Tuesday, July 23, 2013

the last book I read

The History Of Love by Nicole Krauss.

Leopold Gursky is knocking on a bit, probably eightysomething. He's a retired Jewish locksmith, who came to New York from Poland (the bit of it which is in modern-day Belarus) after surviving the Holocaust.

Alma Singer, on the other hand, is just starting out in life. She's fourteen, and having to juggle coping with a widowed mother and a younger brother who thinks he may be the messiah (or more accurately one of 36 of them), and also the beginnings of those troublesome sticky feelings, you know, down there.

Two parallel narratives, you say? Well, then there must be a thread connecting them that enables things to be all brought together at the end in a satisfying manner, amirite? Well, possibly, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Firstly, Leopold's back-story goes a bit like this: back in Poland/Belarus he was in love with a girl called Alma, and wrote a book for her. Not easy hauling a manuscript around while you're hiding from the Nazis in a coal-bunker, so he entrusts it to his friend Zvi Litvinoff until things have cooled off and he can reclaim it. The hiding-in-coalsheds period lasts longer than anyone could have imagined, and by the time it's over Zvi is in South America and Alma has headed for New York, both of them assuming that Leopold is dead.

Not so, however, and Leo soon heads for New York himself to be joyfully reunited with his love. Trouble is, in the intervening couple of years Alma has got married to and had a son by another man. Not only that, but before doing all that she had given birth to another son, this one being the one she was unwittingly carrying when she and Leo parted. Alma and Leo remain in occasional touch, but Leo isn't able to have any sort of relationship with his son, Isaac, still less reveal the truth of his parentage.

Back to Alma (the younger one) now: when her father was courting her mother he gave her a copy of a little-known book called The History Of Love by Zvi Litvinoff which he'd bought in a second-hand shop in Buenos Aires. Back in the present Alma's mother is working on a translation of the book into English (from the original Spanish) at the request of (and financed by) the mysterious Jacob Marcus.

With half a mind to trying to engineer a romance between her mother and Jacob Marcus, Alma decides to research the real-life Alma as portrayed in the novel. This leads her to the real-life Jacob Marcus, who turns out not to exist but instead to be an alter ego for Isaac Moritz, Leo and (the older) Alma's son, a famous writer in his own right but, unfortunately for Alma, just recently deceased. Alma leaves a note at his house, which is picked up by Isaac's younger brother, who calls her house to explain that Isaac knew the novel's true authorship (i.e. Leo, later plagiarised by Zvi Litvinoff after he'd decided Leo was dead). Alma's brother answers the phone, and decides to engineer a meeting between Alma and Leo in Central Park, the tentative beginnings of which mark the end of the book.

There's a sub-genre of fiction to which The History Of Love belongs which can be broadly titled Writing About Writing; sub-sub-genres of this include epistolary novels (like We Need To Talk About Kevin and Restless), and also novels that feature (fictional) works of fiction as key plot points. That second sub-sub-genre is the relevant one here; the trick here is that depending on the requirements of your plot you've got to persuade the readership that the work you're providing snippets of in the text is either a) awful or b) brilliant. Again, the latter is the relevant one here, just as it was in, say, The World According To Garp (which contains several supposed extracts of Garp's writings). The former is represented by things like the awful bodice-ripper romances that Annie Wilkes forces Paul Sheldon to write in Stephen King's Misery. Either way, it's a hard trick to pull off convincingly. This entertainingly grumpy review of the novel makes the pithy point that "If the book-within-a-book were really so terrific, the author would have written that book instead."

My view, for what it's worth, is that this is generally very good, but a bit uninvolving in that we don't really get to know anyone well enough, mainly Alma Singer, who is the most appealing and interesting character. That's mostly because of the digressions into writing about writing, but also because as the novel goes on there's a need to bring all the plot strands together, and also because the novel is just quite short. Because of this the tragic circumstances of Leo's escape from Europe and doomed love for Alma never really bite as hard as they probably should, and the neat resolution of the plot feels a bit, well, neat. You perhaps find yourself admiring the neat clockwork-y precision of the plot's construction at the expense of really engaging with the messy reality of the lives being portrayed. Or maybe that's just bollocks; who knows?

Interestingly, as I only discovered after finishing the book, Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, a celebrated novelist in his own right (in fact he is probably more famous than her). Not only that, but their respective second novels (this is Krauss's, Safran Foer's is called Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close) share a startling number of similarities in plot and general construction. That link reckons that Krauss's novel is "strikingly superior to her husband's", though, so I've evidently, if unwittingly, chosen wisely.