At first I wrote this one off, especially seeing quotes from it bandied about on Tumblr (sometimes, a certain “kind” of quote becomes very popular and imagining the treacly mess of girls in vintage sundresses put me off a bit–I like words, but I don’t enjoy tweeness of any sort really). Then, however, I decided I might as well give it a chance, especially after someone whose opinion I respect really enjoyed it. And so, the waiting game for my reserved copy to arrive at my local Free Library branch kicked off.
I read the entire thing tonight, and it really was that absorbing. It is an ambitious book and a bit of a mess occasionally: sometimes a bit unwieldy, but not in a bad way, necessarily. There’s just a lot crammed into a relatively small space, especially when that modern writers’ conceit, the few-word-sentence in the middle of the blank page, appears. Not that The History of Love is a gimmicky book; no, it’s actually extremely… sincere? I don’t know if that’s the right word. This one does feel, appropriately, that it was written from the heart.
The story focuses around but a few characters: Leo Gursky, a Holocaust survivor, erstwhile writer, locksmith, and eccentric old man; Alma Singer, an awkward fourteen-year-old girl and obsessive keeper of lists (I couldn’t relate to that one at all… oh no… [oh dear]); her brother Bird, who thinks that he might be the Messiah; their mother, still mourning their dead father… etc. This small cast of characters seems at first disparate, but are drawn together by The History of Love, a book within the book that was written by Gursky but published under his friend’s name after being translated into Spanish. (It’s a long story.)
The way in which the characters come together in the climax of the novel is perhaps a little farfetched, but the modern-ish magical realist qualities of the book make it work. Also the lovely writing. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the book but it definitely grabbed me right off of the bat with passages like this one:
At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.
It really quite got me with this long paragraph, one of those where you need to pause and catch a breath afterward:
My heart is weak and unreliable. When I go it will be my heart. I try to burden it as little as possible. If something is going to have an impact, I direct it elsewhere. My gut, for example, or my lungs, which might seize up for a moment but have never yet failed to take another breath. When I pass a mirror and catch a glimpse of myself, or I’m at the bus stop and some kids come up behind me and say, Who smells like shit?—small daily humiliations—these I take, generally speaking, in my liver. Other damages I take in other places. The pancreas I reserve for being struck by all that’s been lost. It’s true that there’s so much, and the organ is so small. But. You would be surprised how much it can take, all I feel is a quick sharp pain and then it’s over. Sometimes I imagine my own autopsy. Disappointment in myself: right kidney. Disappointment of others in me: left kidney. Personal failure: kishkes. I don’t mean to make it sound like I’ve made a science out of it. It’s not that well thought out. I take it where it comes. It’s just I notice certain patterns. When the clocks are turned forward and the dark falls before I’m ready, this, for reasons I can’t explain, I feel in my wrists. And when I wake up and my fingers are stiff, almost certainly I was dreaming of my childhood. The field where we used to play, the field in which everything was discovered and everything was possible. (We ran so hard we thought we would spit blood: to me that is the sound of childhood, of heavy breathing and shoes scraping the hard earth.) Stiffness of the fingers is the dream of childhood as it’s been returned to me at the end of my life. I have to run them under the hot water, steam clouding the mirror, outside the rustle of pigeons. Yesterday I saw a man kicking a dog and I felt it behind my eyes. I don’t know what to call this, a place before tears. The pain of forgetting: spine. The pain of remembering: spine. All the times I have suddenly realized that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist: my knees…to everything a season, to every time I’ve woken only to make the mistake of believing for a moment that someone was sleeping beside me: a hemorrhoid. Loneliness: there is no organ that can take it all.
All in all, this was really quite a wonderful book and I would look into reading more of her work. I was a little disappointed in that all of the other reviews I read of The History of Love mentioned Krauss’ book in conjunction with her husband’s, which did not seem quite fair. It’s the sort of book that deserves to be examined solely on its own merit which, for some of its flaws, is pretty great.