Jul 21, 2011

Notes on The History of Love I: Loss

I'd heard good things about Nicole Krauss and had been meaning to check out 2 of her novels. Started The History of Love (THOL) today and am at a loss how to label it - a love story? a tale of loss and redemption? a quirky tale about how the only way to grapple with loss is to loosen the imagination and seek refuge in words? I know not.

The weather cleared after ages today, read some mails, and suddenly i felt a furious impulse to go for a walk. It's been ages since I've done this kind of thing and I realised too much time has passed rather quickly, unnoticed perhaps. Bunked office and walked around, picked up THOL and after a while settled myself at Aromas where the owner was kind enough to leave me alone for almost the entire day. Something I wouldn't have expected in India. 

To read Krauss is to feel vivacity and joy and emerging hope amidst deep sadness. That's her beauty. She's also someone who weaves words like magic - while some of it may read like Hallmark card sentiments, they fall into place in the novel's landscape.

THOL tells us the story of 3 people - one of whom is Leo Gursky - an old man whose greatest fear is that he will pass away unnoticed. We meet Gursky, an old man as he's preparing for death in a shabby Manhattan apartment. He's a Jew who escaped from Poland after the WWII. When we meet Gursky, he seems to be bereft of any reason to be alive. While in Poland, he'd loved a girl called Alma for whom he'd written a book named The History of Love. Alma moves to America before him and having assumed that he has died in the holocaust, she married someone else. Gursky entrusts his novel to his best friend who tells him that it is lost. The story is published later though in spanish and events unfold involving other characters and another young girl named Alma. 

Though Gursky survives the war and finally reaches America, he has nothing left of him - the woman he loved is gone, the book which chronicled the only memorable incident of his life, is gone. You cant get through the Gursky portions of the book without wondering, "How and why does a merciful God impose such cruelty?" 

There are two other sections and they all come together, but I dont really want to talk about the entire book here. Thing is, Gursky is such a great hero that I doubt I've read a more gripping fictional character recently. Alone in his apartment, estranged from his son, he reminds me of the protagonist of Rana Dasgupta's 'Solo' another brilliant novel about old age and loss and memory. Perhaps what is most compelling about Gursky is his complete inability to get over Alma, to 'move on' as they say. He stays as much in love with her when she's an old woman dying in the hospital as he did when he was 11. When the old Alma is dying in Manhattan he goes every day to sit at her bedside in the hospital after hours. "She was tiny and wrinkled and deaf as a doorknob. There was so much I should have said. And yet. I told her jokes."

Consider the wonder of Krauss' language as she writes, "She was gone, and all that was left was the space you'd grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence. For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it 'was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren't for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it." This has got to be the best description of loss, of void, I've read. 

Or this: "Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. When they were ten he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven he kissed her for the first time... For her sixteenth birthday he gave her an English dictionary and together they learned the words." 


stonetemplepilot said...

loss , longing and the inevitable sadness that follows hmmm aa

in this age of "ultra modernism" do these remain?

Anonymous said...

Your reading list gets more and more inspiring.

I love the parts you've quoted but have to second the comment above. Are there really any takers for such themes? Not just amongst readers, but even amongst the youth today?


drift wood said...

STP & mh:

I guess no, they dont. They have faded away. Just remain in the artist's imagination.