It’s difficult to imagine how someone so young could write with such powerful insight into what it means to lose, to suffer, and to carry the trauma of that loss into a world that has no place for it, no way of dealing with it. It’s difficult to believe that Nicole Krauss has not lived before, in some other life, given that her writing has a depth and a sagacity that defies the apparent ordinariness of living in Brooklyn, New York.
In Krauss’ latest novel, Great House, three narrators each tell the story of someone else, and one tells her own. The four protagonists inhabit different worlds — New York, Israel, London, and one who belongs nowhere as he roams the world searching for the furniture and effects of his late Hungarian father who was interned by the Nazis in 1938. The four are of different eras, are bestowed with and inherit different fortunes, and they all suffer alone, in their own opacity. And yet, they are bound together, each story, and each life, except one, that of Dov, a lawyer who fought in the Yom Kippur War. Dov is so alone in Krauss’ fractured, shard-like narrative, as well as isolated and withdrawn from his own world, that he is at one and the same time, unique and the most articulate embodiment of the other characters’ shared qualities. Aside from Dov as the vessel of all the other protagonists' qualities, each story, each life is bound together by a desk. It is a huge great hulk of a desk described in detail throughout the book by the different narrators. Most significantly, it is a desk that holds in its drawers, 19 of them, one of which is locked, the horrors of the Holocaust. It is the desk that literally connects the characters, but it is the Holocaust that overshadows every breath taken in Great House.
Nadia inherits the desk, as one does, from a friend of a friend, Daniel Varsky, a young Chilean poet, who is leaving New York and who has no use for his furniture. For her, the desk comes alive and has a place in her life that moves and grows from a comforting womb-like space to fall into as if a refuge, a refuge in which to write. And then, in the end of her story, Nadia begins to live and experience the memories of the desk. She had acquired it from Varsky, who was disappeared in the 1980s when he returned to Pinochet's Chile, and yet, Nadia somehow remembers the desk being plundered by the Germans during the war. The desk has a history and a memory of its own, as if its experiences are carved into the niches and form like currents through the grains of its wood. And these memories, these imaginings and experiences come to inhabit the one who is fortunate enough to form a relationship with the desk. I say fortunate, because without the desk, they would have nothing to anchor them in the world. Whether it is Georg Weisz who wanders the world, searching for it, Nadia who writes at it, Lotte Berg who carries it into her marriage as if as a safeguard against her husband coming too close, or Leah who loves Weisz' son and "reclaims" the desk from Nadia, all are grounded by a physical, emotional and spiritual yearning for the desk.
Nadia is the one narrator who tells her own story. The others are told by someone who is, at least from the outside, close to the protagonist. All of them, like the desk, hold within them a secret, but it is not a secret in the sense of some information passed on to them to safeguard. Their secret is a trauma so deep and so incomprehensible that it cannot be uttered. The secret sits like a silence at each protagonist’s core, elusive, and like Daniel Varsky, making sure they are never really present, except to the desk. Each of the protagonists, except Dov, are victims of the Holocaust. And then, we learn that even Dov is a survivor, a survivor of his father's survival. And where these traumatic experiences once were, there lies the silence. The unspoken contract with the people who share their lives —husbands, siblings, lovers, parents —is to let that silence alone. For all of them, the trauma cannot be touched because it is so deep, so unfathomable.
Perhaps the most powerful element of Krauss’ book is the way this trauma is passed down silently, through the veins, in the blood, from parent to child. Or in Leah’s case, through the crevices and scars of the desk itself. Krauss’ evocation of this passing on of the trauma is what will touch every reader, it’s what makes the book speak to and about all of us, even if we have not been touched directly by the Holocaust. Nadia asks “who isn’t a survivor from the wreck of childhood? … in order to survive that dark and often terrifying passage of my life I came to believe certain things about myself.” (p. 200). Haven’t we all? Krauss so eloquently captures the inarticulable sense of being thrown into a world of isolation, loneliness and separation from the world, at birth, and then having to spend a lifetime learning how to become reintegrated. This is the struggle and shock, the responsibility of being alive. This is what makes this Great House so mesmerizing to enter. As much as it is a book that echoes the shattered lives and shards that are the fabric of Holocaust survival and memory, it reaches so far beyond. Inside the rooms of the Great House, we find ourselves confronted with how we deal with loss, the destruction of those we love, and those disappeared in political struggles, unjustly taken from us. It’s a book that speaks about what it means to be human, even before we have lived, the trepidation and simultaneous fascination with death, the death of those who have gone before us, that we carry in our blood across the earth, for our lifetimes, and pass on without knowing it, to those who will live in our wake.