"Great House" by Nicole Krauss, W.W. Norton, 289 pages, $24.95
Nicole Krauss is the least political of novelists. In both her previous works, as well as in the long-awaited "Great House," she has been immersed in the vicissitudes of private life: with love, loss and grief. She has said that she never tries to give a grand picture of social or political reality. And yet loss and grief - both in her last novel, "The History of Love" (2005 ), as well as in the new work - are inevitably tied to the vicissitudes of Jewish existence in the 20th century.
The Holocaust is the null point of Krauss' coordinate system. It is the transcendental event that starts it all; it is the caesura that defines her heroes and heroines' lives, the way they conceive of their task in this world and their failure to live.
"Great House" is, at least on the surface, conceived along the lines of a detective story. The thread that connects the various parts, which are narrated by four voices, is a giant writing desk with 19 drawers, one of which is locked. As we gradually find out, it is first in the hands of Lotte Berg, who came to England from Germany as the chaperone of a Kindertransport group, and whose parents were killed by the Nazis. She passes the desk on, for reasons that cannot be disclosed without spoiling the reader's pleasure, to a young Chilean Jewish poet, Daniel Varsky, who takes it to New York in the 1970s. He in turn passes it on to a writer called only Nadia, who spends a night with Daniel, never to see him again, because he is incarcerated, tortured and killed by Augusto Pinochet's secret police.
More than 20 years later, Nadia receives a call from a young woman named Leah, claiming to be Daniel Varsky's daughter, who comes to New York to reclaim the desk. Upon seeing her, Nadia immediately sees Varsky in her, and gives away the desk, only to understand that the thin thread that has kept her life together for so long has unraveled. She travels to Jerusalem, to meet Leah, who has taken the desk, only to see Varsky again in the form of a young hoodlum, who is only out for her money - with fateful consequences.
We then meet an American woman who falls in love with a somewhat mysterious young man, Yoav Weisz. Both Yoav and Leah, his sister, to whom he is is almost symbiotically linked, have been raised by their father, George Weisz, an antique dealer who specializes in locating ancient furniture that belonged to victims of the Nazi regime. In this work, he caters to the obsessions of those who have survived, and for whom the remaining furniture is a way to hold on to those they have lost. Yoav and Leah have been moved from city to city and country to country, learning that no place is home, and that they need to be able to rupture all connections at a moment's notice.
Weisz, for most of the novel, is a mysterious figure. We don't really know what moves him until the very last part, where he becomes the narrator. We find out that his father was a scholar of Jewish history, killed by the Nazis, who saw his task in connecting the threads of Jewish memory over the generations, and in a strange way, George continues his father's calling.
Nearly transparent prose
"Great House" is sparse; the prose is lucid, almost transparent. It makes do without the humor that made the heart-wrenching tragedy of missed lives and loss in "The History of Love" easier to read. None of the protagonists are good at living. Nadia, locked into her own mind and incapable of loving, becomes almost psychotically fixated on the memory of Varsky. Yoav is not allowed to love, because of his father's injunction to always be ready to move. George Weisz lives in a world defined by irreparable loss, turning the hunt for antiquities into a substitute for life. Daniel Varsky, whom we know only through the shadows that he casts on the lives of others, remains an elusive figure, romanticized by Nadia, dying a heroic, yet useless death at an early age. Lotte, shaped by the loss of her family to the Nazis, never again allows herself to be fully immersed in love.
Seemingly there is an exception: one of the narrators, Aaron, who has no direct connection to the desk, chooses life in its most concrete forms. He fought for Israel in two wars, and tries to make his sons into valiant fighters for Jewish survival. But in his bitter rejection of the inner life, he has become incapable of truly relating to those he cares about. He dissuades Dov, his sensitive son, from becoming a writer. "Who do you think you are? ... The hero of your own existence?" Dov, in the process of hardening, becomes a shadow, highly functioning, successful - but internally dead.
"Great House" doesn't offer any redemptive vision. While it is, no doubt, a masterpiece of novelistic writing, it leaves the reader with a sense of emptiness: There is no reprieve and no closure. At the end of the story, it flaunts the demands of the detective genre, and leaves some ends loose. Moreover, none of the stories end well. All the protagonists fail to live and love fully; all of them remain scarred forever by irretrievable loss and by pain too great to bear.
Received interpretive wisdom has it that the author does not have privileged access to the work's meaning, once it is published. Nevertheless, it is instructive to read in an interview that Krauss gave about the experience of writing "Great House" that, on one level, the book is about the crushing weight of inheritance, symbolized by the curse that is the desk, which carries too many meanings.
The protagonists (even though not all the narrators ) are Jewish, and modern Jewish history is a pervasive, albeit not explicit, subject matter of "Great House." I could not help feeling that, in writing a book as stark and unforgiving as this, Krauss rebels against the crushing weight of Jewish inheritance. The task of tying the memory of all Jewish generations together, while ostensibly keeping memory alive, robs the present of vitality.
George Weisz says that his father told him the story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who founded the academy at Yavneh, the institution that allowed the Jews to survive as the people of the book after the Temple's destruction. This academy was to be called the "Great House." He also told him that when the memories of all the Jews can be put together, the Messiah will come.
"Great House," of course, is also the name of Krauss' novel, which shows in painstaking detail that we, as humans, but even more as Jews, carry burdens that seem to hold redemptive secrets, or at least secrets that will unveil the mystery of our lives. But in the end, there is neither deep wisdom nor redemption to be found.
It is always a risky undertaking to say what a book is about - particularly since novelists, as Krauss has herself said, are mostly guided by circumstance, accident and personal associations rather than by grand design. Nevertheless, I venture the hypothesis that "Great House" is about the destructive impact of the duty of having to redeem the past, as well as about the illusion that the meaning of the past, whether collective or personal, can be retrieved.
This is why "Great House" is a courageous book. We expect writers to tell us about the redeeming qualities of writing, and of the importance of the inner life. Krauss does nothing of the sort: Instead she shows that an overemphasis on the inner can empty life of vitality. But she also warns against the tyranny of collective attempts at keeping the past alive.
Nicole Krauss is not a political writer. Nor does she attempt to give a grand interpretation of the present. But "Great House" is a searing protest against the intransigent duty of loyalty to Jewish history - a duty that, by not letting go of the dead, can kill the living.
Prof. Carlo Strenger chairs the clinical graduate program in the department of psychology at Tel Aviv University. A regular contributor to Haaretz, he also writes a blog, "Strenger than Fiction," at haaretz.com.