THE HISTORY OF LOVE: A Novelby Nicole KraussViking £12.99, 272 pages
No doubt it will irritate Nicole Krauss that her husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, is mentioned in the first sentence of a review of her new novel, The History of Love. But it is hard to resist looking for synergy between married minds, especially given the success of Foer’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated, and the high profile Krauss’s book has enjoyed in the run-up to publication.
Both authors are fervent about the Jewish immigrant experience and superimpose New York Jews on the ancestral homeland. This is the bedrock of both authors’ work. But there are more discreet parallels. Both use the oven as a storage place for their characters’ most beloved objects - a baby (Foer) and a manuscript (Krauss). The list goes on, but enough is enough.
The History of Love is not only the title of Nicole Krauss’s second novel - that would be too straightforward for a book that revels in knots and spirals. It is also the name of a novel within the novel, a manuscript that travels from Poland to Chile, inspires plagiarism and causes a flood, but is destined never to be more than a speck on the literary horizon (in the novel’s world).
More importantly, it is the circuitous link between an ancient Pole and a teenage New Yorker, which finally and briefly unites them in the bliss of mutual understanding.
The old Pole is Leo Gursky, a weak-hearted Jew who made it to New York in 1945 after his family and most of his friends died at the hands of the Nazis.
He did it all for love. Her name is Alma, and they fell in love aged 10. At 17, she left on a boat to America and Gursky was left only with memories of a truncated romance. These memories feed a lifelong need to write, inspiring pages and pages of unpublished material. Gursky’s wry sense of failure is the gnarled hand that pulls us into the story: “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, ‘Leo Gursky is survived by an apartment full of shit’.”
Soon Alma Singer takes the narrative baton from Gursky. She is immediately intriguing for her name, the same as Gursky’s beloved and named after “every girl in a book my father gave [my mother] called The History of Love”. But this Alma is a lanky 15-year-old living in contemporary New York with her translator mother and orthodox Jewish younger brother. Alma’s relationship to Gursky is mystifying - obviously strong, but frustratingly opaque.
Gursky and Alma are at opposite ends of their lives, something Krauss stresses with the naivete of Alma’s voice. She divides and subdivides her writings into chapters, often several times a page.
”1. My Name is Alma Singer... 2. What I am not... 5. The Dead Sea is the Lowest Place on Earth.”
One day, a stranger asks her mother to translate The History of Love. As Mrs Singer becomes more absorbed in the task, Alma investigates her namesake in the book, on a hunch that the character is real. Her probing takes her into dank Manhattan archives and libraries, where, like the good schoolgirl she is, she tackles her quest doggedly and systematically. The results, however, are profound.
The author of a book called The History of Love should be an able manager of schmaltz. Most of the time Krauss succeeds. The “love” in her story is shown, not told - unwound, rather than laid out. Where schmaltz sometimes cloys, however, is in the presentation of Jewishness. There are lots of italicised Yiddish words, such as tucches (arse) and kishkes (guts) - one feels bagels, lox and violins are not far off.
In this vein, Krauss’s dedication has made some Jews flinch. In a dewy-eyed embrace of personal history, the page shows photographs of her four grandparents - Jewish refugees - under the caption “For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing”.
However, it would be gratuitous to dwell on the minor negatives of Krauss’s generally impressive novel. Its primary effect is to warm and sadden - not irritate - the cockles of the heart.