Study Guide

The History of Love Identity

By Nicole Krauss

Identity

I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I'm out, I'll buy a juice even though I'm not thirsty. If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. [...] All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen. (1.3)

Leo has been traumatized by the death of a neighbor whose body wasn't found for days. But is his willingness to sacrifice his dignity justified by that fear alone?

Once upon a time a man who had become invisible arrived in America. (1.33)

What does this say about the immigrant experience in America, and how America offers the possibility of a fresh start? Are we supposed to assume he becomes visible again upon arrival, or that he stays totally invisible?

After all, what does it mean for a man to hide one more thing when he has vanished completely? (1.36)

Isn't it interesting how this sentence implies the existence of other people—people to hide things from, and people to hide oneself from?

I found my way to the tropical greenhouse. It was another world inside, wet and warm, like the breath of people making love had been trapped there. With my finger I wrote on the glass LEO GURSKY. (1.87)

As Leo tells us elsewhere, "It had been a long time since I'd been with a woman" (7.63). Here, by writing his name onto a scene he's associated with sex and romance, he's trying to identify himself with that sort of human connection.

Afterwards, I found myself standing in line, my hands shaking as I pressed into his the scrap of paper on which I'd written my name. He glanced at it and copied it into a book. [...] "TO LEON GURSKY," it said (1.95-96).

This one's brutal: it's the one time Leo meets his son face-to-face. He actually hands him a piece of paper with his name on it, but Isaac misreads it and writes down the wrong name! Nothing could better symbolize what a stranger Leo is to him.

But my brother refused to answer to it. When people asked him his name, he made something up. He went through fifteen or twenty names. For a month he referred to himself in the third person as Mr. Fruit. On his sixth birthday he took a running leap out of a second-floor window and tried to fly. He broke his arm and got a scar on his forehead, but from then on nobody ever called him anything but Bird. (2.1)

This seems to be a pretty clear search for identity. What's special about the name he eventually settles on? Does it make sense that Bird is finally named after something he has done, rather than being named after a bunch of dead guys?

Almost everything known about Zvi Litvinoff comes from the introduction his wife wrote in the volume of The History of Love, reissued a few years after he died. (3.1)

Leo and Alma announce their respective arrivals by personally introducing themselves by name, firmly basing their existence in fact and owning their identities. With Litvinoff, on the other hand, not only is his story introduced in the third-person, but we're told that everything we know about him comes second-hand, and post-mortem.

There was a shop on Lexington that advertised passport pictures. I like to go sometimes. I keep them in a little album. Mostly they're of me, except for one, which is of Isaac, aged five, and another of my cousin, the locksmith. He was an amateur photographer and one day he showed me how to make a pinhole camera. This was the spring of 1947. I stood in the back of his tiny shop watching him fix the photographic paper inside the box. He told me to sit, and shone a lamp on my face. Then he removed the cover over the pinhole. I sat so still I was hardly breathing. When it was finished we went into the darkroom and dropped it in the developing pan. We waited. Nothing. Where I should have been there was only a scratchy grayness. My cousin insisted we do it again, so we did it again, and again, nothing. Three times he tried to take a picture of me with the pinhole camera, and three times I failed to appear. My cousin couldn't understand it. He cursed the man who sold him the paper, thinking he'd been given a bad batch. But I knew he hadn't. I knew the way others had lost a leg or an arm, I'd lost whatever the thing is that makes people indelible. I told my cousin to sit in the chair. He was reluctant, but finally he agreed. I took a photograph of him and as we watched the paper in the developing pan his face appeared. He laughed. And I laughed, too. It was I who'd taken the picture, and if it was proof of his existence, it was also proof of my own. He let me keep it. Whenever I took it out of my wallet and looked at him, I knew I was really looking at me. (4.40)

Wow, this is a big one. Um, so Leo doesn't exist? But he makes other people exist? And that makes him feel like he exists too? That's the gist of this story, a pretty stunning revelation that seems, ever after, to color the way Leo sees himself in the world.

"Then again, you could always just stick with half English and half Israeli, since—" "I'M AMERICAN!" I shouted. My mother blinked. [...] From the corner of the room where he was looking at the pictures in a magazine, Bird muttered, "No, you're not. You're Jewish." (5.4)

Alma's mother runs through sixteen different ways for Alma to define herself ethnically. But Alma dismisses all these, instead considering herself simply American. And Bird, of course, thinks that all these labels are negated by the fact that she comes from a Jewish family. What does this say about each of their personalities?

I didn't know how to say that even though I'd started out looking for someone who could make my mother happy again, now I was looking for something else, too. About the woman I was named after. And about me. (8.25)

So is Alma really looking for herself? What do you think?

My book was nowhere to be found. Aside from myself, there was no sign of me. (10.44)

Does Leo consider his book to be more "real" than his corporeal body?