“The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma…”
I believe in the power of the written word. And also its futility. I have known the company of the dead, and their silences have ricocheted through the prismatic vaults of my brain – I have also clawed after their flesh and woken up in ether. “All art is useless”[i] and yet so necessary, it confounds me. We need to speak, and yet we cannot say a single word that can truly be ours or at least more than a petty approximation of what goes on within. All literature is a vast tautology[ii], says Sartre. Why wouldn’t it be? The human species has been repeating itself for centuries. We have exhausted our capacity to invent.
But we still create. We create from things broken and things common, we create from legacy and inheritance, we create from personal abuse and disappointments, we create from each other, but create we must. For ours is the only meaning life truly has. Ours are the only books that are holy, that matter, that last.
“Maybe the first time you saw her you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and a part of you resisted—wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated.”
Krauss creates something equally repetitive and profound in The History of Love but following postmodernist aesthetics, she is aware of it – her work is painfully self-conscious as are her characters. She writes within tradition yet critiques it, plays with it simultaneously – her books are about the limitations of books, the writing of books, the condemned writers and readers of books. It is many things – it is a microcosm closed in on itself – it is the set of countless reflections created after two mirrors decide to look at each other. But I believe her. Every step of the way, I believed her stories, the absence and silence of her characters, their reconstruction, their many deaths, their shared imaginarium. I recognized Alma, for I loved her, too, along with every other character in the book. She has been my Muse, as well, and my personal tragedy, the stuff of my teenage poems, my conception of something good, something complete and beautiful. For this is what Krauss specializes in. The ideas of people, if not their anatomies, if not the description of their unique birthmarks and the shape of their fingertips, but how we remember them after years go by, as bare, luminous silhouettes.
“In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and a self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. 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.”
I am bewitched. I am bewitched by the tightness of her prose, its delicacy, its sparse lyricism. I am glad it staves off insincere sentimentalism, and keeps the reader’s interest afloat despite the cerebral, labyrinthine complexity of its plot. This is writing done lovingly, restoring my faith in contemporary American fiction.
“If you remember the first time you saw Alma, you also remember the last. She was shaking her head. Or disappearing across a field. Or through your window. Come back, Alma! you shouted. Come back! Come back!
But she didn’t.”
Leo Gursky survives WWII with a broken heart. The love of his life survives, too, with their son, but it takes Leo longer to find refuge, long enough to become a memory for the woman who had inspired him to write his very first book. Years later in a different world, an explorer finds the same book (but written by someone else, someone else who had his own reasons) in the ruins of South America, and that very book, having started out as homage becomes a work in translation, and a beautiful link between refugees and exiles scattered like pixie dust over the New World – the world that had finally brought them together, if at least in death and remembrance.
“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.”
And so have I, the reader. I have grown around the frozen body of dead Franz Kafka (he climbed up a tree and wouldn’t come down), I have grown around Bird (the self-professed lamed vovnik), I have grown around Litvinoff who stole his friend’s book (perhaps it belonged to him too in many ways), but mostly I have grown around Leo and his absent son (or was he the absent father?), and the many Almas who haunt the pages of this book.
It took seven languages to make Alma Singer, and it surely took many to make Nicole, as well. Most of us are children of broken civilizations and lost languages, and we carry the weight of our dead wherever we go. The people we’re named after, the ancestors who gave us the color of our eyes, the grandparents who died crossing oceans, and the dispossessed whose blood thinned out and became translucent as they swapped colors and ethnicities – this book is about all of them. This book is about me as I, too, am a child of a broken subcontinent and migrants. I carry history with me, the history of love and silence, of sacrifice and disappearing, of beginning again, of rebuilding an identity.
I, too, have loved Alma.
And so have you.
Momina Masood is an editorial intern. Reviewer’s Rating: 4 / 5.
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[i] Wilde, Oscar. Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Random House. 1998. Print.
[ii] Sartre, Jean-Paul. What is Literature. Routledge. 2001. Print.