A history of tragedy, loss -- and a poet's desk
Nicole Krauss' exquisite third novel is composed of four intricate meditations presenting lives overshadowed, and overdetermined, by loss.
Like theatrical soliloquies, the characters elucidate the difficulties they face while the Holocaust overshadows the narratives, a constant reminder for a people who once lost everything.
We begin with Nadia, a New York writer who has just been left by her boyfriend. She seeks help from a poet friend who offers Nadia his furniture, including an old desk that might have once belonged to Federico Garcia Lorca and was owned by a Chilean poet named Varsky. Nadia likes the mystery connected to the desk and is attracted to the present owner's emotional intensity.
She will later learn that after his return to Chile, Varsky was killed by the right-wing regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet after it overthrew President Salvador Allende. His death underscores a recurrent theme in the novel -- that random acts of violence or terror can occur and disrupt the prosaic rhythms of ordinary life.
Nadia uses the desk for the next 25 years. Varksy's daughter comes to claim the desk, but the thought of relinquishing the object that connects Nadia to the memory of the poet makes the loss too devastating. Remembering that when she inherited the desk, she was told that it came from Israel, she flies to Tel Aviv to research its origins.
This is a novel that may frustrate some readers. The usual conventions of contemporary fiction, mainly plot, are missing. Even the literary device of the writing desk, which we might assume will connect the characters and their stories, doesn't develop in ways that we've come to expect.
This is a novel of reminiscence. Emotion, specifically loss, is the cohesive element.
Aaron is a father in Tel Aviv who picks up the narration. His story feels the most devastating, perhaps because it is the one that offers some hope of redemption. He is bitter and then resentful of his son, who had recently returned to Israel after the death of his wife.
And though there is time for a relationship, Aaron cannot let go of the past. He re-examines their fight, their misunderstandings, the numerous times when they didn't get along:
"What is it like, I once demanded of you, to be a man of such high principles that no one else can live up to them? But you only turned your back on me, just as you turned your back on everyone who betrayed your shortcomings. So you sat hunched in the garden like an old man, starving yourself because the world had disappointed you again."
It is a claustrophobic voice, one that never allows the son to respond, never allows him a chance to tell his side of the story. Aaron holds tightly to past grievances and frustrations until we understand that the disappointment he feels with his son is a diversion to his present grief.
With another writer, these sort of one-sided ruminations might suffocate, but Ms. Krauss is a poetic stylist. Her prose gives tremendous weight to her character's pain and it is their struggles to endure that make such a powerful impression.
The writing desk, which was taken from its original owner by the Nazis, ultimately works like one of Hitchcock's MacGuffins. It is there as a narrative touchstone and works to connect the characters, but it's actually beside the point.
Historical moments, like philosophical ideas, have their own time frames and life spans that reflect the cultural concerns they represent. The novelist knows these things well and with sheer authority explores the years since the end of World War II.
In "Great House," Nicole Krauss is left to investigate the Holocaust not through documentary evidence or eyewitness accounts but by the material possessions left behind in the tragedy of its wake.
First Published October 24, 2010 12:00 am