Thursday 17 March 2011

'borrowed from ghosts'

He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

Sometimes you need a gentle nudge to engage with an author for the first time (and sometimes a bloody great shove) and for some reason this is even more the case with authors that you suspect are actually very good but just haven't tickled your fancy enough. Huge thanks then to @wayfaringreader (as she's known on Twitter) for convincing me to read this superb novel (something she backed up rather hilariously with a tweet from Ivanka Trump who was enjoying Great House by the side of the pool). All of the reviews I have come across have been wonderfully positive and a belly band that came wrapped around my copy included one that mentioned Krauss as being Philip Roth's most likely literary heir. I wasn't quite sure what a comment like that was supposed to mean but as I read I began to have an inkling what Yevgeniya Traps meant in the New York Press. Krauss is the kind of writer who creates characters with such detail and specificity that they don't feel like characters in a novel at all, but real people whose stories we long to hear. She does this with the kind of mature psychological observations, emotional detail and interconnectedness that you can find examples of time and again in Roth's work. Regular readers of this blog will know that when I come on strong in the opening paragraph it's because I want to save you the time (if time is a luxury) of reading on and speed you towards a purchase. I'll join the chorus of approval and recommend this novel wholeheartedly: complex, engaging writing that slows down the reader; characters that live and breathe and even have the ability to affect your own breathing; a novel that deals with loss and memory so tenderly that it makes itself unforgettable.

The novel has four main narrators all of which are united by a desk. This piece of furniture holds an unusual amount of power over those who encounter it, there is something totemic about it, coming to represent different things to each of them. The first of these is Nadia, a novelist in her fifties, who was given the desk after the end of a relationship left her in a virtually unfurnished apartment and a single encounter with a Chilean poet called Daniel Varsky found her then guardian to his donated furniture when he left for a trip back to Chile. Having shared their love of poetry and interest in each other a relationship of sorts continues with Varsky's postcards but when these dry up and it is discovered that Varsky has been arrested, torutured and killed by Pinochet's goons the desk remains with the rest of his furniture as a haunting reminder of him 'sometimes I would look at it all and become convinced that it amounted to a riddle, a riddle he had left me that I was supposed to crack.'

Nineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paperclips there) hid a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed, to write. Those drawers represented a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of conciousness that could be articulated in no other way but their precise number and arrangement. Or am I making too much of it?
She isn't making too much of it. Having always thought of herself as 'only a temporary guardian' she remains unprepared for the impact of its removal from her life, something that happens when she is contacted by someone claiming to be the daughter of Daniel Varsky. Having happily written seven novels on it she finds her creative routine disturbed sufficently by its absence to encounter something close to a breakdown, finally settling on a trip to Jerusalem where the desk itself has travelled after she let it go.

The next section is narrated by an elderly man, Aaron, who has recently lost his wife and regained his son, Dov, who left Israel after his stint in the army and trained in law in America, going on to become a judge. This isn't a happy reunion, Aaron's narration is angry, impassioned and frequently hilarious as he wrestles with his complex feelings towards his children. One of the novel's themes is the impact of parenthood and how we relate to our offspring and Aaron's frustration with Dov's childhood histrionics will be familiar to any parent who has been confronted by a stroppy toddler who seems to be screaming for no clear reason (his hilarious response to one bathtime incident is to lift Dov clear of the water and deliver a lecture about the privations suffered by his ancestors during the pogroms and persecutions of the twentieth century). Now that Dov is an adult and his widowed father approaching the age of dependence there is a shift in that dynamic, something humorously undercut once again as Aaron sees his two sons talking confidentially

...trying to figure out what to do with me now, your old man, without having a clue, just as once you had no clue what to do with a pair of tits.

From New York and Israel we travel next to England where the two other narrators are based. First is Izzy, who remembers her time as an Oxford student and her relationship with fellow-student Yoav. Their intimacy always seems to be compromised by Yoav's unique familial relationships. His domineering father, almost always away with his work (of which more in a minute), is kept at a distance even on the few occasions he returns to London. Most unusual is the intense connection he shares with his sister Leah, a bond close enough to appear incestuous to many observers including their former school principal and enough, although it remains platonic, to have an impact on his relationship with Izzy. Their father's work looks from the outside like the dealing of antique furniture but is in fact slightly more specific than that. His speciality is the re-location of furniture confiscated from Jews during the Second World War so that those survivors and descendants might reclaim 'all that furnished the lives they lost or the lives they dreamed of living.' He himself is on a mission to recreate his own father's study exactly as it stood on the day in 1944 when he was forced to flee Budapest, 'As if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time and erase regret.'

We also meet an elderly man who has recently lost his wife. Always secretive about her past in mainland Europe it is only after her death that he begins to discover the full extent of what she had kept to herself and we will learn even more about the history of that desk and how it came to be in Varsky's possession in the first place. Not all of the sections are given an equal weight. There is no doubt that Aaron's narration is the strongest from a character point of view but it is Nadia and her meditations on writing itself that really held sway for me. This is where Krauss really deserves her comparison to Roth for providing a story that not only satisfies on its own terms but also has something to say about the act of writing itself. In her sections, begun and punctuated by the appeal Your Honor so that she is almost like a witness on trial, Nadia is unapologetic about the process of writing. Knowing that she has not been free in her own life she is strident that 'the writer should not be cramped by the possible consequences of her work. She has no duty to earthly accuracy or versimillitude. She is not an accountant; nor is she required to be something as ridiculous and misguided as a moral compass. In her work the writer is free of laws.' Later in the novel she has to admit how that isolation may have turned her into the kind of person so singularly obsessed that they neglect even the closest relationships in the the real world.

...someone so selfish and self-absorbed that she had been unconcerned enough about her husband's feelings to give him not even a fraction of the care and attention she gave to imagining the emotional lives of the people she sketched out on paper, to furnishing their inner lives, taking pains to adjust the light on their faces, brushing a stray hair from their eyes.

And like every great writer, having dedicated so much of her life to the creation of art she is struck by the most paralysing question of all about her belief in its validity: 'What if I had been wrong?'

Each of the strands is built around the idea of how we construct narrative around memory. The novel's title is taken from the Book of Kings (the phrase quoted at the top of this review) and more precisely the idea that 'every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire' - when the Temple was destroyed as the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem. A people without a Temple or even a homeland must turn 'Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book. A book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.' Each narrator is bent around the shape of something lost and in this intricate, mature and deeply resonant work, where the different stories mirror and echo each other, Krauss has created a book of her own to follow that Talmudic ideal.


Rob 17 March 2011 at 07:41  

@wayfaringreader may have convinced you, but you've convinced me (along with the fact it was Orange Prize longlisted of course :)). This one goes on the 'to buy' list. Thank you!
P.S. Anty idea where to pic up a desk like the one above? It's GORGEOUS!!

William Rycroft 17 March 2011 at 08:01  

Isn't it just! I'll admit that I dwelt rather longer than necessary when searching for pictures of an appropriate desk. I still don't think I've managed to find the right one, there are some fantastic passages that describe the look, power and unique charm of the desk, in fact having mentioned her skill in creating characters that feel like real people it's worth mentioning that she does exactly the same with that desk. After reading the book you'll have your own picture. Hope you enjoy it Rob.

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