Great House
by Nicole Krauss (2010)
W.W. Norton & Company (2010)
289 pp

One of my favorite stories in The New Yorker this year was Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters,” which turned out to be a short selection from her new novel Great House. When I made the connection, I knew I would have to read this book. That it is now a finalist for the National Book Award is just a bonus incentive for me (especially since I don’t plan on reading any of the other finalists this year).

When I began Great House I had no idea what it was about; after all, the short story, about the guilt a writer faces later in life upon reflecting on whether she has exploited personal stories for the sake of her art, is nicely contained. What does it have to do with a story that apparently centers on a desk?

To be honest, I have had a hard time writing this review, though I really enjoyed this book. Great House contains two parts, and each part contains four sections. The four discreet narratives that begin in Part I all end at an important moment and are then picked up again when the sections (and their characters) reappear in Part II. The book is very character driven, and Krauss is at her best when she has her characters opens up and speak about their pasts and what haunts them. Because the characters have interesting stories that tie into the main themes, my review has come off a bit heavy on the plot summary. I apologize for that, though I have decided it works for my purposes.

The first section is “All Rise”; it is about that guilty writer, Nadia, who showed up in The New Yorker this past summer. As in the short story, Nadia is addressing “Your Honor,” though at the moment we have no idea who Your Honor is or why she is recounting her life to a judge.

Nadia’s story begins when she is much younger and had not yet become an established writer. She was living in New York in the early 1970s when a relatively long-term relationship ended. When this happens, Nadia is unsure what to do and how practically to go on living in New York. Another friend recommends that she get in touch with an acquaintance, a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky. Varsky is planning to go back to his native Chile, and he is looking for someone to watch after his furniture while he is away. The central piece is a large desk with an unknown past. The young Chilean goes back to his troubled country only to become a victim of the Pinochet regime. Though she barely knew him, Nadia is haunted by Varsky, but for the next 25 years the desk is her own and “renewed in my sense that a potential in me had been acknowledged, a special quality that set me apart and to which I was beholden.” Nadia doesn’t necessarily lead a happy life — she marries, but it doesn’t last (none of her relationships last) — and as she ages she wonders about her relationship to her art (and to the desk): she wonders how much of her art is just a way of “countering the appearance of a certain anemia in life with the excuse of another, more profound level of existence in my work.”

This section ends when a young woman appears claiming to be Varsky’s daughter. She would like the desk. After 25 years, Nadia gives up the desk which she has used to write every novel she’s published. It is where she sat as she forged meaning in her life. In its absence, Nadia suffers a major breakdown. “All Rise,” and the story of Nadia and her desire to learn more about this daughter, is taken up again in Part II.

When “All Rise” ends, suddenly we readers are thrust into a vehement diatribe in “True Kindness.” We are in Israel, and the new narrator’s wife has just died. His son Dov, who moved to England for his professional life, has returned for the funeral, but in this first part, the narrator cannot accept Dov’s return. Uri, the narrator’s other son, never left. The newly widowed narrator has resorted to writing down his rant to Dov. In his lengthy epistle he uses a variety of cruel methods to make Dov feel he is hated and not wanted. For example, we despise the narrator when he recounts this to Dov:

Suddenly I saw you as you were at the age of ten on the trail in Ramon Crater, pacing wildly, out of breath, your little mouth agape, sweat trickling down your face, the ridiculous sun hat drooping around your head like a wilted flower. Calling and calling to me because you thought you were lost. Guess what, my boy. I was there the whole time! Crouched behind a rock, a few meters up the cliff. That’s right, while you called, while you screamed out for me, believing yourself to be abandoned in the desert, I hid behind a rock patiently watching, like the ram that saved Isaac. I was Abraham and the ram.

“True Kindness” in Part I is consistently and believably bitter and cruel. We know that the narrator is angry at his loss and is directing his fury at Dov, yet we know that there are other reasons his heart is so filled up with Dov. Part I’s section ends when Dov arrives at the narrator’s home after the funeral, fully expecting to stay there a while. It turns out he has quit his job in England and is not sure what he’s going to do now that he’s returned to Israel. Honestly, I didn’t know if the father would allow his son in the door.

When we take up “True Kindness” again in Part II, it is ten days later. Dov has been staying with his father, but the father’s tone has changed. He has moved from anger to sorrow and regret. It is a masterful and believable shift in tone, and it adds many layers of feeling to Great House‘s overarching narrative.

The third section, “Swimming Holes,” is narrated by another widower named Mr. Bender. He has spent his life in England with his wife, Lotte Berg, who fled Europe during World War II when she managed to become an escort with the Kindertransport. Bender knows that his wife lost all of her family during the war, something she rarely spoke to him about. It turns out she never particularly shared any aspect of her life with him. She was a reclusive writer (used to write on a massive desk until 1970 or so) whose mood often required he leave her alone; after all, part of the reason she wrote was to distract her from the guilt she feels at having, he thinks, abandoned her parents. He was happy to oblige, to become a servant to this great woman. Nevertheless, he is surprised to find out that she harbored another secret. “Swimming Holes” is an excellent account of grief subverted by doubt.

Of course she needed me — to keep order, to remember the shopping, to pay the bills, to keep her company, to give her pleasure, and, in the end, to bathe, and wip, and dress her, to bring her to the hospital, and finally to bury her. But that she needed it to be me who performed these duties and not some other man, equally in love with her, equally at the ready, was never entirely clear to me. I suppose it could be said that I never demanded she make the case for her love, but then I never really felt I had the right. Or maybe I feared that, honest as she was, unable to tolerate the smallest insincerity, she would fail to make the case, that she would stutter and grow silent, and then what choice would I have but to get up and leave forever, or continue with things as they had always been, only now with the full knowledge that I was simply one example where there could have been many?

That full range of emotions and the uncertainty of the real source of the pain is in each section of Great House.

The last of the four sections, “Lies Told by Children,” is narrated by a young woman named Leah. In 1999 she was spending a semester at Oxford, but she fell in love with Yoav Weisz. Before long she has moved in with him and his sister Leah (and people have often mentioned how strange the siblings’ relationship is). Their father is a famous collector of antiques who has an astonishing ability to find the pieces of furniture stolen from the Jews during World War II. He rarely surfaces at home (and they’ve had several homes), but he maintains a high degree of control over his children — or rather, when he is present they are subservient; when he is away, they run their own lives and share nothing with him.

All of the characters are interesting and well developed. The desk, though important, is entirely on the side and eventually comes to represent the relationships these characters have with other people in their past rather than their relationships with each other. As such, the desk is a powerful (if familiar) symbol of the past, a physical remainder that is now haunted by ghosts. Mr. Weisz, whose passion for antiques is really just a result of his obsession with finding his father’s lost desk, explains the symbol to Mr. Bender:

Their childhoods, Mr. Bender, because it is only the ones who were children who come to me now. The others have died. When I first started my business, he said, it was mostly lovers. Or husbands who had lost their wives, wives who had lost their husbands. Even parents. Though very few — most would have found my services unbearable. The ones who came hardly spoke at all, only enough to describe a little child’s bed or the chest where he kept his toys. Like a doctor, I listen without saying a word. But there’s one difference: when all of the talking is through, I produce a solution. It’s true, I can’t bring the dead back to life. But I can bring back the chair they once sat in, the bed where they slept.

I’m afraid this summary may not sound like much, but Krauss’s greatest skill, in my eyes, is her ability to create believable obsessions out of these characters’ troubled lives. It turns out that we are hearing from these characters at moments when circumstances have forced them to be (somewhat) honest with themselves, when they must admit to things they have avoided for much of their lives. It is a well written, interesting, emotional work.

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By |2016-06-26T13:21:13-04:00November 7th, 2010|Categories: Book Reviews, Nicole Krauss|Tags: , |59 Comments

59 Comments

  1. Lee Monks November 8, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Excellent review and I’ve yet to hear a bad word about this, although yours seems the least effusive of the coverage I’ve encountered. It’s difficult to get hold of this in the UK as it stands but I’ll eagerly await its availability.

  2. Trevor November 8, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    If mine is the least effusive, Lee, it is because as much as I admired the book I’m not sure how well it will stick with me. I felt that it was very well done and the characters are great, but the ideas are fairly familiar, particularly if you’ve read Sebald (at least, the ideas I gleaned). I think it is a worthy book. I’m glad I read it and hope others do as well. In the meantime, I’m anxious to see how well it stands in my memory as time goes on.

  3. KevinfromCanada November 8, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    I have this nove on hand and look forward to getting to it — thanks for this excellent review. Like Lee, I have seen a number of effusive reviews that rather set me off, so your more restrained approach has rather restored my anticipation.

  4. Liz at Literary Masters November 9, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    I just finished this book; I am trying to decide if I will choose it for my book groups. I felt like the author wrote her novel on a deck of cards, dropped the cards, picked them back up out of order, and had them published. I get the post-modern literary thing, honestly, but this book, although worthy and literary and deserving of praise, is hard work. I consider myself a careful reader, but I’m still trying to figure out what exactly happened and who is related to whom. Perhaps a second reading will enlighten me. Btw, Isabel, not Leah, is the name of the narrator of Lies Told By Children.

  5. Nancy Anthony November 14, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Great House was so powerful that I am considering a re-read but not before reading about the book and your review helped me to realize that I did make sense of the book. However, I still don’t see where Dov and his father fit into the story of the desk. The desk links the other stories, but not the story of Dov and his father: am I missing something? I get the theme connections: memory, loss etc. Perhaps, part of the reason that I felt a bit confused by this story is that all the characters seem to have the same tonal quality.

  6. Trevor November 15, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Hi Nancy, I’ll givey you my thoughts on Dov and his father. They weren’t tied directly to the desk, but Dov is the judge Nadia is “confessing” to after she has nearly killed him with her car. That’s the direct connection to the plot. Now, why Krauss decided to inlude him in that way . . .

    I do think he’s a powerful element in the narrative, a type of incidental damage brought on my the main action as well as an up-to-date example of a relationship about to be torn apart (maybe) right when it was about to be put together again (maybe). I think of all the characters, Dov is my favorite, and I really liked the second part to his father’s monologue.

    Liz, thanks for your comment — I see the error! I will edit to fix!

  7. C. Wallace November 19, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    I have some questions:

    I have read that the desk was stolen. Did Lotte steal it or are they refering to Leah when she took it?

    From whom did Lotte receive the desk? Mr. Bender says he didn’t open the piece of paper Weize gave him because it was obvious who gave the desk to Lotte. Gee, it wasn’t obvious to me.

    Some reviews refer the the Father as the judge and others say Dov was the judge. Who did Nadia hit with her car?

  8. Trevor November 20, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    Sorry for not responding to your questions yet, C. I’m on holiday and, as usual, find it more difficult to find time to blog. I have some thoughts to respond to your questions, though. In the meantime, if anyone has some answers, feel free to jump in.

  9. Liz November 20, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Nadia hit Dov, who was the judge, with her car, and she is speaking to him. At least, that’s what I think. I also think that Lotte received the desk from Weisz. I don’t know about the stolen part–I don’t remember it. Does anyone else (besides me) think that Weisz faked his suicide?

  10. C. Wallace November 21, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Thank you Liz for your thoughts. Right, Nadia hit Dov. I don’t think Weisz faked his suicide. Weisz went and sat at the desk in the storage unit; that being the completion of his quest. Then home and suicide. If Weisz gave the desk to Lotte, why didn’t he go straight to find her when he first started his search? Wait, Weisz made his way to Isreal after the war from Budapest. How is he connected to Lotte during the war?

    Obviously, I need to read this again!

  11. Martha November 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    How did Leah know about Daniel Varsky – that is, how did she know to assume the identity as his daughter?

  12. Trevor November 30, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I promised to come back with some responses (I won’t suggest I have answers):

    I agree that Nadia hit Dov. There are references to the judge’s age in Nadia’s sections, so the younger Dov has been struck. Plus, we know that he suddenly disappeared at the end of his father’s section.

    The other questions about how the desk got from one person to another are more tricky, and I’m not sure we can answer them with certainty.

    Who gave the desk to Lotte? In my reading, the desk was stolen from the elder Weisz when the Nazis and others were plundering Jewish homes, and then the desk somehow ended up with Lotte who escaped to England while her family perished.. Who was Lotte’s lover? I think the unanswerable answer lies there somewhere. I don’t think Weisz gave the desk to Lotte, but I could be missing something there. He has spent the last half century trying to reacquire all that was taken from his father’s study. He was never able to track down the desk. That said, when I go down that route, I run into the issue Martha brings up: how did Weisz’s daughter know that Varsky got the desk, that Nadia got it from him, and that she could pretend she was Varsky’s daughter? If I ever knew the answer to that from my reading, it has escaped me now. I’d love some help there.

    As for Weisz’s suicide, I don’t believe he faked it either.

  13. Michelle December 1, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I think that Weisz found from Mr. Bender that the desk he had tracked to Lotte ultimately went to Varsky and then to Nadia. Weisz asked his daughter Leah to go to NY to get it (just found the page this happened #167).

    Does anyone think that Varsky faked his death? Is there any connection to Lotte’s son having an accident when he was 23 yrs old and dying?

    The pieces are almost together!

  14. Trevor December 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Ah, thanks for that Michelle! I had forgotten.

    As for Varsky, I don’t believe he faked his own death, much like I don’t believe Weisz faked his own suicide. Both were destroyed by something terrible — Pinochet and the Holocaust, respectively — and I don’t think Krauss was going for any escape there.

  15. Greta December 2, 2010 at 12:29 am

    Hi – just finished the book and I’m relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one having a bit of a time trying to piece together the plot. Reading your comments has been helpful. Just one small thing to add to Michelle’s comment: Mr. Bender told Weisz that the desk went to Daniel Varsky, but additionally I’m guessing it was specifically Varsky’s journal (given to Weisz by Bender) that explained Nadia’s possession of it.
    As far as I can tell it seems like it is Krauss’ intention to keep the name of the father of Lotte’s child and the nature of that son’s death a mystery — unless I’m still missing a vital clue…

  16. Thomas January 3, 2011 at 1:53 am

    Just finished this book and was disappointed. I, too, don’t think this will stay with me for long.

    I agree that the strongest parts of this book are when the narrators reflect on their lives. As individual chapters, self–contained sections, Great House was a fun read (sometimes). However, when read as a whole, piecing together the plot becomes too tricky. The second section of the book was particularly confusing, and this might be due to the fact that the individual voices do not sound different from one another. Details such as dates and names are sometimes fleetingly mentioned which lends to the confusion.

    I did enjoy one of the final ideas that it is those things absent from our lives that define us, although this is not an entirely new idea.

  17. Trevor January 3, 2011 at 10:52 am

    I’ve actually been surprised that, while not particularly memorable, the book is sticking around in my memory. I liked it, despite its failings, which you describe quite rightly. I agree, though, that the strength of the book is in the individual sections and not how they come together as a whole.

  18. Kim January 10, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    I loved reading this book. I feel like the only question left unanswered is who fathered Lotte’s child. Near the end of the story Weisz handed Mr. Bender a sheet of paper with a name on it. Mr. Bender never looked at the sheet of paper before he threw it into the fire. It appears Mr. Weisz took that bit of information with him to his grave.

    Wonderful book by a wonderful author.

  19. Trevor January 10, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Hi Kim, we’ve batted that question around a bit in the comments. My first response was, “Who was Lotte’s lover? I think the unanswerable answer lies there somewhere.” By which I meant that though I don’t think we are ever supposed to have a specific identity, her later life might indicate give us some clues. Again, not to anyone specific but for who she met, how she met him, etc. It would still be quite the mystery though, so I think mystery and ambiguity were Krauss’s goal.

    Sadly, I cannot make a good argument for this or for who I once thought it was because, as I suspected, the pieces in this book jumbled together and have already began fading from memory. Another commenter above said, “As far as I can tell it seems like it is Krauss’ intention to keep the name of the father of Lotte’s child and the nature of that son’s death a mystery — unless I’m still missing a vital clue…”

  20. Head in a book January 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    Thank you for all these comments. Loved The History of Love, then read Great House right after and found it a grim task. Was glad to find this blog because I had some of the same questions, and, while I wondered if Dov was the Judge to whom Nadia was speaking, I didn’t care enough about the characters to puzzle out any of my other questions. I leave you with this one: why is there no mention in any of the reviews of what seems to be mental illness on the part of Nadia, Isabel and possibly others?

  21. Trevor January 12, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Hmmm, hib, again I blame my fading memory here for not having a better way of backing up my claim, but I never thought of Nadia or Isabel as being mentally ill, despite their other problems and agoraphobia. Therapy? Maybe. But what makes you think they are mentally ill?

  22. Lynne January 25, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I just finished the book yesterday and was so glad to find this site so I could try to understand what I read! Weisz traces the desk to Nadia, and has his daughter, Leah, impersonate Varsky’s daughter to get it back. Leah does the job, but feels that her father’s efforts to recreate his father’s study is crazy – as a rebellion, she puts the desk in storage in NY and refuses to let her father know where it is. Anger rages between Weisz and his children for a year (while Isabelle is involved with the brother). Weisz finally comes up with his plan to find the desk in NY. Once he sits at it in the storage room, he is content that his task in life is done, and he goes home and commits suicide. Leah and her brother suffer much guilt. At the end we read that Weisz believes his son will have a child someday, and Leah will leave the child the key to the storage area.
    Most confusing for me was how Dov (who is hit by Nadia’s car) and his father have anything else to do with the story of the desk.

  23. Nancy January 26, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Thank you, Lynne, your explanation of the plot is helpful! I just finished the book. I enjoyed it, but did find the plot confusing.

  24. Pat February 2, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I just finished reading Great House and am relieved to have found this site. I, too,
    became extremely confused as I attempted to put together the pieces of a totally fragmented puzzle. Of course, much of the reason for this is the fragmented nature and presentation of the novel itself. It began almost at the end of the chronology,which would have worked better if the rest of the already fragile chronology would have followed suit. I realize that Varsky got the desk from Lotte and then gave it to Nadia, who eventually gave it to Weisz’s daughter, Leah, and Weisz finally tracked it down. Of course, none of this explains who gave it to Lotte ( the reader knows only that it was the father of her son, about whom we know very little). As a retired English teacher, I appreciate the superb sensory imagery on which the novel rests, but I question the reason for lack of resolution to most of the stories. Also, I agree that Dov was the most sympathetic character, but his only connection to the desk, which was the thread connecting the individual stories, was the fact that he was injured (and possibly killed) by one of the desk’s owners. (Perhaps the focus on depression and loss was the thread? That would explain why Dov and his father were included, but still it would not address the lack of resolution.)

  25. Betsy February 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Who was the boy Gad?

  26. Randy February 16, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Upon much reflection, I find myself drawn to the idea that Weisz’s FATHER originally gave the desk to Lotte and that he was the father of her child thus the sense of loss, a recurring theme in the book, felt by Weisz, who spent his entire life recreating the past, and really lost the past he thought he knew.

  27. Arielle February 16, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I too questioned who gave the desk to Lotte and there are just not enough characters in the book to consider it being one of them. In my opinion, Krauss allowed some parts of the story to remain a secret. It is telling that at the end of the story Weisz discusses the locked drawer that remained locked this entire time, even with nothing in it. The full story did not come together just as all the drawers of the desk were not opened.

  28. Alexandra February 21, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I loved this book but have to reread to get the full benefit. About the narrative surrounding Dov – I think it’s there as a piece of the story of what happened to Jews after the Holocaust, in this case those who went to Israel.
    The question of the desk’s being referred to as stolen – it was stolen from Weisz’s father during the Holocaust, yes?
    My question – why did Weisz have Leah pose as Varsky’s daughter, rather than as the granddaughter of the person from whom the desk was stolen in Budapest?

  29. Humpph February 25, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Thank goodness for all of you. I JUST finished the book and jumped out of bed to get online and figure out what the heck happened before my eyes on those pages. I had blamed myself for slowly reading this book over several months and thus forgetting lots of details, but it seems that this is, indeed, also a serious case of overcomplicated writing on the part of the author.

    I was under the (confused?) impression that Daniel Varsky was actually Lotte’s son (the mother spoke of her now dead son & his “other name” that she could not put her finger on, but she could feel). When he came back to “flirt” with her (which made her husband jealous) he left with the desk, did he not?

    I at once want to google until I find a map of characters and simultaneously want to let it all go and dismiss this book as too confusing. Any hints as to where that “map” might be hiding?

    History of Love was a masterpiece. Better luck next time. As as artist, I can give Krauss some room to create beautiful prose without perfect execution, which is how I feel about this book.

  30. Judy February 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    I fought this book at the beginning because it defied my efforts to second guess the author. When I relaxed into the language and themes, it became easier to read and more enjoyable.
    Maybe there’s no basis for my thinking this, but I got the notion that Lotte’s child was the product of a non-consensual relationship with a Nazi. The Nazi stole the desk from the loot collected from wealthy Jew’s homes and gave it to Lotte. This also helps explain how Lotte was able to give up her child and why she would.

  31. John March 12, 2011 at 6:56 am

    Why did lotte give the desk away so easily to Daniel? I had also thought this meant he was her son, but it seems not. Given she had it so long seems odd to just give it away? What did I miss???

  32. John March 12, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Daniel thought it had been owned by a famous poet?? How did he know lotte had it and how did he think it had belonged to the poet if it came from Budapest? Brain melting!!!

  33. William Rycroft March 18, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Recently read and reviewed this one Trevor (http://justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com/2011/03/borrowed-from-ghosts.html) and had a distant memory of you reading it last year. Given the time that’s passed and your initial thoughts about whether the book would mature well in your memory, I wonder how you feel about it now…?

  34. Trevor March 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I saw your review was posted, Will, but I haven’t had a chance to read it to see how you felt about the book.

    I enjoyed reading it, moment by moment, and while I haven’t forgotten it as I thought I might, it hasn’t grown in my memory. I loved the excerpt in The New Yorker, and I’m still glad I read it, but it’s not one for my highlight list.

  35. Barbara April 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    I enjoyed reading all the bewildered questions and different attempts at putting the puzzle together. But maybe doing that is missing the point.Life is not a puzzle that can be neatly pieced together. In life, some things fit; others don’t. Some things are clear and others remain a mystery that can only be guessed at. Something that all the characters in the book had in common was that they were never really allowed to know the ones they loved the most. For example, Dov and his father, the narrator of Swimming Holes and his wife Lotte, Isabelle and Yoav, and Nadia and her various partners. There is love and intimacy without clear understanding.There is always a barrier. Maybe that’s the point of the puzzle.

  36. Kerri May 16, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I wonder if the “pling plong, pling plong” mentioned on the last page as the sounds Leah made referred also to the sound of the two notes of the piano (also a “pling plong, pling plong”) that Dov’s father heard coming from the house of the neighbor boy who was killed. We never meet the neighbors or learn their first names,so perhaps the link is that Leah did have a son and he was killed.

  37. Penny June 8, 2011 at 6:13 am

    I’ve enjoyed reading all these comments, because I sat down this morning to work on establishing the links between the characters and the desk in order to understand the book better.To complete my reading and enjoyment.
    I loved the book – it will stay with me for a long time.The prose is beautiful and the evocation of people and places so vivid.
    I agree with Barbara ( April 30th 2011) that the loose ends, if you want to call them that, don’t matter.Life is full of loose ends and strange connections.
    This book made me work in the reading and in the questions it posed.I’ve reflected on its themes – isn’t that what a really good book does?
    Read Jim Crace’s potted review for the Guardian. That gives a totally different perspective on it that amuses me despite disagreeing srongly with it.
    Thanks, everyone, for such interesting views.

  38. Annette Atsmon June 24, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Very interesting blog. Nobody mentions that the book is really about writing, Nadja writes (at last she cannot without the desk), Dow wants to write, Lotte writes, Liz is supposed to write, there are many examples of Krauss describing and analyzing the writing process. (the story about the picture at the dancer’s house. It is an arspoetic novel, about writing.

    Anybody agree?

  39. Kevin J MacLellan June 26, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Hi Trevor,
    This is an intriguing account: I don’t yet know if that’s a good thing! Frankly, the desk itself, as some sort of touchstone for all these other (unrelated) lives is familiar to me. I can’t help thinking of the baseball in DeLillo’s Underworld! By itself, it is trivial, but it carroms around within a generation touching – effecting – disparate lives. It’s a PoMo principle of unity; a nexus, if you will.
    What both Liz and Nancy say about their impressions of the book rings like a memory with me and my impression of Underworld. (I like Liz’s analogy very much. It gives a vivid image of what’s to come with regard to the actual reading experience.)

    In this novel, though, it (the desk) seems to have a symbolic role or value as well. That would make it more interesting, to me at least, than DeLillo’s use of the baseball. I am not, of course, saying they are the same. But the principle of unity seems to be: what makes the stories a unity (a novel?) is this casual connection to an otherwise random object.Is this a new type (dare I say genre?) of ‘novel’?
    Hmmm!?!

  40. Trevor June 27, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Annette, sorry for my own delay responding here.

    It is an arspoetic novel, about writing.

    Anybody agree?

    I spent some time thinking about this, and I’m not sure I quite agree, though I do agree that writers and perhaps the way they memorialize moments is a strong strand.

    One of the reasons I was so excited to read this book was because I found the excerpt in The New Yorker, “The Young Painters” (which covered what turned out to be my favorite part of the novel), so interesting as it looked at how the Nadia basically exploited a friend’s story to create her own. Still, I’m not sure I can tie that rather explicit look at writing with the rest of the book.

    I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter. How is Great House a novel about the writing process? I’m interested because if it is I just might like the novel more.

    Kevin, I have to say that I think the desk is more than just a gesture to unity. With its history, locked drawers, its witness to horror, it unifies the story and lends itself as an interpretive guide. I’m not saying it was done brilliantly — I willingly forget this book more and more — but it is done well.

  41. Kat July 10, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    I’m so happy I was able to find this blog and read these posts. I thought I had read the book carefully over the past week and was surprised that I came away without understanding how Lotte got the desk and who the father of her child was–especially since History of Love tied up everything so perfectly in the end.

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned above was that Dov and his father are connected not only because Nadia hits Dov with her (stolen) car, but also in several other ways. As someone already pointed out, this is another version of the experience of post-Holocaust Jewish life. It is also another variation on the oppressive father theme so well portrayed in the Weisz family. In addition, Dov wants to be a writer, and his father obsessively raids Dov’s desk drawers to read his hidden manuscript as it evolves. Claiming to disapprove of it, he is nevertheless disappointed not to know how the story ends (I know how he feels!) after he has succeed in dissuading Dov from pursuing a career as a writer.

    The shark story is a marvel.

  42. Lelly August 6, 2011 at 7:48 am

    I have just finished reading this book…which I both loved and initially, felt very frustrated by. I kept searching for the connections and read very fast in order to get to the end, realising that I was skimming over Krauss’s wonderful prose and thereby missing out on what the essence of the book seems to be about. I slowed down my pace about half way through and savoured her descriptions of the characters from their internal worlds…and really began to enjoy it.
    However, I too was baffled at the end by Dov and his father’s connection to the desk, except that Dov, was the one that Nadia was able to tell her story too…which in the telling, would possibly enable her to write again after her breakdown after she lost the desk. So he bacame a sort of symbol of the desk.
    I also had a fantasy that if Dov survived, he and Nadia might mutually recognise their own difficulties in relating to others and find some solace in each other.
    I too was and still am baffled by who gave Lotte the desk and who was the father of her child. I think Krauss left that unresolved, because like the Great House in Yavne, which kept alive the spirit judaism after the destruction of the temple and gave birth to the Talmud, the desk gave birth to many poems and books upon which they were written.

  43. Susan August 16, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    I am grateful to all who have commented on this blog. I have just finished the book–which I think is marvelous–but I was frustrated by some of the unanswered questions. I respect the novels’ fragmented structure and I understand that this reflects the violent history underwriting the narrative events. I also understand that not all questions have answers.

    Nevertheless, I think Krause answers enough questions to make the unanswered ones especially gnawing.

    I am hoping then, that I can still have some help understanding the following:

    Is it possible that Daniel is Lotte’s son? Why else would Krause have Lotte’s son and Daniel Varsky be the same age and why else would both have died at the same age? If they are not the same character then their coincidentally shared histories seem contrived–and Krause is too good a writer, I think, to opt for such tactics.

    But how could Daniel be Lotte’s son if he actually grew up in Chile?

    Also, what should be made of the idea that Lorca wrote at the desk?

  44. Trevor August 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Is it possible that Daniel is Lotte’s son? Why else would Krause have Lotte’s son and Daniel Varsky be the same age and why else would both have died at the same age? If they are not the same character then their coincidentally shared histories seem contrived-and Krause is too good a writer, I think to opt for such tactics

    As I’ve said a few times in the stream of comments above, I’ve lost a lot of this one in the time since I read it. But, one thing I remember, it is that I felt that Krauss was a good writer on the sentence level but not in the overall structuring of her book. I think she is trying to show coincidence and the meaninglessness of coincidence by having Daniel and Lotte’s son be similar. I also agree it seems contrived, but I think, on reflection, quite a lot of this book is contrived.

    One thing about this question, though, is that even taking the answer a step further, what does it add to the book? So, Lotte’s son and Daniel are the same person — does that matter? So, they are not the same person — does that matter, either? I think such aspects are why I ultimately care little about this book, which is a shame because the section that was published in The New Yorker was remarkable in every way.

  45. laurette17 September 8, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Lotte’s son was born in London in 1948, several years after the war, so could not result from a non-consensual relationship with a Nazi. She was given the desk in England so, again, it would not be a gift from a Nazi. Just as Weisz had Leah impersonate Varsky’s daughter, the paper he gave to Bender probably did not contain Lotte’s lover’s name, or not his real name. (Weisz has already indicated that he sometimes gave grieving survivors a substitute for the genuine lost furniture, and he probably knew that Bender would choose not to open the paper.)

  46. barbara September 28, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    any chance Weisz could be the father of Lotte’s child? If he gave her the desk, that’s why he’s so determined to get it back. So, that would link Weisz & his children with Lotte, indirectly with Daniel, indirectly and directly (because of the accident) with Nadia. Lotte’s husband is left out. If Leah knows anything about this illegitimate child that would explain why she is keeps the desk from her father. Why is Weisz so nasty to Dov all of Dov’s childhood? Can Dov be the illegitimate child of Lotte & Weisz?

  47. Julia December 11, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    I understood almost all of this novel, mainly because from Part II I began a ‘family tree’, of sorts, linking each character to his/her association with the desk. But who exactly WAS Daniel Varksy? He was, I understand, adopted by a couple by the name of Fiske. When Arthur Bender meets the now widowed Elsie Fiske, she refers to Daniel as “Teddy”

    “I was terrified that I would receive a phone call or letter, or that she would simply appear at the door to say that a mistake had been made, that she wanted Teddy back”

    The name Teddy is a derivative of Edward, not Daniel. And from where did the name Varksy come from? Also, Elsie seemed unaware of the exact circumstances under which Daniel had died:

    “How did he die? She sighed and squeezed her hands together. It was a terrible accident, she said”

    I have not read all the comments in detail, so I apologise if this question has already been raised and answered.

  48. Wendy December 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    I wonder if a key piece of the puzzle lies in George Weisz’s wife? She is not really a character in the novel, but when Nadia asks Leah ‘how did you know to look for ME?’ Leah replies that Nadia once wrote a letter to her mother asking for Daniel Varsky’s poems. (She actually says ‘my father’s poems’ which is a lie since Varsky was not her father). But nevertheless, Leah’s mother, whoever she was, must have actually known Daniel Varsky otherwise how did Leah or George Weisz ever get a hold of that letter Nadia wrote AFTER Daniel died?

  49. SR January 11, 2012 at 4:00 am

    I think it’s important to note why the story was written the way it was. Krauss prides herself on structure. In a Charlie Rose interview she says that she’s been obsessed with it. She knew she wrote the novel scattered and in no chronological order. The question is why. For me, my AHAH! moment in the book was towards the end when Krauss discusses the Great House in Yavne. She mentions only seeing bits and pieces of the overall picture, in this case personal narratives were used and never from a third person perspective (someone one outside looking in). Every word in the book is from the voice of a character involved even if that character is telling the story about another character. Each chapter resembles bits and clues to the overall picture. It is when you step back from these narratives and look at the information as a whole you begin to see the whole picture. Coincidentally we are all helping each other fit the pieces to this story also, to which maybe Krauss knew would happen after publishing it. That the readers of her book would need to come together and contribute details of the story they remember in order for everyone to see the full story in its totality.
    I think the little stories within stories within stories gets exhausting and I find my patience running thin only to find the vivid prose still empty of resolution. The depth of the story is incomplete and misses to hit the mark with purpose.
    Her story is character-driven which leaves one immersed in feelings (in this case mostly depressing) and rather sad that all these sad events and people are connected somehow. I think the viewpoint of her story is kind of depressing. The truth is we are all people, so we will have personal interests that cannot fully be shared, explained, or even understood to/by others, like in the case of Lotte. Was she a bad wife, or perhaps was her husband insecure and vicariously living his life through her. It seems he was dissatisfied with the marriage where I think Lotte would’ve described her marriage very differently. Great House takes on a negative tone that doesn’t inspire much, other than that people will always disappoint you one way or another and that by the time you wake-up to appreciate them (if at all) they’ll be gone. How’s that for positivity! LOL. Or perhaps maybe she is trying to send a message to appreciate those you love…who knows.

  50. Tammy March 20, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    I finished the book last night and felt like I was missing some major pieces. Thanks to this blog, I now understand the timing of Weisz’s suicide Vs him finding the desk in storage in New York.
    Even after reading all the comments above, I still don’t believe we will be able to figure out who the father of Lottie’s son is, though there was a glimpse of him at the train station where Lottie gave the baby to Mrs. Fiske,.. “a young man in a strange, almost pitiful coat with a matted fur collar, He had very black shining eyes”. I think there are no other clues as to who the father is.

  51. Ahuva April 14, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    I devoured “Great House” in one day, and though the imagination, narrative and characters are stunning, all the loose ends bothered me this time,though it shouldn’t really; as one of the commenters said, rightly, life doesn’t always have pat answers. But this type of book seems to beg for neat answers. I found the whole episode with Dov out of place and not really relating to the story of the desk. The fact that we never know answers to some of the main questions id bothersome: how did Lotte get the desk in the first place? Why did she relinquish it with such ease to someone who just materialised into her life? Who was the father of her son? Were her son and Daniel one and the same? How did Leah ever come up with with connection to Daniel and fabricate the story about him and her mother? All this unfinished loose ends do leave a uncomfortable feeling at the end of a novel which is so insightful in so many ways, and so stunning in its prose.

  52. Trevor April 15, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    I’m with you on this one, Ahuva. Many stories don’t resolve, much like life, and are the better for it. I think of some of my favorites, like many by Bolano and one I just finished by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (Reticence), and they are strong and memorable because they don’t resolve. That is part of the point, and so, in a strange way, being unresolved becomes a form of resolution. Others, and I’d put Great House here, feel unresolved due to some miscommunication between author and reader.

    I’m also with you that it’s a shame since there is a lot to love about this book.

  53. Gail August 26, 2012 at 8:32 am

    I also loved reading all of these comments which helped me put together some loose ends, especially around the timing of things. I think Dov’s connection was tied to his story about the shark. After Nadia hits him with the stolen car, she tells him her story as he silently accepts her suffering, and allows her to unburden herself. I don’t understand why Leah lools like Daniel (to Nadia) when she comes to take the desk. Also, who is the young man on the motorcycle at the end in Israel, and why does he look just like Daniel Varsky?

  54. Alex January 25, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Damn, is anyone out there who can answer Gail’s question? I just finished the book and now suffer.

  55. EG February 26, 2013 at 11:40 pm

    Could it be that Lotte’s lover (and the father of the child she gave away) was also Daniel’s father? Perhaps, that’s why she gave Daniel the desk without hesitation? If Daniel and her child were the same age, is it possible that Lotte’s lover had another family and left the country eventually, leaving the desk to her? I think Leah was instructed to go to NY and to introduce herself as Daniel’s daughter by her father (W.) who spared no means to get it back. Nadia would not have given the desk to anyone else, it’s mentioned several times that she considered herself a temporary keeper of Daniel’s desk, it never became hers.
    The interpretation of the Judge (Dov) listening to Nadya being similar to the shark absorbing the pain and nightmares of those sleeping in the other room is absolutely beautiful and I feel it is what the author intended. And yes, this book is absolutely about the writing process (among other things), about what a writer gives up to do his/her work, and whether the effect of what’s written transcends one person’s lifetime and makes it worth using and tormenting non-writers, friends and relatives to support the process.

  56. EG February 26, 2013 at 11:46 pm

    To Gail: everyone looks like Daniel to Nadia. She’s looking for Daniel, and she’s finding him everywhere she looks – she goes to Israel and finds a boy who she thinks looks like Daniel because she wants him to look like Daniel, and he does, up until the point he pushes her away and takes her wallet. She wants Leah to be a real live extension of Daniel, so she thinks Leah looks like him, until the lighting changes and Leah is just a girl, an unwelcome stranger again.

  57. Ann March 21, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Just finished the Great House and thought maybe I missed some information along the way. Who gave Lotte the desk? How did that person get it? Was he also the father of the baby? How did Lotte’s son die? An accident, but what kind? From reading other comments, I realised I hadn’t missed those answers.
    Nicole Krauss is a beautiful writer but as a storyteller, she let us down by not finishing the story. I’d be hesitant to read another one of her books in case of another non-ending. Too many hours go into reading a book to feel frustrated when finished.
    Thanks for the explanation as to how Dov and his father’s story fit in with all the rest. I didn’t cop on that it was Dov that Nadia hit. I liked the ‘Dov as the shark’ angle.

  58. Anne May 28, 2016 at 1:57 am

    There are passages of beautiful prose but the book is ruined by frustrating dead ends and inexplicable non sequiturs. Nothing but the shadow of the Holocaust and the desk holds it together. All the reviews I have read remind me of the emperor’s new clothes

  59. Michael May 29, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Thanks to all for your comments which have served to show that my frustrations on completion of this extraordinary novel are not mine alone and for the elecuidation that has emerged from your various opinions.

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