Great House by Nicole Krauss
“What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can you be a Jew without a nation? How can you make a sacrifice to God if you don’t know where to find him?” These are the questions that drive Nicole Krauss’s third novel, Great House. While Krauss -- who has been translated into thirty-five languages and was named one of America’s best young writers by both Granta and The New Yorker -- doesn’t definitively answer these questions, her interrogation of Jewish loss and identity is both philosophical and riveting. Preceded by Man Walks Into a Room, a novel about a man who loses his memory and receives the traumatic memory of another, and The History of Love, a multi-voiced tale about Holocaust survivors and their descendents, Great House continues Krauss’s rumination on memory and absence. Great House follows the lives of men and women in London, New York, Israel, and Chile, loosely connected through their possession of a stolen desk.
Told in four voices, Great House begins with Nadia, a reclusive American novelist, who relays her life story to a judge. With the urgency of confession, Nadia tells how she first came to possess the desk after a divorce left her without furniture. A Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky, arranged for her to borrow his furniture while he visited his lover in Chile. When Varsky is killed by Pinochet’s police force, Nadia is left with his desk, which she writes at for twenty-five years, finishing several novels and suffering through another failed marriage. Not until she is in her fifties does an Israeli woman claiming to be Varsky’s daughter knock on her door to claim the desk. Plagued by loneliness and guilt, Nadia lusts for the desk’s return, convinced that only this item of furniture can make her isolation tolerable.
Besides Nadia, Great House tells the stories of a judge estranged from his writer son, an old man caring for his dying demented wife who discovers through the maze of her Alzheimer’s a dark moment in her youth, and an esteemed antique dealer in Israel who tracks down the childhood furniture of aging Holocaust survivors. Each voice is marked by nostalgia, contemplation, and regret, and in each tale the desk’s symbolism changes -- becoming for Nadia “the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking,” and for the soon-to-be-widower “an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.” Whether symbolizing the false panacea to loneliness or the potent silence between lovers, the desk functions as a sort of funny mirror, grotesquely reflecting back each speaker’s pathos.
While the broken lineage of the desk’s owners is revealed within the novel, a parallel lineage of literary furniture persists beyond the book’s boundaries. Franz Kafka, one of Krauss’s self-proclaimed favorite authors, wrote a similarly significant writing table into his unfinished novel, Amerika, which the protagonist, Karl, discovers upon his arrival in New York:
It had a hundred compartments of different sizes, in which the President of the Union himself could have found a fitting place for each of his state documents; there was also a regulator at one side and by turning a handle you could produce the most complicated combination and permutations of the compartments to please yourself and suit your requirements.
While Kafka’s pre-Holocaust desk possesses the optimism of new life in America, Krauss’s desk, composed of “nineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above,” is a more ambiguous symbol, revealing how memory can consume the present and distort the past. Just as her characters interpret the desk’s meaning for themselves, so too does Krauss inherit Kafka’s writing table and imbue it with her own slightly morose significance. “In life,” Krauss writes, “we sit at the table and refuse to eat, and in death we are eternally hungry.”
Such lyrical philosophizing is typical of Great House, a book told not in scene, but through memories. For this reason, the novel at times feels slow. All action has already occurred and the tension comes not from the moment to moment situation of the characters, but from the meta-narrative that ties the characters together. Though it reaches moments of elegant reflection, the novel lacks urgency.
While it might be easy to dismiss Great House as an idea book, the pervasive sense of loss, the yearning for second chances, particularly in love, make this book an emotionally vibrant meditation on trauma and healing. Krauss’s characters “search for patterns… only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that [they] pitch [their] tents and wait.” While the novel poses high stakes questions about Judaism, the characters themselves thirst for something even greater than love, the need to be needed, the desire to belong. It’s this unrelenting combination of intellectualism and emotion that kept me hooked.
Great House by Nicole Krauss
W. W. Norton & Company