The His­to­ry of Love

By – October 26, 2011

You might need a score card for a while to track who’s talk­ing and in which fam­i­ly nar­ra­tive because Nicole Krauss, a tal­ent­ed and inven­tive fic­tion writer, cre­ates eccen­tric, quest­ing, sen­si­tive char­ac­ters who tell their unre­lat­ed sto­ries in alter­nat­ing chap­ters, but whose styl­is­tic man­ner­isms even­tu­al­ly iden­ti­fy who they are. The shift­ing points of view are intend­ed to sus­tain curios­i­ty about how sep­a­rate char­ac­ters who have noth­ing to do with one anoth­er will final­ly be brought togeth­er. This feat man­aged by the dogged per­sis­tence of the odd­ball child. The His­to­ry of Love fea­tures two such young­sters — Alma, a young ado­les­cent who knows she is named for a real-life char­ac­ter who prompt­ed a best­selling book called The His­to­ry of Love,” the oth­er, her younger broth­er Bird who is con­vinced he is a lamed vovnik (one of the 36 peo­ple the world depends on — he may even be the Mes­si­ah). At the cen­ter of the sto­ry with­in the sto­ry is a shrewd, dam­aged old Jew­ish refugee, Leo Gursky, who loved an Alma back in Poland. The author of this deeply mov­ing nov­el plays with the way acci­dent and coin­ci­dence, dreams and delu­sions, define and com­fort those who have loved and lost.

Joan Baum is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York and writes reg­u­lar­ly on schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar top­ics for var­i­ous publications.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of W.W. Norton

1. Leo Gursky and Alma Singer make an unlike­ly pair, but what they share in com­mon ulti­mate­ly brings them togeth­er. What are the sim­i­lar­i­ties between these two characters?

2. Leo fears becom­ing invis­i­ble. How does fic­tion writ­ing prove a balm for his anxiety?

3. Explore the theme of authen­tic­i­ty through­out the nar­ra­tive. Who’s real and who’s a fraud? 

4. Despite his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with his approach­ing death, Leo has a spir­it that is inde­fati­ga­bly com­ic. Describe the inter­play of tragedy and com­e­dy in The His­to­ry of Love.

5. What dis­tin­guish­es parental love from roman­tic love in the novel? 

6. Why is it so impor­tant to Alma that Bird act nor­mal? How nor­mal is Alma?

7. When Alma meets Leo, she calls him the old­est man in the world.” Does his voice sound so ancient?

8. Uncle Julian tells Alma, Wittgen­stein once wrote that when the eye sees some­thing beau­ti­ful, the hand wants to draw it.” How does this philo­soph­i­cal take on the artis­tic process relate to the impulse to write in The His­to­ry of Love?

9. Many dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tors con­tribute to the sto­ry of The His­to­ry of Love. What makes each of their voic­es unique? How does Krauss seam them togeth­er to make a coher­ent novel?

10. Sur­vival requires dif­fer­ent tac­tics in dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments. Aside from Alma’s wilder­ness guide­lines, what mea­sures do the char­ac­ters in the nov­el adopt to car­ry on?

11. Most all of the char­ac­ters in the nov­el are writ­ers – from Isaac Moritz to Bird Singer. Alma’s moth­er is some­what excep­tion­al, as she works as a trans­la­tor. Yet she is not the only char­ac­ter to trans­form oth­ers’ words for her cre­ative prac­tice. What are the sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences between an author and a translator? 

12. What are the ben­e­fits of friend­ship in the nov­el? Why might Alma feel more com­fort­able remain­ing Misha’s friend rather than becom­ing his girlfriend?

13. The fame and adu­la­tion Isaac Moritz earns for his nov­els rep­re­sent the rewards many writ­ers hope for, while Leo, an unwit­ting ghost­writer, remains unrec­og­nized for his work. What role does val­i­da­tion play in the many acts of writ­ing in The His­to­ry of Love?

14. Leo decides to mod­el nude for an art class in order to leave an imprint of his exis­tence. He writes to pre­serve the mem­o­ries of his love for Alma Meremins­ki. Yet draw­ings and nov­els are nev­er faith­ful ren­di­tions of the truth. Do you rec­og­nize a process of era­sure in the sto­ries he tells us?

15. Why might Krauss have giv­en her nov­el the title The His­to­ry of Love, the same as that of the fic­tion­al book around which her nar­ra­tive centers?