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Past Tense

Photo by Joyce Ravid

The two protagonists of Nicole Krauss’ new novel could not, in some ways, be further apart. Leo Gursky, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor from a Polish village and retired locksmith living in New York, fills his days with the minutiae of survival and fears his imminent solitary death: “I try to make a point of being seen,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m out, I’ll buy a juice even though I’m not thirsty.” He carries in his wallet a card which reads, “MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.” His counterpart, a precocious adolescent named Alma Singer, is preparing not for death but for life, writing in a notebook titled “How To Survive in the Wild” and negotiating the excruciations of her first kiss. What will slowly draw them together is a fiction, The History of Love, penned by Gursky in his youth as a tribute to the girl he loved and then, as far as he knows, irretrievably lost. The uncovering of the manuscript’s winding history, from Slonim in Poland to Valparaiso, Chile, and back, via Britain and Israel, to Brooklyn, constitutes much of the novel’s plot.


The considerable pleasure of this book resides, at least in part, in its complicated and unexpected interweaving of literary influences. Gursky’s monologues are a tour de force of a familiar kind: He is a version of America’s male Jewish narrators of the second half of the 20th century, a little bit Singer, a little bit Bellow, a little bit Roth. He is funny, rueful, eccentric, obsessive. Scarred by the loss of his family and friends to the Germans, he is marked, too, by the loss of his great love, a woman named Alma Mereminski, who fled to America and bore Gursky’s child, only to raise him as another man’s son — a son who, in turn, has become a great man of American letters, a little bit Bellow and a little bit Roth. Gursky riffs, hilariously and often. For example, he opines upon his good looks, or lack thereof: “As a child, my mother and my aunts used to tell me that I would grow up to become handsome . . . The year of my Bar Mitzvah I was visited by a plague of acne that stayed four years. But still I continued to hope. As soon as the acne cleared my hairline began to recede, as if it wanted to disassociate itself from the embarrassment of my face.” He also acts with a novelistic eccentricity, modeling nude for an art class (in order, of course, simply to be seen), or taking a limo in the dead of night to repair a stranger’s front-door lock. He crashes his lost son’s funeral, stinking of drink, and the scene — comic and ghastly at once — pleasurably echoes its literary antecedents.


Alma Singer, however, emanates from a different literary set altogether, that of the questing half-child who confronts life’s big questions with a whimsical eye. While Leo Gursky struggles with matters of death and constipation, the sweating, Beckettian horror of isolation and old age, Alma’s search for her namesake, Alma Mereminski, has something of a bookish romp about it. Her male literary cousins can be found in Le Grand Meaulnes or The Counterfeiters, but her closest female relative might be Harriet the Spy. Alma’s father died of pancreatic cancer when she was 7, and she lives, now, with her younger brother, known as Bird, who considers himself a lamed vovnik, one of 36 holy people alive at any time, according to Jewish teaching. He is busy selling lemonade to buy a plane ticket to Israel, and preparing for the Flood. Their mother, a translator — translator, indeed, of The History of Love — is, as parents in such books always are, only the vaguest of presences. Indeed, when Alma notes, near the novel’s end, that “After Uncle Julian left, my mother became more withdrawn, or maybe a better word would be obscure, as in faint, unclear, distant,” it is difficult to imagine that this parent could be any more distant, any less visible, and still be on the same planet as her children (or the reader, for that matter).



The cementing of Alma’s and Gursky’s narratives is effected by a third, the Borgesian account of The History of Love, and of its caretaker and usurper, Zvi Litvinoff. He, like Gursky, hailed from Slonim, but ended up in Chile rather than in New York, and through an elaborate series of events and deceptions — and here again there is a flood — he unwittingly and posthumously ensures Gursky’s reunion both with his early manuscript and with its most recent devotee, Alma. (Krauss quotes at some length from Gursky’s History of Love; and perhaps in doing so does it, and us, a disservice. It is, in this account, that manuscript’s effects that matter; and we strain to see their cause in the rather precious passages relayed here.)


The novel is not merely a fine pastiche of Krauss’ masters; rather, it is more than the sum of its parts. The mixing of these voices and styles results in something satisfying precisely because it is simultaneously familiar and new — like some sort of fusion cuisine. Even when at its most apparently idiosyncratic, the third-person narration has about it a faint, not-quite-placeable echo, the imprint of an earlier prose: “What is not known about Zvi Litvinoff is endless . . . It is not known that Litvinoff’s favorite flower was the peony. That his favorite form of punctuation was the question mark . . . That his favorite food was the potato.” Our recognition of the echo — where have we seen this narrative strategy before? — pleases us, even as we follow Litvinoff’s particular peculiarities and embrace his own strange tale.


The book’s whimsy can be a tad wearing, as can Krauss’ insistence on the hyperbolic vividness of her characters: She seems not to trust that they would be fascinating without their oddities. Indeed — most extremely in the case of Bird and his messianic obsession — these willed oddities can deflect us, and even Krauss herself, from her characters’ humanity. Upon several occasions, I found myself asking, of an incident or a detail, “Really?”; and felt, in such moments, that a commitment to human truth, elsewhere amply apparent, had been sacrificed to form.


Then again, my formulation may be ­inappropriate: Krauss’ ultimate commitment, in this novel, may not be to human truth, but to a sort of literary truth. An example can be found, perhaps, in the book’s use of the Holocaust. It is the underlying catalyst for all that transpires: the fateful separation of Gursky and Alma Mereminski; the separation of Gursky and Litvinoff; of Gursky and The History of Love. It has inexorably shaped Gursky, made of him a ghost of a man who doesn’t even show up in photographs (“I knew that the way others had lost a leg or an arm, I’d lost whatever the thing is that makes people indelible”). The arrival of the Germans in Slonim is only briefly described, and yet it echoes with a peculiar and gathering force throughout the novel. Krauss achieves this effect neither through the accuracy or newness of her account, nor — obviously — through its amplitude. Rather, the resonance of the Holocaust in her novel relies, in some measure, upon the literary and historical Holocausts that precede it, upon what we already carry inside our heads.


By the same token, Krauss’ characters are rendered fuller by their resemblance to their ancestors (just as Krauss herself traceably and wonderfully resembles her grandparents, whose photographs accompany her dedication). The novel’s achievement is precisely, and not negligibly, this: to have made a new fiction — alternately delightful and hilarious and deeply affecting — out of what has come before.



THE HISTORY OF LOVE | By NICOLE KRAUSS | W.W. Norton | 250 pages | $23.95 hardcover


Claire Messud’s most recent book is The Hunters .


More books: See John Powers’ interview with Kazuo Ishiguro