. There are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written, or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom, or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges, and absorbs the impact.”

Merri Rosenberg’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Jewish Week and other national publications.