Nicole Krauss’s Desk and Its Clutter
By Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton & Company, 289 pages, $24.95
It is a great desk — an enormous, ornate escritoire equipped with 19 drawers — rather than a “Great House” that connects the characters in Nicole Krauss’s ambitious third novel, following “Man Walks Into a Room” (2002) and “The History of Love” (2008). Like one of those anthology movies, such as “Tales of Manhattan” (1942), “The Yellow Rolls-Royce” (1964) or “The Red Violin” (1998), that binds its separate stories through ownership of a single item, whether a black tailcoat, an automobile or a violin, “Great House” uses a desk to link strangers scattered in New York, London, Jerusalem and Santiago, Chile.
The desk belonged to a scholar who perished in the Holocaust. After the war, his son, George Weisz, becomes an itinerant merchant of missing furniture, a specialist in tracking down family property plundered by the Nazis. A wandering Jew who moves his motherless son and daughter to and from numerous addresses, he is an impresario of the ingathering of exiled assets, repairing the shards of broken lives. Weisz’s private mission is to reassemble his own father’s Budapest study in a large house in Jerusalem. Though he is resourceful and tenacious in pursuit of his prey, one piece eludes his grasp: the desk.
“Great House” is a series of monologues delivered by characters that have no obvious connection to one another, except for the desk. They include Nadia, a novelist in New York who was loaned the desk by a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky before Daniel disappeared in the Pinochet terror; Arthur Bender, an Oxford scholar whose late wife, Lotte Berg, a writer who escaped from Germany, had somehow acquired the desk and eventually given it up to Daniel, and Isabel, an American who falls in love with Weisz’s son, Yoaz. In addition, an Israeli lawyer named Aaron recounts his fierce love-hate relationship with his brilliant but uncommunicative son, Dov. Though it is not immediately clear what their story has to do with the desk, Aaron’s account of Dov’s experiences during the Yom Kippur War stands on its own as one of the most powerful sections of the novel.
Arthur marvels at the mystery that Lotte constituted for him throughout their 47 years of marriage. “We search for patterns, you see, only to find the patterns break,” he says. It is only after his wife dies that Arthur is able to piece together one of her astonishing secrets. When he learns another one of them, he tosses the paper on which it is written into the fireplace, keeping the reader from sharing his discovery. Reading “Great House” is a bit like re-enacting Arthur’s search for patterns and Weisz’s project of reassembling scattered furniture. The novel is filled with characters who are stubbornly opaque and isolated. Writers Nadia and Lotte retreat into their imaginations, Dov is so withdrawn as to seem almost autistic and Daniel, elusive even when present, vanishes.
Patterns emerge, but even on a second reading the novel remains a repository of broken vessels. The form in which Krauss has cast her fiction demands that the reader perform the daunting task of tikkun olam, repair of the world — or at least of shattered connections. It is up to us to take the fragments of her post-Auschwitz universe and make them whole.
Yoaz is another enigmatic figure, and the fact that he refuses to reveal much about himself to Isabel does not prevent her from moving into his London flat. Isabel recalls how Yoaz would read to her the Hebrew texts of Bialik, Amichai, Kaniuk and Alterman. But it is another Hebrew author, S.Y. Agnon, whose spirit hovers over these proceedings. Shmuel Czaczkes appropriated his pen name from an early short story about abandoned wives. He titled it “Agunot,” the Hebrew term for “moored souls.” Like wraiths from Agnon, the characters in “Great House” drift through the book with no ties except those provided by a willing and diligent reader.
It is not until the final pages of her lush and lovely novel that Krauss divulges one perplexing literary secret: the reason that she titled the book “Great House.” George recounts how, following the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple, Yochanan ben Zakkai gathered a remnant of scholars in Yavne. By composing the Talmud, these scholars were able to “turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself.” Ben Zakkai’s group, he explains, was later known as the Great House. For all its obduracy, Krauss’s “Great House” is neither as vast nor as intricate as the Talmud, but it does offer a way, following a catastrophe even more devastating than the fall of Jerusalem, for a community of readers to imagine connections.
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).