Years later, Zvi Litvinoff is really sick. He has a terrible cough and is probably dying.
There's something he really wants to tell his wife, but the longer he waits, the more difficult it is to tell her.
When Litvinoff was younger, he had a friend. The last time he saw the friend was the day he left Poland. He thinks about this friend, and their parting, every day.
When Litvinoff can't sleep, he reads from The History of Love, in particular the chapter called "The Age of String."
It talks about how people used to use string to help them communicate—guiding their words to their proper destinations. It mentions a man "who held the end of a string that was unraveled across the ocean by a girl who left for America" (6.6). This practice eventually led to the invention of the telephone.
Litvinoff remembers that he was holding the manuscript to The History of Love, written in Yiddish, the day he last saw his friend.
At the time, Litvinoff was a journalist. He wrote obituaries and hung out at local cafés. Flashback time:
One night he hears a familiar voice, and it's his (still unnamed) friend. From that night on, they hang out every night.
A few months later, the writer Isaac Babel dies and it falls to Litvinoff to write his obituary. He does a great job and is totally psyched.
A few weeks after that, his friend doesn't show up at their favorite café. Litvinoff gets worried, so he goes to his apartment to check on him. The friend's indeed sick in bed, so Litvinoff makes him a cup of tea.
His friend falls asleep and Litvinoff notices the desk is covered in scattered pages. He notices that the top of one reads "THE DEATH OF ISAAC BABEL." He reads it, and is overwhelmed by how amazing it is. First it makes him angry (because it totally overshadows his own obituary) and for a second he wants to kick his friend's butt.
But then he feels really sad, because he realizes once and for all how different he and his friend are.
Finally, it makes him feel like "an average man."
He starts to cry a little bit, then notices there are other similar works on the desk too: "FRANZ KAFKA IS DEAD" and "THE DEATH OF TOLSTOY." Basically, he writes these obituaries for great writers.
So, it's a big surprise (for him and for us) when, beneath all the others, he finds one called "THE DEATH OF LEOPOLD GURSKY." He reads it over and over again, and although it's technically about death, he feels like this one in particular is life-affirming.
He stays up all night watching over his friend. By morning, his friend looks much healthier. He folds the piece of paper in half and puts it in his breast pocket. For the rest of his life, he kept that piece of paper there in his pocket.
That's the end of the flashback and, hey, the end of the chapter.