By Rachael Franks
When I was younger, I was terrified that I would be cross-eyed. An irrational childhood fear to some, but I lived my tiny life within its constraints. I would follow my finger with my eyes or obsess over their placement in the mirror. At night, I even slept with my pinky finger nudged in between my eye and nose, hoping that it would keep them aligned until morning. These were imaginary cures for an imaginary problem. Yet, it all felt real to my five-year-old self. This power of imagination can be found in Nicole Krauss’s novel, The History of Love. As the title insists, it is a novel about love but less obvious, it is about the loss of love. In the novel, the characters Leo and Charlotte construct their own realities after the person they love is gone. They live within a constructed reality and much like me as a child, are constrained because of it. Yet, that is also how they manage to carry on. Leo and Charlotte survive loss by creating a world in which they can cope.
Leo creates a world around the love of his life, Alma. Their romance was arguably the strongest influence in his life. Everything he did or did not do was in response to her and that did not change with her absence. In fact, it only grew stronger for “if it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it (57). Fill it Leo does, or tries to with his friend Bruno. When he cannot have Alma, he becomes dependent on Bruno. Leo cannot “imagine a life without him,” and he creates a reality in which he never has to be without him (209). Despite Bruno’s death years earlier, Leo continues to interact with an imaginary version of Bruno. They check up on each other, tap conversations through the pipes, have breakfast together and even have fights. However, Leo does not construct this imaginary world for lack of sanity, but rather the opposite. “The truth is the thing [he] invented to live” and in this case, the invented truth was a world where Bruno was still alive (167). After Alma, Bruno is all Leo had and to survive he constructed his own reality where he could continue to depend on Bruno. Knowing Bruno was not real did not matter, because to Leo, he was alive and because of that, so was he.
After losing her husband, Charlotte enters an imaginary world where he still exists. She recaptures the way he made her feel through memories. These “memories… soothed her even while they made her sad,” for Charlotte desperately grabs for any glimmer of her husband (181). Yet, in choosing to live in a constructed world of memories rather than reality, Charlotte “sacrificed the world” (46). She even gave up her family, as they would never “be able to win over the memories she had” (181). However, this is not a reflection of her feelings for her family, as she tells her daughter, Alma, she loves her constantly, so much so that Alma wants to tell her mother to “love [her] less” (43). This is the aftermath of her husband’s death and Charlotte’s reaction to loss. By shaping the world around her to one in which her late husband exists, Charlotte will never be lonely nor happy. Charlotte can survive.
Living in a self-constructed world means giving up life. Yet, it also means preserving love. In reality, Leo and Charlotte would have to let go of their loves and move on. In their constructed realities, they can hold on forever. Author Nicole Krauss speaks about such catastrophic events, like the death of a loved one, and what those events ask of the survivor. In the case of Charlotte and Leo, they undergo what Krauss calls a “radical recreation of self” in order to go on. Their existence is dependent on the life of their loved one and are therefore forced to create a world where both fallen and survivor can live.