Krauss' 'Great House' Built On 'Willful Uncertainty'

Author 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
Author 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

Nicole Krauss' characters are consumed by uncertainty about the future — and with good reason. Their doubts reflect the nature of the novelist's writing process — Krauss says she starts writing without any idea where her story's going.

"That includes the themes, that includes the plot, that even includes the characters," she tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "I really just begin writing, without any sense of where the writing will take me.”

It's an anxiety-producing approach, but Krauss' writing process serves her well. Her novel The History of Love has been translated into 35 languages. Great House was recently nominated for the National Book Award.

'Close To Failure'

Great House alternates between the voices of four different narrators, woven together in surprising ways at the end of the novel. Krauss says there was a real "danger" that these disparate narratives wouldn't tie neatly together — and that's a good thing.

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

Read An Excerpt

"I feel I have to be working very close to failure," Krauss admits. "I have to feel somehow that I'm going to a place that's unknown to me, where things will happen that will throw me off guard. And so I sort of commit to this doubt, this uncertainty."

The "willful uncertainty" that Krauss holds herself to had a profound influence on Great House. The novelist had no sense of where her characters were taking her, so she knew as little as her readers did — and was able to view her own story from a reader's perspective. She found that her own uncertainty began to "seep into the characters."

"Not only was the uncertainty my process, [but] now it was becoming my subject as well," Krauss says.

Living in doubt became one of Great House's most powerful and melancholy themes.

"I began to think a lot about what it is to ask the reader to dwell in this uncertainty," Krauss says, "and that became for me a kind of constant meditation in the book: That all of us — me, and you as the reader, and these characters that we share — would all have to think about what it is to make a life, without knowing ... to commit to our lives, all the while being uncertain about so many things."

Krauss' First Desk

The stories of Krauss' isolated protagonists revolve around a formidable writing desk with 19 drawers — one of which remains locked at all times. As the desk is passed down from one character to another, it becomes a character in itself. As one of Krauss' characters describes it:

To call it a desk is to say too little. 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, and which, when not in use, occupies its allotted space with humility. ... 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 fly trap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers. Perhaps you think I'm making a caricature of it. I don't blame you. You'd have to have seen the desk with your own eyes to understand that what I'm telling you is perfectly accurate.

Though the genesis of Krauss' plots and characters are often a mystery even to her, the writing desk is not. As a child, Krauss also worked at a very large desk, with a drawer that could be locked.

"It's the first desk that I wrote at, and I always sort of think of that drawer — that space — that I could sort of put things in and lock at will," she explains.

Krauss says that she herself didn't know what was in the locked drawer until she wrote the very end of the book.

'Year After Year, You Must Dig Yourself Up'

Loneliness looms large in Krauss' Great House. One character, Nadia, an aging novelist in New York, describes the challenge of maintaining human relationships — as she talks to a judge about her failed marriage:

How little by little I grew lazy with the effort required to hold and to keep us, the effort to share a life. Because it hardly ends with falling in love. Just the opposite. I don't need to tell you, Your Honor, I sense that you understand true loneliness. How you fall in love and it's there that the work begins: day after day, year after year, you must dig yourself up, exhume the contents of your mind and soul for the other to sift through so that you might be known to him, and you, too, must spend days and years wading through all that he excavates for you alone, the archaeology of his being, how exhausting it became, the digging up and the wading through, while my own work, my true work, lay waiting for me.

For Krauss, the constant emotional excavation that defines a marriage is very similar to the process of writing about one.

"I'm interested in moments," Krauss says. "Very fragile, and quite difficult moments, I suppose — in my characters' lives. I feel like in those struggles — in their weakest moments, when they are sort of faced with who they really are at the depths of themselves — that is the moment, not only for revelation, but for ... transformation of the conditions that they've always felt locked in."

Though Great House is preoccupied with the loneliness and self-doubt of profoundly sad people, Krauss says that it is in their solitude that she finds their passion and drive.

"I think the characters in this book are struggling," she says — and yet, it is their efforts to escape their solitude that makes them most alive.

"All of them are dissatisfied with that alienation or that isolation that they feel. They all quite desperately would like to be known, would like to be seen and understood, would like to communicate themselves. I feel the litheness and exhilaration of their effort. The effort to be known and go beyond solitude."

Excerpts: 'Great House'

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

To call it a desk is to say too little. 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, and which, when not in use, occupies its allotted space with humility. Well, I told Gottlieb, you can cancel that image immediately. 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. Perhaps you think I’m making a caricature of it. I don’t blame you. You’d have to have seen the desk with your own eyes to understand that what I’m telling you is perfectly accurate. It took up almost half of her rented room. The first time she allowed me to stay the night with her in that tiny pathetic bed that cowered in the shadow of the desk, I woke up in a cold sweat. It loomed above us, a dark and shapeless form. Once I dreamed that I opened one of the drawers to find that it held a festering mummy.


How little by little I grew lazy with the effort required to hold and to keep us, the effort to share a life. Because it hardly ends with falling in love. Just the opposite. I don’t need to tell you, Your Honor, I sense that you understand true loneliness. How you fall in love and it’s there that the work begins: day after day, year after year, you must dig yourself up, exhume the contents of your mind and soul for the other to sift through so that you might be known to him, and you, too, must spend days and years wading through all that he excavates for you alone, the archaeology of his being, how exhausting it became, the digging up and the wading through, while my own work, my true work, lay waiting for me. Yes, I always thought there would be more time left for me, more time left for us, and for the child we might one day have, but I never felt that my work could be put aside as they could, my husband and the idea of our child, a little boy or girl that I sometimes even tried to imagine, but always only vaguely enough that he or she remained a ghostly emissary of our future, just her back while she sat playing with her blocks on the floor, or just his feet sticking out of the blanket on our bed, a tiny pair of feet. What of it, there would be time for them, for the life they stood for, the one I was not yet prepared to live because I had not yet done what I had meant to do in this one.


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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