July 15th, 2011

a book's worth

Book 64: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Book 64: Great House.
Author: Nicole Krauss, 2010.
Genre: Contemporary. Literary. Post-modern.
Other Details: Paperback. 304 pages.

"He burned the house of God, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.' - 2 Kings 25:9.

The central object of this novel is a massive writer's desk containing nineteen drawers, one of which is never unlocked. The desk has importance to the novel's four main characters, who each tell their stories in portmanteau style. The first of these narrative voices is Nadia, a moderately successful American novelist who was asked in 1972 by Daniel Varsky, a young Chilean poet, to look after the desk for him. She had expected him to return but then learns that he had disappeared under Pinochet’s regime. One day a young woman, who identifies herself as Daniel's daughter, comes to claim the desk. Nadia falls apart following this and decides to go to Jerusalem to find the desk again.

The second narrator is Aaron, an elderly Israeli lawyer whose wife has just died. He seems to be in permanent rant mode, especially towards his son. The third is Izzy, an Oxford student, who relates the story of her friends Leah and Yoav Weisz, whose lives were dominated by their father, a man who specialises in tracking down furniture confiscated from Jews during WWII. Finally in London there is Arthur, another recently bereaved man, who is trying to find out how his wife, Lotte, acquired the desk in 1948 and why two decades later she gave it away to Daniel Varsky. There is a certain amount of overlap between the stories.

In May and early June I took part in a reading group organised by the library to shadow the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. This was the only one of the six titles that I struggled with and almost gave up reading it more than once despite its modest length. Certainly the writing was exquisite and some of the ideas associated with it, such as the great house of the title linked to Jewish tradition, resonated deeply with me. However, throughout I felt no sense of engagement with the characters and at times quite lost as to what was going on. I know from experience that I do not do well with this kind of stream-of-consciousness writing and to make matters worse the layout and small font used in my edition proved very hard to cope with given my partial vision. Everything just seemed to flow together on the page as well as in the narrative.

The novel ended up being Orange Prize Shadowing Group's winner, so I was in the minority in terms of the group and the wide critical acclaim the novel received. Still I was rather relived when I came across John Crace's Digested Read in The Guardian in which he has one character say "to be honest the plot was now so depressing and confused I could barely work out who was who,...". That sentiment I could completely relate to.

On a side note I was a little curious as to why its back cover blurb emphasised the Chilean poet and played down the novel's focus on Jewish identity, loss and tradition, even if its themes are universal. Maybe that was it or perhaps the publishers wished to avoid comparisons with The Finkler Question, which seems a little strange as they are very different novels in style and tone.

So, not a book I took to and while part of me thinks that a second reading might change that opinion, not sure I really have the time and energy for it.

Nicole Krauss' Great House page - with links to excerpt.