Object Lesson

In ‘Great House,’ Nicole Krauss explores the connections between memory and weighty things.

10/26/2010
Jewish Week Book Critic
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A Hungarian-born antiques dealer with a fine eye for furniture helps people find pieces of their past — perhaps a chest from a living room broken up by the Nazis or a porcelain mantel clock. In his own stone house in Jerusalem,

George Weisz has reassembled, piece by piece, his father’s study, destroyed in Budapest in 1944. He has long understood that he couldn’t bring the dead back to life, but that finding the chair they once sat in or the bed where they slept could bring great and necessary comfort to those who remembered.

For Weisz, his own missing piece, the place where he longs to sit, is his father’s massive wooden desk lined with 19 drawers of different sizes, including one that he locked as a child. That desk first appears in Nicole Krauss’ stunning new novel, “Great House” (Norton), in an apartment on Central Park West: A young poet is planning to return to his native Chile and finds a friend of a friend, a novelist, who will watch his furniture in case he plans to come back to New York. But instead he disappears at the hands of the Chilean secret police. The novelist goes on to write seven books at the desk before it is reclaimed by an Israeli woman.

“Great House” was nominated for a National Book Award earlier this month, and, several months ago, Krauss was named one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker.

The novel unfolds through the voices of four narrators whose stories are linked: the New York novelist, a father in Israel, an English professor whose wife wrote at the desk, and a young American woman who befriends the twin son and daughter of Weisz, falling in love with the son. With grace and originality, Krauss writes of loss and many kinds of loneliness, the connections between memory and objects, between memory and identity, and about uncertainty. The desk is a hulking mystery, and the characters in each story, even after many years together, are still in many ways unknown to each other. Slowly, the reader comes to fit together these pieces.

Krauss, who began her writing career as a poet, chooses each word with much care. She seems more interested in characters than plot, and captures the emotional landscape of each, often pausing for an extra moment with a character in his or her private world. She describes a Romanian housekeeper named Bogna who has “a limp, water on the knee, I think, a cup of the Danube that sloshed around as she thumped from room to room with her mop and feather duster, sighing as if freshly reminded of a disappointment.”

In an interview at a Park Slope café near her home, Krauss explains that she started this novel — her third, after the highly praised “The History of Love” and “Man Walks into a Room” — soon after her first child was born. Part of it was published in The New Yorker, “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky.” As a new mother, she was thinking a lot about things that are passed on to children, and the burden of inheritance. She was also interested in pursuing characters who made different choices than she did.

Krauss, in a recent conversation at The New York Public Library with Israeli writer David Grossman, spoke of how much she loves the novel as a genre, how wide the possibilities are of what one might accomplish.

She writes at a huge desk in the study of the home she shares with her husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, and their two young sons. She inherited the desk made of inlaid wood, created for the upper floor studio space, when they moved into the house. While she doesn’t particularly like it, she doesn’t want to destroy it as would be necessary in order to move it.

Last summer, she and Foer spent a few months in Israel, as participants in a pilot cultural arts program at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, and then in Tel Aviv. She also traveled to Israel with some frequency while growing up in New York, to visit her grandparents who moved there from London. For her, Israel is familial — and she felt that every story she heard, every episode she witnessed was potentially her material, there for the taking.

The novel’s title hints back at Jewish history, referring to an academy set up in Yavneh in the first century by Yohanan ben Zakkai in order to preserve and strengthen Jewish learning after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Weisz, son of a scholar, narrates the book’s final chapter and explains that the school was known as the Great House, after a phrase in the Book of Kings.

“Only later,” says Weisz, “after Ben Zakkai died, did his answer slowly reveal itself, the way an enormous mural only begins to make sense as you walk backward away. Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple in to 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.”

Then, Weisz suggests, “Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. In the next world we will all dwell together in the memory of our memories.”

Like many writers who are Jewish, Krauss dislikes being pigeonholed as a Jewish writer. She takes certain pride in it and also “feels a feel a certain gratitude to the bottomless well of Jewish life, to which, I’m sure, I’ll always return in my work. But I wanted to note — and maybe this is the origin of that conflicted sense I described — that what interests me most is not, of course, religious faith, which I’ve never had, but the tradition of argument, dissent, dissatisfaction, and questioning that is so central to Judaism, and forms the basis of all rabbinic literature.”

She adds, “Perhaps the word is really doubt, which is the constant refrain in the Jewish relationship to God, and, as it filters down from the sacred, to all things.”

Nicole Krauss will be reading from “The Great House,” along with Cynthia Ozick, whose new novel is “Foreign Bodies,” on Monday, Nov. 8, at 8 p.m., at the 92nd St Y, 1395 Lexington Ave. Tickets are $19.

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