Great House – Nicole Krauss

Great House – Nicole Krauss

Book Review of Great House by Nicole Krauss

It is difficult to find a profile of Nicole Krauss that doesn’t mention 1) her beauty, 2) her youth or 3) her marriage to Jonathan Safran Foer (even younger, slightly less beautiful). There’s an inevitable air of complaint about these facts, however sympathetically presented, the implication being that her ability to get books published has less to do with talent than with a particularly irritating streak of good luck.

I am pleased however that I ignored the envy other authors are feeling about Nicole Krauss for within a few pages of starting Great House I was hooked.  I don’t really care what her background is – the fact is Great House is a fine book by anybody’s standards, and although it deals with obvious literary fiction themes (to name but three: the effects of the Holocaust on future generations, the iniquities of South American dictators, the semi-incestuous relationship of a brother and sister), it does with this such style, that to my mind, it qualifies as great fiction.

The book consists of several inter-leaved stories, each featuring a huge, multi-drawered desk, as it passes from one owner to another.  The desk seems to exert a totemic power over its owners and as it handed from one person another they feel a sense of loss that mirrors a greater loss in their lives to which the desk has somehow become linked.

The book opens in 1972.  Nadia, a writer has recently broken up with her live-in boyfriend, leaving her with an apartment devoid of furniture.  A friend puts her in touch with a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky, who is returning home and wants someone to look after his furniture while he is away.  

She goes round to meet him, and immediately finds herself in an engaging relationship with Daniel, only marred by the fact that he is leaving the country.  However, the furniture is hers for the asking, including the great desk, which Daniel tells her was once owned by the poet Lorca.

She has the desk delivered to her apartment and when it arrives, she writes, “my eyes actually filled with tears . . . as is so often the case, the tears sprang from older more obscure regrets I had delayed thinking about, which the gift or loan of a stranger’s furniture had somehow unsettled”.

Postcards arrive from Chile for a couple of years and then dry up (we later learn that Daniel was killed in a Chilean prison).  The desk remains with Nadia for the next 25 years until one day a young woman calls claiming to be the daughter of Daniel Varsky and asks if she can have the desk back.  

Her name is Leah Weisz, and when she turns up to to claim the desk, Nadia immediately recognises Daniel in his daughter, “the same thinness, the same nose, and despite it, the underlying delicateness”.  For reasons unknown, Leah is having the desk shipped to Jerusalem.  

Within days, Nadia finds her life is falling apart.  She suffers panic attacks, stomach pains, nausa and feelings of terror.  She sees her therapist and then one day out of the blue announces that she is going to Jerusalem.  The elemental power of the desk may be the key to her problems and perhaps to her whole life.

The subsequent scenes move from one location to another, and one era to another.  We find ourselves learning the history of the desk before Daniel was given it, and its progress after Nadia, its ultimate destiny to be reunited with the family of its original Jewish owner who left it behind in Budapest in 1944.  

Each set of characters has their own story to tell, stories of loss and longing which are all written in the same elegant prose which is often so well-crafted that I found myself stopped in my tracks.  It took me a long time to read this book, not because it is especially lengthy but because the words were so heart-stoppingly good that I frequently had to pause to reflect on their meaning.

Often I sensed resonances of W G Sebald, in passages like this (which could almost have come from Sebald’s Vertigo)

I’d planned to walk past the house before finding a bed and breakfast nearby to spend the night, then to call the following morning.  But making my way down the platform I felt a heavy ache in my legs, as if I had arrived from London on foot, rather than sat idle for two and a half hours on the train.  I stopped to switch my bag to the other shoulder and without looking up, I sensed the gray sky pressing down on the glass roof from above, and when the letters on the flip board above he platform began to whir and click, time and destinations disintegrating, leaving us, the newly arrived, in limbo, a sickening wave of claustrophobia came over me and I had to struggle to resist the urge to walk straight to the ticket office and purchase a ticket fo the next train back to London.

It is Nicole Krauss’s assured voice which kept me reading this book with an unusual level of intensity.  She writes of interior states of mind, often illusory, but manages the different conditions of each of her varied characters with great confidence.  Sometimes I almost didn’t feel that she invented it all – the book seems to have a mythical quality, a true story perhaps, not in fact, but in what it speaks of.

I was reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, “every book is, in an intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him who writes it”.  Nicole Krauss has an ability to draw her readers into the close and intricate worlds of her characters, with a sense of intimacy which almost makes you feel part of their circle.  This is a fine, fine book which deserves to last as long as Daniel Varsky’s great desk, and like the desk it should be passed from one person to another in the hope that it will be as meaningful to them as it was to us.