Saturday, February 5, 2011

An old soul's compassion for the longing of others and a great desk (Books - Great House by Nicole Krauss)

I am a big fan of Nicole Krauss's The History of Love. Reading it catapulted me into reading something else of her's immediately, so taken was I with the distinct narrators she created in that book, and the thread of intense longing that ran through it. Great House is a group of interconnected stories whose point in common is a huge desk whose presence or absence in the characters' lives is as hulking as it is indelible. The desk has had many owner's - it makes its way from a German Jewish refugee who becomes an English writer, to a Chilean poet who is eventually a victim of Pinochet's killings, to a lost and lonely writer in New York, to a Hungarian Jew transplanted to Israel who deals in restoring to the original owners the furniture plundered by the Nazis. So its narrative is long, the path twisted and sometimes obscured, it is touched by many lives. The desk also has many drawers, so many that its contents are unknowable. This desk is Peer Gynt, the title character of the great Ibsen play, who likens himself to an onion. He peels away layer after layer of himself only to find more and more beneath. He finds he has no one kernel, no single essence that is Peer. This desk in its size and its unknowability is an intriguing metaphor for the way the characters in the Great House strive to know one other person, a person for whom they feel powerfully and yet cannot fully know. The desk is a surface upon which narratives are created, yet we cannot look within. Sometimes one person cannot know another because one vanishes before the other can reach out. Sometimes there is a wall between them due to a wound or a regret. Sometimes a person insists on being unknowable. And just because we love and want to know them does not mean that they can or will reveal their secrets. Sometimes they cannot even reveal those secrets to themselves. What do you think think keeps psychologists in business? And novelists. Krauss's desk could be a gimmick, but it doesn't feel that way. It is more a meeting place of narratives. The narratives of people who long to know another and the loss they feel at never fully achieving that intimacy. Our witnessing their meeting is a beautiful, sad, and mysterious reading experience.

Great House is a more unruly, more jagged, less fully complete work that the neat entertainment provided by The History of Love. The four narrators have distinct voices, as in the first book. Three of the chief characters are older, Krauss seems an acutely sensitive ventriloquist when it comes to the minds and souls of characters who have lived many years longer than she. The four stories are broken in half, each of them interrupted and then completed (after a fashion) in the second half. This felt somewhat arbitrary. In one case, I had a hard time remembering the details and was irritated at having to go back. I know that Krauss wanted to four narrative lines to work together as a whole and wanted us to sustain interest across them so that they yielded their final fruits together, but I am not sure this completely works. In one case, the narrator speaks to an unknown judge of some sort, addressing him as "your honor." This technique I found very intriguing. As I got to know more and more of the story behind this narrative, I had to wonder who was judging her and for what crime. This piqued my curiosity, pulling me through to the end. The story of the English author was told by her widowed husband, who only learns secrets about his somewhat reticent wife very late in their lives. This story contains stories within stories. So many, in fact, that I sometimes forgot where I started. I found this distanced me from the emotion of the man's disappointment at not being allowed to know his wife as intimately as he would have wished. Yet this was convincingly justified in his retiring and academic English character. The most intriguing of the stories was Lies Told by Children. In it the Hungarian Jewish refugee combs the world looking for looted furniture and objets d'art as his two brilliant and eccentric children live in a London house with overgrown vines. It had a gothic and twisted feel and makes me curious to see Krauss attempt a longer fictional work with similar younger characters. The most touching of the lot, was True Kindness, the story of another widower, an Israeli, who in his struggle to not be a sentimental or weak parent to his sensitive son has created an unbridgeable distance between them as adults. I deeply appreciated and enjoyed the individual worlds and their related themes. In fact, I might have appreciated their collective presence even more without the attempt to sum them all up in the somewhat oblique and elegiac couple of pages that conclude Great House. But regardless, I am left with the impression that Nicole Krauss is possessed of a fertile imagination and an old soul's compassion for the longing of others that she translates with precise and poignant writing into books of great beauty, books that I will look forward to reading. Here is an interview with her.

1 comment:

Criticlasm said...

I was given History of Love for my birthday last year. I've heard nothing but great things.