Study Guide

The History of Love Grief

By Nicole Krauss


A couple of years after his wife died. It was too much to love in the apartment without her, everything reminded him, so when an apartment opened up in the floor above me he moved in. (1.10)

As we eventually learn, Leo's friend Bruno died in 1941, and now exists only in Leo's mind. How can we interpret his creation of a personal history for Bruno—including wife, apartment, cake baking, etc.?

At first my mother kept everything exactly as he left it. [...] Then one day I came home from school and every obvious sign of him was gone. The closets were cleared of his clothes, his shoes were gone from by the door, and out in the street, next to a pile of garbage bags, stood his old chair. I went up to my bedroom and watched it through the window. The wind sent leaves cartwheeling past it on the sidewalk. An old man passed by and sat in it. I went on and fished his sweater out of the trash bin. (2.14)

In its simplest terms, this episode symbolizes Alma's mother's attempt to move on from her initial period of grieving and Alma's unwillingness to abandon her dad to memory. For more on this, check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."

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. (2.23-24)

Uncle Julian argues that grief does not necessarily have to be a debilitating force—or at least that grieving can be seen in a positive light. Do you think that Alma agrees with this idea? Do you agree?

There were three mirrors. I was exposed to parts of myself I hadn't seen in years. Despite my grief, I took a moment to examine them. (4.38)

Although grief might normally (as in the case of Alma's mother) cause someone to neglect the superficial world of appearances, Leo is forced to observe his age and consider his own impending death.

I took a drink, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, repeating the gesture that was made a hundred times by my father and his father and his father's father, eyes half closed as the sharpness of the alcohol replaced the sharpness of grief. (4.47)

It remains ambiguous whether Leo is remembering his ancestor's taste for alcohol, or feeling connected to them through the understanding that each of them had to cope with grief about their own family members at some point.

I went upstairs. With every door and cabinet and drawer I opened, I learned something new about Isaac, and with each new thing I learned, his absence became more real, and the more real, the more impossible to believe. (10.31)

Leo hopes to console himself by connecting more deeply to the son he never knew. But the greater intimacy only makes him grieve more.

I lost the only woman I ever wanted to love. I lost years. I lost books. I lost the house where I was born. And I lost Isaac. (10.43)

Leo presents these things as a simple list, but in fact each item and how he lost them were profoundly different. This just highlights the conflicted psychology with which Leo has emerged from his turbulent (to say the least) youth.

After Uncle Julian left, my mother became more withdrawn, or maybe a better word would be obscure, as in faint, unclear, distant. Empty teacups gathered around her, and dictionary pages fell at her feet. She abandoned the garden, and the mums and asters that had trusted her to see them through to the first frost hung their waterlogged heads. Letters came from publishers asking if she'd be interested in translating this or that book. These went unanswered. The only phone calls she accepted were from Uncle Julian, and whenever she spoke to him, she closed the door. (13.1)

As readers, we don't know so much about Uncle Julian, but what we do know tells us that he's sort of unhinged. Why would Alma's mother choose him as a confidante rather than someone who's a little more stable? Side note: it isn't difficult to read the image of the neglected flowers as representing Alma and her brother Bird. But we'll play Captain Obvious anyway.

Every year, the memories I have of my father become more faint, unclear, and distant. Once they were vivid and true, then they became like photographs, and now they are more like photographs of photographs. But sometimes, at rare moments, a memory of him will return to me with such suddenness and clarity that all the feeling I've pushed down for years springs out like a jack-in-the-box. At these moments, I wonder if this is the way it feels to be my mother. (13.2)

The reader initially feels Alma's sadness about the fact that her memories of her father are fading. But the correlation with her mother's grief suggests that the impermanence of memories might just be a blessing.

The only person I really miss is Dad. Sometimes I get jealous of Alma because she knew Dad more than I did and can remember so much about him. But the weird thing is that when I read Volume 2 of her notebook last year it said, I FEEL SAD BECAUSE I NEVER REALLY KNEW DAD. (16.6)

It's ironic that Bird feels jealous of Alma's memories of their father, since in reality Alma has been making up facts and memories about their father in order to help Bird feel closer to him. Now he has a glimpse of the truth.