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52 Books #16: Great House

April 29, 2011

Nicole Krauss’s third novel Great House (Penguin Viking) isn’t really about a house — it’s about a desk. Well, up to a point: “To call it a desk is to say too little. The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always poised to offer up its baxk for its owner to make use of… This desk was something else entiorely: an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the iccupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to poounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.” (p.248) This desk links four disparate stories, each split into two parts, which form the backbone of Great House, as different narrators take possession of the desk under various circumstances.

Great House is partly about absence, loss and memory, and the desk is a potent symbol for all of these, those “many little terrible drawers” suggesting secrets, concealments and a structure which holds apart its contents as much as keeps them together. This last seems to illustrate best Krauss’s interest here in the difficulties of communication and articulation. In the two parts of ‘All Rise’, semi-successful novelist Nadia is telling the story of her abandonment by her boyfriend to someone she addresses only as Your Honour, not (as the title might suggest) giving evidence in court, but speaking to — spoilers! — a judge she has hit in her car (“You stood pinned in the headlights, so still that I thought, in the fraction of a second left for me to think, that you were waiting for me” (p.238)). Both her boyfriend and her husband have left Nadia, largely due to what seems her inability to communicate with them, a fault she is not unaware of, yet struggles in vain to remedy. Some of her tacit remonstrations with herself — although this is a book in which people theorise rather than self-examine — reminded me of the quasi-aphorisms in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (an also-read in Week #15, if anyone’s keeping up), whose narrator describes the feeling of falling in love as “one in which tedium, humiliation and weariness predominate[s]”. That strange mix of indolence, ambivalence and failure is seen in much of the interior drama in Krauss’s novel — in ‘True Kindness’ a father can’t understand or bring himself to empathise with his son; in the chilling ‘Swimming Holes’, a character has to develop Alzheimer’s disease before she can, against her will, begin to reveal to her husband some of the truths of a life she has always carefully hidden from him.

It seems as if Krauss has tapped into something peculiarly twenty-first-century here, despite the fact that the roots of the story are in World War Two atrocity — the desk stolen from its Jewish owners’ house by Nazis. Modern communications aren’t much in evidence — novelists and poets aren’t seen using laptops or email — but this investigation into people who are unable, almost psychotically so, to communicate with those closest to them seems very timely and resonant. The downside is that, despite the psychological links between narrators and the story-to-story baton of the desk itself — a McGuffin if ever there was one — Great House remains pretty oblique. In this interview, Krauss addresses this criticism, describing her process of composition as involving a search for the links between characters she felt related to one another, but was unsure how: “If the book is a mystery to its author as she’s writing, inevitably it’s going to be a mystery to the reader as he or she reads it.” That’s somewhat how I felt while reading, and despite enjoying, Great House: on the level of the sentence and the paragraph, this really is terrific stuff, and Krauss comes across as an incredibly wise writer, effortlessly making full use of language’s capacity to describe very abstract and complex material. The macro-stuff — the setups for the characters, for instance — maybe aren’t as successful, nor as resonant, as the feelings, prejudices and desires she has the characters display. These issues mean it isn’t 100% successful as a novel, although the thematic overlap from story to story pulls everything together (rather better than the history of the desk, which has a complicated and, in and of itself, not very interesting timeline).

So, like her previous novel The History of Love, I found Great House uneven: in some respects it doesn’t quite work (just as the seemingly light, comic material in History didn’t match the seriousness of some of its themes), but the actual experience of reading it is almost hair-raisingly good. Like History, much of Great House‘s prose is apothegmatic, almost quotably so (Historyt of Love contains this striking description of parenthood: “Perhaps this is what it means to be a father – to teach your child to live without you”) and seems as you read to be insightful  and truthful. For the density and obliqueness of its writing, Great House isn’t all that easy to read, and the arrangement at angles of its four interconnected stories doesn’t, as noted, quite make for a satisfactory novel. What it is, however, is rewarding, engrossing, wise.

Other reading in Week #16:

Max Frisch Homo Faber (Penguin Classics)

Annie Dillard The Maytrees (Hesperus)

Glenway Wescott The Pilgrim Hawk (New York Review Books)

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