For much of the time I was reading this book I kept thinking the title was utterly bizarre and made no sense. Which is best explained by quoting the opening lines: “When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.” Such a fabulous opening. But for a book called The History of Love? Really?
Well, the novel ends up being an elaborate unfurling of this contradiction. The History of Love turns out to be a book within a book, and Leo Gursky turns out to be a character complex enough to have written a book-length elegy to the only woman he ever loved—and also live in an apartment full of shit. And really, in a way, that’s the beating heart of the story; those mystifying contradictions that make each of us so interesting to those who know us best.
And The History of Love –the outer frame novel—is itself an elegy of sorts, to the generation that fled Poland and the Ukraine in vast numbers when the Second World War broke out, leaving all they knew and cherished of literature and music and art to scrape out paltry livings as unskilled immigrants in New York. Professors and composers, historians and philosophers, writers of subtly nuanced works of art, all cleaning toilets in Brooklyn. Laughed at by children in the street for their strange clothes, bad English, their trailing odors of fish and garlic. They may technically have survived what six million did not, and most were deeply grateful, but they lost their former lives as surely as did those who didn’t make it out of Europe.
Nicole Krauss includes pictures of her own grandparents in a dedication that says, “For my grandparents, who taught me the opposite of disappearing.” In the novel many forces conspire to make Leo Gursky, writer of a brilliant work for which someone else claims authorship, disappear into an apartment full of shit. But even as an invisible vestige of a writer, alone and unclaimed by those he loves, even then, when he’s ready, he finds he has more lovely words to stitch together. This fascinating and unusual novel stitches together all kinds of strange and lovely pieces. I highly recommend it.