I’ve been a little busy down here in Nashville, with Insider posts on the Dan Haren signing, the Joakim Soria signing, and the Mike Napoli signing. My latest video with Boog and Jerry covers Shane Victorino and Giancarlo Stanton.
Nicole Krauss’ novel, The History of Love, is ambitious for its subject matter – three intertwining plot lines around a Holocaust survivor, a mysterious author, and a young girl named for the main character in the author’s lone novel – and for how much it crams into a book of scarcely over 200 pages. The survivor, Leo Gorsky, and the girl, Alma, receive substantial time on the book’s pages, as Gorsky walks us through his past and through his mundane days as he nears and fears the end of his life, while the precocious Alma, still missing her dead father, seeks salve in the mystery behind the book, also called “The History of Love,” that gave her her name, powered her father’s love for her mother, and somehow ties all three storylines together.
Gorsky’s story is the sad one that gets the entire novel moving; he lost his family to Nazi invaders in his Polish village, and lost the love of his life when they were separated during his flight across Europe during the War, eventually landing in America and finding work as a locksmith alongside his cousin. Gorsky lives a lonely existence with no apparent purpose beyond living another day, bantering with his longtime friend, Bruno, who lives upstairs and with whom he has a pact to check on each other every day so that neither should die alone in his apartment and remain undiscovered for days. Alma, living in the same city, records her thoughts in a diary with a style that reminded me of Flavia de Luce, both her matter-of-fact delivery and her insatiable curiosity in areas that grab her interest. Her father, depicted as a wonderful, caring father and husband, died of pancreatic cancer, leaving Alma’s mother in a deep depression and setting her brother, Bird, on a path 180 degrees from Alma’s, exploring spirituality and mysticism where Alma believes only in science and art.
By focusing solely on these three characters, with a small allowance later for the author of the titular novel, Krauss infuses them all with tremendous depth without skimping on story. Leo could have been a joke of a character whose story is so awful that the reader wants to disown him rather than accept that one man could be so spited by the universe, but Krauss gives him enough will to live and cleverness that he inspires real empathy and support, even though we know his ultimate pain is just a permanent feature. Alma’s a little harder to love because Krauss has implanted some disjointed adult sentiments in her, but the girl’s obsessions with things like how to survive in the wild are both adorable and poignant because they represent gossamer connections to the father she barely recalls. The novel’s end dances on the precipice of bathos – but never quite falls over it into the crevasse of claptrap. Krauss doesn’t go for the big, shocking revelation at the end, but gradually reveals the connections between the three stories (some foreseeable, one very much not) as the book progresses, which helps eliminate any shock value around the ending and allows the moment of the final connection to evoke more genuine emotions on the reader’s end.
I’ve generally been disappointed by Jewish-American literature because of how foreign the Jewish-American cultural experience is to me, not so much in secular aspects but in philosophical ones; I’ve connected more with African-American literature because of its tendency to try to identify cause for hope even in the worst tragedies, whereas many great works of Jewish-American fiction find reasons for despair or at least fatalism in the slightest signs of misfortune. (There are, of course, exceptions in both camps.) Krauss breaks the paradigm by finding hope in hopelessness, giving us solace even where atonement is impossible and the time is too late for real hope, and finding meaning in seemingly meaningless acts. Leo gets a bit of unexpected closure at the end of his life, a point where anything of that kind is welcome because his expectations have long since died, while Alma grows emotionally during the quest for the author’s true story and why it is so important to her mother and to the mysterious man who’s been asking her mother to translate the book from Polish at a substantial cost. It’s a remarkable novel that’s funny, touching, sweet, and sorrowful, without being too much of any of those things.