catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 7 :: 2009.03.27 — 2009.04.10


Characters to love

Theologian Walter Bruggeman says that we read The Psalms because it enables us to pray with honesty “for all kinds and conditions of men.” This is, perhaps, the same reason we read The History of Love. It drips with humanity, with life, with love – in youth and through old age.

It is also terribly funny. Narrator Leo Gursky reminds me of Augustus Riley from A Confederacy of Dunces. Not what I expected. I’d put Leo and Bird in my list of top 25 characters of all time. The book’s back cover offers this succinct review: “At least as heartbreaking as it is hilarious.” Don’t let the title throw you. There’s no Harlequin here.

Leo is an aging Jew with a Brooklyn accent who survived three years in Nazi occupied Poland by becoming “invisible.” Now in New York, he makes a point of being seen (for example, “I went to the drugstore and knocked over a display of KY jelly. But. My heart wasn’t in it.”) Early on, he answers an ad that asks him to bear all for an art class. His thought process in the change room is priceless: “Then it occurred to me: what, exactly, did ‘nude’ mean? …Don’t be an idiot, I told myself. These aren’t amateurs.”  Author Nicole Krauss’s largest accomplishment in this book is making herself invisible. Her characters dominate the page – they breathe, sweat, cry and keep changing the story.

Leo loses everything in his escape from Poland – his one and only love; his unborn, unknown son; and ultimately, we learn, his own identity. The grief is tangible, but the love makes it bearable, and the humanity, compelling. This is more than a story of loss – it maintains a tension as Leo paces between the twin outcomes of ultimate scarring and ultimate healing. Leo tells us, “The truth is the thing I invented so I could live.”

When Leo isn’t absorbed in lost love, he is consumed with his own mortality. He carries an index card in his wallet that says: “MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH SECTION THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.” Leo encounters the death of everyone he loves, and his meditations shed candlelight on human behavior:

At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps what’s why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.

The second most wonderful character is Bird, a highly religious child who “acts out” the loss of his father, believing himself to be a “lamed vovnick,” one of 36 Jewish holy people upon whom the existence of the world depends. He sells 1,500 glasses of lemonade in an effort buy a ticket to Israel, builds an ark and continually hurls himself off tall structures. Once, when a suitor worthy of his mother knocks on the door, Bird “streaked down the stairs naked but for his cast, put ’That’s Amore’ on the record player, and streaked back up.” He’s a character we can’t help but watch.

And the reader is compelled to receive Bird with as much humor and as much intensity as Leo. The first scene to win us over records a childhood game between Bird and his older sister, Alma. She tells the story:

My brother and I used to play a game. I’d point to a chair. ‘THIS IS NOT A CHAIR,’ I’d say. Bird would point to the table. ‘THIS IS NOT A TABLE.’ ‘THIS IS NOT A WALL,’ I’d say. ‘THAT IS NOT A CEILING.’ We’d go on like that. ‘IT IS NOT RAINING OUT.’ ‘MY SHOE IS NOT UNTIED!’ Bird would yell…. We denied whole rooms, years, weathers. Once at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath. At the top of his lungs, he shrieked: ‘I! HAVE NOT! BEEN! UNHAPPY! MY WHOLE! LIFE!’ ‘But you’re only seven,’ I said.

I will admit, I picked up The History of Love four times in the past three years, before finally finishing it. But that’s not a count against it. The anticipation of something this good is a thing itself to keep.

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