Nadia wants to live, but she also wants to observe life, and these two desires are at war inside her. She attempts a few relationships; she gets close to a dancer who lives in her city; she befriends a poet and goes so far as to kiss him, but some part of her always shuts people out. Her relationships end; her boyfriends grow tired of tiptoeing around her and allowing her hours and hours of undisturbed work at her desk.
She exploits a story from the dancer’s childhood in her own fiction, and the dancer decides to keep his distance. She allows the poet, Daniel Varsky, to get away, and she cloisters herself in her apartment for years, writing, writing, writing. Will she ever see Varsky again? If she does, can she make a connection — the kind of meaningful bond that has eluded her throughout her life?
Like Nadia, Lotte Bergen is both alive and dead. A section of her soul is sealed off, entombed — blocked even from her husband, who has been with her for decades. Lotte’s only confessions take the form of very dark and otherworldly stories — violent fantasies that give tiny clues to the horrors of Lotte’s own past. When a young man appears in Lotte’s life, Lotte seems ready to admit her role in a tragedy that she has suppressed for years. Will she tell her husband what is weighing on her mind, and thus become closer to him? Will she continue to be a mystery — only half-accessible to the people who love her?
Dovik, a young man, has conflicting allegiances to art and to his father. He has rebelled against his father; he has fled his native country for London, attempted to write stories, and refused to share the weight of the sorrow he endured while fighting in the Yom Kippur War. Now that his mother is dead, will he attempt to get closer to his father? Will he continue to nurse secret grievances and hide himself in his room?
Great House — the source of these interconnected stories — is often eloquent. (Nicole Krauss has written two other novels; her second, The History of Love, took the world by storm.) Krauss writes precisely and effortlessly; many details fit so well that one almost forgets the hours of labor the writer must have undertaken. For example, here Krauss describes the relationship between a father and his difficult son:
When we die, you said, we’ll be hungry. A simple statement, and then you went on humming off-tune and pushing your little cars across the floor. But it stayed with me. It seemed to me that no one had ever summed up death quite like that: an unending state of longing with no hope of receiving. I was almost scared by the equanimity with which you faced something so abysmal…But however accidental, there was beauty in [your words]: In life we sit at the table and refuse to eat, and in death we are eternally hungry.
The passage is simple and shattering. Small children do say odd and profound things: One can envision the boy at play, making his pronouncement, pushing his little cars (those nicely-imagined “little cars”) across the floor. The father towers over his son, stopping his work and wondering if he has heard correctly. Krauss makes a short leap from here to the paragraph’s memorable conclusion — the observation that people often fail to notice their own lives passing by.
Great House has other strengths. It lays bare the conflicts any artist or writer must face: What is one’s obligation to one’s audience? To one’s friends and family (who are often the source of one’s stories)? To oneself? Krauss finds gorgeous metaphors to describe the ways in which people are preoccupied, mysterious, unknowable. A man walks stiffly, as if he carried “a wooden yolk like the old Dutch, only instead of water it was great reserves of feeling” he wished not to spill. A son’s voice changes slightly, “as if a tiny but vital piece had broken inside of it like the filament of a lightbulb.”
The novel’s final pages are a tour de force. Krauss suggests that her Jewish characters carry small memories of the Temple — of a “Great House” that fell long before they were born — and it is their fate to preserve their own small memories until they die. Each character is incomplete, but if he were able to connect with his brethren, he would help to create something like an image of home.
Despite its strengths, Great House seems unfinished. It is like a good third or fourth draft of a novel. Occasionally, a fog descends between the reader and the narrator; it feels as if the characters are not fully alive. The novel would benefit from a sense of humor; even life’s most difficult situations have an element of the ridiculous or absurd. Characters rarely speak to one another, because each narrator is recalling a series of memories. This format sometimes works (as Peter Taylor demonstrated with A Summons to Memphis), but Great House is a bit too much like a series of essays by a cautious and dutiful writer. Krauss should write with a greater sense of urgency and passion; she should risk colossal failure and begin to bare her soul.
Great House suggests that Krauss has vast reserves of talent — a keen eye, an articulate style, and an interesting relationship to Jewish history. May her next book take her deeper into herself; may it be furious, funny, audacious, and genuinely sad.