Sunday, August 04, 2019

The History of Love (2005)

The complications in Nicole Krauss's deceptively complicated novel may have become too much for me, in spite of its many admirable qualities. It involves a man who wrote an unpublished novel called The History of Love, his friend who copied the manuscript and took credit for it, and the daughter of a couple who loved the novel and named her for its love interest ("life obsession" is more accurate). All this is mixed up with World War II and the Nazi concentration camps. What I like best is Krauss's voice for Leo Gursky, the original writer and lover, an old man in the present day getting along in New York City. His Yiddish rhythms feel precision-engineered. But his is only one voice among many. I like the 14-year-old Alma pretty well too, but even with her the complications start to get confusing. It's a good love story—the title is not misplaced—but maybe not as good as it thinks it is? Not good enough to support all this action and hold attention. Gursky's son is a famous writer. Alma's mother makes her living translating books. Leo can write a book so good someone can steal it and get it published. It's a little hard to believe, which became something of a distraction even as I tried to parse who was related to whom, and why, and in which timeframe or location. It's a big bunch, sprawling the globe, and many are dead in the present day. I came across The History of Love originally recommended in a kind of readers group newsletter, where people were very positive. It also won awards and was nominated for others. Some of my lukewarm response may be from fatigue with World War II stories, but I put more of it on the complexity here, which felt manufactured for literary effect. I'm not at all sure it's the best way to tell the love story at its heart, or what I think is its heart, the one between Leo and the original Alma. That's a pretty good story in its own right. All love stories have been done by now—it's just a matter of picking a variation and doing it well. But I'm not sure that's what happened here. Maybe the love story is actually better than this novel seems to think it is. It never really gets a chance.

In case it's not at the library.

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