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.

Reds (1981)

The man who is forever disturbed about the condition of humanity either has no problems of his own or has refused to face them. – Henry Miller

I’ve grown up with this film. I saw it first in December 1981 when two friends and I drove to Knoxville, Tennessee immediately upon its release. Sometime the following summer, I dragged another friend to a dog-eared outpost drive-in for a viewing, and I’ve made it a point to revisit John Reed and Louise Bryant in Croton-on-Hudson and Petrograd every few years, each time, of course, finding different things amongst the layers. The Reds and I have seen a lot together, you could say, and had been too long apart when I sat down last night to view the 25th anniversary DVD, complete with added clips and commentary. The timing was perfect. The newer features reveal that much of the film was shot in Rye, East Sussex, a locale recently introduced to me by way of Colm Tóibín’s The Master. Shades of Henry James, sprinklings of Henry Miller, and whisky with soda combined to create a night-in to remember.

Reds contains so many stories. There is the story of the 1917 Russian revolution and its careening into totalitarianism. There is the story of American liberalism and her elite in the years just prior to World War I. There is the story of a man and woman in love and in marriage. And there is the story of the lengths we each will endure in order to run to and from ourselves. This last story had eluded me until last night when it came forth, charging the evening with the same sense of fresh discovery that I felt so many years ago in that Knoxville theater.

You also may have seen this film more than once. Briefly, Reds is the story of John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), two American journalists who experience firsthand the Russian revolution of 1917. When they meet, he is a quasi-successful journalist who is raising money for his side venture, a magazine called The Masses in which he exhorts working class Americans to organize in labor unions. She is the unfulfilled wife of a Portland, Oregon dentist, a woman who maintains her own small studio apartment in an attempt to establish herself as a writer and artist. They begin an affair, and she soon flees Portland, arriving in New York’s Greenwich Village one Friday evening, landing on Reed’s doorstep as he returns from a day’s work with fellow organizers Max Eastman and Emma Goldman, superbly portrayed by Edward Hermann and Maureen Stapleton.

And here is where the running begins. Reed, unaccustomed to the confines of live-in companionship, undertakes more and more out of town trips to inspire laborers and to work within the Socialist party. Bryant, running after Reed emotionally and running from her own shrinking sense of worth, flails in the whirl of Greenwich Village society and threatens flight. The pair leave New York and establish an itinerant residence in Provincetown, Rhode Island, where they flit between jobs and affairs with others, Bryant most importantly with Eugene O’Neill, brilliantly rendered by Jack Nicholson. After a few seasons of emotional upheaval and growth within their relationship, Reed and Bryant marry and attempt to permanently reside in Croton-on-Hudson, NewYork. But it doesn’t take long before the pushing and pulling within the marriage results in another flight. Bryant leaves and runs to France, working as a free lance journalist. Reed follows her and convinces her to join him in Russia, where he hopes the rumblings of revolution there will excite, in fact incite, the liberal cause in America.

The central action of the film takes place as Reed and Bryant search for themselves and one another in Petrograd. The sharp dialogue reveals two strong individuals who find their calling in the words they craft and who become more than sexual partners. Reds’ scenery, dialogue, humor, intelligence and sense of history are in perfect proportion. Each scene builds depth and resonance to the story so that when Bryant tells O’Neill, “You’re a wounding son of a bitch,” it’s impossible to not know and feel all of the unspoken reasons beneath her fury.

Finally, the device which makes Reds unforgettable for so many is the use of ‘witnesses’, unnamed elderly persons whose reminiscences of Reed and Bryant are spritzed throughout the film in light amounts carrying vast impressions of another day and age. Memorably, Rebecca West and Adela Rogers St. Johns recall being pursued by ‘loonies’. Henry Miller waxes warmly and sparklingly about Reed’s need to run and the fact that, “to be honest, you know, there was just as much fucking going on then as now, only it meant something to us then.” The film is worth viewing if only to experience the recollections, and charming memory slips, of the witnesses.

In the end, Reed and Bryant meet in a Moscow train station after a long separation, not running, rather easing, sliding into each other’s arms for an embrace which epitomizes for this viewer that which is the melding of friendship, concern and longing. There is nothing sentimental about Reds; no character is spared a harsh look within, and the fine acting never stoops toward manipulation or control. Instead, the flawless cast and cinematography work to set the story loose where it can unfold within each viewer, whether running, standing still, or moving forward.