Great House

Nicole Krauss's third novel is a montage of four haunting human portraits, each so engrossing that the effect is of a spotlight switching from one character to another. The object that connects her disparate cast—a magisterial desk that passes in and out of their lives—serves to shuttle us back and forth through time and terrain, while providing a fulcrum upon which Krauss balances stories about the power of writing to anchor and also isolate those who devote themselves to it; the ebbs and flows of memory as it washes over a lifetime; and the tenderness and damage-dealing of the bonds between parents and children. As in her last novel, The History of Love, the Holocaust is a caul through which her Jewish characters perceive the world and their place in it, imbuing them with a deep, dislocating sadness.

 

In The History of Love, Krauss ingeniously used a lost-and-found book manuscript to bring together a grab-bag of characters. Great House employs a subtler device, the towering mahogany desk whose provenance is never revealed, and the connections between the characters are more oblique. After I finished the book I made a diagram so that I could comprehend the crosshatch of human and temporal relationships. But the mere co-existence of these characters, in Krauss's beautiful prose, is reason enough to read this marvelous book. Great House is a more sober work than The History of Love. It depends less on the deployment of eccentricities and antics, more on Krauss's astounding capacity for creating empathetic and fully imagined characters who, in the few pages allotted them, manage to relay the full spectrum of happiness, anguish, anxiety, self-doubt, and hope that has colored their lives.

 

The novel is divided into eight sections, each of which presents a confession of sorts. Only at the end of the book do many (and even then not all) of the attenuated connections among the storytellers become clear. We begin with Nadia, a writer in New York City, who inherits the aforementioned desk from a young Chilean poet before he returns to his home country and becomes one of the disappeared. From the moment the desk is delivered, it focuses her struggle to balance art and life: "I didn't want the movers to leave because I was afraid . . . of being left alone with the shadow it cast across the room. It was as if my apartment were suddenly plunged into silence, or as if the quality of the silence had changed, like the silence of an empty stage versus the silence of a stage on which someone has placed a single, gleaming instrument."

 

Eventually a woman appears who lays claim to the desk. Nadia relinquishes it, and her subsequent effort to reclaim it sets in motion a chain of events that will alter the lives of several characters in Israel, among them an antiques dealer painstakingly reassembling his father's study, whose contents were scattered throughout the world after the Nazi occupation of Budapest in 1944, and a father and son groping to reconnect after the death of their wife and mother. There are other characters with their tales to tell, too. Isabel, who loves the antiques dealer's son, seeks to wedge her way into the tight familial vise in which he and his sister are clasped by their father—but to which they also acquiesce. And in England, Arthur Bender, the husband of a very private woman, begins to unravel her troubling past only after she slides into dementia. For years she sat at the same desk, writing the dark tales that made her reputation and saved her soul.

 

Krauss excels at incubating moments of human understanding—epiphanies, if you will, though that word can suggest a cheap or easy realization, and Krauss's epiphanies feel organic and earned—that resonate with readers as much as they do with her own fictional creations. Take the devastating moment when Arthur suddenly sees that his late wife's survival, of the Holocaust and then the life she made afterward, necessarily limited her capacity to love him. "Her self-sufficiency—the proof she carried within her that she could withstand unthinkable tragedy on her own, that in fact the extreme solitude she had constructed around herself, reducing herself, folding in on herself, turning a silent scream into the weight of private work, was precisely what enabled her to withstand it—made it impossible for her ever to need me as I needed her." Krauss's remarkable achievement with Great House is to atomize the essential isolation that is part of the human condition and reflect it back to us in a way that makes us feel a little less alone.

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