‘I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life, but now I will be judged by how I described it.’ – Great House, Nicole Krauss

Sensibility veils the language in Nicole Krauss’ new novel Great House, not in the way that obscures the images of life on the other side of the narrative, but in a way that perceives a character’s past—reflecting on loss, the inheritance of one’s history —in a sort of nostalgic embrace that finds poetry in meditation: ‘When at last I came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it’/ ‘…my mind went to it like a tongue probing the tender spot of a missing tooth.’

All the narrators that compose this orchestrated collection share a poet’s sensitivity and point of view. Two of these characters are writers: Nadia, a middle-aged novelist in New York City who has a brief affair with a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky, who gives her a wooden, nineteen-drawer desk, once owned by Lorca, to look after when he goes back to Chili, and Lotte Berg, a former Kindasport chaperone (her story his narrated by her husband Arthur Bender) who writes elliptical stories in the privacy of her attic studio, on the same desk Nadia looks after years later⎯the desk being the object that threads together all four narratives. Other participants in the trajectory of ‘the desk’ are Leah and Yoav Weisz, children of an Israeli furniture dealer who specializes in retrieving heirlooms lost to the Nazi’s during the war. And finally, there is Aaron, a man writing to his estranged son Dov after his wife’s death, trying to piece together the puzzle of their relationship that has been obscured by misunderstanding. Dov, who left Israel and went to London to become a judge, is alluded to as the connecting line to Nadia, who narrates her story to a judge, ‘Your Honor’, whom she has fatally injured in a car accident in Israel.

Reviewed by Mario A. Zambrano

*Editor’s note – there’s so much more to this review – click more and keep reading.

The narrative journey is like a cerebral kaleidoscope, and where The History of Love, Krauss’ previous novel, fit in the palm of the hand like a precious stone by the time the reader arrived to the last page, feeling satisfied that all pieces fit together, Great House is left puzzling. It investigates character and intends to be meditative, and in doing so sustains a reflective consciousness that has just as much mystery as an antique desk, with just has many drawers keeping memories of those who have used it. There’s something touching in it, the attempt to draw a pattern in the lives that make up the history of a single piece of furniture, as though the desk were not inanimate at all but rather a medium of emotional memory of everyone’s experience who’s ever come in contact with it, holding their lives within its drawers. Perhaps that is why it feels as though these voices have similar poetic points of view, because at the root of the novel the decision to highlight the desk as a poetic metaphor is what ties them together. Yet the thread that links these stories isn’t linear or necessarily easy to follow. What these voices do tell us however, what unifies them — as though each of them had sat down and opened a drawer, one at a time, to evaluate the contents of his or her own past, then wrote it down — is that they all share a connection to the inevitable struggle of loss. In regard to voice, in capturing the colloquial and distinct point of view of each character — an Israeli man, a New York writer, an English widower— they all seemed privileged with Krauss’ mastery of language. The sentences are gorgeous and full of texture, sometimes aphorisms, yet disguised with the author’s editorial command there is something similar in the intellectual property of the mind, the choices made in description and perspective that make each narrator similar.

The structure is a temporal puzzle: a magic trick showing four separate swatches that become one. There’s sophistication in it, but for this particular novel I don’t know if the approach makes the experience any stronger. It’s slightly vexing, in the sense that if you lead someone through a maze, or if a reader feels as though he is going through a maze, by the nature of the game satisfaction only arrives if there is a clear exit. Otherwise, one is left befuddled, which then obscures the beauty and meditation on life, loss and connection that permeates the prose from one story to the next. But of course, life is a maze, as is history and the interpretive translations that are passed down from one generation to the next. As writers we continue to embark on the search for some semblance of truth in story telling, and I think that’s what these narrators are after.

Near the end of the novel, Weisz, the antique furniture dealer, visits Arthur Bender in search for the desk and tells him about the first-century rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was also a writer, and shares with Mr. Bender the story of when the Romans besieged Jerusalem, burning it down. The question arises: What is a Jew without Jerusalem? Weisz’s response bridges the over-arching theme that these four narrators meditate on: ‘Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.

Great House is scheduled for release on October 12, 2010.

Nicole Krauss’ scheduled readings in NYC are:

October 13, 2010  NY Public Library 7pm

October 16, 2010  Brooklyn Public Library 4pm

November 8, 2010 92nd St Y 8pm

November 17, 2010  Symphony Space 730-9pm

November 18, 2010  Congregation Beth Elohim  8pm