Here are some notes on selected themes from The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I wrote them two years ago when the University of Texas at Arlington selected The History of Love as its OneBook. You can download the UT Arlington The History of Love study guide and consult other resources by clicking here. The following analytical fragments are (c) Christopher Conway, 2009. Go here to learn how to cite web pages.
Thinking About Paratexts
In Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997), the literary theorist Gérard Genette defines “paratext” as “a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that … is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” Plainly speaking, book covers, introductions, dedications and epigraphs are paratexts.
Which brings me to one paratext of The History of Love that I’d like mention here: the dedication page. The script reads “FOR MY GRANDPARENTS who taught me the opposite of disappearing and FOR JONATHAN, my life“
There’s a row of photographs in the middle of the page. They look like passport photos and we may safely assume that they are photos of the grandparents of Nicole Krauss.
This paratext teaches us something about what this book is about, specifically, the struggle to be visible or to be in a world where disappearing, forgetting or being forgotten is all too easy. The struggle to remember origins is at the center of this novel, as is Leo’s attempt to be visible.
The use of photography here is very significant because it is a recurring motif in the novel, as other posts will show.
Writing is Life
“At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.” (9)
The passage is full of literal and more figurative literary allusions. First, the final page of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, where the end of the magical manuscript of Melquiades spells the end of the town of Macondo and the very man reading the last page. (Spanish language literature is the dominant matrix for literary allusions in the novel: apart from García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Nicanor Parra, Miguel de Cervantes.) In a more figurative sense, the passage takes us back to The Arabian Nights, where story-telling is intrinsically tied to survival. (A theme developed by Manuel Puig, the author of the classic novel The Kiss of the Spider-Woman, in which the telling of movie stories is key to a seduction intended to result in the continuation of life).
Thinking about this, we realize the less-literal significance of the comment “You stopped writing. I thought you were dead” made by Alma when Leo shows up at her door after arriving to the United States (13). Thinking about this, we remember how Zvi folds Leo’s self obituary and keeps it with him, in an attempt to extend his friend’s life (118).
Life Demanded A New Language
“The words of our childhood became strangers to us– woe couldn’t use them in the same way and so we chose not to use them at all. Life demanded a new language.” (6)
An interesting passage that literally refers to the loss of Yiddish. But on a more figurative level, it evokes something broader, a way of thinking that is lost when children grow up. You can call it the loss of innocence if you want to be short about it, but it is about something more active than inert innocence. It’s about the transformative powers of the imagination when it is free. What I am getting at is best summed up by Krauss herself, in Leo’s voice, when he says a few pages later:
“Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.” (11)
The power of writing in this novel is tied to this power of childhood, the power to transform reality into something else, into stories and truths.
And it’s very interesting to think about the ways in which different stages of life demand new ways of thinking and being in the world.
Truth and Believability
Leo begins writing as a child in the mode of fantasy. His writing is the exteriorization of his inner world, but as such it appears to reinforce his loneliness. So, he decides to write about the “real” world, and in the example he gives us, this kind of literature proposes to depict the world as it is, to map places, etc. Alma is nonplussed with this new mode of representation, and Leo returns to the fantasy mode. “The she said maybe I shouldn’t make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything” (8 ).
To which Leo begins again: “…I didn’t write about real things and I didn’t write about imaginary things. I wrote about the only thing I knew…I continued to fill pages with her name” (8 ).
These passages are key and need to be unpacked with care because what Leo is writing is the manuscript of The History of Love, something which we do not discover until later. (The fact that Alma’s name is a repeated motif in The History of Love tips us off to the meaning of this passage).
These passages underline that it is not a question of picking between the real and the imaginary, but a different category altogether, one that escapes both registers and which Leo describes as “what he knows.” What is it that he knows? The fact that he continues to put her name in the book, over and over again tells us that what he knows is his love for her. Writing about his love for Alma is a transaction with something sacred, in light of the analogy of Bird’s obsession with writing the name of God in the survival book later on in the novel. The name of Alma is a vast canvas for Leo.
What is the representational register of the manuscript of The History of Love that Leo is writing? If the fragments of it that we see in the novel are any indication, it is a blending of the real and the imaginary, a register in-between reality and fantasy. This interstitial, in-between register is also the modality of writing that fills in the spaces between what is known and what is not known–as in the case of Rosa’s writing about Zvi in the introduction to The History of Love that is published in South America: it is a mode of writing that is beautifully imprecise and inexact in depicting the facts and realities of Zvi, but marvelously effecting in evoking the truth about who he was, because she invites the reader to see things through his eyes and get a sense of him.
Another example of this is Leo’s evocation of the writing of Isaac Babel, whose writing he describes as surrendering to “commas and semicolons, to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next sentence…where silence gathered…the deep bowls of the family silver. When people spoke to him he heard less of what they were saying and more and more of what they were not” (115). And this description of Babel, like that of Rosa, applies to Leo’s style of writing as well, as Zvi reflects that Leo’s writing captures “the field of hesitations, black holes, and possibilities between the words” (116)
The novel by Krauss titled The History of Love invites us to think about how we know the world, and the different ways in which representation affects our knowledge of the world.
Leo’s Invisibility and the Threat of Extinction
The threat of extinction is spoken about literally in the novel, in evolutionary terms (51-52, 139).
It is also a driving force for more than one character:
- The threat of Leo’s extinction drives Leo to write and live and try to connect with the world that surrounds him.
- The threat of Leo’s extinction drives Zvi to keep Leo’s book alive, and to keep Leo’s obituary in his pocket, thinking that he is thus preserving his friend’s life. By placing Leo’s obituary at the end of The History of Love, Zvi tries to perform an act of memory and truth. Alma has been preserved in the book, but so has its true author.
- The threat of her father’s extinction, who is banished from material memory by Charlotte, who throws out all of his stuff, drives Alma to know the book The History of Love.
The process of Leo’s extinction is carried out by his erasure from photographs, the erasure of his authorship of both The History of Love and Words for Everything, and his isolation or disconnection from family. Ultimately, however, thanks to Zvi’s inclusion of Leo’s obituary in The History of Love, and Bird’s love for his sister, Leo can ultimately connect with another and be remembered back from the brink of extinction.
Another interesting question is whether or not plagiarism is a form of extinction or not. By making Leo’s manuscript his own, is Zvi stealing something from Leo? In examining his own feelings toward Leo and his writing after reading the obit for Isaac Babel, Zvi concludes that no one can fully possess or own the dead (115).
Love in The History of Love
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.
The Dark Biosphere
The title of Daniel Eldridge’s book, Life as We Don’t Know It, echoes the theme of knowability mentioned in previous posts. But what the book contains, an account of unlikely life in an unlikely place, is an affirmation of survival and diversity, and of our ability to know the origin of our lives. In the case of Eldridge, it is specifically a key chapter in the history of evolution that leads to humanity, but in the novel as a whole, characters struggle to maintain memory against the threat of extinction.
“The idea of evolution* is so beautiful and sad…ninety-nine percent of all the species that have ever lived on earth are extinct” (51-52).
Some connections worth remembering: Zvi thinks about life on the bottom of the ocean floor as he crossed the Atlantic (154) and Henry wants to be Jacques Cousteau (200).
*Cross reference with discussion of whether or not happiness and sadness coexist or cancel each other out on page 91.
Photography in The History of Love
Photography is proof of existence. This is troubled by the fact that when Leo is with his cousin the locksmith, he cannot get any photo of him to appear properly, whereas his cousin is representable (81-82). And yet, Leo keeps a photo of his cousin as proof of his existence because he knows that he took the photo, and as its author, he knows it proves his existence.
Photography is used as a substitute for human contact, as a way of knowing others, as in the case when Leo admits that he has studied all known photographs of his son and when wants to yell at the photograph of his dead son, pictured in a newspaper at Starbucks: Isaac! Here I am! Can you hear me? (77).
Photography is a way of knowing the world that we see. Note the distinction between knowing and seeing. This is best illustrated by the blind man who has been to Antarctica and who takes a photo of Charlotte Singer so that, when he recovers his sight, he can know what he has been seeing (39).
Photography is also the conceit of a perfect memory, and of the promise of memorializing change, as in when Leo wishes he could photography Alma every day of her life, trying to capture her growth and change over time (90). (In fact a man tried to do this, photograph himself every day of his life, and produced a poignant record of it, right up until the moment he died of cancer: full collection here; overview account here).
Photography is also the illusion of clarity, as when Alma refers to vivid memory as a photograph. But faded memories are also photographs, just photographs of other photographs (192).
And yet... to use Leo’s favorite expression, in all of these examples of photography, the novel undermines the authority of photography. Photography is supposed to do those things. The characters want it to do those things, but photography fails. As an act of representation that is supposedly authoritative and complete, never lying, always transparent and self-evident, photography is peculiarly insufficient as far as the characters of the novel would have us know.
The Trouble with Thinking
The section The Trouble with Thinking (110-118 ) is a revealing look at the theme of communication in the novel. The chapter begins with Zvi’s nightmares and his inability to tell Rosa about them. We are presented with a failure of communication. The eruption of silence into what might have been a revelation of the self.
This is immediately followed by the parable about the string, which may be read as an allegory about the difficulties in guiding the meaning of our words so that they reach the proper destination. “There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide wors that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations…The physical distance between two people using a string was often small; sometimes the smaller the distance, the greater the need for the string” (111). But the world grew vast, the telephone was invented, and it became more difficult to make words arrive to a destination. The parable ends with a comment about how silence is a form of communication: “Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence” (111).
But silence is not purely a negative force, a missing piece. It is also an inclusionary code, a space of knowledge, creation and connection. What follows the parable of the string is the tale of Zvi and Leo and the obituaries they wrote for Isaac Babel. Zvi had tried to “rise to the material, to struggle to find words for a man who had been a master of words, who had devoted his entire existence to resisting the cliché in the hope of introducing the world a new way of thinking and writing; a new way, even, of feeling…”* (113). But he realizes that he has failed to find the new way of expressing truth after reading Leo’s version of the obituary. Reading Leo’s obituary for Babel, Zvi realizes that he is common and ordinary in comparison to Leo. But before dwelling on the meanings of this, let’s consider what exactly Leo does in his obituary for Babel.
Leo’s version of the obituary stresses the ways in which Babel “gave himself over entirely to commas and semicolons, to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next sentence. He discovered the places in a room where silence gathered….He learned to decipher the meaning of certain silences…Daily he turned out whole epics of silence” (114-115).
What is interesting is that Zvi’s account of Leo’s writing style and its superiority over his own essentially makes Leo a double or analogue of Babel: Where he [Zvi] saw a page of words, his friend saw the field of hesitations, black holes, and possibilities between the words” (116). The passage goes on and is worth looking at. But it is also worth remembering that this description of Leo, which is equivalent to Leo’s description of Babel, is the same description given of Rosa’s writing style in her introduction to The History of Love, her writing is characterized by “pauses, suggestions, ellipses, whose total effect is of a kind of half-light in which the reader can project his or her own imagination” (66-67).
Body Parts and Gesture
One of my favorite passages is the one in which Leo speaks about how he experiences the world through his body and its parts (10). The passage suggests the belief that bodily sensation can register human experience, even those intangibles which might seem to be unrepresentable, such as “dreaming of my childhood” and “being struck by all that has been lost” (10). An echo of this kind of immediacy, this kind of continuity between experience and the self, is mentioned in the inner tale about the history of gesture (72-73). Once upon a time, writes Leo and Zvi in their manuscript, there was “No distinction between the gestures of language and the gestures of life” (72). These passages are a contrast to the key section in Alma Singer’s narrative, “What I am not”, in which there is a gap between the sign/symbol of something and the real thing, as in “THAT IS NOT A KETTLE” etc.
The Title Words for Everything
Is it possible that there be words for everything?
This is a central concern of the novel, which keeps on raising the issue of how to know the whole of something (everything) when only a fragment or shadow remains. Paleontology is about reconstituting a narrative that has been torn up by time (50). Taking one piece and trying to figure out what was attached to it, and so on. As Uncle Julian tells Alma Singer “Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape….having a quarter of an inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky” (45). Experience, life histories, family history are full of gaps and tears, patches of invisibility that threaten to dissolve the whole. In a way, the novel answers that there are words for everything, because what we do not know we can create. That is why writing is life, writing is visibility, writing is survival.
Another example of the fragment that tells the whole is the way in which the language of gesture is decoded. From one sampling of 79 gestures, the whole language emerges intact, in a thousand different combinations (73). Also consider the notion that Alma Singer remembers her father in parts, as if he too were an archeaological record torn into pieces and cast in the window. Her memory is paleontology in action: it joins the fragments into a whole (37).
The notion of there being or not being words for everything is admirably raised in the passage “what I am not” passage of part II “My Mother’s Sadness” (36). There are other passages where the issue of what is representable and what is not is invoked, such as Bird’s resistance to the prohibition over uttering the name of God (37).
–Christopher Conway is an Associate Professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Texas Arlington, where he teaches Latin American literature.