Nicole Krauss has offered a now familiar (even overworked) structure for her tale of memory and loss. The opening chapters present several seemingly widely separated characters, and the chapters hopscotch in time, backward, forward, while in each chapter at least one or two connections emerge among these characters. This is a narrative strategy that we have seen repeatedly in novels over the past 40 years or so, more and more frequently in recent years. Multivoiced novels are not new, of course, but the labyrinthine treatment of fictional time is more frequently encountered and may now be a mannerism that could well be set aside unless it is urgently needed.
I do not mean that Krauss made a wrong choice in this case, necessarily; her stories of failed communication, concealment and secrecy, conflicting memories, misinterpretations and confusions, are probably best told in this kind of recursive structure, making the novel something of a puzzle for the reader, who must approach the work as an alert and participatory rather than passive observer. The tricksy structure also may serve to conceal or at least distract from some considerable weaknesses in the novel, including the excessive symbolic weight placed on the central "object"--the mysterious desk--which serves as the red violin or the white whale of the plot. For me, at least, it never succeeds in coalescing the several tales--especially those of the failures of love, the most important in the novel.
My most serious complaint, however, is with Krauss's prose style. She writes poetically and many passages are truly rich in both imagery and emotional power--especially when her characters suffer the revelatory experiences that force them to self-recognition. But whether the character is a brilliant young pianist, a self-doubting middle-aged novelist, a retired scholar of Romantic poetry, or a widow living in Liverpool, the "voice" is always the same--while we know that the characters come from different backgrounds, different eras, seriously different points of view and cultural tradition, they all sound the same. And in a few cases (especially the novelist) they do go on and on and on far past the point at which we have understood the situation and significance of their pain. Some passages are undeniably very powerful--as, for example, that in which the significance of the title phrase is developed, or in some of the confrontations between the father and son in Israel--but too often I found myself wishing she would get on with it.
The themes of this novel are not unfamiliar, but are no less powerful for having been rehearsed before; the effort to reconstruct and hold on to the past in order to give meaning to the present is undeniably a powerful psychological drive, and Krauss portrays the different ways it works in differing lives with considerable insight. But finally, this novel felt contrived (for a good purpose, but still -- ) and though very much worth reading, not entirely consistent with its own ambitions.
An imposing wooden desk with nineteen drawers floats through this book like a buoy, and sometimes with shackles, loosely uniting four disparate but interconnected narrative threads. The desk is largely a monument to Jewish survival, loss, and recovery, and mirrors the dissolution, pain, and dire hope of each character. Additionally, it is a covetous object, given a poignant and existential significance by the chorus of voices that are bound to it by their memories.
"Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form."
This elegiac story opens with Nadia, a now divorced and successful writer, who received the desk in 1972 from a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky. Daniel needed a place to store furniture, and Nadia had an empty house. After a long night that resulted only in a brief kiss, he leaves her his desk, as well as other pieces of furniture, and returns to Chile and the tragic conditions of Pinochet's Junta regime. He never returns. Years later, during a particularly low period of her life, she receives a call from a woman, Leah Weisz, who alleges to be Varsky's daughter, and who has called to claim the desk. In the midst of this narrative, we occasionally break to Nadia confessing to an unknown "Your Honor." Nadia's attachment to the desk is profound and the loss of it signals keen despair.
Leah and her brother have lived a nomadic (yet insular) privileged life with their father, George, a mordant, esteemed antiques dealer who is legendary for his prowess in recovering any loss object. He is obsessed with scrupulously reconstructing his father's study, to make it the way it was before the Gestapo pillaged it during World War II. Odd as this may seem, this reassembling in relation to Jewish culture and history is sublime.
There is another Jewish family, a father with two sons, Dov and Uri, whose link to the desk is more obscure and is revealed in the latter part of the book. He plaintively details the loss of his wife, Eve, and confesses to the tenuous relationship with his sons. Its climactic section is the weakest and most strained of all. I suspect that Krauss used it as a more concrete connective device.
We also meet a grieving widower, Arthur, whose wife, Lotte, once in possession of the desk, died of Alzheimer's and left an elusive trail to a dark secret. Arthur warily and then desperately decides to investigate her past. The strands of Arthur's narrative lead to connections with other voices and a searing self-examination. Certainties are founded on shifting sand; a commanding desk holds many compartments.
The central denouement (there is more than one climactic scene) is the most moving and mystical of all the segments of the book, and for this reader, poetic and riveting. Its link to ancient Jewish culture is beautifully rendered and breathtaking. It makes sense of the entire book, as well as the title. I am tremendously indebted to Nicole Krauss for hypnotically transporting me to this summit of Judaic history.
Krauss is a cultivated and gifted prose writer; she edifies the reader with striking imagery while digging down to the boots of a person's soul. At times, she is long-winded, which nearly thwarts the pace of the story. And the peppering of Nadia's proclamations to "Your Honor" was a stylistic choice that didn't always work for me and felt self-conscious.
This non-linear and (architecturally) unorthodox story covers approximately sixty years, and is theme-driven; plot is secondary. The engagement is often cerebral, but also powerful and emotionally acute as the threads unravel. Additionally, what contents can lay for years in a locked compartment? What does a key open us to? There is much gravitas and many memories to unlock.
Some characters seem oblique, impinged upon by the relentless peal of confession, or lack distinction from each other. They run together, like spilled ink, (but sympathetically so). It may be what Krauss intended, because the characters' words, (and sometimes their absence) fluidly conjure that metaphor. Moreover, Krauss' delicacy of insight and reflective wisdom, like a haunting obituary, overcomes most obstacles, even a towering desk, and comes to a transcendent conclusion.
Highly recommended for all literary collections.
This review was based on a complementary copy I received from the publisher.
Let me say it out front: Nicole Krauss is a major writer at the height of her powers and her latest novel is a towering achievement. Her subject is loss, and a process of reconstruction that is always painful and inevitably only partial. Loss, of course, is a central theme for many Jewish writers of her generation, but Krauss has dealt with it with greater consistency than most. Her first novel, MAN WALKS INTO A ROOM, treated the subject obliquely, through a protagonist who loses all his adult memories as the result of brain tumor and must find ways of constructing a new life in his spiritual exile. Although her second, THE HISTORY OF LOVE, has something of the quality of fable, it tackles the subject more directly, by bringing together the stories of a Jewish boy writing in Poland before the Holocaust and a teenage girl in New York in the present day. In it, Krauss introduced the idea of using two or more separate stories that come together only at the end, not necessarily in the ways one might expect; here, she takes the approach a great deal farther. For fragmentation is a tragic reality of the Jewish experience, and with this novel Nicole Krauss makes diaspora into a literary technique.
With GREAT HOUSE, Krauss leaves behind the almost childlike quality of her previous novel and takes possession of her maturity like a mansion. The four voices whose monologues make up most of the book all belong to people of middle age or older; they are people whose business is words and ideas; they have lived lives complex enough to include both achievement and regret; they describe themselves with a merciless clarity that does not, however, exclude the possibility of change. Their stories are perplexingly unconnected. A successful novelist in New York is visited by the daughter of a murdered Chilean poet whom she had known in her youth, and requests the return of a desk that he lent to her. An elderly Israeli lawyer, sitting shiva for his wife, is joined by his estranged son, now a distinguished British judge. At another funeral in London, an Oxford professor thinks back over his long marriage to his own late wife, and of those parts of her life that she kept resolutely private, even from him. An American scholar recalls the time she also spent shuttling between Oxford and London, and her friendship with the two children of a reclusive man who runs an international business in antiques based in Jerusalem.
As we read, we inevitably look for connections between these stories, only to find that the few clues do not seem to link up. Instead we start to find thematic connections: roots and rootlessness; the almost arbitrary importance of possessions; parents dominating or neglecting their children; the use of writing to make sense of a shattered life; the loneliness of having to choose between the peopled world and the inner haven of ideas. Although the four speakers are distinct, each of the sections is richly textured, challenging the reader to keep a tight grasp on the increasing complexity of the structure as a whole; those tottering nested boxes on the front cover turn out to be a most relevant image. The one thing that does seem to connect most (but at first not all) of the stories is the poet's desk, and we begin to understand the symbolic importance of recovering objects that remind one of a life before old age, before the waning of inspiration, before torture and death, before the Holocaust. But we also learn the secret of another kind of identity that can survive the loss of property or the destruction of Solomon's Temple: the temple of ideas, of laws and knowledge, the Great House of thought and belief that can transcend diaspora.
Important ideas seldom occur in isolation. The structure of almost disconnected narratives here reminded me a little of Frederick Reiken's brilliant debut novel DAY FOR NIGHT, but with a much longer attention span. Some sections of the Israeli jurist's memories of the failed upbringing of his son seemed uncannily close to David Grossman's recent TO THE END OF THE LAND, though they are painful for rather different reasons. But the very thing that sets this book so impressively apart from its contemporaries is probably also what will make many readers like it less: it is uncompromising in avoiding the spurious tying-up of loose ends. As the book enters its second part and many of the same voices return, we will find our compassion growing and understanding deepening. There will be epiphanies -- but they will be small ones. We may never know how everything fits together in every detail, and actually Krauss can be a little cavalier in the connections she does make. But it can be that way in life too, where even in the best of circumstances a perfect reconstruction is unlikely. And for a people who have had the larger part of their heritage erased forever by the Holocaust, it is impossible. Nicole Krauss is their chronicler, chief mourner, and poet.
on December 18, 2010
This is a brilliant book. It is the best book that I have read all year. If Nicole Krauss keeps on improving like this with each novel she is going to end up winning the Nobel Prize for literature.
Great House is a complicated multi-layered book that demands of the reader to have some knowledge of the Jewish religion to be able to understand all of its layers. Great House must be read at different levels, as one would the Bible. One starts withe the "simple", superficial level of the story of the seperate characters and the towering desk that links them. One then goes on to the "hinted" level by following the clues liberally scattered throughout the narrative but which really are only obvious once one knows what the book's conclusion is and then one reaches the "deducted" level by extrapolating further using common "knowns" in the Jewish religion. Finally one reaches the "secret" level where the ultimate key to the book lies. I read this book three times (in four days, I was obsessed). The first time I read it like a straight "who done it"and only realised at the end that I had completely missed the point while never the less being enchanted by the beautiful language and the familiarity of all the characters. I felt that Nicole Krauss had somehow walked through my life, looked out of my eyes and knew my relatives, my Jewish friends all over the world, my mother's friends from Central Europe (the Holocaust generation)and modern Israeli society, where I live now, and yet I still knew that I had not understood the book. So I read it again and was astounded by what I found in it during the second reading. And then I read it again to try to gain access to its ultimate secret.
Great House is about the "people of the book" (i.e. Jews)and all its characters are in some way or another connected to writing, successfully or otherwise, directly or indirectly.Through them we are given different facets of the common Jewish historical memory, from the destruction of the Second Temple, the dispersion into different cultures, the Holocaust and the recreation of the State of Israel and its society. The characters are linked in time and space by a certain writing desk,the description of which calls to mind the models and descriptions of the Second Temple with the desk's eighteen drawers, the eighteen attributes of God (the central prayer of daily Jewish worship, which is called "the eighteen" though actually having nineteen blessings in it) while its nineteenth drawer contains the unknowable (it is locked). The desk must, of course, contain the Holy of Holies and be destined to reside in the Inner Sanctum (the room in Jerusalem) The key of the nineteenth drawer is not lost but, we learn, is kept hidden by the "High Priest" who is the only one who may enter the inner sanctum. The final location of the desk is worthy of a Dan Brown detective story and Raiders of the Lost Ark combined. The constant presence of the desk throughout the narrative is like that of the Temple and religion in Jewish life: it may be gone but it is still overwhelmingly present. The longing for the past and the dilemma of whether to try to reconstruct it or to go on as we have done since then, as described in the explanation about the creation of the "great house" as given in the book (the central clue), is perhaps the central pivot of the book.It is exemplified in Lotte's daily swim which is in fact a daily, ritual purification to wash away her past sin and a daily decision to go on living. It is there in the horrible, pseudo-desk offered to Nadia which has none of the real desk's true culture and would be obtained fraudulently. It is all pervasive in the story of Weisz and his children.
Even without any Jewish background, I am sure that the reader will be entranced by the sheer beauty of the writing, the compelling story line and the vivid accuracy of the characters. In any case, this book provides a compelling insight into the varying, modern Jewish cultures. It repays one many times over for the slight effort of a careful reading.
Nicole Krauss' last novel, The History of Love, was so moving and emotionally nuanced I snatched up Great House on the strength of the Krauss brand alone. I'd like to say she surpassed her previous achievement, but she hasn't. Needlessly convoluted story structure, a minor flaw in The History of Love due to its wonderfully affecting characters, is a major problem here. The story is broken up into four sections, which are then divided in half. The glue that's supposed to hold them together is an enormous desk of many drawers taken by Nazis from the house of a prosperous Hungarian Jew. As it passes through the hands of the novel's many protagonists, they seem to be both sustained and burdened by this outsized piece of furniture. The desk stands in for upper middle class Jewish culture in central Europe prior to World War II, a culture smashed to pieces by the Germans . The novel bears witness to various forms of dislocation as it attempts to get a grip on a highly disturbing truth: how thin in the end the veneer of civilization actually is.
It's a big theme, and, as it relates to World War II, one that's been explored countless times before, including Krauss' last book. In this one, besides a complicated narrative that begins to feel willfully elusive, the characters aren't very likable. An emotionally self-protective New York writer journeys to Israel, where she finds more truth than she bargained for. A British academic discovers his secretive wife has been hiding something massive from him. (Oddly, in its quotidian details, this story line bears a more than passing resemblance to John Bayley's memoir about his wife, the writer Iris Murdoch.) We have the isolated son and daughter of an antiques dealer, a man who retrieves property stolen from Jewish families during WW II. The least believable, sympathetic or necessary story line involves an Israeli lawyer venting about his frustrating relationship with a difficult son. Every one of the main characters is a tremendous self-examiner, but since this self-examination isn't attached to much of a plot, it turns tedious.
Krauss is a highly accomplished writer. She has a keen eye for the telling physical detail and an acute skill in navigating the emotional registers of numbness, loss, sorrow, stifled pain. She feels deeply and transfers a sense of uncompromising self-examination to her characters. In fact, one of the book's main themes is what one has to leave behind in order to become a real writer - everything, apparently. It's easier to bear this level of drilling down when it's leavened with a little humor, as it was so deftly, wonderfully, in The History of Love. If you want to learn more about the physical and psychological losses suffered by European Jewry in the middle of the twentieth century, told through four exhaustive case studies of neurotic emotional connection, this is a book for you. Otherwise, read The History of Love, if you haven't, and eagerly anticipate her next novel.
on November 8, 2010
Nicole Krauss is a beautifully thoughtful writer, whose impact is deep and binding. And that is why I am mildly disappointed that technical concerns in The Great House prevented this book from reaching its full potential. I am not one of those readers who is bothered by her non-linear approach, multiple narrators, or very long descriptions. I actually find her style compelling and engaging. Thus, when I became engrossed in her exquisite prose, I trusted that the story arcs, major themes, and disparate elements would become increasingly clear and woven. To some extent, my approach rewarded me, but, alas, when each of the 4.5 narrators completed their tales in Part II, I was left questioning basic facts and overarching messages. My second reading of the book uncovered recurrent threads of shared images and provocative themes, but nonetheless, my questions persisted. I am still pondering needless loose ends and incomplete metaphors of the novel, rather than reflecting on its many splendors. ''
Most plot summaries disclose that The Great House's central metaphor is the large 18+drawer desk, and suggest that the desk's history will be woven through each narrative. But that's only partially correct. Aaron's story, for example, offers but a scant thematic link to the desk, and seems divorced from the stories of Nadia, Lotte, and the Weisz family. The Desk, originally stood in the Weisz study in Budapest until 1944, when the first stone shattered their window and their world. After the war, Weisz relentlessly tries to recreate his father's den, ultimately locating the elusive desk. The desk seems to represent what our narrators have lost, and we are anxious to trace its route. I am mystified why Krauss withholds one piece of that puzzle, just as the key to the locked drawer remains missing.
Hypersensitive readers should be warned that The Great House is a somber, depressing novel with no comic relief. One of the major themes is loss -- of people, possessions, and a way of life, which is accompanied by pervasive sorrow. Because Krauss's narrators describe their pain in vivid detail, readers suffer by proxy. Her characters are exquisitely nuanced and real, and this is her brilliant craft. Aaron, a recent widower who has a troubled relationship with his younger son, describes his shiva experience in technicolor; Nadia, a writer, bereft of lovers and her adopted desk of 27 years, rants with escalating panic. Nonetheless, I thirst for more resolution on Dov, Aaron's self-doubting, night-walking son and his melancholy book about the shark. The shark is hooked up by electrodes to several problem sleepers, whose troubles and nightmares he absorbs. Like the surprise reader of Dov's manuscript, we want to find out what develops in this fascinating conceit.
Furthermore, readers come to believe "Great House" refers to the homes of wealthy Jews pre-Hitler and the confiscation of their exquisite furnishings. Commissioned by other survivors to find their looted furniture, George Weisz crisscrosses the globe in the quest "to restore their souls." Later in the work, we learn the ben Zakkai meaning for "Great House," but this disclosure provides no "AHA!" moment when the novel's stories suddenly merge thematically, and the belated explanation seems out of context.
'Still, there is so much beauty in The Great House. Several important philosophical questions create a haunting refrain. What is the the real legacy we provide our children and grandchildren? How do we teach them to sustain loss and grow stronger? How accessible are we are to our loved ones? What can we gain from secrets and unspoken words among family members? Maybe, more people should ask themselves Nadia's soul-searching question, "What if I am wrong?" Later, Nadia and a character in a different story ask the same question about a mother's unthinkable actions, "How could she have done it?" Weisz asks, "What is a Jew without Jerusalem?" And Aaron pointedly questions why Judaism doesn't prepare us for death. And while part of Lotte's secret history remains untold, she leaves us with the realization that how we live is more important than how we die.
''And I have overarching questions about The Great House: Is the whole (novel) greater than the sums of its individual stories? Each narrator delivers a powerful two-part story that takes readers on their rightful existential journey, but when the stories are woven together as a novel, does it provide synergies or improve on their solitary gravitas? Perhaps, Krauss supplies my answer in Nadia's words, " A writer ... has no duty to earthly accuracy or verisimilitude. She is not an accountant; nor is she required to be something as ridiculous or misguided as a moral compass."
on January 8, 2011
I am baffled by the good reviews. While the novel purports to have multiple narrators, they all have the same voice. Each has convenient dreams that work in with the plot. Each uses constant similes that are long, tortured and unrevealing. I got to the point that if my eye caught the word "like" coming up in a sentence, I would jump to the next sentence to avoid the annoying simile, even though it meant I had to jump over large portions of the text. The author also uses transparent tricks, such as having one of the narrators tell her story, peppered with "Your Honor", without saying why or where the narrator is in court, presumably hoping to hold the reader's interest in having this mystery eventually explained. It's hard to get wrapped up in this mystery, however, because, the "testimony" would be preposterous as testimony in any court - for example the narrator goes on for pages and pages about how remarkable she considered herself as a child, and why. I could go on and on, too, but I will just suggest you give this book a pass.
on August 20, 2013
I finally lost patience on p. 209, when the crying of a toddler at a party becomes "A wail of pure terror . . . For a moment everything froze . . . in my mind that scream went on, and still goes on somewhere now." That's when I thought, Enough already. At times, I found the "True Kindness" sections to be very moving, but most of the rest of it seemed terribly affected and just trying too darn hard. I didn't come close to feeling for any of the characters the deep affection I felt for the old man in "The History of Love," and some of them were just plain wearying. A writer who, I think, got a little overwhelmed by the success of her previous book, felt too much pressure to write something "important," and completely lost her sense of perspective - as well as her sense of humor.
on November 26, 2010
I love Nicole Krauss' writing. Her first book "Man Walks Into a Room" made me ask myself questions that stayed with me for years. Her second book "The History of Love" was even better an remains one of my all time favorites. That being said - I wanted to like her novel, however I couldn't be more disappointed.
In "The History of Love" Krauss had a gift for taking seemingly unrelated stories and creating an intertwining string-theory like universe to dazzling effect. This is completely absent from "Great House" which fails in its attempt at repeating success. There are so many basic writing 101 problems that I wonder where her editor was when she produced this.
The blurb stated that the book centers around the desk but it does no such thing because there is no center to the book. Krauss loses herself here badly, she does not finish any of the multiple storylines she begins, and her characters often have no interaction with each other, and when they do it's often irrelevant to the story. There is great confusion in reading "Great House" and the confusion is not the kind to which writers aspire their readers to concoct in order to answer the questions themselves, it is confusing because it comes across as uncharacteristically careless and lazy.
Krauss was distracted while writing this, and her distraction reflects like a mirror in "Great House". When I saw her speak about the book before it went into publication, she spoke of her past few years of living as an exhausted mother banging her head against her computer trying desperately to write something, and then being interrupted by her family. She worried that her distraction made itself into her novel and hoped that it would all come together in the end like it did in "The History of Love" (she writes linearly) but she did not accomplish this. In the end, "Great House" feels like a poor product from a tired, albeit potentially great, writer.