The History of Love is an ambitious title. It sounds like it should be on the cover a textbook, perhaps a cultural analysis of love over the ages. It suggests the enclosed pages will offer a comprehensive account of love, an all-encompassing, authoritative expose of love’s general nature. Rather, Nicole Krauss answers the questions raised by her novel’s title with a complex story of three people unwittingly connected by one man’s love. To describe love, to live up to her title, Krauss shows the crippling, lifelong romance that Leo Gursky has with Alma Mereminski, the lives affected by it, and how they all connect.
If you haven’t read the book, here are the plot points you need to know: Leo wrote a book called The History of Love for the love of his life, Alma Mereminksi, who left him in Poland when she escaped for America in 1942. Alma Singer, a fourteen year old girl who takes turns narrating the novel with Leo and others, was named after the Alma Mereminski in Leo’s book. After barely surviving the war, Leo follows his Alma to New York, where he finds that after giving birth to Leo’s son, Isaac, she assumed Leo had died and remarried, never telling Isaac about his true father. Leo lives alone in New York for the rest of his life, and is around eighty in the novel’s present.
With such a bold title, it is no surprise that Krauss disappointed some readers. The London Review says that the novel’s “important questions are soiled by the book’s inability to be primarily truthful about human conduct and motive, about life…. The centre of the book – its rendition of life, its ability to make one believe in it – is empty” (29). Wood blames the novel’s failure on Krauss’s forced attempts to please readers. But there’s another obstacle to achieving the primarily truthful understanding of love the title seems to promise, an obstacle Wood leaves out: The novel is polyglot – It is narrated by several distinct voices. Some readers see the competing voices as supporting each other. Jessica Lang writes in the Journal of Modern Literature that “The History of Love is the history of the self — “I” — a single story. It is not so much about a Leo, or a soldier, or an Alma or a Bird; rather, the narration delivers a sense of meshed identity, a result of the various interactions accumulated over the course of a lifetime” (52-53). Although the novel’s different but connected characters may reinforce a broader, humanizing notion of togetherness, they have such different understandings of love that no coherently meshed characterization of love is delivered. If Leo’s perspective stood alone, we could take his conception of love as archetypal. However, the unique views presented by each narrator leave readers puzzled with a complex and internally conflicted picture of love. The History of Love shows that love means different things to everyone. To see this, we only need to look at Leo and his strongest foil, Alma Singer.
We see Leo’s voice in two contexts: We first catch glimpses of his voice in The History of Love, the book he wrote as a young adult for Alma Mereminski. As a young romantic, Leo is expressive, emotional, and invested in the world. He writes about Alma, “Her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” (11). Leo’s passionate, aphoristic writing demonstrates how deeply he feels love’s beauty and power. His book details an imaginative history of love, describing angels’ love lives, the “Birth of Feeling”, the “Age of Glass” (106, 72). Leo’s writing is spirited, wrapped up in the joy of feeling. He falls deeply in love with Alma after his first interaction with her, begs her to marry him at age eleven, and promises never to love another girl. Leo’s young love is strong and joyful, the type found in Hollywood and readers’ dreams. However, Alma consumes his identity, which at first seems touching but quickly becomes dangerous. He later describes Alma’s love as the “only thing I knew,” and writes of his time hiding during the war, “I wanted to live very badly. And there was only one reason: her” (8, 226). Leo falls in love so strongly that it becomes his life’s purpose. But young Leo is satisfied, happy with love as his driving force.
Leo is a heartbroken old man when he narrates the novel, and the difference in his voice shows how losing Alma affected him. First, in contrast to the other narrators, Leo narrates dialogue in italics. Since italics are conventionally used for a character’s thoughts, when used for dialogue they emphasize Leo’s isolation and erect a boundary between the inside of Leo’s mind and the outside world. Communication with other people does not seem quite real – Leo travels in a haze, never really connecting with those around him. He spends his whole life yearning for the love he had as a teenager and recovering from its absence – he makes little effort to move on or pursue other interests. Second, Leo writes in short, frank sentences and often interjects with “And yet” or “But.” For example, he says of his occupation, “It’s not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet” before dropping the subject (5). Leo’s short sentences show his tiredness, and his brief self-contradictions express the irony he sees in the world and his frustration that every positive in his life has come with reservations. He appears tired of fighting back – he now takes injustice and incongruence for granted, hardly worth expanding upon. After losing Alma, and later Isaac, nothing energizes him. Third, Leo loves to joke about his own mortality. The first lines of the novel are Leo’s: “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT” (3). Hopeless about love, Leo has no reason to live. After losing Alma, Leo transfers his love to Isaac, Leo’s son who does not know he exists. Leo fantasizes about talking to his son for decades, but Isaac dies right as Leo begins to summon the courage. Leo writes, “Only now that my son was gone did I realize how much I’d been living for him. When I woke up in the morning it was because he existed” (80). Just as for Alma, Leo lived because he loved Isaac. Leo’s narration shows readers that love is so wonderful that it is the highest purpose of life – without loved ones, life appears meaningless.
In the context of Leo’s extreme loss, valuing love so highly is unfortunate. But Leo finds no way around it. Leo writes in the third person, “If the man who once upon a time had been a boy who promised he’d never fall in love with another girl as long as he lived kept his promise, it wasn’t because he was stubborn or even loyal. He couldn’t help it” (13). Leo’s theory of love holds us slave to love whether we like it or not, fantastically happy when in love and helplessly lost, purposeless when out. This distinct understanding of love is powerful in Krauss’s novel, but Leo is opposed by the other narrators.
Alma’s voice is very different from Leo’s, as is her conception of love. She writes in numbered sections that try but fail to organize her scattered narration. She never gets too invested in one train of thought, never too attached to one mindset. Her sentences are long, and often contain playful figurative language. For example, Alma writes of her mother, “Sometimes she would get stuck on a certain sentence for hours and go around like a dog with a bone until she’d shriek out, ‘I’VE GOT IT!’ and scurry off to her desk to dig a hole and bury it” (48). Alma’s youthful energy saturates her narration. Krauss constantly reminds us of Alma’s age – and her naivety. For example, after telling a powerful story about a blind photographer, Alma writes, “I know there is a moral to this story, but I don’t know what it is” (39). This innocence may be absolved with age, but note that young Leo at this age was spouting wisdom about the depths of his love. Alma is a much more typical teenager, and the conception of love that her scatter-brained, youthful simplicity reveals is quite different from Leo’s.
Alma’s mother is similar to Leo – her life has been overtaken by love. After Alma’s father died, her mother “turned life away” to keep holding on to him (45). Witnessing her mother’s loss colored Alma’s perception of love. She writes, “When I was little my mother used to get a certain look in her eyes and say, ‘One day you’re going to fall in love.’ I wanted to say, but never said: Not in a million years” (54). Alma views love as undesirable, something to be avoided, something that will ruin her life. Further, Alma is annoyed by her mother’s love for her. Alma says, “She’d call after me, ‘What can I do for you I love you so much,’ and I always wanted to say, but never said: Love me less” (43). While Leo views love as central to his identity, Alma does not want it to be a dominant part of her life. She views the depths of love as a dangerous place. With the pain that love has caused her mother and Leo in mind, readers may empathize with this idea. And Alma offers a way out, a way to free herself from love: Even when she does fall in love – She slowly develops feelings for her friend Misha – it never becomes inextricably tied to her purpose in life. Alma is also concerned with her hobbies, her brother’s sanity, her dream of becoming a wilderness explorer, helping her mother move on from her father, and the puzzle of determining the author of The History of Love. She is never slave to love like Leo. And unlike young Leo’s sudden, passionate romance, Alma’s is awkward and uncomfortable. She doesn’t know how to describe her feelings, and the resistance culminates when Misha kisses her for the first time. Alma tells him to stop. “And then I said: ‘I like someone else.’ As soon as I said it I regretted it” (142). Even as she feels the pull of love and wishes she could say the right thing, her confliction shows she is skeptical of love. Being in love is not bliss for Alma as it was for Leo, and she does not need it to find purpose in life. Alma opposes Leo’s perspective with well-founded skepticism about love’s virtue and by showing that there is more to life than love.
The novel contains many other speakers and unique interpretations of love. The third primary narrator shows a love between Zvi and Rosa that is desperate and built on deceit, Uncle Julian is driven to cheat on his wife by her distaste with painting, Alma’s brother’s love for his dead father causes him to think he is the Messiah, Herman Cooper bullies girls in an effort to earn their love – each of these complicates the novel’s definition of love and blocks the novel from revealing a unified theory. Since love in reality is more diverse than one man’s conception, the multi-faceted nature of love that The History of Love’s polyglossia reveals is valuable and demonstrates the power that a single novel can have to simultaneously represent many contradictory world views. Critics searching for a one-track theory should turn elsewhere – I’d recommend another genre entirely.
This essay was written in the style of Jake Romm and received preliminary feedback from Paul Griffith.
Krauss, Nicole. 2005. The History of Love. W.W. Norton & Company. Print.
Lang, Jessica. 2009. The History of Love, the Contemporary Reader, and the Transmission of Holocaust Memory. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol 33, No. 1. Indiana University Press. Web.
Wood, James. 2005. “Tides of Treacle.” The London Review, Vol 27. No. 12. Web.