Nicole Krauss – Great House

A RIDDLE: A Stone is thrown in Budapest on a winter night in 1944. It sails through the air toward the illuminated window of a house where a father is writing a letter at his desk, a mother is reading, and a boy is daydreaming about an ice-skating race on the frozen Danube. The glass shatters, the boy covers his head, the mother screams. At that moment the life they know ceases to exist. Where does the stone land?

Nicole Krauss’ 2010 novel, Great House, is my favorite among those I read last year. It’s a marvel, a work layered in four first person narratives that glance off of one another, ever so tangentially, as they loosely trace the life of an enormous desk, “really more like a ship than a desk, a ship riding a pitch-black sea in the dead of a moonless night.” The four voices belong to a writer, a father, a husband, and a lover. Each carries a deeply nested and burdening truth that he or she must share. What Krauss allows them to do– pillow talk style — is unburthen so that the reader is both midwife and burial vault for their honesty. These are among the most captivating, intimate voices I have read.

The novel begins with Nadia, a writer who is deeply depressed at the loss of the desk she unconsciously associates with her modest success. Her self-awareness is acute, her self-appraisal frank. “Something in me naturally migrated away from the fray, preferring the deliberate meaningfulness of fiction to unaccounted-for reality.” Nadia has inherited the desk from a poet she met briefly, a man leaving New York for his native Chile. Years later, she gives the desk to a young woman, Leah Weisz, and finds herself suddenly panicked and bereft. Nadia hurriedly leaves New York to search for the desk in Jerusalem.

The next story is that of the father, a man whose anguished love for his favorite son projects in a not so subtle fashion. When the old man’s wife dies, the beloved son, Dov, returns to Jerusalem and walks into the emotional firestorm maintained by his father. Krauss has created an exceptionally realistic first person account of a brutal and hardened older man’s stupefying resistance to the sensitive nature of his son, and to his own as well. This is a man who appears larger than life as he is fleshed out in towering monologue.

Suddenly I saw you as you were at the age of ten…Calling and calling to me because you thought you were lost. Guess what, my boy. I was there the whole time! Crouched behind a rock, a few meters up the cliff. That’s right, while you called, while you screamed out for me, believing yourself to be abandoned in the desert, I hid behind a rock patiently watching, like the ram that saved Isaac. I was Abraham and the ram. How many minutes passed while I let you shit in your pants, a ten-year-old boy facing his smallness and helplessness, the nightmare of his utter aloneness, I don’t know.

Following these two intense narrators are another two, every bit as profound, just as deliciously readable. First is a widower, a man bereaved by the recent death of his wife, Lotte. He mourns not only the loss of his wife, but the complicated secrets of her existence. Finally there is Isabel, an American studying at Oxford who falls in love with Yoav Weisz, brother of Leah. Isabel’s desire for Yoav lifts her out of her narrow life and into unexplored terrain, “because of what I knew he could ignite in me, a vitality that was excruciating…”

Compared to what awaits within Great House, these words of praise here are pale indeed. Krauss is a writer who pours flesh and blood into her characters, places them on the pillow next to yours, and lets them spill their hearts.

Maybe you sense that I am coming to the end, that the story that has been hurtling toward you from the start is about to turn the bend in the road and collide with you at last.

In the Old Testament book of Kings, Solomon seizes upon an interlude of peace to undertake construction of his Temple, the Great House, erected in a splendor of cedar and gold and dedicated to holding the ark of the covenant of the Lord. The ark, precious beyond measure, and so holy that even its caretakers were not allowed to look upon it, held the basics of faith, the words of Yahweh, etched by the human hands of Moses into tablets of stone. Words, thrown from stone to inhabit human history and move indelibly throughout lives. Words, the gold and cedar. Stories, the Temple.