‘The History of Love’

Lost Cultures, Lost Decades, and a Manuscript that Lives On Across All Boundaries

On The Town | Izvor Moralic | February 2007

One would expect to find an account of a love affair or a philosophical discourse about the nature of love upon opening Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love. But that’s not the case. Leo Gursky, the main character shocks the reader with,

"When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT."

Krauss has a tendency to stump the reader by demystifying her characters to the point of ridicule, while at the same time arming them with highly distinguished voices, which they are sometimes not even aware of.

The story with the emotionally laden title begins in the apartment of a man whose name and life imply as much excitement and romantic ingenuity as could be expected of a jar of pickles. Leo Gursky’s life has been reduced to existing, stripped of all joys, forms of entertainment and, most of all, personality. A life, if it can be called that, focusing around the apartment and a familiar feeling of self-pity that Gursky has been engulfed in for over sixty years. Gursky’s history of love begins in the Polish town of Slonim as a boy of ten, who for the first time, discovers an unfamiliar feeling of affection for a young girl.

As the years move on and the war drums of WW II move ever closer, Gursky’s love is torn in two as the girl of his infatuation flees to America. The only way for Gursky to vent his sorrow is writing a manuscript, entitled The History of Love in which he gives a pseudo-scientific "study" of the development of emotion, referring to every woman who has ever been loved by the name of his detached love: Alma.

Before Gursky can himself flee Poland, he entrusts the manuscript to an acquaintance that departs for South America. However, Leo’s acquaintance, Zvi Litvinoff, passing the days with occasional teaching jobs and employment in local drug stores, finds an "Alma" of his own, reducing Litvinoff’s life, just like Gursky 60 years later, to a mere imitation, his creative inferiority lashing out at his mind. Litvinoff impersonates an exalted intellect that he cannot live up to. Unable to create, he imitates.

He plagiarizes Gursky’s History of Love, and the manuscript embarks on a voyage that eventually leads it to Alma Singer and her mother Charlotte, the latter still mourning over her husband’s death and the former trying to ease her mother’s misery.

The most interesting aspect of Krauss’s The History of Love is the implicit "novel-within-the-novel," the incorporating of passages from Gursky’s manuscript that immerse the reader in the emotional state of the characters, and attempting to establish a bond between the two.

Gursky’s History of Love is not treated as an intangible entity that would, just here and there, slip the reader a sentence or excerpt to remind us of its presence. The manuscript is the central motivation behind the characters.

Without it, Gursky and Litvinoff are mere faces in the crowd, lacking life and personality to the extent that they are forced to mimic norms of social behavior to impersonate an existence. Their zeal and passion spark up only as The History of Love enters their life.

To communicate this motivation The History of Love must be presented to and, most of all, understood by the reader.

Unfortunately, it is more in these passages that Krauss’s literary capacity shines through than in the actual novel. The History of Love seems an innovative book, playing around with the chronology of events, taking the reader from one decade to the other as the narrative moves from character to character, tracing the journey of Gursky’s "History of Love" across the continents. However, The History of Love is not a page-turner, trying to focus on a wide array of characters while simultaneously attempting to delve into their minds.

Yet, it would take more than 250 pages to achieve that. Leopold Gursky, Alma Singer and Zvi Litvinoff are given prominent space in the pages of the story, however one cannot help thinking that Alma’s family, especially her younger brother, who enters the narrative fairly late in the book, could have enriched the plot further if the author would have taken the time to develop them with greater care.

As it is, the impression lasts that introducing Alma’s brother’s is just a way to bring the book to its conclusion.

The History of Love leaves the reader with mixed feelings. The switch from first to third person narration, the distinctive writing format that each character is given as well as the aforementioned inclusion of Gursky’s manuscript are ideas that would give a book the ideal predispositions for a meaningful, in-depth novel focusing on the relationships of people and the phenomenon of emotion.

Regrettably, Krauss presents a conventional plot in an unconventional format, her characters often bordering on naïve and exaggeratedly symbolic. The final pages of the novel, unfortunately a minefield of pathos, leave the reader with the         feeling that everything has been building up to just another "feel-good" plot, cluttering up increasing amounts of space on the shelves of the literary.

On the other hand, the places where Krauss shows us Gursky’s manuscript give insight into her influences, lending an aura of surrealism to the book that leaves us unsurprised when Krauss chooses South America as the place where it would be "lost" for years, fictively placing the manuscript in the vicinity of Jorge Luis Borges. The "borrowed" pages melt down the passage of time and the divide between fiction and reality with such skill that their presence within the novel seems misplaced at times. Likewise, Leo Gursky and Zvi Litvinoff, while being completely reciprocal personalities, display a level of inner reflection that ties them together as essentially being one and the same person living in different decades.

Litvinoff’s incongruence within this setting is an effect of the familiarity of his character. The lethargic, pale young man in the dark coat, whose inner turmoil and state of constant unease regarding his mediocrity as well as his subsequent moral deterioration, paint a portrait that has striking similarities to Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov. However, Litvinoff’s crime is in comparison a trifle through which he cannot achieve the same complexity.

Juxtaposing the two characters, it is almost contradictory to observe Litvinoff, the quiet, sophisticated intellectual, falling victim to his creative inhibition and transcribing a manuscript written by Gursky, whose undesirable "Walter Mitty lifestyle" makes it near impossible to believe that he is capable of such unrestrained literary expression. Litvinoff and Gursky are opposite ends of a spectrum.

While the absence of the "History of Love" robs Gursky of an identity, for Litvinoff it is its presence that drains his vital energy. Litvinoff comes across as a younger and more fragile Gursky, whose fervor and passion to create drive him to impersonation, unknowingly setting in motion the loss of identity that would affect Litvinoff for the rest of his life -- and Gursky up until the point where he reunites with it.

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