Friday, April 15, 2011

Great House

Great House, by Nicole Krauss, is a haunting novel, unconventional in structure, poetic in language, and rich in universal themes. Through its four narrators, the novel is woven into a tapestry of separate stories--stories which pose questions about alienation and love. The book explores the impact of history--how events shape our psyches and impact on those we love. It explores the nature of inheritance and the function of memory as lives are reconstructed after great loss. Whether it be the Holocaust, or the experience of war, life for those affected will never be the same.

The book begins with the story of Nadia, a writer who limits her contact with the outside world in order to write. She has given up everything--husband, the idea of children, friends--for her art. Her most cherished possession is a desk "loaned" to her by a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky. The desk, upon which she writes her books, becomes her trusted companion over a span of 27 years. When she relinquishes it into the possession of Daniel's supposed daughter, and believes it is sent to Israel, Nadia no longer knows who she is or what her life means. She goes to Israel not to find the desk, but to find the self she has lost.

Thus, we are introduced to the desk, the object that loosely connects some, but not all, of the characters. There is a second writer in this book--Lotte. Lotte was a child when the SS rounded up her family in October of 1938. She lived with them for a year, and then took a chaperone visa to escort a group of children to the U.S. Her parents were ultimately killed, and Lotte was left to live with the guilt of her choice. She becomes a published author, but lives emotionally detached from her husband. Like Nadia, the desk is her most cherished possession, given to her by a former lover. She eventually gives this desk to the poet Daniel Varsky, a man 30 years her junior. We never fully know why.

Then there is Weitz, an antiques dealer. Weitz is also a Holocaust survivor, having left Hungary in 1949 at the age of 21. In 1944, a stone was hurled into the window of his father's study, and life, as he knew it, ended. His father, a scholar of history, died on a death march to the Reich. As Weitz recalls to Lotte's husband when he comes looking for his father's desk: "He wrote at an enormous desk with many drawers, and when I was very young I believed that two thousand years were stored in those drawers...(p. 284)" He goes on to describe his obsession with finding this last piece of furniture that would recreate the study he knew as a child. "...The one searching for this desk isn't like the others...He doesn't have the capacity to forget just a little. His memory is more real to him, more precise, than the life he lives, which becomes more and more vague to him." (p. 276)

The Holocaust's impact went beyond those it directly touched. After her death, Lotte's husband realizes that he never comprehended the enormity of her guilt. Nor could he understand later decisions she made that most would find abhorrent. Similarly, Weitz travels with his two children throughout Europe, never giving them a stable home. His obsession with finding possessions plundered by the Nazis and replicating rooms that exist only in memory negate the needs of his own children. Both become emotionally stunted--prisoners of a past that is not their own.

There is yet one more narrator--an Israeli prosecutor who is mourning the death of his wife. The desk does not play a role in this poignant story, which concerns estrangement and the psychological toll of war. Puzzled by his son's guilt over the death of a fellow soldier, his father ponders, "Terrible things befall people, but not all are destroyed. Why is it that the same thing that destroys one does not destroy another?" (p. 190)

In a radio interview on KCRW's Bookworm (December 9, 2010), Nicole Krauss explains that Great House is a book about doubt--moral doubt, self-doubt, the reader's doubt. " What is it to make a life in the shadow of doubt?" ( Great House is a work of immense depth, an attempt to analyze the impact of experience, memory, and parental love (often gone wrong) upon generations. It is the effort of a great writer to explore questions without clear answers. And it is her gift to enable her readers to do the same.

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