Only the last page was different. It said: THE DEATH OF LEOPOLD GURSKY. Litvinoff felt a gust of cold in his heart. He glanced at his friend, who was breathing heavily. He started to read. When he got to the end he shook his head and read it again. And again after that. He read it over and over, mouthing the words as if they were not an announcement of death, but a prayer for life. As if just by saying them, he could keep his friend safe from the angel of death, the force of his breath alone keeping its wings pinned for a moment more, a moment more — until it gave up and left his friend alone. All night, Litvinoff watched over his friend, and all night he moved his lips. And for the first time in as long as he could remember, he did not feel useless.
As morning broke, Litvinoff saw with relief that the color had returned to his friend’s face. He was sleeping the restful sleep of recovery. When the sun had climbed to the position of eight o’clock, he stood. His legs were stiff. His insides felt scraped out. But hew as filled with happiness. He folded THE DEATH OF LEOPOLD GURSKY in half. And here is another thing no one knows about Zvi Litvinoff: for the rest of his life he carried in his breast pocket the page he’d protected all night from becoming real, so that he could buy a little more time — for his friend, for life.—Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
from “my mother’s sadness” in the history of love:
2. WHAT I AM NOT
My brother and I used to play a game. I’d point to a chair. ”THIS IS NOT A CHAIR,” I’d say. Bird would point to the table. ”THIS IS NOT A TABLE.” ”THIS IS NOT A WALL,” I’d say. ”THAT IS NOT A CEILING.” We’d go on like that. ”IT IS NOT RAINING OUT.” ”MY SHOE IS NOT UNTIED!” Bird would yell. I’d point to my elbow. ”THIS IS NOT A SCRAPE.” Bird would lift his knee. ”THIS IS ALSO NOT A SCRAPE!” ”THAT IS NOT A KETTLE!” ”NOT A CUP!” ”NOT A SPOON!” ”NOT DIRTY DISHES!” We denied whole rooms, years, weathers. Once, at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath. At the top of his lungs, he shrieked: ”I! HAVE NOT! BEEN! UNHAPPY! MY WHOLE! LIFE!” ”But you’re only seven,” I said.
18. MY MOTHER NEVER FELL OUT OF LOVE WITH MY FATHER
She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met. In order to do this, she’s turned life away. Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air. Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her. Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure. To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape. It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.
My mother did not choose a leaf or a head. She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.
19. THE WALL OF DICTIONARIES BETWEEN MY MOTHER AND THE WORLD GETS TALLER EVERY YEAR
Sometimes pages of the dictionaries come loose and gather at her feet, shallon, shallop, shallot, shallow, shalom, sham, shaman, shamble, like the petals of an immense flower. When I was little, I thought that the pages on the floor were words she would never be able to use again, and I tried to tape them back in where they belonged, out of fear that one day she would be left silent.
the first chapter of the history of love is just sosososo good.
recent reads + current (or intended) reads.
nicole krauss, man walks into a room
this remains one of my favourite books and is still my favourite by her. man walks into a room is krauss’ debut novel, yet her writing is assured and confident but humbly so — the novel doesn’t carry the insecurities you might find lurking under other debut novels — and i just love that it’s a book about memories and self and how those two intersect in questions about identity. this is one of my favourite quotes from it. this is another. this is one of my favourite passages. gah, basically, i love this book, everything about it — the story it tells, the characters it shares, the words in which its written — and i love how human it is, how relatable samson is even if his experience is one entirely foreign to me, how full of love it is.
alice munro, hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage
favourite stories were “family furnishings,” “nettles,” and “what is remembered.” i also really liked “queenie,” except the ending felt really abrupt and incomplete. munro is less about her writing itself technically than she is about this mood/tone she captures, and she does such an excellent job of creating a whole, lived-in world in the frame of a short story. her portrayals of life and marriage are so real but almost in a way that i, at this moment in my life, find rather undesirable as a reading experience — munro doesn’t try to create a veneer over the realities of marriage in her stories (and i think this distinction is important — that these are the realities of marriage in her stories) — but you know how it’s pretty much universally accepted that munro is not only a fantastic writer but also a brilliant short story writer? yeah, that’s all entirely warranted; her stories are compelling and told well; but i do stick to my brief comment before about how i find her stories in first-person more powerful.
haruki murakami, south of the border, west of the sun
ah, murakami, i can’t stay away. as i was reading this, i wrote in the margin, “this does feel more solid and less other worldly than, say, norwegian wood or 1q84,” and it really did. murakami’s tone is the same as ever (he’s so consistent in that aspect), but south of the border, west of the sun felt very grounded, very much a story of this world and only this world, even if there were hints of murakami’s usual surrealism. i’m still a little unsure as to how i feel about the story; there are strong elements of justification (or, if not justification, then mere acceptance) for hajime’s decisions to cheat on, first, his girlfriend and, then, his wife; and i guess i was put off by the ease with which these justifications (which were pretty much nothing more than physical desire) were given.
however, a passage i absolutely loved when yukiko (hajime’s wife) asks him if he’s leaving her — hajime says,
yukiko, i love you very much. i loved you from the first day i met you, and i still feel the same. if i hadn’t met you, my life would have been unbearable. for that i am grateful beyond words. yet here i am, hurting you. because i’m a selfish, hopeless, worthless human being. for no apparent reason, i hurt the people around me and end up hurting myself. ruining someone else’s life and my own. not because i like to. but that’s how it ends up.
this is such a great summation of what it means to be human, i think. we don’t mean to hurt people or do wrong, but it can’t be helped because we’re human. we’re imperfect and sinful and selfish, hopeless, worthless, &c, and the most we can do is the best we can — all we can do is try and recognize that we will fail, but, then, we get up and try again — so, in the end, i did appreciate hajime’s struggle throughout the novel and how he came out from it.
(current [or intended] reads: a re-read of the tiger’s wife because, even i found this very flawed when i first read it when it was published, i like obreht’s writing, and i liked the story of the deathless man + a re-read of the comfort of strangers, which i loved when i read it years ago + ariel’s gift because birthday letters is the only poetry collection i absolutely love and, well, my obsession with sylvia plath is still going strong. let’s see what other books distract me from these, though.)