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The Custom of the Country

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Nicole Krauss’s first novel, Man Walks into a Room, published in 2002 when she was twenty-eight, begins as an astute portrayal of an Upper West Side couple, a Columbia University professor and his social worker wife, whose lives are shattered after the husband undergoes an operation to remove a tumor from his brain. The husband remembers nothing that happened to him after the age of twelve but his cognitive faculties are left intact. Nevertheless, he allows himself to be recruited for a project that is designed to enable people to “communicate and share more clearly,” and attain “true empathy” by transferring one person’s memories to another. At this point, the book turns into grade-B science fiction. Nicole Krauss is also a poet and has been short-listed for the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize, and has been named by The New Yorker as one of the best of young American writers.

Her second novel, The History of Love, is not, in my view, an improvement over the first. However, no less an authority than J.M. Coetzee, the great master of modern fiction, has written in a comment on the book jacket that the novel is “charming, tender, and wholly original,” and the review of History in the daily New York Times was close to rapturous. It has also been announced that Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban and Y tu mamá también, has included filming History among his projects for 2006. Sometimes the resemblance between a film and the novel on which it was based turns out to be distant. But even if the filmmaker follows Krauss’s text, he may still succeed in reshaping it and getting rid of the many absurdities that now mar it.

History consists of two loosely connected stories, both told during October 2000. The simpler one concerns Alma Singer, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Brooklyn with her widowed mother and younger brother, who has been called Bird ever since, on his sixth birthday, “he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly.” Bird is passionate about Judaism and the Jewish religion; he thinks he may be a lamed vovnik,* or even the Messiah; at the age of twelve and a half, he still wets his bed; he is in therapy with a Doctor Vishnubakat. One might wonder whether Bird had been inspired by J.D. Salinger’s stories of the Glass family, but Seymour’s recent avatar, the compulsive and relentlessly cute Oskar Schell (in Krauss’s husband Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), may, as a New York Times reviewer has also remarked, be a nearer relative. Alma’s story takes the form of a memoir, which is supplemented by excerpts from Bird’s diary, some of them inserted in Alma’s text and some standing on their own. Alma has set a task for herself—she is determined to find a suitor for her mother, Charlotte. Since her father died, Charlotte has had only two dates.

The subject of the other story is Leopold Gursky, an elderly retired locksmith who has lived for many years on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and has written two books. As far as he knows, they have remained in manuscript. The first is called, like the novel under review, The History of Love. Gursky, it would seem, wrote it in Yiddish between 1938 and 1941, mainly in Slonim, an ancient small town that belonged to Poland between the 1921 Peace of Riga and September 1939, when the Soviet Union annexed eastern Poland. It is now in Belarus. In 1941, Gursky entrusted the only copy of this manuscript to his childhood friend Zvi Litvinoff on the very day Litvinoff left Poland for Chile.

Gursky tells his story in the first person, with occasional lyrical flights into the third person, while an omniscient narrator tells us about Litvinoff. From Poland, Litvinoff traveled across German-occupied Europe to Spain, from there to Lisbon, and then to Valparaiso, Chile, where he settled in 1941. Meanwhile Gursky, after three and a half years of hiding from the Germans, arrived in New York City in the fall of 1945, having spent six months in a displaced persons’ camp. He has not seen Litvinoff again but, having somehow obtained his address in Valparaiso, wrote to him in 1952, asking for the return of his book. Litvinoff’s Jewish-Chilean wife, Rosa, intercepted the letter in Yiddish and responded with a lie: her husband was sick, she told Gursky, and the manuscript has been destroyed, with no copies remaining.

She lied in order to protect her husband. A couple of years earlier, Litvinoff, wanting to impress Rosa with his literary gifts, copied Gursky’s manuscript and presented the book to Rosa as his own, substituting South American place names for Slonim and Vilna, and giving all the characters, except one, Spanish-sounding names. Rosa later found the original manuscript, and without telling Litvinoff she had penetrated his secret, destroyed the incriminating document by flooding Litvinoff’s study. Thus, in 1952, the book was published in Chile, in Rosa’s Spanish translation, as the original work of Litvinoff. The one name Litvinoff did not alter was that of Alma, the girl Gursky loved in Slonim. He knew that Gursky wrote the book for her.

Gursky’s other book is a novel, written by him in English, which he apparently completed in New York in the late 1990s. Its title is Words for Everything. Gursky has recently mailed it to Isaac Moritz, a celebrated American author of six novels, the first of which won the National Book Award in 1972 and received that same year a rave review by Edmund Wilson.

As the reader may have already guessed, the link between the seemingly disparate tales of the Singers and Gursky turns out to be the name Alma. Alma Singer was named after the Alma in Gursky’s book. Alma Singer’s father, an Israeli, bought the plagiarized Spanish version in a Buenos Aires bookshop and gave it to Charlotte, his English wife-to-be, whom he had met on a kibbutz. He read it to her aloud, translating into Hebrew or English, but soon Charlotte learned Spanish in order to be able to read it herself. This turned out to be a useful decision. She became a professional translator while living in Tel Aviv and continued to translate from the Spanish after she and her husband moved to the US, where Alma was born. Much later, when Charlotte was already a widow, one of her translations, of the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, came into the hands of someone calling himself Jacob Marcus, who wrote to her asking that she translate The History of Love (a “slim volume”) into English for his own use, offering the astonishing fee of $100,000. Marcus explained that he had read her translation of Parra and had noticed that in her introduction to the poems, she had mentioned, he said,

a little-known writer, Zvi Litvinoff, who escaped from Poland to Chile in 1941, and whose single published work, written in Spanish, is called The History of Love…. Maybe if I tell you that a very long time ago someone once read to me as I was falling asleep a few pages from a book called The History of Love, and that all these years later I haven’t forgotten that night, or those pages, you’d understand.

Charlotte accepts his proposal and starts sending him installments of her translation. Not surprisingly, Alma thinks this generous patron is a likely candidate for her mother’s affections. She begins a secret correspondence with him, signing her mother’s name to the letters. She wants to find out who he is. Dogged sleuthing in official record offices leads her to the truth. Jacob Marcus is a name being used by Isaac Moritz, the writer to whom Gursky mailed his second book (and it is also the name of a character in one of Moritz’s novels). But Moritz dies just before Alma is able to zero in on him.

Now the plot thickens. Isaac Moritz turns out to be Gursky’s son. We know from Gursky’s account that the Alma of History was a real person, his sweetheart in Slonim; she is the only woman he has ever loved. Moreover, unbeknownst to herself and Gursky, she was pregnant with Gursky’s child when she left Poland in 1939; her shoemaker father “was shrewd enough to scrounge together all the zloty he had to send his youngest daughter to America.” In 1940 she gave birth to Gursky’s child, which did not discourage Mordechai Moritz—the son of the owner of the dress factory in which she works—from marrying her in 1942 and naming the boy Isaac Moritz. When Gursky rushes to see her upon his arrival in New York in 1945, he finds out both about her child and about her marriage to Mordechai, with whom she has had another son.

Alma tells Gursky that she wrote to him in Poland as soon as she found out that she was pregnant, and waited for Gursky’s reply, but none came. However, Alma did receive other letters from Gursky, containing portions of his book; in one he “copied eleven chapters in tiny handwriting.” The pages that Alma read to Isaac Moritz in Yiddish as a child, the memory of which led him to commission the translation of History, must have been from those excerpts. Alma never told Isaac about Gursky, neither that he was his father nor that he was the real author of the work that now haunts him. Nevertheless, after his mother’s death in 1995, he began to suspect that there had been in her life someone other than the man he considers his father.

Gursky meanwhile has been secretly keeping an eye on Isaac Moritz and his mother for forty-five years, and has become one of his son’s fans. He yearns to make himself known to Moritz, and he finally sends him the manuscript of his English-language book Words, assuming that something in the text will open Moritz’s eyes to the truth. Naturally, with each passing day Gursky grows more impatient for a word of recognition from Mor-itz. None comes. Instead, in a Starbucks, Gursky reads Isaac Moritz’s obituary in another customer’s newspaper. He is dead at sixty, of Hodgkin’s disease.

Gursky desperately wants to know whether his son read the manuscript before he died. An ambiguous and unexpected answer comes a short while later, in October 2000, in the form of the publication of an excerpt from Words, “only edited a little here and there” in a magazine that faintly resembles The New Yorker. Isaac Moritz is named as the author of this piece, which is described as “part of his last manuscript.” Astonished, Gursky telephones the magazine’s fiction department and is told that the entire novel by Moritz will be published in January 2001 by the publishers of Moritz’s previous novels. Gursky asks whether the novel is “any good.” “Some people,” he is told, “say it’s one of his best.” It seems that the manuscript, unsigned, was among Moritz’s papers when he died, and was simply assumed to be an unpublished work. Gursky asks himself whether, if such is the case, Moritz had read it. It “dawned” on him that it was, after all,

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    A lamed vovnik is one of the thirty-six just who, according to Talmudic tradition, are born in each generation of Jews and are the soul of the universe.

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