The OF Blog: Nicole Krauss, Great House

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Nicole Krauss, Great House

We must have talked for seven or eight hours at least.  Maybe more.  It turned out that we both loved Rilke.  We also both liked Auden, though I liked him more, and neither of us cared much for Yeats, but both felt secretly guilty about this, in case it suggested some sort of personal failure at the level where poetry lives and matters.  The only moment of disharmony came when I raised the subject of Neruda, the one Chilean poet I knew, to which Daniel responded with a flash of anger:  Why is it, he asked, that wherever a Chilean goes in the world, Neruda and his fucking seashells has already been there and set up a monopoly?  He held my gaze waiting for me to counter him, and as he did I got the feeling that where he came from it was commonplace to talk as we were talking, and even to argue about poetry to the point of violence, and for a moment I felt brushed by loneliness.  Just a moment, though, and then I jumped to apologize, and swore up and down to read the abbreviated list of great Chilean poets he scribbled on the back of a paper bag (at the top of which, in capital letters overshadowing the rest, was Nicanor Parra) and also to never again utter the name of Neruda, either in his presence or anyone's else. (pp. 8-9)

Memory and Loss.  Two centers around which a capable writer can construct a moving tale.  In her third novel, Great House, Nicole Krauss has written a reflection on the past and the losses endured that are not just personal mementos on display, but which also manage to become concrete metaphors for a greater, even more significant mourning of a shared past and loss.   Sometimes, it is difficult to break down just what exactly it is that makes a story work (or not), then there are times where too much might be said in a review.  Great House is one of those novels where the thematic and plot elements combine to form such a poignant whole that perhaps brevity is the best way to approach discussing it.

Great House consists of four plots that are interwoven into a thematic whole that creates a mosaic effect that is all the more powerful for the universality of the emotions explored.  The first plot centers around a reclusive American novelist who clings to the memory (and writing desk) of the young Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky, who "disappears" soon afterward in his native Chile.  Instead of directly stating the political climate that caused Daniel's disappearance, scenes such as the one quoted above serve as more powerful reminders of the influence that memory (and literature) serve on how we perceive the world.  Krauss deftly uses allusion to other events, other locales to connect her last memento of Daniel, his writing desk, to the narrator's loss and how she has had to withdraw from the world in order to cope with the burdens of her memory.  Connected to this subplot is that of a young woman who appears in the "present" who claims to be Daniel's daughter.  It is her own search for understanding and meaning that triggers the key developments of the third and fourth plots, which take place in London and Jerusalem and which deal with a much greater loss.

Krauss's characters face self-recriminations and doubts with which readers can easily relate.  Although there are a few heavy-handed, maudlin passages scattered throughout this 289 page book, for the most part, the revelations behind the loss and the true significance of that writing desk come about so naturally that each moment of frustration, despair, and (eventually) grim acceptance is all the more powerful because of how well-timed these moments are.  Krauss's prose has a nice, confessional ring to it, one that is well-suited for the stories she is interweaving here.  It is akin to the construction of a house (and there is a reason why this novel is entitled "Great House") and each level, each "room" fits together well because not only does she not skimp on the characters' issues, but she also does not neglect to show their moments of peace and acceptance.  By the time the last page is turned, the reader has been treated to a moving tale that certainly is worthy of its recent nomination to the 2010 National Book Award shortlist.  Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...


Larry said...


I don't know if I'm capable at the moment of farting on this book, but what about a farting squirrel? Would that work?

Rachel said...

I don't know how much I loved the book as a whole, but I don't have an appreciation for literary critiques that use bad grammar.

I read the entire blog and forgot it all thanks to the lovely comment by anonymous in which someone who doesn't take the time to become acquainted with the English language properly, but does take the time to tear down another? If anonymous took the time to reread "Great House," I doubt he'd suddenly like it, but he might pick up some tips on sentence structure?

Larry said...


I can understand the frustration at such comments, but in this case, "anonymous" was someone I know who was being silly. I'm fairly certain that he would enjoy this book or at least have constructive criticisms if he were to blog about it under his own name.

Anonymous said...

In case some of you are interested, KQED's "The Writers' Block" just published an episode of Nicole Krauss reading from her new novel:

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