Title: Great House
Author: Nicole Krauss
Release date: October 2010
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5
Nicole Krauss’s Great House is intricately crafted, beautifully written, poignantly populated, and kind of plotless.
Great House presents the idea that your furniture—the enduring collection of things with which you surround yourself—defines you. The characters’ furniture even serves as parts of their identities and personalities. Each of the lonely, troubled narrators externalize and objectify the conflicts within and between themselves, placing parts of their souls in their belongings in order to transcend their humanity, like Voldemort and his horcruxes.
Each storyline, of which there are five, revolves in some way around one desk that has traveled over Europe and North America for at least half a century. Each owner of the desk—if you can call them that; after reading this book, it is difficult to believe that they own their possessions and not the other way around—becomes inexplicably attached to the monstrous piece of furniture. Each assigns the desk a deep meaning in his or her life; the desk often serves to fill the gap in one’s life after the loss of a loved one.
Nadia, a solitary writer in New York, was given the desk by Daniel Varsky in the 1970s. A gifted poet, he was returning to his native Chile to resist Pinochet’s regime. She always thinks of the desk as belonging to the poet, but over the years—after word reaches Nadia that Varsky was kidnapped and tortured to death—it becomes the irreplaceable conductor of her thoughts, the guiding force in her struggle to write.
Nadia seems unable to create relationships with anyone other than Daniel Varsky—not her first boyfriend, not her husband, and certainly not any friends. She admits that she writes about people to forget them, “as if by writing about them I had made them disappear.”
But she begins to see, when she traces the vein of work so intricately tied to Daniel Varsky’s desk, that perhaps her work has been a constant act of cowardice rather than unabashed truthfulness:
I began to suspect that instead of exposing the hidden depths of things, as all along I’d supposed I was doing, perhaps the opposite was true, that I’d been hiding behind the things I wrote, using them to obscure a secret lack, a deficiency I’d hidden from others all my life, and, by writing, had kept, even, from myself. A deficiency that became larger as the years passed, and harder to conceal, making my work more and more difficult. What sort of deficiency? I suppose you could call it a deficiency of spirit. Of strength, of vitality, of compassion, and because of this, welded to it, a deficiency of effect.
My favorite character, Arthur, is an English professor hovering on the periphery of his wife’s disasters. Lotte Berg lost her parents in the Holocaust, and Arthur makes every effort to step around Lotte’s vast pain.
From the beginning of their relationship, however, Arthur had seen the desk as a competitor whom he could never beat. A man, perhaps, he could have bested, but the furniture is greater than a man:
This desk was something else entirely: 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. . . The first time she allowed me to stay the night with her in that tiny pathetic bed that cowered in the shadow of the desk, I woke up in a cold sweat. It loomed above us, a dark and shapeless form.
When Lotte gives the desk away to Daniel Varsky in the early 1970s, Arthur is relieved to be rid of its looming shadow. But he begins to discover secrets about his wife that the desk had kept hidden for years.
Weisz, a wizened antiques collector and dealer, has been searching for the desk that belonged to his father since their possessions were taken from them during the Holocaust. The desk is the only item from his father’s otherwise reconstructed study that remained unaccounted for, and he must find it. As he describes to Arthur a relentless man who could only have been himself:
He doesn’t have the capacity to forget just a little. His memory cannot be invaded. The more time passes, the sharper his memory becomes. He can study the strands of wool on a rug he sat on as a child. He can open a drawer of a desk he hasn’t seen since 1944 and go through its contents, one by one. His memory is more real to him, more precise, than the life he lives, which becomes more and more vague to him.
Weisz ties together the ideas of ownership and possession and identity that permeate the book and lend it its name:
Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire [when the Romans burned Jerusalem], so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself.
But Weisz is a paradoxical man; even as he devotes his life to restoring his father’s study exactly to its previous condition, he teaches his children not to care about furniture, emphasizing that furniture is as transient and fleeting as one’s experiences, and all that matters is the future and their next destination.
Isabella, a graduate student at Oxford who has become disillusioned with her literature studies, observes the lives of the Weisz children, wishing to become one of them, to walk with thoughtless ease across a priceless table like they do.
Her own family furniture was of high quality, but guarded by glass and plastic:
These valuable things produced in us a feeling of intimidation. We knew that no matter how far we got in life, we would never really be meant for such fineness, that the few expensive antiques we did have had fallen to us from a higher life and now condescended to live among us. We were always afraid that we would inflict some damage on them, and so I was raised to move carefully around the furniture, not so much live with it as to live alongside it, at a respectful distance.
Isabella feels a steadfast connection with the Weisz siblings that endures years of betrayal and hurt. By the very act of overcoming these feelings, as the children did with the loss of their mother and the absence of their father, Isabella proves her worth to Leah and Yoav and they eventually accept her as one of their own.
The final narrator, Aaron, is the only main character who has no claim of ownership of the desk. An Israeli father cruelly disappointed in his second son, Dov, Aaron begins his story with harsh insults to and unyielding judgments about the boy.
As his narrative unfolds, however, one can see that the source of their unending, quiet conflict is Aaron’s own inability to relate with his son, a creative boy who has grown into a brooding man. Aaron does an about-face in the second part of his narrative; after the death of his wife, he begins to soften in the face of his own mortality:
All that I am, all that I was, will harden over into ancient geology. And you will be left alone with it. Alone with what I was, with what we were, and alone with your pain that will no longer stand any chance of being allayed. So think carefully. Think long and hard. Because if you came here to be confirmed in what you have always believed about me, you’re bound to succeed. I’ll even help you, boy. I’ll be the prick you always took me to be. It’s true that it comes easily to me. Who knows, perhaps it will even excuse you from regret. But make no mistake: While I’m buried in a hole void of all feeling, you will live on in an afterlife of pain.
Yet I remain unconvinced in Aaron’s—or anyone’s—ability to change. The whole point of the novel seems to be that all of them are unable to recognize their own weaknesses, or to address them when painful realization dawns.
The strength of the book is the intimate depth that each character reveals of him- or herself. But, in a way, that is also the weakness of the book; the plot suffers from the confusion of diving so deeply into five narratives. While Krauss’s characterization is flawless, the book heaves and sprawls in no discernible direction.
However, Great House was still a very enjoyable read, as you may be able to tell from the length of this review. This is a writer’s book; the main characters’ lives are tied intricately to the action—or inaction—of creating art.
Krauss’s spare punctuation blends words and sentiments seamlessly in the style of Joyce and McCarthy. Her study of memory and loss is touching and beautiful, even if her plot is oblique.