As soon as we meet him, we learn that Leopold Gursky is waiting to die. And by the end of Nicole Krauss' extraordinary novel "The History of Love," the...

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“The History of Love”

by Nicole Krauss

Norton, 252 pp., $23.95

As soon as we meet him, we learn that Leopold Gursky is waiting to die. And by the end of Nicole Krauss’ extraordinary novel “The History of Love,” the elderly, infirm protagonist is sitting alone on a park bench in New York City with a note pinned to his lapel.


Don’t be put off: even wrapped as it is around Leo’s impending, inevitable death, this powerfully bittersweet and engaging story is far from dark or morbid. Instead, “The History of Love” is a complex, funny, sad, elegantly constructed meditation on the power of love, language and imagination.

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As a very young man during World War II, Leopold escaped — pushed out the door by his mother, who promised to join him later — and lived like an animal in the woods when soldiers came to his small Polish village to kill his family. Leo survived by remembering the girl he loved, who had already fled to New York, and dreaming of the day he would join her.

When he did join her, miraculously, years later, it was too late. Pregnant with Leo’s son but not knowing what had become of him, she eventually married someone else. Utterly alone in the world, Leo stayed in New York, became a locksmith and watched from afar (not always so very far, sometimes just from across the street) as his son grew up without knowing him. His beloved Alma grew old.

Coming up

Nicole Krauss

The author of “A History of Love” will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or She will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or

“The History of Love” is also a novel within a novel; it’s the title of the book that Leo wrote, as a young man, for Alma. A passage in the book-within-the-book describes his first sight of her: “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.”

Leo thought the manuscript was lost, but like so many other things presumed gone forever in this novel, it lived on. Unknown to its author, the book was published and made its way into the lives of another family.

Their story, another story of love and loss, becomes entwined with Leo’s. The teenage daughter of the family is named after the Alma in “The History of Love”; the Alma in that novel is named after Leo’s unforgettable lost love. Krauss weaves the stories together, moving deftly forward and back in time to illuminate the shards of narrative that bring the whole picture slowly but sharply into focus.

The novel resonates with graceful language and metaphor. There is a lovely passage about the ways in which even small human gestures and betrayals can vibrate across many lives — “some tiny nothing that sets off a natural disaster halfway across the world.”

Krauss’ beautifully imagined characters are funny, rueful, smart and sometimes almost unbearably poignant, without ever being saccharine or sentimental. And in the end, Leo’s story — and his is the story that drives the novel — is in many ways the story of how a willful act of imagination can bring lost worlds and dead friends back to life.

“I wanted to believe,” Leo remembers. “So I tried. And I found I could.”