I’m not quite sure how long The History of Love has languished in the old 746, but I am so glad that I included it in my most recent Reading Roulette (where it came a close second) as it is a beautifully written, moving novel about love, loss, literature and self.
The novel focuses on a range of characters, all connected in some way to a book that has advertantly and inadvertantly affected all their lives.
Leo Gursky came to America from Poland after WW2. Now in his 80s he is living alone in his tiny Manhattan apartment fearing that death will take him on a day when he hasn’t been noticed. He is still pining for his first love, Alma, who left Poland before he did and who had remarried by the time he made it to America to find her. When he was younger, Leo wrote a novel called ‘The History of Love’ with Alma as the central character, which he entrusted to a friend, but he believes that the book was lost.
Leo should consider himself lucky. Unlike his family, he survived the Holocaust, but he lost his art and his love in the process.
Meanwhile, a copy of ‘The History of Love’ has been sent to Charlotte, a widowed translator who is struggling to get over the death of her husband. A strange man has asked her to translate the novel from Spanish into English for a large sum of money. Charlotte’s husband had gifted her a copy of the book when they met and her daughter Alma is named for the lead character. Alma thinks if she can just find out who this mystery benefactor is and who the real life Alma was, then she can cure her mother’s loneliness.
So begins a literary who-dunnit that spans generations. How did ‘The History of Love’ end up published in Chile in a different language and why did Leo never know of it? Who has asked Charlotte to translate it and what does it all have to do with Leo and Alma’s son, Isaac, who never knew his real father?
The structure of The History of Love is as delicate as a spider’s web and as complete as a tapestry. To try and unravel one thread of it is to unravel its’ entirety. The book expects work from the reader, but the reader is rewarded. As the moments of loss and misunderstanding in several lives come together, they form a stunning exploration of what it means to be displaced and how humans take the pain of life and use it to create a form of happiness that allows them to keep going.
She was gone, and all that was left was the space you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.
Loss is the key theme of the novel, whether it be through a bereavement, a broken heart or the Holocaust, all the characters are trying to translate into something salvageable. Alma’s younger brother Bird believes he is the Messiah, while Leo relies on his childhood friend Bruno to get him through the day. Alma thinks that all her families problems will be solved if she can just stop her mother from being lonely and she makes up memories of her father just to give Bird something to hold on to.
The novel includes passages from the fictional book ‘The History of Love’ and Krauss carries this off with real skill. The book-within-a-book structure emphasises the power of words and of language to translate and transform the everyday and how imagination can be the catalyst for change in many lives.
So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. On rainy days you can hear their chorus rushing past: “Iwasa beautifulgirlPleasedon’tgoItoo believemybodyismadeofglassI’ve neverlovedanyoneIthinkofmyself asfunnyForgiveme.”
The History of Love is a complex read. Each character is named for another character or is pretending to be someone else, taking someone else’s voice. At times it can be confusing, but Krauss writes with such poise and skill that it is best just to trust her. By the time she gradually revealed the provenance of ‘The History of Love’, you will have given your heart to each and everyone of these characters who have all been moved and changed by the power of one man’s love and one man’s words.
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.
The History of Love is a gorgeous ode to the transformative power of literature and the tenacity of the human spirit, beautifully structured and assuredly written. I have another of Krauss’s books in the 746 and am now very much looking forward to it.
Thanks to everyone who recommended it – you never let me down!
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 259
Number Remaining: 487
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!