Connected solely by a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away, three people--a lonely American novelist clinging to the memory of a poet who has mysteriously vanished in Chile, an old man in Israel facing the imminent death of his wife of 51 years, and an esteemed antiques dealer tracking down the things stolen from his father by the Nazis--struggle to create a meaningful permanence in the face of inevitable loss.
Great House isn't about a house per se. Rather, it's the story of people with a deep and tormented history - who individually represent a sliver of their collective past, but together, form a congruous whole. In this story, a desk is the connecting theme - an assuming piece of furniture that began in the office of a Jewish man in Budapest and made its way around the world, touching and affecting the lives of many people.
In this story, we meet a writer who lives in New York, an antiques dealer and his family from Jerusalem, a retired prosecutor and his son from Israel and a British couple. With one exception, the desk spends time with each person - often carrying good luck but painful memories too. As the story progressed, you follow the journey of the desk and the people who sat at it. In time, you see the other connections between each one.
Nicole Krauss is a gifted storyteller who is not afraid to take her readers on a journey that can be complicated and arduous. Indeed, Great House is not the easiest book to read with its swirling storylines and flowery language. It requires concentration as you learn about these characters whose lives are separate but connected. Each story could stand alone, but when placed together, they evoke a deeper meaning.
Great House will probably be revered by fans of literary fiction. It would make a compelling book for discussion, especially if led by the right moderator. In the end, I am glad I took the time to read this book - and sure that I will be thinking about this story for a long time.
Novels that take a bit of work such as this one often have me complaining. This book, however, did not leave me time to do so as I was completely captivated page after page. Having lived in Israel in the 1970’s, I knew the Jerusalem of that time. I also was well aware of the concurrent turbulence in Chile and the protests of young Jewish South Americans. I could have jumped into this book and befriended its characters. I also know what it feels like to be older and look back at that time. You could say I lived this story. The only thing that was missing is that, while living in Israel, I did not have that wonderful desk!
There is one part of the story that had me laughing out loud (although there is no humor per se in the story). I was listening to an audio version of this novel, and found that there were a few lines in Hebrew. The lines were supposed to have been said in a European-accented Hebrew. The accent was *distinctly* American! I had to replay those lines a few times just for the laughs.
I’m thoroughly glad that the author was rewarded with an Orange Prize nomination, a well-deserved kudo for this wonderful book. For sure, I’ll be greatly anticipating future novels by this talented writer.
Great House is an exploration of the Jewish Diaspora. There are several story-threads, each of which is loosely connected. The characters are finely drawn examinations of isolation, exile, and grief; each character’s story is told as a sort of a self-contained confessional. I couldn’t help but think: this is a story for introverts about introverts. You notice as you read this book, that many of Krauss’s characters are writers: poets, novelists, historians, or writer-wannabes. The mental footwork of understanding the places where the individual story-threads and characters connect is left largely to the reader with a maze of “bread crumbs” scattered throughout the narratives. This is what is both most satisfying and challenging about reading Great House. Each page is chock full of meaningful fragments; enough hints and illuminations scatter throughout the book that an entire picture emerges.
I was just as baffled (though also intrigued and enchanted) as many other readers seemed to be with the complexities found in Great House. One thing I’m sure of: Krauss has written a book that she does not intend to be simply read. She has no intention of spoon-feeding her reader. What she has crafted here, is a story whose ideas need to be chewed and gnawed on and digested. Great House is a book that should be read carefully and meditatively, studied and pondered. It should probably be read more than once.
However, in spite of Krauss’s masterful prose and puzzle-like storyline, her devices might not be enough to sustain this story as an enduring literary work. For about a day after I finished Great House, I thought about it a lot. Krauss’s prose is beautiful and immensely quotable. I enjoyed that so many of her characters were introverts; as one myself, I experienced a lovely sense of being understood as a person. I thought she did an interesting, though limited, job exploring the complexities of intimate relationships; loss and grief. I spent time thinking about how all the plots and characters fit together. Now, a week out, I’m not sure what’s left. When it comes right down to it, not much of the story really sunk below the surface; I don’t think it’s a book that will stick with me for the long term.
The book opens ominously. In a section called "All Rise", a woman is addressing "your honor" and describing her past relationships, how she came in possession of a large desk, and what happened to the previous owner of the desk. But on the second page is a paragraph set off from the rest:
She washed the blood from my hands and gave me a fresh T-shirt, maybe even her own. She thought I was your girlfriend or even your wife. No one has come for you yet. I won't leave your side. Talk to him.
Obviously something has happened, but the reader is given no other hints.
In the second section, titled "True Kindness", an angry father has an ongoing internal monologue about his relationship with his second son, someone he has never understood, and who has suddenly reappeared in his life.
The third section, "Swimming Holes", is conversational, again from the first person perspective, this time the voice of a retired professor, whose wife is a reclusive writer. He talks of his inability to break past her reserve, despite their long and loving marriage, and how, by protecting her privacy, he may have been deceiving himself.
The last section in the first half is "Lies Told by Children", and is told from the perspective of an outsider: a woman who has fallen in love with a man who lives with his sister in a big house and is completely cowed by his domineering father.
Each of these stories is revisited in the second half, although not in the same order. By the end, the reader is allowed to see how the stories interconnect. But as I said, the plot was not the hook for me. I kept reading because of the language and the ideas about knowing oneself and others. The author is able to speak in the voices of different people very convincingly. But I finished the book several days ago, and I still don't know what to make of it, not even whether or not I liked it. The key to the book (which is in no way a spoiler) lies in the last few pages, when one of the characters refers to a Jewish story about the creation of the Talmud in a school referred to as the Great House
...after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.
Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now 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: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. In the next world, we will all dwell together in the memory of our memories. But that will not be for us, my father used to say. Not for you or me. We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.
Or a desk.
What do these four plotlines, which represent the narrative force that underscores ‘Great House’, have in common? The desk, for one thing; it is both a physical presence that connects all of the stories—although one only tangentially—as well as a metaphor for the constant sense of loss that pervades the novel. They also feature protagonists who suffer life-long isolation—often self-imposed—from even the most basic forms of human kindness and spend a considerable amount of time trying to reconstruct memories of their past. (In fact, the “great house” of the title refers to Old Testament admonishment to rebuild the lost Temple of Jerusalem from the collective memory of the Jewish people.)
I found this to be a very hard book to review, if for no other reason than it was not an altogether enjoyable book to read. Unlike her earlier novel ‘The History of Love’, in which Krauss covers very similar themes but with occasional touches of humor and joy, this work is wholly devoid of anything that might relieve the unrelenting emotional pain her characters experience. Further, while each story differs in its details, they share a soul-crushing melancholy that becomes a little monotonous by the end. Still, Kraus is a remarkably talented writer and this is a book full of compelling and hauntingly beautiful images that deliver a powerful final message. While reading this one was hardly a feel-good experience, it is also one that I suspect will stay with me for quite awhile.
It's hard to explain the plot of this book in just a few sentences. There is a collection of characters: a writer who lives a reclusive life, a father who was too hard on his son, a student who falls in love with the son of an antique's dealer, and more. They're all connected by a desk, an old piece of furniture that looms in their lives.
I can't deny Nicole Krauss has a way with words. She pulls me into the minds of her characters. She speaks about the human state with such effortlessness and brings all the sorrow and joy and mystery and loneliness and community of life into her pages.
That said, I guess I'm a stickler for tradition. This novel reads more like memoirs from four different people who happen to be connected by a desk. It's great writing, but I was left wondering, 'What's the common thread? What binds all of these people together?' Some of them love the desk, some of them hate it, some don't even know it exists.
I loved the characters and their stories, but I'm okay with the fact that I don't read novels like this often. I feel like they're stories I can only take every now and then because if I read novels like this consistently, I'd probably get bored or, worse, I'd start talking in sweeping generalizations that don't really make sense but sound pretty anyway, and my writing would start getting really long-winded, like this sentence, and all my paragraphs would be a page or more long.
Regardless, this book comes recommended from yours truly, if you have the patience for it. This is the kind of book that's a special treat, a gem, even, but I'm still glad it's not the norm for novels today.
The dust jacket says that the stories in this book are told by narrators who all have a connection with the same hulking desk. When I read that I imagined a work similar to People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, but the desk here doesn't take the central role that the Haggadah does in that one. Instead the desk is almost a side note, or maybe a subtle, oboe counter line, to the intimate melody that each of the narrators plays as they tell their stories.
The writing is beautiful--similes and metaphors par excellence, but after awhile all the narrators start to sound alike, none has their own voice, and it seems to be more about the writing than about the stories.
I found several reading group guides with lists of questions--very few of which I could answer--and I think that that is what the author was after, a story with no real ending, no neat lines, a story that you can fill in the details as you will,. I don't have time for that. So why do I keep trying to figure out the answers?
With its winding, spinning narrative, Great House manages to pull you in, only to be pushed away with a firm hand later.
The Rest of It:
I have mixed feelings about Great House. The story centers around a desk as it travels from owner to owner. To some, the desk is just a mere vessel to write letters at. To others, it is a more important piece, vital to the creative writing process. This wooden desk is quite unique, in that it contains 19 drawers which allow the owner to secret away little bits of life. Large and imposing, this desk seems to loom over its owners when they are in possession of it, and remind them of their past lives when it’s gone.
Krauss weaves in and out of different narratives going back and forth in time. The structure of the novel is quite complex and takes some time to get used to. It took many passes at reading the novel for me to get a feel for her style. I find this to be the case with most Literary Fiction, but with Great House, the extra effort didn’t reward me in the way that I expected it would. The story fell flat and the some of the characters lacked depth.
The one storyline that I was very taken with, is the one where Lotte’s husband finds out that his wife has secrets. I was completely absorbed by that story, but with the weaving narrative, once you find yourself absorbed, you are then suddenly pushed back into a different narrative. This gave the novel a disjointed feeling. Not to say that the transitions weren’t smooth, they were, but it’s like watching a riveting TV show while your children are yapping incessantly at you. You simply want to go back to the story… not be pulled away from it and forced to look elsewhere.
After re-reading the last third of the novel three times, I did experience the sense of loss that I felt the author was trying to convey. The desk becomes a Jewish symbol of survival and serves as a reminder of love and loss. The last third of the book is very powerful and thought-provoking but the novel as a whole felt a bit jagged around the edges. I didn’t feel that the stories were fully explored and it left me with an empty, unfinished feeling.
I read this for the 2010 Indie Lit Awards and although I do have some issues with how it was pieced together, I appreciate the complexity of the novel itself.
An even bigger problem for me is that none of the narrators or other characters in this book is at all likeable. The least offensive is pitiable. All the narrators are incapable of real connection with anybody else. With two exceptions, they are virtally devoid of emotional attachment to another human being. One of the exceptions seems happily married, but he kvetches constantly about one son he never could "understand." The other one, the one he terms "normal," he doesn't seem to care much about. The other exception involves siblings who are in a virtually incestuous relationship with each other, but tied to an authoritarian, aloof father who seems barely human.
Ostensibly, the book is in that genre in which the history of an object forms the narrative framework. In this instance, it is a desk. We meet its various owners, which is the way this this genre organizes its plotlines. The problem is the desk is just a big desk. It has no magic to it, and except for its bulk seems to make no difference in anybody's life. Towards the end of the book, there is a paragraph by one narrator about how much the desk meant to her, but, since she never said anything about it after she returned it to its previous owner early in the novel, this paragraph doesn't ring true. Moreover, we never do find out how one of the desk owners got it in the first place. One of the narrators never even owned the desk, so why he's floating around this novel, I never figured out. When the ostensibly original owner of the desk finally gets it, he doesn't exhibit any joy or satisfaction in finally getting it. He just considers it an affirmation that he's a genius at getting what he's after. Since he is otherwise a loathsome human being, the reader is not likely to care about that. It was just something of his father's, a man we know nothing of except he was caught in the Holocaust and was a briliant scholar. Since his son never carried on his father's life work, getting the desk seems a poor memento of the father's life.
Oh, at the very end, we do find out why one narrator kept saying, "Your Honor." However, not only is it impossible that any judge in any court of law would have listened to this woman's overlong story of her failed life, the reason she's before the judge has nothing to do with the rest of the novel. It's an intrusive element apparently to add a little plot twist.
I recommend Krauss's The History of Love, but this? Well, it will help a rainy afternoon pass by.
At the center of Krauss' dreamy network of multi-generational yearning is an desk, a heavy and many-drawered behemoth that characters pursue, sometimes for a lifetime, striving for a piece of representational furniture that, for more than one of them, brings with it destruction, death.
We first hear of the desk in reference to a romantic and slightly mythical Chilean writer who falls fatally afoul of the Pinochet regime. Well, not exactly, chronologically, first according to my notes and arrows. But I'll leave it as a repeat exercise for future readers to uncoil this chain. It's a fun knot to untie. Also in the peripheral running for the desk is an obsessed Israeli antique furniture dealer (that he lost his parents and their belongings to Nazi horror is continually relevant). His reclusive and sexually-charged son and daughter--someone said "Nabokov" in reference to this book, and in these housebound, profligate, slightly incestual waifs it seems most evident--gain the obsession of (young) female literary person Izzy. Also in the mix is the slightly overlapping (older) female literary person Nadia and (yet older, and more interesting) female literary person Lotte Berg, her adorable (if typical) doddering old British husband; further afield, a wistful and senescing father, his successful but damaged aloof son: they don't touch the desk, but drawing indirect connections between them and its impact can be engrossing.
Kruass gives us this desk, and the direct implication that it is carries heavy meaning. She also gives us her shattered characters and their gaping souls. Though the vignettes of humanity-dense interactions between her characters are vivid and, on occasion, cathartic, we never know this desk well except for the dent it leaves. It goes as far as to make some of the characters outwardly, presciently nervous:
"This desk 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."
Despite the human foibles the desk elicits, and the dark destruction it metaphorically wreaks, it is, still, furniture. We're given the literary instruction to envision it as laden with symbolism, as dense enough to serve as a point of orbit for the disparate experiences of her characters. Made of earthly, wooden stuff, though, it seems at times too blatant, too extant, too physical to carry out its existential task. The core of the novel carries with it an ethereal, spiritual sense of connection, grief, love that seems too light, fleeting and internal for something so blunt and, well, real, to carry.
Great House is told through four alternating stories that shift back and forth over the course of five decades and four continents. The closest thing to a fixed point between the stories is a large antique wooden desk which makes it way from person to person. The other backdrop is history: the Holocaust, Israel's wars, Pinochet's coup, although we don't see any of these events, we just hear about how they have affected characters and the large desk that runs through all of them.
The disappointment was twofold: (1) the different overlapping stories don't come together in a satisfying resolution, in retrospect it clearly wasn't the author's intention that they do, but it still made it all feel less coherent and (2) there was something hollow and empty about the characters, again appears to have been the author's intention, but greatly at odds with the life-filled characters in The History of Love.
As for the plot itself, it gradually unfolds, told in several seemingly different storylines which tie together loosely. Not until the very end does the reader fit it all together. In my case, I'm still trying to fit it all together & get my mind wrapped around the novel as a whole. I will recommend this book not only for the sheer beauty of the writing, but also because it begs for discussion and interpretation.
I never wanted Great House to end. It was one of those books that you want to savor, so you try and trick yourself by keeping it in another room so you won't immediately rush to it... but it's useless, because all you can do is think about the story being told. The table of contents gives you a good idea of the book's make-up: it is comprised of four separate threads of stories, each of which have a go in part one and part two. The reader is well aware that things will all tie together somehow, but it's the journey to that point which makes everything worthwhile. Each story deals with personal loss, motivation, and the weight of memory. One part features a writer who, in her youth, was entrusted with the desk of a friend of a friend, a poet who then was killed in Chile under Pinochet's regime; years pass and the writer feels as though her very being forms itself to the desk, until one day she receives a phone call from the poet's daughter, asking if she might claim her father's desk. Another thread is told from the perspective of an older man who is coping with the loss of his wife and trying to understand his younger son, with whom he has always had a troubled relationship. The third part focuses on another older man, this one an academic, who has a solitary and secretive wife with her own troubled past, and he comes to realize that she has secrets much larger than he had ever suspected. The final section is told from the perspective of a young American woman at Oxford who embarks upon a romance with young Israeli who lives with his sister; the young American gradually comes to understand these solitary siblings who feel controlled by their frequently-absent yet incredibly domineering father.
All four storylines are vaguely connected by a desk that exerts a pull over those who come in contact with it. I found it fascinating that the article which ties things together is so large... it's not like we're talking about a bracelet that can change hands with ease. A desk (particularly this desk, which is giant and contains many drawers) is something so substantial... a large and weighty reminder of time and owners now gone. I'm not going to give it the plot any other summary than that because that's all you really need. Trust in the genius of Krauss to take you somewhere fascinating. The story travels across the world and, unsurprisingly given Krauss's background, includes very strong elements of Jewish history and culture. Many of the characters in this novel are writers, poets, or academics... most of the characters are heavily invested in careers or studies that focus on words. It's always interesting to see a writer discuss writing through a character... it makes for fascinating observations and you wonder which the author shares (and then you realize that an author can have contradictory feelings about writing at the same time, so perhaps she shares them all). I was pleased to see a brief mention of Brodsky (as I recently learned that Krauss worked with Joseph Brodsky at the end of his life) and hardly a page goes by that I didn't mark for some turn of phrase or sentence that struck me by its insight or beauty. Normally, I'm a person who needs a specific plot or arc to a story, but halfway through this, I wasn't quite sure where we were headed and yet I was happy to float along, carried wherever Krauss saw fit to take me.
If you haven't read The History of Love, then you're missing out. Great House is a fantastic follow-up and further proof that Krauss is one of the best young writers around. Don't try too hard to figure out where the title comes from, as Krauss will let you know in her own good time. In fact, don't even try too hard to figure out all the connections... just enjoy the story as it plays out and appreciate the dawning moments of realization as you connect the dots... a feeling sadly absent in literature that isn't on the mystery shelves. From cover to cover, Great House is magnificent and I certainly hope that it gets the recognition it rightly deserves.
To be haunted is to have things happen to you that are unexplainable – outside of the realm of the everyday world. If someone asked me what “Great House” was about – I don’t think I’d be able to give a straightforward plot synopsis. I was always just a bit lost, having characters and events hovering just outside my realm of understanding – feeling as if the truth was playing tricks on me and that if I just read a bit more carefully, I’d be able to bring things into view. Once I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do so, I let the thoughts and the characters drift through me, and stopped thinking about from whence they came or how they related to the others in the book.
“We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch our tents and wait.”
The characters are linked, in this novel, by a desk. At least that’s what I think. What I know is that they are linked by memories, of longing and regrets, of lives that ended too quickly and lives that weren’t lived the way one had expected.
“But I hardly noticed the conversation that swelled around me, so absorbed was I by the expression I’d glimpsed the moment before the girl had buried her face in her mother’s hair, which filled me with awe and also grief, and I knew then, Your Honor, that I would never be that to anyone, the one who in a single motion could rescue and bring peace.”
There is a deep layer of grief in this book. These characters live, true, but many of them seem like they are living in the shadows of what should, what might have been.
“Look at him, she used to say, a man like any other, coming home laden with groceries. And yet in his soul, all the dreams, the sadness and joy, love and regret, all the bitter loss of the people he passes on the street fight for a place in his words.”
Too, this is a book about words. About readers and writers, about the power of words written and spoken. About how lives are shaped by events experienced both firsthand and pulled from the page.
“I made a point of answering the question I received with some frequency from journalists, Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?), with a little airtight though experiment in which I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind, his mind and soul, and as the journalist contemplated that nuclear winter I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth.”
I realize as I skim over these words, that I’ve given no indication as to who each character is, as to where in the plot they occur (or what the plot is at all, for that matter), and that seems fitting.
For while this book is haunting in that it is difficult to grasp, is disturbing…it is also certainly “not quickly forgotten”. While I may not remember the plotline in a way I can describe it to a person plucking it from my bookshelf and asking “What’s this about?” – I can remember the grace of the words and the feeling behind them. Visions such as these will haunt me:
“I clung to his waist, the wind caught his hair, we drove through the streets past the city’s otherworldly residents I’d come to know well, the haredim in their dusty black coats and hats, the mothers loading their gaggle of children whose clothes trailed hundreds of loose threads as if the children had been ripped unfinished from the loom, the pack of Yeshiva boys who slammed pas at a stoplight squinting as if newly let out of a cave, the old man stooped over his walker with the Filipino girl clutching the baggy elbow of his sweater, pulling a loose piece of yarn that she wrapped around her hand, unraveling him until his last words would be pulled out of him like a knot, him and her and the Arab sweeping the gutter, all of then unaware that we who sailed past them were only an apparition, ghosts more out of time than they.”
The element of Great House by Nicole Krauss that struck me most was the structure. Krauss uses five narrators in the novel, alternating four of the five throughout, and bringing in the fifth at the very end. The narrators aren't all telling the same story and none knows the others, but the stories intertwine in subtle ways. Usually that happened by way of an old desk: the narrator owned it, or knew someone who owned it, or wanted to find it, or had it unknowingly change his life. The desk was enormous and
"was made of dark wood and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer" (pg. 83).
Krauss does not make any of the connections for us. The links between the very different narrators are subtle and require a keen reading to root out. I got many of them, but I don't think all. I love when authors have enough faith in and respect for their readers to put down the spoon and let us feed ourselves.
The first narrator in the book ("Your Honor") is possibly the most complex. She is a middle-aged, divorced writer who for years has been caretaker to an old and massive desk. A friend of a friend, Daniel Varsky, entrusts it to her in the 1970s when he leaves New York to return to his native Chile, where he is later taken by Manuel Contreras' secret police. She tells her story in the second person, seemingly addressing a patient, just called "Your Honor", badly injured in the hospital. We have no idea who he is or what type of relation he might have to our narrator. For him, she chronicles her story of divorce, mental illness, and emotional attachment to a piece of furniture she never thought of as her own, but that still broke her heart to give away when a young woman claiming to be Varsky's daughter shows up for it.
The second narrator ("True Kindness"), an older man in Israel with two grown sons, also speaks in the second person, but in this case, we know who we are supposed to be. He speaks to his younger son, Dovik, with whom he has never been close and could never understand. When his wife dies, he discovers that Dovik has abruptly quit his high profile job in London. Dovik moves back in with his father, who tries to finally connect with him before it's too late.
The third narrator ("Swimming Holes") is a retired professor living in London caring for his mysterious and ailing wife. When she dies, he discovers a secret she has kept hidden from him for 50 years and tries to reconcile the woman he knew and loved with a new picture of her that emerges.
The fourth narrator ("Lies Told by Children") is a woman recounting her experiences in graduate school with a strange family. She dates Yoav, the son, who lives in a large house with his sister, Leah. Their father, an antiques dealer, travels around but lives mostly in Israel. Mr. Weisz is trying to recreate his father's study with exactly the furniture it contained before the Gestapo arrested his parents and sold their possessions. The elusive piece is a large desk with many drawers.
The last narrator comes in only at the very end of the novel. To avoid spoilers, I won't say too much else about him.
Krauss gives each narrator a recurring heading to delineate who is speaking in each chapter, but the headings are hardly necessary. Each narrator has such a distinct voice and circumstance that it would be almost impossible to confuse one with another.
The writing is fantastic. I underlined many, many passages that stood out to me, either for the message they communicated, or the beauty of the syntax. Here are some examples:
"She had a limp, water on the knee, I think, a cup of the Danube that sloshed around as she thumped from room to room with her mop and feather duster, sighing as if freshly reminded of a disappointment" (pg. 111).
"Something in me naturally migrated away from the fray, preferring the deliberate meaningfulness of fiction to accidental and unaccounted-for reality; preferring a shapeless freedom to the robust work of interacting that demanded having to yoke my thoughts to the logic and flow of another's" (pg. 43).
"But the lesson didn't come easily to you, and you never accepted it in the end. You shot yourself in the foot, and then you spent years trying to account for the pain" (pg. 56).
"Not that she expected me to understand. More than anyone I've known, Lotte was content to live in a perennial state of misunderstanding" (pg. 85).
"The only exception was books, which I acquired freely, because I never really felt they belonged to me. Because of this, I never felt compelled to finish those I didn't like, or even a pressure to like them at all. But a certain lack of responsibility also left me free to be affected. 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" (pg. 127).
In all, Great House was excellent. It took me a few pages to get into it and adjust to the narration (as I mentioned, the narrator of the first chapter is the most complex and therefore the most challenging), but once I did, I was engaged and mesmerized by the writing and the stories.
The main connecting element is a writing desk. It is an enormous, unusual, asymmetrical desk with many drawers that seems to have power over those whose lives it enters. And while a large part of the momentum of the book is wrapped up in discovering how this desk connects all these people, (a couple of writers, a furniture dealer, a lawyer, and their families) for me even greater rewards were found in two other elements of the novel.
First, in Krauss' beautiful and natural language, and her particular knack for metaphor:
"Weisz stood in the tiled entryway in polished shoes holding a walking stick with a silver handle, the shoulders of his wool overcoat shiny with rain. He was a diminutive man, smaller and older than I'd imagined, scaled back in all dimensions as if occupying space at all were a compromise he'd accepted but refused to embrace."
"But my time [with the therapist] was up, and I was excused from the need to answer. At the door we shook hands, a gesture that always struck me as strangely out of place, as if, with all one's organs spread on the table and the allotted time in the operating room almost up, the surgeon were to wrap them each neatly in plastic wrap before putting them back and hurriedly sewing you up again."
Second, in the emotional lives of the characters. Each character had his or her own personal flaws and tragedies to deal with, and the weight of their own memories to bear. All throughout, and completely without warning, some facet of the character's emotional tragedy would mirror or resonate with one of my own. None of the people in the book is like me, and yet the fact that I can relate to all of them is a symptom of Krauss' masterful character development.
Great House is a beautiful book, and I recommend it highly.
There is a desk that figures prominently in the four stories here – a huge, almost monstrous thing with nineteen drawers of various sizes – but the desk isn't the point, is barely even the thread that connects the narratives. While you might try to figure out how these stories are going to fit together and where the desk will come into play, after a while you give up and realize that the plot lines may or may not converge neatly and it doesn't matter. Krauss is masterful at creating characters haunted by memory and loss and their stories are completely engrossing.
A young American would-be writer inherits the desk from the friend of a Chilean poet who disappears during the Pinochet regime; twenty-five years later, his daughter shows up to claim it and the writer finds herself adrift. An aging Israeli is mourning his wife and trying to understand his estranged son, a British judge. In London, a long-married academic learns of his wife's long-hidden past. And a young American girl falls in love with the Israeli son of a distant, controlling father, an antiques dealer trying to reclaim his father's possessions that were stolen by the Nazis. Not every one of these narrators owns the desk and the chain of possession isn't always clear. But Krauss carries you along on her luminous prose and deep understanding of lives not fully lived. And all does become clear in the end.
An Israeli widower attempts to reunite with a distant son. A writer in New York babysits a desk which becomes a magical talisman, a muse, until a foreign daughter comes to reclaim the desk as her birthright. A brother and sister, close as lovers, grow up from city to city, in apartments populated by antiques that their Israeli father, a Holocaust survivor trades in. What all these people have in common is that they live with the big haunting desk that takes up more than space.
The reader gets lost along the way trying to pick up all the threads but once I completed the book and reflected on its meanings I believe this effect is not wholly unintended. Indeed a major theme of this novel is loss, up- rootedness and the Jewish experience in the Diaspora. Indeed as the novel comes to an end, mysteries and tragedies are revealed but not all the loose ends are resolved.
Having read her last book, A History of Love, I was mildly disappointed. In that book, the characters were more fully realized and, as a reader, I cared more about them and the plot was easier to follow. Having said that, Great House is worth reading for its mysterious, haunting qualities.
You have to recall passages, theme, images. You have to think about the questions it left you with. Maybe you even have to pick it up again, because you know there will be things you missed, more that will reveal itself on subsequent readings.
Great House has been one of those books for me.
It wasn't a book I rushed to read, but as time went on I became more and more curious. So much praise and the idea stories spun around a desk did appeal. I've always liked a desk.
I acquired my first desk when I was eight years old, and I've considered one to be an absolutely essential part of the furniture ever since. I can recall scratching the year - 1973 - on to that case in case it should need dating in the future. With the benefit of hindsight I doubt that the simple child's desk survives. These days I have a lovely bureau that my godmother had made and later left to me, together with her cookery books.
But I digress. This book is built around a different desk. A bigger, older, darker desk with many drawers and compartments. A desk with a longer more complex history. A desk that has been looted, gifted, loaned, recovered ...
But Great House isn't the story of a desk. It is a story of lives linked, sometimes closely and sometimes tenuously, by the desk. At some times the desk is at the heart of the story, and at others it is distant. Just there. Or maybe not there.
There are four narratives that move the book back and forth , between eras and locations. The chronology isn't straightforward and the links aren't immediately clear. Some will be revealed and others will need to be deduced. This is a book that needs to be worked at.
Those four narratives are distinctive and I had no problems moving between them. Each time the story shifted I was pulled in again by intelligence, emotion and such elegant prose.
And the underlying themes came through, giving some relatively simple stories depth. The importance of emotional ties. How easily they can be damaged. How easily we can misunderstand, and what damage that can do. How one generation can determine the fate of the next. And the Jewish diaspora...
Serious themes, and these were serious stories. At times it was too much. It was relentless. I wanted a little light, maybe even a dash of humour. They never came, but I still held on. Those four narratives held me, my head and my heart.
Individually they had their weaknesses. One felt rushed. One veered dangerously toward sentimentality. Another teetered on the brink of melodrama. One though was perfect. Strangely it was the one least connected with the history of the desk. And yet they came together to make something greater than the sum of their parts.
I've written little about the plot. Much has been written about Great House, and if you want to know more you will find it quite easily. But it is a book I would recommend coming too with as little foreknowledge as possible. I can't quite explain why, but I think it's because there's so much there is so much there, both said and unsaid, that focusing on any one aspect would distort your view...
I didn't find Great House an easy book, but I am very glad I read it.
Then....after twenty-five years, the desk that she loved was being claimed by a relative of its original owner...she knew it would happen one day, but now that it has happened, she wasn't sure how she felt about it...not having the desk would cause a hole in her life. She couldn't even be there when the original owner's daughter came to pick up the desk, and physical as well as mental things began happening after the loss of her beloved desk.
After the desk was gone, she got on an airplane to Ben Gurion airport...then the book went to another story. This second story opened with a funeral in progress.
I thought it was going to be a great read since the desk plot sounded intriguing, and the cover caught my interest.
I really was lost reading this book... the beginning was good, but as the book continued, it was very puzzling, and the sections seemed detached from each other. I had no sense of what the author was saying....the narrator talked to a "your honor," and she referred to characters by letters...R and S.
I really didn't enjoy the book because of how each chapter really wasn't connected to the others....not a continuous flow throughout the book.
I do have to say, though, that Krauss is a fantastic author....very deep and descriptive. Krauss’s book was too over the top for me....I don't read fluff, but the book was very profound, complex, and to me disconnected. I enjoy a flowing story that fits together.
I have seen great reviews for the book, but I just couldn't connect or follow the plot.
Best of luck with the book...I am sure it will be a best seller, but I guess I missed the point...I tried but was not able to continue reading it. 2/5.
She explains the book's title near the end of this beautiful book, in what is one of the most beautiful descriptions I've ever read of the concept of negative space:
"Day and night the scholars argued about the laws, and their arguments became the Talmud, Weisz continued. They become so absorbed in their work that sometimes they forgot the question their teacher had asked: What is a Jew without Jerusalem? Only later, after ben Zakkai died, did his answer slowly reveal itself, the way an enormous mural only begins to make sense as you walk backwards away: Turn Jerusalem into an idea. 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. Later his school became known as the Great House, after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of God, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.
Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now 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: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself."
~-Nicole Krauss, Great House, 2010 (p. 279)