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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