The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

One more cup of coffee before I go
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The Independent Culture

Nicole Krauss doesn't believe in giving her characters what they want in life. The History of Love swirls with people traduced, abandoned, misunderstood or simply forgotten. But here's the magic. The novel is also a tender tribute to human valiance and stoicism. And who could be unmoved by a cast of characters whose daily battles are etched on our minds in such diamond-cut prose?

Nicole Krauss doesn't believe in giving her characters what they want in life. The History of Love swirls with people traduced, abandoned, misunderstood or simply forgotten. But here's the magic. The novel is also a tender tribute to human valiance and stoicism. And who could be unmoved by a cast of characters whose daily battles are etched on our minds in such diamond-cut prose?

Leo Gursky is a Polish Jew now living alone in New York. Sure he will die soon, the only thing he asks is that it doesn't happen on a day when no one has noticed him. He deliberately drops coffee cups in Starbucks and knocks over displays in the chemist, just in case. He carries a card inscribed with the words "I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION."

As a young man Gursky fell in love with a woman called Alma, but she married someone else. He's lived his life as a eulogy to their teenage love affair, but doesn't begrudge the apparent waste. Krauss creates uncomplaining people but her unique skill is to describe a brand of humility which never grates on our nerves. One character whose eyesight has been reduced to nothing more than a blur insists on taking photographs each day, just in case his eyes ever heal... "'So I'll know what I've been looking at.'"

Leo Gursky wrote a book about Alma, which he called "The History of Love". During the war he entrusted the manuscript to a friend but is told later that it has been destroyed in a flood. Many years afterwards, when Leo is in his eighties, a copy of his lost book is sent to a woman who has a daughter called Alma and a son who believes he is the Messiah. And so begins a literary who dunnit, who lost it, who stole it, where is it which is as satisfyingly intricate and twisted as a fine piece of cable knitting. Did Gursky's son ever know who his real father was? And how did Gursky's book, written in Hebrew, come to be translated into Spanish?

The History of Love is peppered with lost relationships and undeclared loves but Nicole Krauss is as mournful about the words which have gone unsaid as she is about the people who didn't say them. "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."

Krauss's obsession with language makes for a novel full of feeling but entirely lacking in sensuality. Her book has a curious kind of asceticism which sets it apart from its fleshier rivals. She evokes her characters' love affairs in terms of books, describing those volumes as "homing pigeons that could flap their wings and return... to report on how many tears shed, how many laughs, how many passages read aloud, how many cruel closings of the cover after reading barely a page, how many never opened at all." Her characters show devotion, but no passion. They accept what they have been given without raging about its unfairness. But the novel throbs with a vibrant and poetic intellect which thrills the mind, even if it leaves the body untouched.

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