Leo Gursky has only ever loved once in his lifetime and he has been alone in the world ever since. He is now just about surviving life in America, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbour know he’s still alive. But life wasn’t always so empty: sixty years ago, in the Polish village where he was born, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. Now, in contemporary New York, he has forgotten all about it, thinking that the book, along with the girl he loved, has been lost forever.
Little does he know that over the other side of the same city 15-year old Alma is searching for a way to cure her mother’s loneliness following the death of her husband. She is determined to discover the story behind the book that has changed her mother’s life, without knowing just how far this book has travelled and how many lives it has inextricably linked.
Krauss alternates these two contrasting personalities with immense skill, and in such a way that the narratives become real people who are utterly unmistakable. The character of Leo Gursky jumps out of the page from the very first sentence of this novel, from which point the reader feels an irreversible connection with him. Rarely in literature do you come across a voice so powerful that it would bring tears to your eyes having read a couple of pages, but the tender portrait that is painted of Leo cannot fail to tug at your heart strings. Krauss describes his life with such touching and delicate detail that one cannot help but feel the sting of his loneliness.
It is with the same warmth and affection that Krauss describes Alma and her troubled brother Bird, both of whom have been deeply affected by the death of their father. While Alma writes lists to try and make her life manageable, Bird expresses his grief in a variety of eccentric ways. But what joins brother and sister and in fact all the characters in this novel is that despite being outsiders in the world, they all share an inspiring capability for love.
While it is the characters that immediately draw the reader in, Krauss is not afraid of tackling larger themes. A grand chain of cause and effect is at work here as we see how people are really connected. It is the smaller details she writes that allow us to see what small triggers can change a life so completely in making an opportunity gained or lost. While this may make for a complicated plot, it is one that is crafted with such care that it can always be traced back to the beginning. Krauss manages not to give in to sentimentality, keeping the narrative restrained and subtle.
This is a novel that is accessible on many levels, whether it be for the emotional pull of the characters, the captivating story, or the intriguing insight into the wider themes of love, loneliness and survival.
The voice of Leo Gurksy in Nicole Krauss’ beautiful novel, The History of Love, just came to her one day. Find out more about Leo and the inspiration behind him and his story.
Was there a particular author you read growing up who inspired you to want to become a writer?
I was always reading something or other as a child, even at the dinner table. But I don't think there was a particular author or book that set me on the path to writing; it was more like the slow and steady sum total of everything I read. When you're young, especially if you live out in the country, as I basically did, books offer a form of travel; a breadth of experience that far exceeds what is otherwise available to you. People often describe reading as a means of escape. But for me it was the opposite. What's the opposite of escape? A means of arriving, let's say, at all that I was so eager to see and know.
Mostly I read whatever was around the house, and then when I discovered the local library I started ransacking the shelves. I read a biography of Henry Miller when I was eleven or twelve, before I'd read any of his books. At one stage my mother started reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud to my brother and me in nightly instalments, but that only lasted a few days so we never got very far. The one recommendation I remember her making--it was when I was twelve-- was Portnoy's Complaint. I read it and loved it, although I did wonder whether, when she gave it to me, she had remembered the scene with the Italian whore.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, which was so pained and beautiful. And now I've started Mr. Sammler's Planet. I've been thinking a lot about Bellow since his death. There's this line that keeps coming back to me from The Dean's December. It’s the part where Dean Corde imagines a dog's howl to be a protest against the narrowness of its understanding, a kind of plea: "For God's sake, open the universe a little more!" It must be one of the most powerful sentences ever written in a novel.
Which literary character would you most like to meet?
I don't think I've ever longed to meet a character beyond the way I've met him or her already in a book. In a way, it's possible to come to know people in a much quicker, more intense, and meaningful way on the page than you usually get to do in life. Real life has a kind of awkwardness that great books don't-- to describe awkwardness in a book often, actually, affects in the reader a kind of comfort, like watching a storm from inside a warm house. My actual exchanges with people, beyond those I'm very close to, tend to always be a little less than I'd hoped they'd be. For example, today an Orthodox Jewish family stopped me in the park to ask me what kind of dog I had. We talked for a bit, they admired my dog, George, and the whole exchange was warm and lovely. And then, as they turned to go, bestowing one last compliment on George, I said, I guess to sweeten the deal, "Good Shabbas. " And then I realized it was only Wednesday.
The voice of Leo Gursky, the old man who is at the centre of The History of Love, is brilliantly conceived. How difficult was it to find his voice?
It was easy in that I just wasn't looking for it, or him. One day I had his voice in my head, and I started writing, and it turned out to be the beginning of the novel. Honestly, he feels like me. It was never a stretch to write in his voice; I never sat around scratching my head, wondering what he'd think or how he'd say something.
I'm a shy person and, to begin with, I don't like the idea of writing a character that looks suspiciously like me. I would feel trapped by the narrowness of veracity, by having to conform to a certain version of reality. What I'm interested in is the sheer joy and freedom of making something new. Of imagining and inventing, while also expressing myself in the strongest way I can. Maybe it's similar to the difference between figurative and abstract painting. In Leo's voice I could write about certain feelings in a way that was both more abstract and more powerful than I could in my own life.
What books did you read while you were writing The History of Love? Some writers don't like to read fiction while they are in the midst of writing a novel, do you find it helps your writing or is it distracting?
Neither, really. I'm always reading something. It took me two years to write The History of Love, and I can't imagine what it would have been like if I didn't, or couldn't, read during that time. My brain would have revolted. Either that or it would have gotten dull. But the specific books I read didn't have much to do directly with my writing.
The structure of the novel is complex. Did you have to plan the novel out quite carefully before you started writing and was it difficult to keep all the elements of the plot in your head as you wrote each part?
When I started, I'd decided to write a book with no plot. Devising plots didn't seem like my strength, which didn't bother me too much, since the books I love generally don't depend on them. For a long time all I had was Leo's voice. Then Alma's. I had these little bits of The History of Love which I didn't know yet were going to become a book within a book--they were just vignettes. I had no idea how all of these elements could possibly fit together. But I also had a sense that they belonged together. It was a struggle to figure out how to connect them to form a constellation. I was always on the edge of failure. I worked myself into so many corners, and dug myself so many holes, and had to try to find intricate, intelligent ways out of them. It was kind of like a game of Twister: how do I get my toe on the red circle all the way over there?
As far as keeping it all in my head, somehow I did. There are lots of things I'm not good at, but I happen to have a very good sense of direction. I'm always the one who reads the maps on trips. If you dropped me in a foreign city and let me walk around, the first thing that would happen is that a bird's eye view of the city, with all the streets, would form in my mind. I think maybe that spatial sense, the habit of drawing mental maps, is my way of holding lots of things in my head. The plot was just a way of giving everything I was thinking about a place: a street, an alley, a square, a boulevard, a bridge.
'Charming, tender and wholly original' J.M. Coetzee
'Krauss ties...plot strands together with surprising twists and turns, chronicling the survival of the human spirit against all odds. Writing with tenderness about eccentric characters, she uses earthy humor to mask pain and to question the universe. Her distinctive voice is both plangent and wry, and her imagination encompasses many worlds' Publishers Weekly
'The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is one of those amazing novels you only come across a few times a year....Genuinely heartbreaking, this is at once intimate and massive in scope and effortlessly covers all the bases - love, death, religion and politics - without losing its narrative sparkle. Ten out of 10 and a gold star' Suzie Doore, Waterstones
'A beauty of a book, totally alive, made with real energy. It restores your faith in fiction. It restores all sorts of faith' Ali Smith
'Even in moments of startling peculiarity, she touches the most common elements of the heart' Washington Post
'Krauss's work is illuminated by the warmth and delicacy of her prose' New York Times
'A tender tribute to human valiance. Who could be unmoved by a cast of characters whose daily battles are etched on our mind in such diamond-cut prose?' Independent on Sunday
'Devastating...One of the most passionate vindications of the written word in recent fiction. It takes one's breath away' Spectator
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. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.
I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I'd bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I'll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.
I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I'm out, I'll buy a juice even though I'm not thirsty. If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I'll get down on my knees. It's a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up. And yet. Maybe I look like a fool. I'll go into the Athlete's Foot and say. What do you have in sneakers? The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck that I am and direct me over to the one pair of Rockports they carry, something in spanking white. Nah, I'll say, I have those already, and then I'll make my way over to the Reeboks and pick out something that doesn't even resemble a shoe, a waterproof bootie, maybe, and ask for it in size 9. The kid will look again, more carefully. He'll look at me long and hard. Size 9, I'll repeat while I clutch the webbed shoe. He'll shake his head and go to the back for them, and by the time he returns I'm peeling off my socks. I'll roll my pants legs up and look down at those decrepit things, my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I'm waiting for him to slip the booties onto them. I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.
A few months ago I saw an ad in the paper. It said, NEEDED: NUDE MODEL FOR DRAWING CLASS. $15/HOUR. It seemed too good to be true. To have so much looked at. By so many. I called the number. A woman told me to come the following Tuesday. I tried to describe myself, but she wasn't interested. Anything will do, she said.
The days passed slowly. I told Bruno about it, but he misunderstood and thought I was signing up for a drawing class in order to see nude girls. He didn't want to be corrected. They show their boobs? he asked. I shrugged. And down there?
After Mrs. Freid on the fourth floor died, and it took three days before anyone found her, Bruno and I got into the habit of checking on each other. We'd make little excuses—I ran out of toilet paper, I'd say when Bruno opened the door. A day would pass. There would be a knock on my door. I lost my TV Guide, he'd explain, and I'd go and find him mine, even though I knew his was right there where it always was on his couch. Once he came down on a Sunday afternoon. I need a cup of flour, he said. It was clumsy, but I couldn't help myself. You don't know how to cook. There was a moment of silence. Bruno looked me in the eye. What do you know, he said, I'm baking a cake.
When I came to America I knew hardly anyone, only a second cousin who was a locksmith, so I worked for him. If he had been a shoemaker I would have become a shoemaker; if he had shoveled shit I, too, would have shoveled. But. He was a locksmith. He taught me the trade, and that's what I became. We had a little business together, and then one year he got TB, they had to cut his liver out and he got a 106 temperature and died, so I took it over. I sent his wife half the profits, even after she got married to a doctor and moved to Bay Side. I stayed in the business for over fifty years. It's not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet. The truth is I came to like it. I helped those in who were locked out, others I helped keep out what couldn't be let in, so that they could sleep without nightmares.
Then one day I was looking out the window. Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you'll get a Spinoza. The afternoon passed, darkness sifted down. I reached for the chain on the bulb and suddenly it was as if an elephant had stepped on my heart. I fell to my knees. I thought: I didn't live forever. A minute passed. Another minute. Another. I clawed at the floor, pulling myself along toward the phone.