- Great House by Nicole Krauss
Viking, 289 pp, £16.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 670 91932 1
The central character in Great House, Nicole Krauss’s new novel, is an antique writing desk, which the book’s various narrators describe as ‘tremendous’, ‘hulking’, a ‘grotesque, threatening monster’ and ‘a Trojan horse’, among other menacing epithets. ‘To call it a desk is to say too little,’ one of them explains. ‘The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always poised to offer up its back for its owner to make use of … This desk was something else entirely.’ Krauss tracks her unlikely protagonist through a series of longish chapters that alternate between the first-person perspectives of five narrators and dip in and out of a wide variety of locations and periods: from late 20th-century New York, through Budapest in the 1940s and mid to late 20th-century London, to Pinochet’s Chile and present-day Jerusalem.
Rarely has a single piece of furniture been asked to do so much (the only fictional equivalent I can think of is The Great Persky’s beaten-up magician’s cabinet, travelling from Brooklyn to the world of Madame Bovary and back again in Woody Allen’s classic story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’); but Krauss, as her two previous novels have shown, is nothing if not ambitious. In Man Walks into a Room (2002), she told the story of a young Columbia professor, Samson Greene, who, as the novel begins, is found roaming the Nevada desert; following a brain tumour, he has forgotten everything he has experienced since the age of 12. An amnesiac blank slate would be a paralysing challenge for a less confident novelist, but Krauss managed to convey both Greene’s dizzying lack of any sense of the concrete (what he thinks of as ‘the blankness in the centre of his mind … the moonscape that stretched from his 12th year to the day he awoke in the hospital’) and affecting everyday details (the retirees with whom Greene attends a basic word-processing course are described sitting and waiting ‘until the teacher came by to turn on their computers’). It’s a novel with big themes and big landscapes but a relatively straightforward narrative structure.
Krauss’s second novel, The History of Love (2005), dealt with the same capital-letter subjects (Loss, Memory, Love, the Past) but this time through a series of interlocking, intricately plotted narratives all circling around a novel, also called The History of Love. The real-life novel mixes a variety of genres – mystery, shtetl folklore, Borgesian fabulism and Bildungsroman, among others – but suffers occasionally from heavy-handed attempts at loveliness (‘her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering,’ or ‘he knew that to remove her name [from the book] would be like erasing all the punctuation, and the vowels, and every adjective and noun’); overworked metaphors (‘I didn’t get any closer to solving the mystery. Story of my life: I was a locksmith. I could unlock every door in the city. And yet I couldn’t unlock anything I wanted to unlock’); and quirky moments that are appealing the first time around but seem slightly crazy the second (Leopold Gursky, the novel’s elderly protagonist, touchingly ‘never had the heart’ to tell his friend Bruno that the eyeglasses he wears are actually ‘women’s glasses’; this is the same Gursky who, 15 pages later, recounts how he too, inexplicably, ‘once … cooked an omelette wearing a pair of ladies’ reading glasses’).
The History of Love is also a crypto-universalist fable about the special status of writing. The book within the book, as it shuttles between countries and eras (Second World War Poland, mid-20th-century Argentina, early 21st-century New York), represents patrimony and romantic connection and, perhaps most important, is the one remaining link between generations and locations. Great House performs similar tricks, but is interested less in the written word than in the actual space where the work of writing happens. The novel opens in modern-day New York with the story of Nadia, a writer who has used the desk for a quarter of a century, ever since Daniel Varsky, a young Chilean poet with whom she had a brief affair in the early 1970s, left it in her care before being murdered by Pinochet’s secret police. After several failed romantic relationships in the years that followed, the emotionally impoverished Nadia (her former husband calls her ‘Nada’) has come to rely on the desk as a stand-in for a partner, a thing that, as she explains, she’d ‘physically grown around, my posture formed by years of leaning over it and fitting myself to it’.
Nadia is not the only character in Great House to shrink from human contact and to prefer instead the company of the inanimate. Aaron, the book’s second narrator, a retired prosecutor living in Jerusalem in 1999, addresses his monologues to his son Dov, whose removed ‘inwardness’ troubles him. Arthur, the third narrator, an Oxford expert on English Romanticism, remembers a life shared with his wife, Lotte, in London from the 1950s to the 1990s. Lotte is another isolated writer and a refugee from Hitler’s Europe: ‘In some fundamental way I think she objected to being known,’ he says. By people, perhaps, but not by her beloved desk – the same desk, it turns out, as once belonged to a Budapest historian, killed in the Holocaust, and which she acquired mysteriously. Arthur comes to see it as his nemesis: he admits to having felt ‘a kind of strange, inexplicable jealousy … when she opened the door and there, hovering behind her, threatening to swallow her up, was that tremendous body of furniture’. Leah and Yoav, Israeli siblings whose relationship with each other and with their father, Weisz, is narrated by Yoav’s American lover, Isabel, are also strangely secretive, their bond verging on a gothic Flowers in the Attic-like creepiness, as they cohabit in a London mansion among the constantly shifting spoils of their father’s shady antiques business. Finally, Weisz is seen in the late 1990s, still nursing an obsession for the desk, which originally belonged to his father, the murdered historian in Budapest.
Weisz’s infatuation with the desk takes precedence over the wellbeing of his two children: he prefers things to people, abstractions to human relationships. Nadia, too, fetishises the desk. Its drawers, she notes, represent ‘a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of consciousness that could be articulated in no other way’, then asks: ‘Or am I making too much of it?’ The reader is surely meant to think: yes, you are. But the logic of Krauss’s narrative is oddly complicit with Weisz’s and Nadia’s obsessions. Both characters are pursuing the trail of a grand idea and so, in its way, does Great House. As a young boy, Weisz believed that his adored father stored ‘two thousand years … in [the desk’s] drawers the way Magda the housekeeper stored flour and sugar in the pantry’: the desk was a repository for Israel’s past. We are meant to be moved by this homely notion of history, in which flour sacks are exchanged for millennia and the specific stands in for the epic. But the desk is always only really a symbol, as are most other objects in the novel. When Lotte, trapped and lonely, seems to wish for the deus ex machina of ‘a train through the bedroom wall or a piano falling out of the sky’, this figurative image is soon taken up by the narrative, which sees Leah Weisz, decades later, rigging up her grand piano with pulleys to the ceiling so that it hangs ‘eerily, at times forlorn and others menacing, and I had a feeling that when it finally fell – it was just a matter of time until the ropes gave way – it would pull the whole house down with it.’
If a metaphor appears in the first act, then it will collapse on your head, literally, in the third. This might not be a problem – in fact, it might be inventive and fun – in another kind of novel, one that wasn’t also concerned with telling a politically and historically specific tale. But Krauss’s book is interested in history and politics. Otherwise why bring up, in a single novel, 1970s Chile, and 1940s Budapest, and present-day Israel? Aaron speaks at one point of a car ride he took to the doctor’s with his other son, Uri, after ‘a tiny spot of darkness had lodged in the vision of my right eye’:
We were driving when out of nowhere a rock hit the windshield. The bang was tremendous. Both of us flew out of our skin, and Uri slammed on the brakes. We sat in silence, barely breathing. The road was empty, there was no one around. By some miracle … the glass had not broken. The only mark in it was a divot the size of a fingerprint almost exactly between my eyes … I got out of the car, my legs trembling, and took hold of the stone. It filled my palm, and when I closed my fingers around it, it fit perfectly in my fist. Here is the first, I thought. The first stone to mark my grave. The first stone placed like a period at the end of my life. Soon the mourners will come bringing stone after stone to anchor the long sentence that was my life to its final, strangled syllable –
And then, my child, I thought of you. I realised that I didn’t care if the others came. That the only one whose stone I wanted was yours, Dov. The stone that can mean so many things to a Jew, but in your hand could mean only one.
There is a series of nimble transmutations here. The ‘spot’ in the eye that is replaced by a ‘divot’ in the windshield, the stone that turns into a punctuation mark and then a Jewish mourner’s final token of respect, and the singular symbol of a son’s love. We are obviously meant to empathise with Aaron, with his melancholy about impending death and his desire for some form of reconciliation with his estranged son. But it’s important to consider where and when this narrative is taking place: we are in Jerusalem on the cusp of the 21st century, and yet the stone comes ‘out of nowhere’. Is Aaron’s myopia more than simply physical? And does Krauss’s novel share it?
When a stone hits your windshield in the vicinity of Jerusalem, you will be aware that it has come from somewhere, and probably for a politically motivated reason. Krauss must know this: soon after the passage about the stone, Aaron mentions the bus bombings that took place in Jerusalem in 1996. And yet this seems something of a smokescreen: Krauss is notifying us of her general awareness of the region’s ‘situation’, but almost immediately folds the scene back into the universal family romance: ‘Blood, so much blood, Dovi. The remains were everywhere … Afterwards I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, not even your mother, but I talked to you … Yes, it was you I spoke to when I woke with nightmares. You I addressed when I looked at myself to shave in the mirror. I found you everywhere.’ Etc. Krauss chooses to write about Israel without also writing about Palestine. And so, much like the desk, the stone is allowed to remain an abstraction rather than a thing in history, a fetish disconnected from its palpably troubled environment.
But Krauss makes a special point of placing her narrative in a wide variety of troubled environments. And in some cases, she evokes their quirks and details excellently. Nadia’s New York is especially well drawn, thanks perhaps to Krauss’s familiarity with the characters and locations she is describing. Her account of an American tourist’s visit to Israel is also full of enjoyably recognisable features: the expensive restaurants and dirty streetscapes, the bland, flirty social banter between locals and visitors, the quick familiarity that can topple suddenly from generosity into rudeness. One of the effects of travelling through so many locations so quickly over the course of a single novel, though, is the equivalent of something that one often experiences when travelling for real: the blurring of the scenery through a speeding vehicle’s window. When Krauss leaves specificity behind, a too-easy universalism enters the picture: a stone thrown in Israel is like a stone thrown in London, which is like a stone thrown in Budapest. A son going off to fight in the Yom Kippur war is like a Chilean poet killed by the Pinochet regime, like the son of refugees given up for adoption in 1940s London, like an author suffering from writer’s block and regretting her childlessness in New York, like a Himmler-lookalike aristocrat awash in loneliness in his Belgian castle.
In one of the book’s final sections, however, the specific thing finally seems to wrench itself free from the abstract idea. When Nadia arrives in Jerusalem in search of the desk, which was taken away from her by a young woman claiming to be Varsky’s daughter, she becomes involved with a young Israeli called Adam, who keeps promising – suspiciously – to give her a desk just as good as the one she has lost. But the object he finds turns out to be nothing like the desk she is looking for: ‘It was a desk of blond wood whose rolltop had been drawn back to reveal an intricate inlaid pattern whose gleam, protected all this time from the democratising blanket of dust, was unnerving … I was embarrassed and wanted to protest that I could no more work at such a desk than I could write out my grocery list with a pen that had belonged to Kafka.’ Nevertheless, she keeps on trying to pretend that one thing can easily be exchanged for another. Lonely and amorous, she becomes infatuated with Adam (she sees him as a double of the murdered Varsky), and begins, when he keeps returning to the subject of the desk, ‘to feel the thrill of the unspoken thing I believed we were actually negotiating, for which the desk, with its hidden meanings, was only a stand-in’.
But this time, for once, it isn’t a stand-in. When she goes to see the replacement desk a final time, Nadia makes her move, and is cruelly rebuffed:
It lasts only a moment. Then he shoves me away. Get off of me, he growls … Quickly he leans over and plucks up my wallet. Then he throws the purse down, kicks it out of his way with his boot, and, with a final look of repugnance in my direction, walks out … the devastation tore through me, pulling the roof down at last. What was he, after all? Nothing more than an illusion.
A desk is just a desk; sex is just sex; money is just money; a young Israeli is just a young Israeli and a middle-aged American is just a middle-aged American. At last, things are equal only to themselves. If only they could have stayed that way. Unfortunately, though, this is only an anecdote on the original desk’s path to its symbolic apotheosis.