Great House, by Nicole Krauss, Viking, RRP £16.99, 289 pages
Nicole Krauss’s third novel, the first since 2005’s bestseller The History of Love, is full of questions. But one stands out more than the others. “Terrible things befall people, but not all are destroyed,” one of the four narrators notes. “Why is it that the same thing that destroys one does not destroy another?” While Great House may not provide an answer, it powerfully depicts how such damage echoes down the generations.
This is a mosaic of a story or, to borrow one of the book’s images, a smashed window pane. Only slowly are we given enough information to reassemble the pieces, and none of the four interconnecting stories is exactly cheerful. The novel displays superficial similarities to The History of Love: there, a lost manuscript anchored the narrative; here, a writer’s desk provides the link between the various protagonists. Yet readers who expect the same extrovert playfulness as the first book are likely to be disappointed.
Written unmistakably in a minor key, Great House is peopled by a cast of self-flagellants whose only connection is, for the most part, their failure to connect. It’s a credit to her formidable skills that Krauss manages to make her emotionally tortured crew engaging. That said, you wouldn’t want to go on holiday with any of them.
First up is Nadia, an icily self-contained New York writer, whose dedication to her work has driven away her long-suffering husband. In 1972, at the beginning of her career, she is loaned a desk by a young Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky, who then disappears at the hands of General Pinochet’s death squads.
When decades later, having become a successful novelist, she receives a request to return the desk to the poet’s family, she is driven to a breakdown. Her story is spliced with that of an Oxford don and his poet wife who fled Poland as a young woman on the outbreak of war; an overbearing Israeli father; and Weisz, a Jerusalem-based antiques dealer obsessively trying to recreate his father’s Budapest study, which was looted by the Nazis in 1944.
Clearly, Varsky’s bureau is no ordinary piece of furniture: “To call it a desk is to say too little,” says the don. “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] was something else entirely: an enormous foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.”
Alfred Hitchcock might have described the desk as a McGuffin, there solely to drive the plot, and certainly, it helps hold together the portmanteau structure. But it would be wrong to understand it as just a device. A signature motif of Great House is the way in which possessions oppress their owners. Paintings, pianos, chairs are tinged with gothic horror: a couch exposed to the elements gives off “a sour, festering smell as if the rain had unloosed something foul hidden in its depths”. The material world weighs heavy on Krauss’s characters. Objects are unavoidable physical reminders of old slights, unresolved conflicts and lost loves. They can’t be imagined out of existence, even by a writer.
“Being weighed down made me uneasy,” says one character, “as if I lived on the surface of a frozen lake and each new trapping of domestic life ... threatened to be the thing that sent me through the ice.” The emphasis is not on living joyously unencumbered, but on not drowning.
The persistence of memory in the face of loss is a central concern of this book, as it is in Krauss’s previous work. Great House is pockmarked with missing parents and absent children (“who isn’t a survivor from the wreck of childhood?”), while many of the characters’ lives have been directly or indirectly shaped by the Nazi atrocities of the 20th century.
Krauss places their individual struggles to come to terms with the past in the context of Judaic tradition, making reference to the burning of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. As Weisz puts it: “Every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment ... But if every Jewish memory were put together ... the [Great] House would be built again.”
The tragedy for the book’s dramatis personae is that such a temple of recollection is impossible to construct. Unable to tame their pasts, they are left with painful shards of memories, with which to harm themselves and those closest to them, partners and children. In Great House relations between the generations and the sexes are almost universally grim, full of moody silences and inchoate rage, and Krauss’s tendency to prod her characters’ wounds verges on the pathological. It makes for a compelling, intense read. But you hope for the author’s sake, as much as the reader’s, that she finds happier territory to explore in her next book.
Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival