The University of Texas Arlington First Year Reading Experience Program, known as the OneBook Program, has selected The History of Love by Nicole Krauss as the book for 2008-2009. As faculty co-chair of OneBook I’ve had a lot of fun assisting in the development of study guides and such materials to help students as they begin reading. (The online resources we’ve gathered are listed here.) In what follows, I present some thoughts on the meanings of love in The History of Love. I have already posted a short essay about the novel on the OneBook Blog titled “Some Thoughts on Photography in The History of Love”, as well as a video of Nicole Krauss, so I hope students at UT Arlington and other web surfers will find those resources useful as conversation starters. (UTA students are also welcome to join our OneBook Facebook page for more useful tips on The History of Love and to network with each other, faculty, librarians and staff who have read the book. Currently, there is an open thread on the facebook onebook group titled “English 1301 Students Ask Your Questions Here”. We’ll do our best to give answers or provide some food for thought at least.)
Some Notes on the ‘Love’ in The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
What does love got to do with it? In the section “Until the Writing Hand Hurts” (119-134) we learn of Leo’s reaction to his uncle’s death. “Suddenly I felt the need to beg God to spare me as long as possible…I was terrified that I or one of my parents were going to die…The fear of death haunted me for a year…I was left with a sadness that couldn’t be rubbed off” (125). But meeting Alma brought that all-permeating sadness to an end. Leo puts a wall around those thoughts of mortality as he loves Alma. “Only after my heart attack, when the stones of the wall that separated me from childhood began to crumble at last, did the fear of death return to me” (129).
It is the power of love that keeps the manuscript of The History of Love alive and brings it into print. In speaking for Leo, whom Zvi believes to be dead, Zvi brings a magical book into the orbit of people’s lives. The book results in the naming of Alma Singer and her subsequent quest to know her origins. The book memorializes Leo Gursky’s name as proof of his existence fades away. It connects Isaac to Charlotte. It becomes a pretext for Bird to do something loving for his sister. The linchpin of all of these possibilities is the fact that Alma’s name remains intact at the center of the book. Without that clue, all might have been forgotten and The History of Love would not have had the impact it had.
Is sentimental love successful in this novel? As in the case of photography, sentimental love is loaded with the promise of meaning and transcendence, but it is continually troubled because Leo loses Alma, Zvi is closed off from Rosa emotionally, Charlotte does not fall in love with another man in spite of Alma’s efforts, and Misha and Alma’s budding love in interrupted.
There are other kinds of love, however, that are successful: Leo’s love of Bruno and of writing; Alma’s love for her mother and absent father which provides her with an impetus to explore her origins and ‘connect’; Bird’s love for Goldstein, who mentors him and helps him come up with strategies for survival.
So what does the title mean? The History of Love is a book within a book, but it is also a phrase that calls up a progression in time, beginning in childhood and culminating in old age and death. The title may be read as referencing the pathways of memory and creation that are driven by one man’s love for one woman.
For more on this subject, go here.
Also, my complete notes on the novel are here.