How Writing to a Lover Forever Affected the Lives of Others

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash

You never know where your stories will end up

If you think what you write doesn’t matter, this book will make you think again. Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love was published in 2005, but I’m only now discovering it. It’s the story of a young writer whose words are a gift to the woman he loves. It’s the tale of what happens when a manuscript is lost, stolen, translated, and rediscovered by others. It’s a book that is unique, poignant, lovely, and well worth reading. (It’s also proof that a book doesn’t have to be a new release to be worthy of your time — in case you had any doubt!)

For a writer, The History of Love is proof that words are powerful, life-altering, and long-lived. For any human being, writer or not, The History of Love is a gorgeous read about love and loss, loneliness and friendship, survival and solace. The hype I don’t read many books that begin with SIX PAGES of introductory reviews, all glowing, eloquent quotes about how good the book is. The History of Love did. How could I possibly ignore a book that came with page after page of critiques like these? “Devastating…One of the most passionate vindications of the written word in recent fiction. It takes one’s breath away.” “Big, bold, twist-your-heart sad, kick-your-heels joyful — Nicole Krauss’s brilliant novel is as deep and multifaceted as love itself.” “A tender tribute to human variance. Who could be unmoved by a cast of characters whose daily battles are etched on our mind in such diamond-cut prose?” I can’t remember why I purchased this as an add-on from my Book-of-the-Month subscription, but I must have been nudged by a description somewhere before I even saw the six pages at the beginning of the novel. Maybe I read that it was chosen as a “Best Book of the Year” by the Washington Post, Amazon.com, Los Angeles Times, San Franciso Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Globe and Mail, and many others. Whatever the reason, I am glad I read this imaginative, unique, touching book, a story that will stay with me for a long, long time.


The lovers Leo Gursky, a Jew whose entire family was killed by the Nazis but who escaped by living in the woods for three years, was born to write. He spends his youth filling notebooks with stories and observations which he shares with his childhood sweetheart, Alma. One of his notebooks, he titled The History of Love, a gift of his heart. But the two lovers are parted when Alma’s family -suspecting that Germany is about to invade Poland — scrapes together their resources to send their youngest daughter to safety in America. No one knows that Alma is pregnant with Leo’s child.

After the invasion, Leo lives in the woods, barely existing, starving, foraging, wandering, unable to communicate or send a letter to Alma. The mother of his child arrives in America, assumes that Leo has died, and marries another man.

Life goes on.

The next generation

The History of Love is not a distinctly plotted novel but rather the braiding together of seemingly disparate stories. Beginning in Poland in the years before Germany invaded, the book spans several generations and a couple of continents, weaving together the threads of individual stories into a unified strand at the end.

While it took some effort to figure out the characters as I was reading, I eventually got the hang of it. There’s a young girl named Alma, who was named for the main character in a book that her now-deceased father had given her mother. There’s Alma’s mother, a translater of old books who is lost in her own grief. There’s a writer named Ziv Litvinoff who lives in Chile after he escaped from Poland. There’s Leo’s best friend. There’s Leo’s son, now a famous writer.

The joy of this book is in how all the characters and their stories come together. I sucked in my breath. I laughed. I clapped. I wept.

When I finished reading I sat, stunned by beauty, amazed at how these stories of loss and loneliness are interwoven with survival and solace. For days, I mused about the ability of a great writer to tell those stories so well.

The universal truths found in “The History of Love”

The book impacted me because I was able to relate to it. Maybe it was because it was a book about writing, but also because it was a book about the universal truths of humanity:

  • Some people are born with an innate drive. Both Leo Gursky and Alma Singer are born to be writers as evidenced by their constant desire to create. It’s an impulse I understand, to fill notebooks with stories and words and phrases and ideas.

  • Beautiful writing makes others want to do it, too. So much, so, that other less talented writers will be tempted to plagiarize the words.

  • Love never dies, and words and stories about it span decades and circle the globe.

  • We start dying the day we are born, and the recognition of that single fact makes us live better lives.

An obituary for writers

In creative writing classes, a common exercise is to ask the students to compose their own obituary. But no matter how many drafts I created, no matter how many pages I wrote, no matter what strengths I wanted to purvey, I couldn’t come up with any words better than what Leo Gorsky composed for his own self-composed obituary:

“Really, there isn’t much to say. He was a great writer. He fell in love. It was his life.”


 

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