I’ve never fought an impulse to abandon a book or film simply because it was wrapped in a brocade of endless gloom and grief. Nicole Krauss’ Great House is an aberration. I wanted to read this book when i learnt it was one of the finalist's in the 2010 National Book Awards, and also because her first work had swept me away. Of course, grief is as distinct from sadness as french fries from potato wedges. But Krauss’ Great House really tested my limits because despite the shining luminosity of her expressions, there were sections when I felt compelled to put my book down and move on to a James Patterson thriller! The reason I mention this at the onset is because this is not a book most people will enjoy.
Does that mean I don’t recommend it? If you have an ear for music, if you don’t mind solitude, and if you are not impatient with those who couldn’t make it to the finishing line, read it. You will discover an author whose sheer mastery of emotions and language will leave you blinded. After Arundhati R0y’s God of Small Things, I have rarely come across such aplomb & aptness in language. Try this: "In life we sit at the table and refuse to eat, and in death we are eternally hungry."
Like its delightful predecessor, Great House also revolves around an inanimate object and reveals how the lives of separate people in diverse locations are tied together through this object. In the former novel it was a missing manuscript, here it is a mammoth desk: “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 little terrible drawers.”
The story is told by four narrators – Nadia in NY, Isabel in Oxford, Arthur in London & Aaron in Jerusalem.
Nadia, a writer, begins the story by recounting how the desk came her way. She addresses her story to a silent witness who she calls ‘Your honour’ and whose identity is only revealed in the final pages. We learn that she was left the desk by a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky who was leaving for home and needed a place to store his furniture. Soon afterwards Daniel falls a victim to Pinochet’s murderous regime and the desk remains with Nadia. Despite its foreboding presence, she forms a strange attachment with it as she continues to write at the desk. She remains unmarried and detached from any real human connection, and the desk and her brief encounter with Varsky seem to be the only milestones in her emotional landscape - "I'm embarrassed to say that my eyes actually filled with tears, Your Honour, though as is so often the case, the tears sprang from older, more obscure regrets i had delayed thinking about, which the gift, or loan, of of a stranger's furniture had somehow unsettled."If there is no great exhilaration in her life, there is also no deep sorrow. Until the day Leah Weiz knocks on her door claiming to be Varsky’s daughter and requesting the desk back.
The next part of the story is told by Aaron, the recently widowed father of Dov, who he addresses through his monologue. Aaron is in fact the single character in this book who seems intent to redeem himself, who is aware of his severed connection from his own blood and is desperate to find common ground again with Dov. His anguish, his fury, his sense of utter desolation that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot scale the impenetrable wall that Dov has built around him, comprise some of the most beautiful sections of this novel.
We next meet Arthur Bender, who has only recently discovered (while caring for his Alzheimer-afflicted wife Lotte Berg) the extent of the secrets she kept locked within her self during their long marriage. It is in fact Lotte, who’d given the desk to Varsky. As these stories unravel, you realise neither Dov nor Lotte nor Nadia are ordinary people who look for and cherish concepts like stability, love or happiness. They are consumed by memories of a loss so immense that it makes it difficult to stand straight afterwards. Yet, what is truly painful is Krauss’ intuitive understanding of the unhappiness that falls upon those who are attached to these broken figures. As Arthur describes his long marriage, we realise the long periods of uncertainty, the endless doubts, and the effort required to silently accept the whims and silence of Lotte without ever voicing what it must’ve cost him to live like that. In many ways, Arthur reminds me of Tagore’s Nikhil from Ghare Baire.
The fourth narrator is Isabel, a student at Oxford who falls in love with Yoav Weisz, Leah Weisz’s brother. Like Arthur and Aaron, Isabel too soon discovers the pitfalls of caring deeply for someone whose entire life is in the thrall of something greater than himself – in this case the siblings’ unusual and disturbing closeness, and the presence of their domineering father George Weisz. George is a famous antiques dealer who specialises in restoring old pieces of furniture looted by the Nazi’s to their rightful owners. Needless to say, George wants the desk. As George explains his peculiar occupation to us, we seem to glimpse what lies beneath Krauss’ magnificent meditation on loss and grief.
George Weisz says, “Bend a people around the shape of what they have lost, and let everything mirror its absent form." His words are at complete odds with our commonplace understanding of grief and loss. We think (that’s what is taught and that’s what we witness in most around us) that time and life are the greatest healers; that with time, it is possible to overcome, or at least noticeably ‘move on’ from the epicentre of one’s great loss. This may be true of most. But the reverse is also true – that there may be some who simply do not have this faculty of self healing; who stand rooted in the quicksand of their loss and defeated by time; there is a kind of soil which no matter how much you water or fertilise, will yield no fruit. And this brings us to, perhaps, the book’s great existential question – if such loss is a definite possibility in one’s life, how does anything really matter? How do we lend meaning to the concepts and constructs that are purportedly meant to make life meaningful?
According to Joan Didion the answer lies in writing: ‘you write your way through it’ she prescribes of crushing grief. Krauss is far cannier and offers nothing. There is no hope, no comfort, no light at the end of the novel: just shattered glass.
As I read Great House I found myself impatient to see how the 4 stories would come together. Readers who expect neat endings will probably be a little miffed at Krauss for the manner in which this is done. I think this is also a deliberate ploy on her part because to search for meanings and connections in a merciless existential universe is perhaps as futile as trying to comprehend God.