The histories of several unresolved, inchoate and remembered loves.
The first of the stories here is that of New York City octogenarian Leo Gursky, a Polish war refugee who came to America seeking Alma, the girl he had loved, who had emigrated before him. Following a bleakly funny opening sequence that sharply dramatizes Leo’s undiminishable vitality, and also reveals teasing details about Alma’s American life, second-novelist Krauss (Man Walks into a Room, 2002) shifts the focus to adolescent Alma Singer, who’s edging cautiously toward womanhood while dealing with her unstable younger brother Emanuel (aka “Bird”) and widowed mother Charlotte (a literary translator). Alma’s memories of her late father, a cancer victim, take the forms of a fixation on survival techniques and an obsession with an autobiographical book (which Charlotte translates): a homage to another Alma, and the work of Holocaust survivor Zvi Litvinoff, whose resemblances to and connections with Leo Gursky lie at the heart of this novel’s unfolding mysteries. Suffice it to say that each of Krauss’s searching and sentient characters is both exactly who he or she seems to be and another person entirely, and that that paradox is expertly worked out as Krauss gradually reveals the provenance of the eponymous History; the relationship that embraces Litvinoff, Gursky and the latter’s mysterious upstairs neighbor Bruno; and the woman or women they “all” loved and lost. These enigmas are deepened and underscored by the chaotic “diary” in which Bird records the apocalyptic fantasies that are at heart his own history of love and loss, another son’s search for another father, and an affirmation of the compensation for loss through exercise of the imagination that this brilliant novel itself so memorably incarnates.
A most unusual and original piece of fiction—and not to be missed.