Great House: Nicole Krauss
July 5, 2011 | Reviews
Reading Great House, by Nicole Krauss, was a peculiar experience. I struggled with this one, really wrestled with it. For the first half of the novel, I was often frustrated. The characters seemed distant and unrelated. The way time rapidly jumped backward and forward within each section was jarring. There seemed to be some sort of “larger truth” looming just beneath the surface, but I could not fathom what it might be. I frequently found myself thinking things like “Ok, but what’s the point?”. Three seperate times I set this book aside for a day or two, and considered not starting it again. However, each time there was something that kept bringing me back.
I’m not one of those readers that will finish a book no matter what; I always reason that there are too many good books out there just waiting to be read to waste one’s time on a book that you don’t enjoy. My motivation to finish this book wasn’t born out of some driving need to finish what I’d started, so to speak. There was was something more. Even in my moments of frustration, I sensed that there was an incredible beauty in the story that I hadn’t quite realized yet. I am glad that I stuck with Great House, because I came to realize how true that statement was. Somewhere along the way, things started clicking. Great House is like a puzzle, with different pieces scattered throughout the pages. The pieces do not come together in sequential order. Some pieces may be missing entirely. If you have the time and the patience to pick those pieces out and put them together, you will be rewarded with a picture of staggering beauty and insight. Under the mastery of Krauss’s prose, the characters and their stories become heart-wrenchingly real.
Great House is divided into four different sections (and two parts) that can be seen not as vignettes, but rather different aspects of the same story. In the opening “All Rise”, we are introduced to Nadia, whose success as an author and lack of success in her marriage can be traced back to an immense writing desk given to her by a man she barely knew, Daniel Varsky. In “True Kindness” we meet Uri, a recent widower exploring why his relationship with his son, Dov, fell apart, and wondering whether they can ever make amends. In “Swimming Holes” we meet Arthur, a recent widower who lost his wife, Lotte, to Alzheimer’s. After her death, Arthur sets out to uncover secrets hidden in Lotte’s path. (Many of which can be connected to a writing desk she once owned.) In “Lies told by Children” we meet George Weisz and his adult children, Leah and Yoav. George is an antique furniture dealer, whose quest to find pieces for his clients leads to a very strange and nomadic lifestyle for he and his children. Leah and Yoav live a life of quasi-isolation, while George obsessively tries to find pieces to recreate his father’s study, which was looted by Nazis. (Most ilusively, his father’s massive writing desk.)
To call this a novel of the Jewish experience would be accurate in many ways; but at the same time that does not completely characterize the book. In Great House, Krauss explores what it is like to be human; whether we are at our best (such as Arthur’s devotion to Lotte even as she slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s) or at our worst (the many horrific instances of the Holocaust referred to throughout the book.) Krauss has the ability to write passages which bore into your psyche. I find myself still dwelling on one passage in particular, in which Uri reads his son’s short story. (I’d describe the short story more, but I don’t want to ruin the experience.) I find myself thinking about how disturbing and beautiful that story was, and how I wish that was a novel of its own. If I were an artist, I’d want to paint the images brought forth from the short story. (Unfortunately I have the artistic skills of a kindergardener.) That section has stuck with me, and will stay stuck with me for some time. That may or may not be the section that most people connect to, but one thing is for certain; this is a book that does not let go of you so easily. There will be something in the book’s 289 pages that will remain as an echo in your mind long after you’ve finished it.
If you’ve never read this book, or if you started it and put it down, I recommend you pick it up now. This is a book that makes you work for it, but it is well worth the effort. Few books have changed my opinion of itself as much as Great House. What began as a journey of frustration turned into journey of such intense beauty as I have not seen in some time. I recommend this 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.”