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Nicole Krauss: The History of Love

The schlemiel is a standard feature of many Jewish works. (If you do not know schlemiel and other Yiddish works used in this book, here is a a helpful glossary). Our hero is Leo Gursky and he is something of a schlemiel, what we might call a misfit in English. Though he may be something of a misfit in much of this book, there is much more to him. Indeed, following the story of a schlemiel is the theme of many Jewish books and films but Krauss, while she certainly gives us the schlemiel’s story, gives us very much more.

Leo was born and grew up in Slonim which was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia. (It is now in Belarus and is where one of Krauss’ grandparents was born.). As a child be got to know Alma and the two became very close, seeing each other every day, except for a three week spell when they had a row but eventually made it up. When they were older, they became lovers. However, it was the late 1930s and Alma’s father had seen the writing on the wall and saved enough to send his daughter to the United States. She refused to go without Leo, but he urged her to go, saying he would work and save up enough to join her. He got a job in Minsk but lost it. He returned home but by this time the Germans were on the march and Slonim was in their path.

Leo managed to hide out for the three and a half year of German occupation and when the Russians came, he managed to get to the United States via a displaced persons camp. He had a second cousin in New York, a locksmith, and went to work for him. He had Alma’s address and went to see her. When she opened the door, he saw that she had two children. She was sure that he was dead as she had written to him and had had no reply. She had heard what the Germans were doing to the Jews and assumed Leo was another victim. When she arrived in the United States, she was pregnant. She got a job in a dress factory but when she heard about what was happening to the Jews, she took to her bed. Her boss’s son came to visit her. Eventually he married her, took the son – Isaac – as his own and they then had another son. Isaac was not aware who his real father was.

Meanwhile, Leo worked for fifty years as a locksmith, remaining devoted to Alma and never marrying anyone else, though he never saw her again. His second cousin died and Leo took over the business till he retired. As this books starts he lives alone in his apartment in Brooklyn. One day, while out, he heard a voice he recognised. It was Bruno, whom he had known back in Slonim. They became friends again and when Bruno’s wife died, Bruno took the apartment above Leo. They now look out for each other and remain friends.

Isaac has grown up and become a famous writer. Leo has followed his career with great interest. He even went to a book signing and planned to say something to Isaac but was too tongue-tied. Leo is sure that Isaac gets his skill from him. While in Slonim, he had written three books. One was about people he knew about. He showed it to Alma but she said she did not want to read about people she knew about so the next one was entirely made up but she thought it too fanciful. He then wrote a third about things he knew but he did not finish it before she left for the United States. He had no idea what happened to the books. He did not write again till he retired and again took up writing, slowly producing a book.

But we have other characters to follow. Alma Singer is the daughter of an American-Israeli Jew and an English Jew (as is Nicole Krauss herself). She has a younger brother, who is known as Bird, as on his sixth birthday he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly. Alma is called Alma after a character in a book called A History of Love. This book was bought by her father when he saw a copy in a bookshop in Buenos Aires. We learn that the book was originally written in Yiddish but translated into Spanish. All traces of the Yiddish original disappeared, as the manuscript was destroyed in a flood. Alma’s mother was a translator from the Spanish and she loved this book and named her daughter after the main character. Things get more complicated when, after her husband’s death, Charlotte Singer, Alma’s mother, receives a request to translate the book into English for a fee of $100,000. The person offering the money wants it only for himself, not for publication.

The other key person we meet is Zvi Litvinoff, the author of A History of Love. We follow his story to Argentina and the story of his life – his marriage to Rosa, the fate of the manuscript and his literary career. However, in what can only be called a complicated plot, it gradually becomes clear that all is not as it seems. How are Alma Singer, Zvi Litvinoff, Leo and Bruno, Leo’s Alma (who, it turns out, was also adored by Bruno) and Isaac Moritz, Alma’s son, connected, and where does A History of Love fit into to all this?

As well as following this plot and its gradual unravelling, we also follow the stories of the protagonists: Alma Singer, her brother, Bird, and their mother; Leo and Bruno; Zvi and Rosa, and Isaac, all of whom have their own not always straightforward lives.

This is a brilliantly creative work, highly original, well thought out and beautifully written. Krauss has combined a very clever plot, some fascinating characters with their own quirks and their owns problems as well as ideas on creativity and authorship and the fate of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and their subsequent lives for those who managed to escape.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Viking