There were a few years there when it seemed like the great Jewish-American literary renaissance—which in the quarter century after World War II introduced to us Saul Bellow, Isaac Singer, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth—had sputtered out: a casualty of an almost too-successful assimilation of Jews into the mainstream, and of new generations of Jewish artists (Woody Allen and Steven Soderbergh in film, Art Spiegelman in comics) who had veered away from the novel as the form best designed to tell the Jewish-American story. There wasn't enough cultural frisson, it seemed, for a new generation of writers who watched as much American TV and ate as many cheeseburgers as gentile writers did, whose cultural inheritance was as much The Godfather, The Cosby Showand London Calling as it was Friday nights at temple or seder dinners listening to Uncle Lev's stories about escaping Cracow in the horrible winter of 1939.
But then Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges came out a few years ago, and a sigh of relief rustled through that part of the Jewish-American landscape that yearned for fiction steeped in Jewish history: here was a kid who knew his Deuteronomy and shtetl as well as he knew his Duran Duran and Sex Pistols. So did, it turned out, Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). And so does Nicole Krauss, the author of the almost outrageously luminous and beautiful The History of Love. That Krauss is Foer's wife, and that they're both young and precocious (she was born in '74, he in '77), conjures up the picture of a sort of First Couple of New Jewish Fiction, a Scott and Zelda of the double zeroes, but that's hype: we'll deal with Foer another time. Krauss is for sure the real thing: quietly masterful, a writer who's learned from her precursors and gone on to produce a novel that's both traditional and original, a book suffused with the degree-zero loneliness that Holocaust victims experienced as well as the delirious, practically insane need for romantic love that loneliness often gives birth to. Finally, and most movingly, it's a paean to the novel itself as a form—specifically its capacity to represent love in all its gorgeous strangeness, and then to help engender that love in those who read it. This is one of those books whose faith in love is so certain that it can replenish your faith in it as well.
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In fact, the replenishment of love by reading isn't just the novel's theme but provides the motion of its plot as well. The History of Love is not only the name of Krauss' novel, but also the title of a book written by one of its main characters, Leo Gursky. Gursky, a septuagenarian New York Jew who as a boy escaped the Nazi slaughter that claimed the rest of his family, wrote a book with that title before he was forced to flee, but he left the manuscript behind with a friend. His History of Love, whose wild inventiveness we get to sample in excerpts that Krauss provides for us, is part Borges, part Singer, with chapters that give us "The Birth of Feeling" ("Just as there was a first moment when someone rubbed two sticks together to make a spark, there was a first time joy was felt, and a first time for sadness") or tell us about the Age of Glass, when people were so fragile that parts of their bodies were literally made of glass. The book's sole inspiration, its only raison d'tre, is a girl named Alma, Leo's childhood sweetheart, who, pregnant with his child, moved to America when they were teenagers, whom he never saw again, and to whom he nonetheless remains loyal the rest of his long, lonely life.
The man to whom he gave the book for safekeeping, Zvi Litvinoff, is another Jew who escapes the Holocaust by emigrating to Chile, where he takes up with a younger woman named Rosa whom he is so desperate to make love him that he takes Leo's manuscript, translates it into Spanish, makes some incidental changes and publishes it as his own. Copies of the book languish in Chilean bookstores until an American Jew named David Singer picks one up while on holiday, reads it and is so moved that he inscribes his copy to the love of his life, a translator named Charlotte: "My Charlotte, My Alma. This is the book I would have written for you if I could write. Love, David." Charlotte, for her part, is so inspired by the powerful romantic devotion narrated in The History of Love that she not only names her daughter after Alma but, like Leo Gursky, remains faithful to her husband's love after he suddenly dies. ("She's kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she's turned life away.") Charlotte's 14-year-old daughter Alma, desperate to help her mother overcome the grief of widowhood, tries to become a matchmaker, eventually setting her sights on a mysterious writer who has written Charlotte asking her to translate The History of Love for him. What she discovers as she tries to get in touch with this writer, and then with the original Alma who is the book's inspiration, leads back to Leo Gursky himself, in a final scene that's both a deeply satisfying fulfillment of the novel's yearning for connection and a wrenching presentation of the loneliness that gives rise to that yearning.
Krauss' command of character is sometimes awe-inspiring: her Leo Gursky is as solidly constructed and convincing a New York Jew as anything Malamud came up with. Gursky, who doesn't even know his book has influenced so many to love and be loved—who's earned a living as a lowly locksmith—is funny, rueful, doddering, even hallucinatory, but still capable of soaring into ineffable states of longing and sadness. The 15-year-old Alma, though not quite as strong a character, is a moving portrait of a young girl yearning not just to find romantic love but to make her family whole. But what is more impressive than anything is Krauss' vision of a book that not only captures love but generates it, from one reader to the next. Like the characters who read (and sometimes rewrite) Gursky's book and whose own histories of love are so profoundly influenced by it, Krauss' The History of Love gives the uncanny sense that we too share the inspiration of and susceptibility to Gursky's vision. In a marvelous feat of imaginative daring and, well, chutzpah, Krauss has created a History of Love that could very well inspire the same passions in her readers that Gursky's book does for his. Too, I get the feeling that Krauss' novel may get passed from reader to reader, inscribed from lover to lover as the story they wish they could tell but which they have had no words for—until, blissfully, now.
THE HISTORY OF LOVE BY NICOLE KRAUSS; NORTON. HARDCOVER, 252 PAGES, $23.95.