Sunday, May 8, 2011

The History of Love

During yoga class Owl when twisted over into a warrior two with a bind—a painful and unnatural position especially if you have no thigh muscles—her instructor reached for a book.

Owl considered defenestrating herself. Owl adores yoga, and Owl adores being read to, but in her limited experience, yoga instructors have the most deplorable habit of picking out a poem about living simply or being a better person and reading it in a singsong poet’s voice eerily reminiscent of tape recorded ocean noises. Then they fold their hands and lecture on Morals. This can range from why you shouldn’t hit your dog to boycotting large corporations unless you approve of child labor.

This is usually intended to lessen the pain of the pose, but Owl finds that it deepens it. You can’t run away and you can’t argue. You can only suffer in silence. But I don’t have a dog!  But what if you’re a poor child laborer and you don’t have the money to shop at indie stores?

Then her yoga instructor began in a quiet voice that focused more on enunciating each word precisely than rolling out the vowels for emotional emphasis. This is what she read:

The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely…

If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms – if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body – it’s because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what’s inside and what’s outside, was so much less.

The book was The History of Love, the author, Nicole Krauss.

Owl nearly stole it from her instructor after class. Instead she managed to wait until it arrived at the library, and then she read it in a series of delirious gulps.

The History of Love is about cranky Leo Gursky who lives alone in his New York apartment. Leo Gursky was young, was once a writer, was once head over heels in love, and once wrote a book about being in love.

Leo Gursky is still in love, still a writer at heart, but the book was destroyed in a flood before anyone could read it, he’s old, he’s retired from the business of unlocking doors for a living, and instead knocks over cups at Starbucks—that way if he dies, someone will remember him.

The History of Love is also about fourteen year old Alma Singer. Alma’s father is dead, her mother buries herself in translations to keep her love alive, and her little brother thinks he’s a holy man, and tried to jump out of a window to see if he could fly.

Krauss tangles up gloriously colorful narratives about people who seemingly have nothing to do with each other and then weaves them together in a story that twists and turns every few moments, and bursts into pages of brilliant and imaginative prose.

There are excerpts about the Age of Glass, a time when people were convinced that parts of their body were fragile and could shatter at any moment. There’s an obituary for Isaac Babel the writer who believed in the spaces between words more than words themselves, there are tips on how to survive in the wild, and notes on being a holy man.

Krauss must have laughed as she wrote, must sipped sparkling cider and hummed lullabyes. Maybe she did none of these things. Maybe she hit the dog. It doesn’t matter. Part love letter, part mystery, History of Love, is more than a love story, it’s a lesson that there are no limits to the magic of the written word.   

[Observation: Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer and The History of Love is very similar to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are dead fathers, children scrambling all over New York in search of someone, experimental prose, and both were published in 2005.  Which raised a lot of questions in Owl’s mind about influences and the intersection of marriage and writing. But Krauss is famous for being closemouthed about her marriage. Pooh.]


  1. sounds interesting. I once read an article about Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir and how their styles very subtly began to overlap. Of course, they were never actually married, but same difference.

  2. @CHE

    Oh that's fascinating. I haven't read anything by either but now I want to read them both...their entire works! I wonder if that happens in relationships where one person isn't a writer as well--the influence of the non-writer leaks through the writer's prose.

  3. What's funny is that I just read a short story by Jonathan Safran Foer for class and for a moment there I was like 'why's the name sound so familiar...' It was...experimental. And not interesting enough for me to read it again. (It was "Here We Aren't, So Quickly.") But the book sounds good! (But then, I think you could convince me to read something even if I was looking at the back cover and thinking, nah, this really isn't my style, because you talk about it like it's the amazingest thing ever. You should take commissions for writing reviews.)

  4. @Danceswithwaves

    I didn't know he'd written short pieces. Now I'm interested. I've never gone back to his books, but I did enjoy reading them through. History of Love is definitely worth a read. Her characters live and breathe, there's a mystery, there are these decadent tender passages of prose that hit on life truths.

    you are always so good to me! thank you! I just realized that so few of these reviews are negative...I can't be arsed to finish books I don't care about!