The History of Love has been on my bookshelf for a long time – possibly 10 years – and I’ve started it a few times, giving up after a page or so. Now, in the heart of an economy drive, I’ve decided to go back and mop up this, and other previously unreadable / unread books. Cloudsplitter, completed a few weeks ago, was another example, though not an encouraging one:
The History of Love is a difficult book, I think, but one that would probably benefit from more than one reading. The opening pages are a bit of a struggle, and the reason I’ve abandoned it several times before. They introduce the main character – an old man, living alone in an untidy room somewhere in New York. This isn’t a start that suggests there’ll be much of interest on show, though he is an interesting character. There’s a lot of emphasis on that – on his uniqueness, his eccentricity. That’s the main selling point of the character, Leon Gursky.
Leon Gursky was a Polish Jew who fell in love with a young girl, Alma. The girl escaped to America at the beginning of the war. Gursky lived rough in the Polish woods when the Nazis came, and went to America much later, by which time Alma, the love of his life, had married. She bore Gursky’s child, though the boy never knew his real father. Gursky wrote a book called The History of Love. It was about Alma – hence the Russian doll qualities of this novel – a book within a book.
There is a second narrative thread the story of another Alma, a modern Alma, a child, named after the woman in The History of Love, a book her father loved. Her mother is widowed. Alma wants to find her a partner, to make her happy. This part of the narrative tells us all about Alma and her family – she’s an odd girl with an even odder younger brother – I won’t go into details about that, but we hear a lot about, and some things from him – a third narrative voice.
The whole of this is complicated by the fact that someone, an old friend or acquaintance, stole Gursky’s manuscript of The History of Love, and published it in Spanish. This Spanish version was the one that Alma and her mother knew. The Spanish writer is a fourth narrative element, though his sections are told in the third person. I suppose a fifth voice is the narrative voice in the original novel, from which we see various extracts.
As you can see this is a pretty complicated tale, which is why it might bear a second reading, and why I might have got some of these facts wrong. But I’m not prepared to go through again cross checking!
So much for the narrative, which I found a little confusing and off-putting – I felt the writer could have helped a little more by signalling who the characters were at the narrative shifts, and perhaps introducing ways of allowing the reader to distinguish between them more easily. I suppose that might have spoiled the mystery of the story, made it all too obvious: that’s probably why she didn’t.
Well the book does have some funny moments and elements. The characters are all quite different and interesting, if odd!! Behind the humour there is a human tragedy, a sense of alienation, and a sense of optimism too. It’s an interesting insight into the consequences of the holocaust and its impact on individuals. The young Alma is quirky – an adolescent voice with naive insights, in the line of so many innocent narrators in American fiction. She writes an intimate diary in a voice filled with enthusiasm as she searches for her identity.
Gursky the locksmith has strange and often odd adventures – posing naked for art class as an old man, being taken in a limousine to help a locked out client. This writer has imagination to spare. Flicking back through the book now I find lots of interesting ideas just thrown in there – most pages have something worthwhile to skim or scan. It has some great reviews too – look at the inside cover if you have a copy.
But in the end it just didn’t work for me. I found it too hard to follow the story, found the different viewpoints a bit confusing. Krauss is a talented and imaginative writer, but I suppose I’ve reached the stage where I don’t want to work so hard, or at least that I didn’t want to work hard enough to find out any more about these characters.