I was intrigued by the title of the book my daughter was reading, so I turned it over to read the blurb on the back. From this, I gathered that The History of Love was not a history, but a fictional tale, centered around two people, a young girl and an old Jewish man, both living in New York, and somehow connected through the existence of a book the old man wrote many years earlier.
Strangers living in New York, and connecting through a mysterious book. My curiosity was piqued, so I opened the book and idly began to read page 1:
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. The place isn’t big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table.
Leo Gursky had my attention by his 4th sentence. Clearly this dude had personality. I continued reading a bit further.
After describing his obstacle-filled journey to the front door if someone knocks, Leo goes on to wonder who will be the last person to see him alive, musing that his money is on the boy who delivers the Chinese take-out he orders four times weekly. He then describes how he deliberately tries to be seen when he goes out, sometimes spilling change on the floor of a store just to create a scene, or tying up a sales assistant at Athlete’s Foot, trying on a Reebok “bootie” that both he and the sales assistant know he is not going to buy.
By this point, I would have kept reading anyway, but then Leo delivered this line:
I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.
I had to put the book down and go and get a tissue to deal with my eyes, which had suddenly filled up with tears. I felt as you do when you read, or realise, some truth that had been lurking in your unconscious for ever. It seemed to me as if Leo Gursky had just provided a poignant explanation for the behaviour of plenty of elderly people I’ve encountered, at the same time as he had voiced a universal truth. No-one wants to die on a day when they went unseen. Equally, no-one wants to think of someone they love, dying alone, and unnoticed. I know that this is true because my own younger brother died in that circumstance, unnoticed for 24 hours. That’s probably the real reason my eyes welled with tears when Leo said this.
Leo’s narration really makes this book for me and I felt rewarded for sticking with him. Krauss lovingly portrays the ugly, lonely old Jewish man, living in his New York apartment, eating his Metamucil bar for breakfast, and remembering his earlier life. Leo arrived in New York years ago, an immigrant from Poland. He became a locksmith, breaking into buildings all over New York. Now retired due to ill health, he lives alone in his apartment where he keeps a slide projector under his bed, and in a jar on a shelf, a slide, a photo of his childhood house, to look at. It’s something I do on special occasions, my birthday, say. He has no family. In his wallet, he keeps a card that says:
MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.
The other narrator in The History of Love is a young girl who introduces herself thus:
1. MY NAME IS ALMA SINGER.
When I was born my mother named me after every girl in a book my father gave her called The History of Love.
Alma’s father is dead, her mother is absorbed in translating novels, and she says of her younger brother:
For a month he referred to himself in the third person as Mr Fruit. On his sixth birthday he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly. He broke his arm and got a permanent scar on his forehead, but from then on, nobody ever called him anything but Bird.
For various reasons, Alma decides that she must hunt down her namesake, but winds up inadvertently hunting down the author of the The History of Love. As it turns out, the real-life novel is named after the mysterious book that connects the two main characters. The book-within-the-book is lyrical and beautiful, a work of art, written by a young man in love, filled with fables and reflections that illustrate all the forms that love can take.
This turned out to be a stunning novel, and has quickly gone straight to my all-time favourites list. There are many elements to this story that are reminiscent of another favourite, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Not least, how originally and inventively drawn the main protagonist is, the richness of his internal musings, and the setting of the story in New York, but also, the way the narrative is developed through crossing back and forth from two different narrators, and the linkage of contemporary New York with the rich history of its Jewish immigrants.
The narrative sometimes feels labryinth-like, as the-novel-within-the-novel device, and the story, set in the past, of the person acknowledged as the author of the fictional novel, blends with the stories set in the present, and the requirement to piece together snippets of information that are gleaned through flashbacks cause the reader to have to work hard at times, to keep up.
The History of Love, not unlike Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, has the elements of a mystery, as discoveries along the way reveal details that shed light on characters’ pasts. However, unlike a generic mystery, sometimes these details are revealed only to the reader, and remain heartbreakingly unknown to the central characters.
And in this way, just like in real life, The History of Love, has no neat, Hollywood-style resolution. Things happen when it’s disappointingly too late. Characters remain ignorant to the ignoble actions of people they believed were friends, and therefore unaware of the impact that the action had on their own dreams. Opportunities are missed. The love of their life marries someone else. People die before they have had a chance to tell them that they love them, or even, that they exist.
I worked on my coffee for half an hour, making the most of it. The girl closed her notebook and got up to leave. The man neared the end of his newspaper. I read the headlines. I was a small part of something larger than myself. Yes, human life! Human! Life! Then the man turned the page and my heart stopped.
Like all of us, Leo and Alma make their own separate ways through lives studded with missed opportunities and failures, and take comfort from small moments of recognition, and place hope in the possibility of connecting with another human being.
I felt my heart surge. I thought: I’ve lived this long. Please. A little longer won’t kill me.