Just past the midpoint of Nicole Krauss’ charming 2005 novel, The History of Love, a Polish refugee in Chile just after the Holocaust comes to understand the truth about what happened to the family he left behind. “It was like living with an elephant,” Krauss writes. “Every morning he had to squeeze around the truth just to get to the bathroom.”
In her new novel, Great House, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Krauss turns that elephant into a desk, a hulking piece of furniture (not to mention a hulking literary device) that insinuates itself into the lives of four separate narrators who offer, in alternating chapters, accounts of their lives, loves, and losses across the span of decades and continents. The desk links their stories, opening up questions and fantasies about its provenance and the mostly tragic fates of its custodians.
Though the desk connects them, what really hovers over Great House, and joins the characters in it, is the fate of the Jews in the 20th century. That means, of course, the Holocaust but not only that. Krauss considers Israel, a state that owes its birth, in part, to international guilt and its continued existence to the lives of its soldiers. She also weaves in Pinochet’s Chile, which claims the life of Daniel Varsky, a young poet we meet in the first chapter, though suffering at the hands of South American despots is not a fate principally associated with Jews.
For Krauss, the terrain in Great House—refugees, dispossession, love, regret, death—is not unfamiliar (nor are some of her allusions—to historian Emmanuel Ringelblum and poet Nicanor Parra, for instance). These same elements gave The History of Love its heft. Yet there was, in that earlier novel, a sense of hope that enlivened the interwoven stories of an old refugee in Manhattan and a teenager in Brooklyn trying, among other things, to recapture a vivid sense of her deceased father, an Israeli. Whimsical moments in The History of Love balanced its serious undercurrent.
Great House, regrettably, lacks lightness, and the omission of any such breath is tough to endure. Characters’ monologue-like testimonies are engrossing, certainly, and full of pathos. The cast is passionate, but their emotions rarely stretch anywhere near exuberance, as if even the briefest display of something unrelated to despair would keep this from being a serious novel. Instead, Great House is sometimes strained by its seriousness and is further freighted by erudite references to the likes of Yehuda Amichai, Judah Halevi, and Yochanan Ben Zakkai, among others.
More often, though, Krauss moves nimbly between her characters: Nadia is a writer and potentially unreliable narrator who met Varsky when she was a young woman and, as she ages, retreats into herself; Aaron, an elderly Israeli widower, is grieving at once over his recently deceased wife and over his long-fraught relationship with a son, Dov, back from England for the funeral; there is Arthur, the professor husband of Lotte Berg, a German-born writer who fled the Nazis on a Kindertransport chaperone; and Isabel, a depressed young American in England who falls in love with an Israeli expat who lives with his sister. For a good while, the siblings are under the thumb of their father, a mysterious and emotionally distant antiques dealer, the son of Holocaust victims, who hunts down furniture looted by Germans during the war in order to return it to those who survived the pillaging.
In each narrative, Krauss raises provocative questions about the nature of relationships. Ever mindful of Lotte’s past, Arthur never dares inquire about previous lovers, her murdered family, or her seeming affection for Varsky, who comes calling because he’s taken with her work. After her death, Arthur becomes troubled by his ignorance and by related doubts about their marriage. Was it his neediness that allowed him to comply with being shut out? He’s tortured by a perceived taunt—you can love me, but you can’t entirely know me—and by unease over a host of unknowns, including the extent of her own affection for him. Though he tells us he “told her that no one could have been happier together than we had been,” his restrained tone casts doubt on the statement.
In Aaron’s case, Krauss explores how and when child-parent relationships go astray. Both father, who sees his own end galloping toward him, and son, Dov, are mule-headed, and their life has been more or less a battle of wills. Add to this dynamic the fact of Dov’s survivor’s guilt; he made it out of Sinai during the Yom Kippur War while his commander, the son of survivors, was less fortunate. Nearly unspeakable questions arise: How violent is the heartbreak when a parent outlives a child? How staggering is the blow when a child realizes that he too will die? When Dov, as a little boy, asks if that will be his fate, Aaron tells the truth. “And because, no matter how you suffered, deep inside you were still an animal like any other who wants to live, feel the sun, and be free, you said, But I don’t want to die. The terrible injustice of it filled you. And you looked at me as if I were responsible.”
On occasion, similar details appear in separate stories. Both Nadia and Isabel, whose unhappiness, not to mention voice, are so alike they could be kin, come upon small children who take on ghostly qualities, evoking innocence, tenderness, motherhood, and the alien quality of a foreign body dependent but also sometimes parasitic. The intermingling of themes and personas underscores the idea that though an individual’s story is vivid and singular to the person experiencing it, to the outsider one person’s fate is similar to another’s.
It happens that while reading Great House, I came upon “The Guest House,” by the medieval Persian poet Rumi. “This being human is a guest house./ Every morning a new arrival” the poem begins, and the newcomers are joy, depression, and other elements in the spectrum of emotion. What an apt complement to Krauss’ sweeping tale, which suggests that despair, though lonely, is not unique. In Great House, though, it is not the state of being human which surrounds us, but the weighty bookends of birth and death.