Fractured Memories Haunt Masterful 'Great House'

'Great House'
Great House: A Novel
By Nicole Krauss
Hardcover, 289 pages
W.W. Norton and Company
List price: $24.95

Read an excerpt

There are many rooms in the mansion of Nicole Krauss' fiction.  Readers who happily lost themselves in The History of Love — and we are legion — will be heartened to discover that, five years later, she's pulled off another extraordinary reminder of what fiction can do. Krauss' third novel, Great House, again interweaves several seemingly disparate narratives into a brilliantly orchestrated, mesmerizing whole that explores memory, solitude and an aching sense of loss and longing.

Where there is a lost eponymous manuscript at the heart of The History of Love, at the center of Great House is an imposing desk with 19 drawers. Over the course of more than 50 years, a Hungarian historian killed by Nazis, a young Chilean poet tortured and murdered by Pinochet's henchmen, and two reclusive women novelists — one a Holocaust refugee in England with a terrible secret, the other a lonely New Yorker — work at this desk. Krauss, a remarkably agile stylist and storyteller, fractures chronology and shifts among several confessional first-person narrators to relay their often heartbreaking tales. Linking them obliquely is an Israeli antiques dealer who has spent decades searching for every piece of furniture "that had sat in his own father's study in Budapest until the night in 1944 when the Gestapo had arrested his parents." The desk is the elusive, last missing piece.

Krauss' great theme is "the assault of memory" or, as one of her narrators calls it, "the crippling burden of memory." Loss, absence and memories don't just weigh us down, Krauss writes, but — in the dominant image of this book — bend us. Her characters speak of "that desk around which I had bent my life," and describe shedding partners so there was "no one toward whom I had to bend." They also "bend ... around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form." A particularly pliable narrator — the accommodating husband of the secretive Holocaust refugee — is even named Bender.

Nicole Krauss i i

hide captionNicole Krauss is the author of The History of Love and Man Walks Into A Room. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's and Esquire. She lives with her husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, in Brooklyn.

Joyce Ravid
Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss is the author of The History of Love and Man Walks Into A Room. Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's and Esquire. She lives with her husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, in Brooklyn.

Joyce Ravid

Great House is more solemn than The History of Love — there's no one like the charming 80-year-old Leo Gursky modeling nude for art students so he knows he'll be seen. And yet (as Gursky would say), it casts just as profound a spell. Krauss' characters expose their deepest secrets and doubts, questioning their work and noting the damaging role that silence has played in their lives. In a particularly beautiful passage, a father long at odds with his son comments, "We move through the day like two hands of a clock: sometimes we overlap for a moment, then come apart again, carrying on alone in our separate cycles."

Krauss' last novel was in part about the way books can change people's lives. Great House, a complex structure filled with writers who view words as lifeboats and strive to expose "the hidden depths of things" but worry about instead hiding "a poverty of spirit behind a mountain of words," is not strictly about the power of literature. Yet, evocative and moving, it ends up being another stunning example of just that.

Excerpt: 'Great House'

Great House
Great House: A Novel
By Nicole Krauss
Hardcover, 289 pages
W.W. Norton and Co.
List price: $24.95

ALL RISE

Talk to him.

Your Honor, in the winter of 1972 R and I broke up, or I should say he broke up with me. His reasons were vague, but the gist was that he had a secret self, a cowardly, despicable self he could never show me, and that he needed to go away like a sick animal until he could improve this self and bring it up to a standard he judged deserving of company. I argued with him — I'd been his girlfriend for almost two years, his secrets were my secrets, if there was something cruel or cowardly in him I of all people would know — but it was useless. Three weeks after he'd moved out I got a postcard from him (without a return address) saying that he felt our decision, as he called it, hard as it was, had been the right one, and I had to admit to myself that our relationship was over for good.

Things got worse then for a while before they got better. I won't go into it except to say that I didn't go out, not even to see my grandmother, and I didn't let anyone come to see me, either. The only thing that helped, oddly, was the fact that the weather was stormy, and so I had to keep running around the apartment with the strange little brass wrench made especially for tightening the bolts on either side of the antique window frames — when they got loose in windy weather the windows would shriek. There were six windows, and just as I finished tightening the bolts on one, another would start to howl, so I would run with the wrench, and then maybe I would have a half hour of silence on the only chair left in the apartment. For a while, at least, it seemed that all there was of the world was that long rain and the need to keep the bolts fastened. When the weather finally cleared, I went out for a walk. Everything was flooded, and there was a feeling of calm from all that still, reflecting water. I walked for a long time, six or seven hours at least, through neighborhoods I had never been to before and have never been back to since. By the time I got home I was exhausted but I felt that I had purged myself of something.

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.

Not long after that R's grand piano was lowered through the huge living room window, the same way it had come in. It was the last of his possessions to go, and as long as the piano had been there, it was as if he hadn't really left. In the weeks that I lived alone with the piano, before they came to take it away, I would sometimes pat it as I passed in just the same way that I had patted R.

A few days later an old friend of mine named Paul Alpers called to tell me about a dream he'd had. In it he and the great poet César Vallejo were at a house in the country that had belonged to Vallejo's family since he was a child. It was empty, and all the walls were painted a bluish white. The whole effect was very peaceful, Paul said, and in the dream he thought Vallejo lucky to be able to go to such a place to work. This looks like the holding place before the afterlife, Paul told him. Vallejo didn't hear him, and he had to repeat himself twice. Finally the poet, who in real life died at forty-six, penniless, in a rainstorm, just as he had predicted, understood and nodded. Before they entered the house Vallejo had told Paul a story about how his uncle used to dip his fingers in the mud to make a mark on his forehead — something to do with Ash Wednesday. And then, Vallejo said (said Paul), he would do something I never understood. To illustrate, Vallejo dipped his two fingers in the mud and drew a mustache across Paul's upper lip. They both laughed. Throughout the dream, Paul said, most striking was the complicity between them, as if they had known each other many years.

Naturally Paul had thought of me when he'd woken up, because when we were sophomores in college we'd met in a seminar on avant-garde poets. We'd become friends because we always agreed with each other in class, while everyone else disagreed with us, more and more vehemently as the semester progressed, and with time an alliance had formed between Paul and me that after all these years — five — could still be unfolded and inflated instantly. He asked how I was, alluding to the breakup, which someone must have told him about. I said I was ok except that I thought maybe my hair was falling out. I also told him that along with the piano, the sofa, chairs, bed, and even the silverware had gone with R, since when I met him I'd been living more or less out of a suitcase, whereas he had been like a sitting Buddha surrounded by all of the furniture he'd inherited from his mother. Paul said he thought he might know someone, a poet, a friend of a friend, who was going back to Chile and might need a foster home for his furniture. A phone call was made and it was confirmed that the poet, Daniel Varsky, did indeed have some items he didn't know what to do with, not wanting to sell them in case he changed his mind and decided to return to New York. Paul gave me his number and said Daniel was expecting me to get in touch. I put off making the call for a few days, mostly because there was something awkward about asking a stranger for his furniture even if the way had already been paved, and also because in the month since R and all of his many belongings had gone I'd become accustomed to having nothing. Problems only arose when someone else came over and I would see, reflected in the look on my guest's face, that from the outside the conditions, my conditions, Your Honor, appeared pathetic.

Excerpted from Great House by Nicole Krauss. Copyright 2010 by Nicole Krauss. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton and Company.

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