At a KIRBC meeting over a year ago, my friend Emily brought in The History of Love. As is tradition, she read us a passage, and I knew instantly that I would love the book. As it turns out, Emily wasn’t the only one who loved it – History comes with SIX pages of praise at the front, perhaps the most I’ve ever seen. That’s a lot of pressure for a book, but luckily, this one charmed me from the opening paragraph:
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. The place isn’t big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.
If Richler had written more mellow, amiable old men, you would meet Leo Gursky, a character penned with such humour and compassion that he immediately captured my heart. As you can see from the opening passage, he is a man afraid of being forgotten, who just wants another human being, even a stranger, to look at him on the day that he dies. For this is a story which explores the painful disappearances of loved ones, the places carved out by love and left hollow by absence. Not only the loss of romantic love, but the loss of parents or children, of friends or a hometown which no longer exists. In this desire for the disappeared, love becomes a sort of nostalgia.
And so Leo tries to fill these absences with words. For if loneliness is to be unseen, perhaps love is to be looked upon. (After his description of his first encounter with Alba-as-prototype, Leo writes “Part of you thought: Please don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.”) And as he writes The History of Love (the book within a book), he is forever re-imagining his one great love, Alma. But good writing should not only evoke this love for its creator, but for its readers as well. And with the unwitting help of a plagiaristic friend, that’s how Leo’s book spreads love, and potentially provides a salve for other losses. For the other main thread in the story is that of a young girl, named Alma after Leo’s heroine for all time. Alba is familiar with the holes left by love: after her father’s death, she watched her mother shut down, and her brother turn to religious eccentricity perhaps in an effort to be seen. She starts out searching for a new husband for her mother who is disappearing in plain sight, but ends up trying to track down the mysterious author of The History of Love. For although Krauss’ History focuses on absence, it also acknowledges that loss may provide the opportunity for something new:
“And though you were grown up by then, you felt as lost as a child. And though your pride was broken, you felt as vast as your love for her. She was gone, and all that was left was the space where 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 flet 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.”
There are too many passages like this one I’d like to quote, but the writing is exquisite, and made better by Krauss’s facility with both humour and despair, her demonstration that humour can be the cane that enables an old man to walk. Like all histories, History is a story without a real beginning and end, with no easy resolution, merely a snapshot in the lives of a few people brought together by words borne of loneliness.