Naomi Fry

  • 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’).

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