“The Always-Moving Center”: Nicole Krauss’s “Great House”

Just the other day, Albert Einstein was proved right again: observations recorded by NASA’s Gravity Probe B project show that space-time does indeed bend around the earth (and other bodies of sufficient mass). In this vein (bear with me), there’s something about Nicole Krauss’s Great House that reminds me of 2666: it’s not really because a Chilean poet features heavily, or that the story straddles decades and crosses continents; nor is it that some of the narrative voice is detached and elliptical, or that its conclusion seems oddly inconclusive. Great House is too intimate, too focussed and – most of all – too short a novel usefully to be compared to Bolaño’s great, tumescent slab of a fiction. Yet Krauss has written a book which orbits around an absence, that is interested in the unspoken trauma of our particular moment in history and how it warps the weft of our lives.

A pivotal figure in Krauss’s novel is Samuel Weisz, an Israeli antiques dealer who specialises in finding items of furniture dimly remembered by the Jewish diaspora, and by other displaced peoples of the mid-twentieth century. “They’ve bent their memories around a void,” he explains towards the end of the novel [pg. 275], and yet this realisation comes only as he has himself fallen prey to commodified nostalgia: he is searching for his father’s writing desk, an item of office furniture with a rich and storied history. It is this tale, in fact, which Great House most clearly, and most obliquely, tells. It has a number of threads, to be sure – from the story of a radical poet disappeared by General Pinochet to the sad chronicle of a husband nursing his dying wife – but each are somehow related to that towering desk with its many drawers (one, mysteriously, locked, the key long since disappeared), and each have added a scratch or a stain to its patina.

This is not, however, a novel with a hoary old metaphor at its heart. Well, OK, it is. But the writing is so very fine, and its observation of character so minute, that the metaphor proceeds from, rather than dictates, the course of its pages. Indeed, it eschews the cliché of technique so thoroughly that it is bold enough to tip us a wink. “Jesus Christ, my boy,” complains Aaron, another Israeli and another husband who has recently lost his wife, “enough with the fucking metaphors.” [pg. 50]  He speaks to Dov, his prodigal and distant son, who once harboured dreams of becoming a writer himself, spinning a novel about a great shark connected to the brains of a number of sleeping men and women, siphoning off their nightmares and pains. Krauss’s desk is not like Dov’s shark; it isn’t a repository of  nightmares and pains. It is barely even a symbol of them, and certainly offers no consolation. It is simply there. Bending memories.

Inevitability – the unavoidable presence of a thing – is a major theme of the novel. This means, of course, that death is ever-present. Aaron in particular is furious about death: “Why is it,” he writes to his friend’s seventh grade teacher in a borrowed form of therapy, “that there was always a unit on history, math, science and God knows what other useless, totally forgettable information you taught seventh graders year after year, but never any unit on death?” [pg. 52]  Everyone in Great House is in this sort of denial. Nadia, the first of Krauss’s narrators we meet and in many ways the one with the best realised voice, is accused by one of her husbands, on the night yet another of her youthful marriages dissolves, of being “like someone with her eyes closed, watching a movie on the inside of your eyelids” [pg. 38]. She understands what he meant rather too late. Meanwhile, Yoav, the son of Samuel Weisz (himself a “private person, surrounded by a kind of moat” [pg. 142]), is described by Izzy, an ex of his own and another of Krauss’s narrators, as a man who in argument “defended himself against something without every really addressing or even naming the thing at all.” [pg. 159]

Each of the characters is driven to fill their particular under-acknowledged void, often unconsciously and rarely successfully. The only kind of comfort the desk provides is a lifting of that urge: “disappointment, then the relief of something at last slinking away.” [pg. 289]  This something is the disabused feeling that a loss can be restored. Nadia describes a mother and child: “For a moment she tipped her head back and looked up at her mother, and her expression was illuminated with the wonder and relief of finding, gain, the only comfort, the infinite comfort, she had in the world.” [pg. 210]  In Aaron and Dov’s story, in the claustrophobic relationship of Weisz with his own children (“They were prisoners of their father,” Izzy tells us [pg. 113], and in Nadia’ own lack of a family, we witness the impossibility of maintaining that truest of bonds; in the centrality of death, we see the other undoable loss of existence. And in the middle, we have the desk.

“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 alloted 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 flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many terrible drawers. Perhaps you think I’m making a caricature of it. I don’t blame you.  [… But] 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.”

Great House is about dealing with loss rather than locking it away; accepting it rather than joining it in futile battle. Our memories bend, but they need not do so around a blackness. Though downbeat, Great House is not fatalistic; though weary not deterministic; and though consciously literary, rarely over-cooked. It’s a moving novel, and the work of a highly accomplished writer of considerable vision. You should read it.

3 thoughts on ““The Always-Moving Center”: Nicole Krauss’s “Great House”

  1. ‘Great House’ is the literal translation of the Egyptian word ‘Pharaoh’. I was wondering whether there was a deliberate reference to monuments of mortality, the sarcophagus, Ozymandius. Perhaps I am over-thinking.

    This is not, however, a novel with a hoary old metaphor at its heart. Well, OK, it is.

    Made me laugh out loud.

  2. That’s really interesting – in the novel, ‘great house’ refers to the reverence that developed for the Temple at Jerusalem after it was burned by Titus – another great absence. But that adds a whole level of meaning to the title. Wonderful!

    Pleased to hear I amuse, too. 😛

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