Last year, I read Nicole Krauss’s highly regarded novel The History of Love. I enjoyed it but couldn’t quite summon up the rapt enthusiasm so many other readers felt for the book. So unlike a lot of people, I wasn’t filled with excitement at the prospect of Krauss’s new book, Great House. However, the enthusiasm of bloggers like Frances and Steph was strong enough that I decided to request a review copy when I was at the ALA convention. (The peer pressure would not, of course, have been enough to sway me had I not enjoyed so much of Krauss’s writing in The History of Love. Once my heels are dug in, they’re hard to dig out.)
Great House opens with a woman telling her story to a judge. It’s a long, meandering story involving ill-fated loves, a writing career of middling success, and years spent alone working at a massive desk a poet named Daniel Varsky loaned her just before he moved back to Chile where he was eventually imprisoned by Pinochet. In the next chapter, a man is telling his son about his struggles with their relationship. Then, another man grieves his wife’s death, consoling himself with memories and trying, even after her death, to come to grips with the mysteries of her past. The first part of the book is rounded out by another young woman’s account of her relationship with man named Yoav Weisz, who has his own unique family that she cannot quite figure out. For most of the book, there are only fleeting connections among these stories, recurring names and places—and that massive desk. But as these stories are revisited in the second half of the book, the connections among them start to become clear.
I can imagine that this structure would drive many readers crazy, but it worked for me. Once I realized that there were no obvious connections to be made, I was able to sit back and enjoy each story on its own terms. When the stories finally did come together, it was a delightful surprise that I know will make a reread all the more rewarding. There were some points where I found the timelines within each story a bit perplexing, but I think this is a book about emotional journeys in which plot-based details just aren’t important.
As for the stories themselves, the first one completely won me over. At first, it was the questions that kept me reading. Who is this woman? Why is she talking to a judge? What happened to Varsky? What’s the deal with the blood and the morphine drip? Eventually, though, I was enraptured by the narrator’s own voice, especially her reflections on the responsibility of a writer and her own self-imposed isolation:
One has to make a sacrifice. I chose the freedom of long unscheduled afternoons in which nothing happens but the slightest shift in mood as captured in a semicolon. Yes, work was that for me, an irresponsible exercise in pure freedom. And if I neglected or even ignored the rest, it was because I believed the rest conspired to chip away at that freedom, to interfere and force upon it a compromise. The first words out of my mouth in the morning spoken to S, and already the constraints began, the false politeness. Habits are formed. Kindness above all, responsiveness, a patient show of interest. But you also have to try to be entertaining and amusing. It’s exhausting work, in the way that trying to keep three or four lies going at once is exhausting. Only to be repeated tomorrow and the day after that. You hear a sound, and it’s truth turning in its grave. Imagination dies a slower death, by suffocation.
Strong, unpleasant medicine there. But there’s something in her misanthropy and fear of connection that I could understand, even though I acknowledge that, if taken to extremes, such a position is certainly not healthy.
Other characters, like the unhappy father and the grieving widower, seem to be groping for connections. Some, like the brother and sister in the chapter titled “Lies Told by Children” are not cut off from others by their own choice, although they seem to revel in their peculiar state and engage in such oddball behavior as hanging a piano from the ceiling and encouraging rumors that they are having an incestuous relationship.
But despite the seeming isolation of the characters, they cannot help but be connected to each other and to history. Each person is part of the Great House, a sort of storehouse of the collective Jewish memory that has come down through the generations. The Great House is the school of the first-century rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and the people in this book are among the many whose memories can rebuild that house. The fragmented nature of the overall narrative demonstrates how fragmented history can be, with each person carrying only a tiny piece. A lovely image that rounds out a fascinating book.