Thursday, September 15, 2005

The History of Love

Leo Grusky’s eccentricities are those of a warped personality, at peace with silence and loneliness as he is with old age and what it has done to his body. Leo Grusky is also a tragic soul -- bereft of the friends from his idyllic childhood, the family of his native town, and the woman he will love forever.

In 1938, as the Germans roll through Poland, Leo is forced into hiding, assured by his parents that they will return for him. When it is obvious that they will not, that they have died at the hands of the Nazis, Leo flees to America in search of his sweetheart Alma Meremenski -- who has also been driven to seek refuge in America. But when he arrives, Alma -- who thought he’d perished in Poland -- is set to marry another man.

This narrative buttresses the general premise from which the rest of the novel evolves in Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. Since Leo is unable to marry Alma, and, similarly, never to reveal to anyone that he is the father of their child together, he settles into an unremarkable existence, shuttling from his job as a locksmith to his lonely apartment where he writes, intermittently. That Alma would be unwilling to marry her lost sweetheart and that Leo would have to spend the rest of his life both alone and denied of his son are fairly weighty assumptions for this novel to rest on. And I don’t entirely buy them.

Yet Krauss once again does an excellent job creating a lithe yet deep edifice in which her characters can develop. Her first novel, A Man Walks Into a Room, was substantial while perpetrating all the sins of a vacuum. (Though, that was essentially the point; having lost his memory, the reader was tasked to fill in the blanks for Samson Greene.) The History of Love, however, asks the reader for too much credulity.

Leo Gursky has written a book with the eponymous title of the novel regarding the story of his and Alma’s love. Before leaving Slonim, Poland, Leo places The History of Love in an envelope and gives it to his friend Zvi Litvinoff for safe keeping. When the baleful aspirations of the Nazis become apparent, Zvi leaves for Chile, with envelop in-hand, to stay with a cousin. In the ensuing years, resigned to the fact that his friend Leo Gursky has mostly likely died, Zvi, encouraged mainly by his wife, publishes The History of Love under his name. The History of Love is an historical artifact that enmeshes another character in the novel, Alma Singer, whose father names her after the main character.

Alma is curious to find out, after her father dies, the significance of this novel, and whether the Alma Meremenski in the novel is real. I can’t say that I enjoyed this novel more than A Man Walks Into a Room, but it does have a charm -- Leo Gursky particularly.

While not necessarily imbuing an overly heart-rending wistfulness in him, Krauss deftly conveys Leo’s empathic qualities -- his thoughtfulness, his warmth, and his asceticism. There were also passages where Leo was unqualifiedly funny; but unfortunately there weren’t nearly enough. Krauss has a wry, almost counterintuitive way with prose and parody that is refreshingly trenchant. Take for instance this excerpt, where a woman has called to ask if Leo is interested in an Art project:
What kind of project? I asked. She said all I had to do was sit naked on a metal stool in the middle of the room and then, if I felt like it, which she was hoping I would, dip my body into a vat of kosher cow’s blood and roll on the large white sheet of paper provided.
I may be a fool but I’m not desperate. There’s only so far I’m willing to go, so I thanked her very much for the offer but said I was going to have to turn it down since I was already scheduled to sit on my thumb and rotate in accordance with the movements of the earth around the sun.
Passages like these are indispensable to the novel's wit. I’m hoping that her next project will be unreservedly ironic. But Krauss is as much in her skin with comedy as she is with fraught, pithy poetics. She is not cynical about love, and it shows in her relentlessly maudlin style -- which is to countervailing effect when the deluge exacts from the reader all that is left of romanticism and empathy.


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