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As rewarding as it is complicated

Unplug the phone, shut the door, let everyone think you’re on holiday, make sure your fridge is well stocked. Then read The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. It’s a book you have to read with concentration and without long intervals between sessions – it’s too complicated otherwise. I didn’t make such preparations, and I can assure you, I regretted it. I got lost half way. I had to reread pages, because I was convinced I hadn’t understood them completely and thought I had mixed characters up. Finally I decided to start all over again, making sure not to get too disturbed, and I was rewarded: the book is a beauty. It turned out that I had understood it the first time after all. The protagonists are all mixed up in a certain way; things indeed do not tally up. That knowledge made it possible for me to read in a more relaxed manner and enjoy the way Krauss brings her characters to life. Via their diaries, each with their own style and humour, the reader is drawn into their lives, which are more or less connected.

One of the characters is the 14-year-old Alma Singer, who wants her mother to be happy again after her father’s death. When her mother is asked by Jacob Marcus to translate a book called The History of Love, Alma grabs the opportunity and tries to bring them together. In the meantime, she becomes obsessed with finding out more about the author and about the girl in the book, Alma Mereminski, whom it appears she is named after. Alma’s style is light and funny in the way she reflects on her life and tries to deal with problems.

Then there is Leo Gursky, who is now living in New York. He was brought up in Poland and survived the terrors of the Second World War. His love for Alma Mereminski kept him going and she inspired him to write a book that, he thinks, got lost. He describes his life with a certain self-mockery, which makes the horrors he has lived through more bearable to read about, although you can still feel his pain. His loneliness is almost tangible.

I had to make quite an effort to read The History of Love, but it was like opening an oyster and finding a pearl in it.

 

Welmoed Hoogvorst

In this series, three reviewers write about their favourite books, recent or not so recent

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