"Great House" is unashamedly literary in style and while undoubtedly not everyone's cup of tea, it's hard not to admire the cleverness of Krauss. It also covers such broad issues that it's not the easiest of books to sum up in a few words. Certainly, to enjoy this book you will need to have a tolerance for cerebral fiction. You will also need to appreciate the role of the book in commenting on aspects of the human condition rather than just telling a good story. This is most certainly not a plot driven book. You should also be prepared that the stories told are unremittingly dark, sad, and almost oppressively depressing. But while all of this sounds negative, the payoff is a book of exceptional cleverness and shot through with lovely and often beautifully observed writing about the human condition and in particular about memory. It would be wrong to say that it's cerebral with no heart: there's plenty of emotional heart here, but unless you buy into the cerebral game, then it's a book that will infuriate you before you reach it.
Effectively four short stories, each split into two parts, which echo into each other and overlap in different ways. Each is told from the first person perspective. It's fair to say that there isn't always as much distinction between the tones of voice as might be ideal. Some of the overlaps are obvious, or become obvious, others are more fleeting and subtle - mere suggestions. You pick up echoes of your own memories of earlier stories as the second halves unfold - they don't always come fully formed but often as fragments of a larger story - much like memory.
At the heart of the book is a great desk which both stands for the Great House symbolism of the Jewish concept, but also a term used by Freud to describe the workings of memory. It's the latter that works best for me, but Jewish readers may well get even more from the first reference as I'm sure some of the deeper symbolism went over my head a bit. The ownership of this desk though is just the link to bring the stories together and what each really explores is memory and stories - it's notable how many of the characters are writers or poets.
The stories include a reclusive writer in New York who inherits custody of the desk from a Chilean poet who is returning to fight the Pinochet regime, a London-based widower grieving for the loss of his wife (also a writer) whose life has a secret revealed to him only in his wife's Alzehimer's, a recently widowed Israeli frustrated at the lack of communication from his son, and finally another London-based story of Isabel's relationship with the strange Yoav and his equally mysterious sister, Leah both under the gaze of their furniture collecting father.
Yet none of these stories are told in a straightforward way. Krauss allows her narrators to fly around in time and to go off at tangents as they recall their stories.
If you read Krauss' last book, The History of Love then you will have a sense of her methods of story telling. If you didn't enjoy that, you will positively hate this! While there were moments of levity and lightness in The History of Love, there are none here. It's all pretty grim stuff but there is a certain beauty in the stories. Loss is a recurring theme though so it's always going to be quite dark.
It's not perfect, as I've tried to show, but it's a book that works on so many levels that the cleverness of the ideas carries through. I loved it and will certainly re-read it at a later date. If books that make you think, "I'm sure there's more to this than I'm getting" frustrate you, then this is not a book for you. But it's a book that made me think and I found involving as I tried to pin the threads together. Ideally, I'd give it four and a half stars (just some levity would have made all the difference, as would more differentiation between the narrative voices) but if you are up for a challenging book, then it has a huge amount going for it.
on 29 November 2011
This is a complex web of 4 stories with a large, antique desk providing the link between them. We follow the lives of a New York writer who is lent the desk by a young, Chilean poet; a recently widowed father with a complex relationship with his son; a husband coming to terms with his wife's dementia as a dark secret from her past is revealed; a student in a relationship with a man whose life, along with his sister's, is controlled by his furniture-collecting father.
There were common themes that ran through the book. Many of the characters were writers and I felt there was a certain amount of navel-gazing going on. You would think writing was the toughest job in the world and an affliction for those who chose that profession. I found this a little irritating because to write for a living is an indulgence really. Childlessness also featured strongly with Nadia reaching middle age without a child, Lotte's marriage didn't produce a child and references are made to Leah remaining childless. However, I can't quite work out the significance of this in the context of the whole novel.
The quality of writing is superb, I was absorbed by each story and each dealt with the complexities of human relationships. The father-son story in particular was so moving - the love between them was there but they could not express that love and instead lived in a state of distance and mistrust.
I enjoyed reading this novel, it was very literary but it sucked me in and I was impressed with the quality of the emotions portayed. I had prepared myself from the soundbites on the book's cover to be amazed at the cleverness of the ending but it fell flat for me and one month later I am struggling to remember anything about the book as I write this review. I would recommend it to readers who like a slow, challenging book but I can see why many don't get to grips with it.
on 22 September 2011
Haunting, evocative but in some ways problematically opaque exploration of memory, trauma and loss, and the role which physical objects can play in these experiences.
Like some other reviewers, I was left uncertain as to whether the book -- memorable and moving -- at the same time constituted less than the sum of its parts, which if the case might be appropriate to a novel dedicated to the subject of what is lost and missing, and the gaps and absences in people's lives. On the other hand, I personally was left feeling a little obtuse, as if, like the husband who narrates one strand of the novel, I too was left outside shivering and slightly blank outside a deep but unaccessed pool of content and secrets. This may well have been the intention, but at the same time did dilute the impact of a remarkably accomplished work for me personally as a reader.
Although engrossing and impressive at the time, Great House, over the following days, left less impression on me than I had expected. Nonetheless, a rich and extraordinary work.
on 4 March 2013
I like clever people, if I ever meet Nicole Krauss at a sophisticated gathering - say, in McDonalds - I will ask her opinions on the meaning of life, life after death and more importantly, life before death. Sadly, after the remarkable triumph of her brilliant "The History of Love", "Great House" is an absolute disaster, not life affirming, stimulating or enlightening - merely dark, morbid and fatuous!
Whether it is cerebral, unashamedly literary or as clever as some reviewers on its' inside cover and here imply, it falls at the first hurdle for me by failing to galvanise, inspire or even interest the reader. Why do so many newspaper reviewers think so highly of it? Are they are too embarrassed to say they can't find its' true meaning, the reason being, it has none.
Four individual stories, the sad depiction of Mrs Bender's Alzehimer's and intermittent meandering through the consciousness of characters mainly mundane lives, do not add up to a lot. I was waiting, at the end, for a big revelation, THE big revelation. Sadly the conclusion was as ephemeral as the novel.
It is true, memory - often a recollection of recollections - can be opaque, like Chinese whispers it can end, like Weisz's fake antiques, not quite the product his clientele remembered from their past, but close enough not to matter. That was the problem with this book, it didn't matter.
The process of good writing should allow the reader to absorb inner truth, even when there is some doubt as to what that is and where it comes from; when characters inter-relate, their behaviour shows us how they are. There was so little social contact here, the judgment we must sadly offer, Your Honour, is that the characters were wooden, the drawers full of blank paper and the ink well of life spilt, smudging what was a good concept.
Even with Mr Bender's sad discovery of his wife's secret, we fail to find what makes him tick. His wife may have provided sexual gratification, but was not, exactly, a laugh a minute - and what sort of woman leaves a half-read book splayed wide open on the arm of a chair, other than a Philistine. I was with him when he did the most assertive thing in the book, placing a bookmark inside, saving the spine of the book until his wife told him never to do it again. One doesn't dare to think what might have happened had he left the seat of the lavatory up. Or maybe we should, there might have been some interesting drama!
The idea in Judaism of written consciousness - as in the Torah - or remembered, passed-down insights without physical embellishment, is neatly captured. But we didn't need to endure Isabel's angst, Yoav and his sister, Leah's, strange relationship or Dov's failure to relate to his father. Nor did we need to drag up the terrible tragedy in Chile under General Pinochet, that was real, I met victims seeking asylum at the time. No, such truths as there are in this novel could have been neatly encapsulated in a short story, a very short story, which could, and perhaps should, have remained in the locked drawer of that damned desk.
on 31 January 2011
This is one of those books which I think you'll either love or hate. Unfortunately for me, I found this to be one of the most depressing books I have ever read and one which I really struggled to finish, (but ultimately did so after a long, hard slog).
Linked by a mysterious desk, several characters describe their completely soul destroying lives in endless dark description. This is truly a book which emphasises the black, emptiness of depression and loss and one which I found very difficult to read. I couldn't relate to the characters, became disinterested and therefore found the descriptive prose akin to wading through treacle. Whilst the characters revealed more of their secrets as the book progressed, I found myself caring less and less about what happened to them.
Make no mistake, this book is extremely well written and the descriptive prose is some of the very best I have read; but if the subject matter doesn't grab you from the off (as it didn't with me), then the book becomes difficult, repetitive and tiresome.
This is a modern fictional novel which may possibly polarise opinion. The author's power to describe and set a scene is excellent, but the book is so slow, fragmented and shrouded with depression that it makes this comparatively small book appear to be so much longer than it actually is.
Have a look at the book's synopsis and some of the other reviews before you make a decision to buy or not. I didn't enjoy it, but others have done and will continue to do so.
Just be wary, this is not a light hearted read!
on 5 July 2011
Reading Great House is like having a conversation with someone who is extremely eloquent and adept at expressing themselves, but is the most incredibly boring person you have ever met. In fact, it is like meeting four boring people, only they all sound the same and talk about the same things.
The novel hangs together as a series of short stories tenuously linked by the passage of a desk through various owners and their lives that weave around it. There is Nadia, a writer living in New York, who receives the desk from a young poet on his way back to his politically dangerous homeland of Chile, an old lawyer in Israel who loses his wife and contemplates his family ties, the husband of another writer living in England amongst her secrets and a young student, Isabel, who gets embroiled with a complicated family whilst attending Oxford University. There's not really much that can be said about the plot as there isn't one in a true sense. It's just a series of things that happens, moving back and forth through time with the tiniest of connections to one another, which I'm sure was the point : the world is a really big AND really small place at the same time.
The reason that this book has even gained two stars is because the writing is undeniably high quality. It is lyrical and expressive and communicates the often quiet sadness of life. She details the tiniest and most subtle thoughts and feelings effectively so you get a good idea of the complexity of the characters' existence. This novel very much sets out to show how within every person, however simple the appearance, there is a secret self with a labyrinth of needs and insecurities. The problem is that this comes across as rather worthy and self-conscious, as if the author is taking huge pains to show us how complicated people are. This wasn't an idea that was new to me so I found it twee and a bit obvious. Also, she failed to create an individual voice for each character - each person's monologue was written in one pretty yet droning style so you never feel an obvious shift in the story and it felt like more of the same, being said over and over again by one navel-gazing person.
There is no dialogue to speak of (pun intended) apart from 'he said to me, she said to me' ,which doesn't really count. This adds to the feeling of being talked at as nothing is happening in real time, just a hazy cloud of memory. The lack of realistic communication between characters makes them all sit flat on the page. The other thing that was telling by its presence was the frequency with which dreams were described - every single narrator in this book kept harping on that they dreamed about this that and the other. It got to feel like the whole novel was one big telling of somebody else's dream, and we all know how interesting that's supposed to be!
I cannot recommend this book as for me it was not like reading a novel, just a lot of nice words thrown together. It's not that it was difficult or too literary as many reviewers have said, purely that it was not interesting in any way. There are works far more complex and still highly literary that do more than just act as a good aid to insomnia!
Great House is a very self-consciously literary novel. It knows it's audience and goes straight for them. It's not a book for the casual reader. Even though it is relatively short it is a difficult and challenging read.
It is focussed around a desk, which may or may not have once belonged to Lorca, a desk which forms the centre-point in the lives of the characters of this book. It is essentially a set of short stories, split in half, each related to the other to varying degrees.
Nadia is a midlist author who was given the desk by Daniel Varsky, a Chilean, who lends her the desk for a time, but when he vanishes Nadia makes the desk her own.
Izzy, is a confused and damaged American student, who tells the story of Leah and Yoav Weiss, who's father specialises in locating furniture looted by the Nazis in the second world war.
Aaron is a retired lawyer in Israel, who's section of the novel is concerned with his hatred for his son.
Structurally Great House is complicated, I imagine it will take a second read to fully grasp how the stories fit together and the full chronology.
Equally the metaphorical meaning of the novel is challenging and hard to grasp. It is about loss and memory and the importance of time and place in our lives. But there is a meaning that pertains to Judaism that I struggled to reach.
This subtext is probably best summed up by this quote, 'Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and as intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form. Later his school became known as the Great House, after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of Go, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.'
It is about the meaning we project onto objects and how our memories are intrinsically locked into them.
It is a dense book, difficult to penetrate and while it is a rewarding read it can never be described as enjoyable.
Nicole Krauss has written a beautiful, unfolding, elliptical book, connecting the stories of various peoples' lives, from Chile, New York, London, and Jerusalem, through the medium of a large, mysterious desk with many drawers and shelves, where secrets can be left, hidden and forgotten. Left to be `minded' by a New York writer while its Chilean poet owner returns to his country (and later becomes one of the disappeared) various other stories begin, each with a quest. The New York writer who has `desk sat' for 24 years recounts a story which connects with that of a Jewish lawyer and his father. The story of a young woman at University in Cambridge links in a circuitous fashion with the New York writer, and her visit to Jerusalem. The Chilean poet briefly enters the life of a man and his wife in London. Krauss allows stories of people, missing each other by miles, even whilst sitting in the same room, to be laid out for us, in order to sample our own desire to connect with each other, and to feel how pitifully hard that can actually be, no matter how willing both parties are. The lambent, mesmeric, Chilean poet Daniel Varsky enters the lives of some of these characters almost like a character from Greek myth. Superficially he appears not to have touched them - there are no huge life changing events associated with his presence. Except the axis of the lives he touches shifts a little. Implied is the way all connections shift us all, a little. There's the beat of a suffering and feeling heart, running through all the encounters. We want, we all want, so much... this is a book suffused with longing... 'Only connect'
I read Nicole Krauss's previous novel, 'The History of Love', some years ago now, and don't remember a great deal about it, other than that I enjoyed it and that it featured a couple of separate stories that eventually interwine in quite unexpected ways, so it became like a quirky jigsaw puzzle that doesn't really make sense until you have all the pieces. The much bleaker 'Great House', in contrast, is a puzzle with most of the pieces missing; we only realise how many more narratives we might have when the meaning of the title is revealed at the end.
There are five first-person narrators in this novel, although to reveal the identity of one of them would, I feel, be a spoiler, and in any case, they only narrate a handful of pages. The major story threads, introduced in sequence in the first half of the novel, are firstly, that of middle-aged Nadia in New York, who addresses the story of her self-imposed loneliness as a writer and the desk she received from a young Chilean poet many years ago to `Your Honour', implied to be a judge in a courtroom. Her narrative is followed by two ageing narrators, Aaron in Jerusalem, whose own wife has just died but whose troubled relationship with his younger son Dov is at the centre of his tirade, and Arthur in London, whose dying wife Lotte's slips of memory allow a secret she has kept hidden for years to be revealed. The final voice to be introduced is that of Izzy, a failed and diffident PhD student, who has travelled to Jerusalem to reach out again to a man she once loved, Yov, at the invitation of his sister, Leah, with whom he lives cloistered in the last of their many childhood homes. Keeping this many threads in the air is a challenge both for author and reader, and the second half of the novel, where links seem to be becoming apparent between these four, equally vivid, stories, appears at first to be dauntingly complex.
But Krauss's novel isn't really about making links; it is about accepting that there is sometimes no possibility of making life make sense. Daniel Varsky, the poet who is introduced at the very beginning of the novel, and who is said to have been murdered in his twenties by Pinochet's secret police, is the clearest example of this. Varsky haunts the novel, particularly Nadia's and Arthur's narratives, but we are never able to pin him down; young men who look like him appear and disappear, he seems to have a daughter, then he might not, the possibility that he is still alive is floated and discarded and floated again. Aaron buries himself illicitly in Dov's novel in an attempt to understand his son, only to find that the boy never finished the book; Arthur uncovers his wife's secret past only to be asked by the contact he thought might explain everything: `What is it you want, exactly, Mr Bender?' This continuing theme seems to me to be about what we don't know and cannot know, and how sometimes we allow these questions to dominate our lives instead of focusing on what we do know and do have. Weisz, Leah and Yov's father, is an antiques dealer who has spent his life re-making and hence `finding' lost objects for Jews driven from their homes during the Second World War; `Even if it no longer exists, I find it... He'll only notice for a moment, a moment of shock and disbelief, and then his memory will be invaded by the reality of the bed standing before him. Because he needs it to be that bed where she once lay with him more than he needs to know the truth'.
Some reviewers have suggested that this novel is overly depressing; I didn't find it so, although the scene from which I have quoted above is undoubtedly desperately sad, and there are other such moments in the narrative. A more serious criticism, I think, is that the five voices are not especially distinguishable from each other, and I found this was especially true of Nadia and Izzy. Krauss's writing is undoubtedly beautiful and accomplished, but I felt at times that the prose slightly overpowered the individuality of the characters, when a sentence or turn of phrase was simply too good to leave out and yet perhaps more typical of the voice of the author than of her narrator. Having said that, however, Aaron's narrative, caught between self-hatred and self-justification, is distinctly his own, and as he digs up incidents from the earliest days of Dov's childhood, his account is both disturbing and riveting.
A final note; I enjoyed this book very much, but did feel by the end that I probably wouldn't be prepared to read another narrative by Krauss that was so fragmented and disparate, stretching the theme she picked up in 'The History of Love' to its utmost limits. This is partly, of course, a personal issue - I struggle to remember names of characters as it is, and to unpick the subtle connections here took a lot of concentration for me! But yes (if not a contradiction) I recommend this, but would also love her to write something completely different in the future - I look forward to seeing what it might be.
on 30 September 2014
Oh dear, I feel terrible about saying it but I thought this was a dreadful book. Self consciously literary to an almost embarassing degree; painfully pretentious. The main characters are highly sensitive artists and writers who spend their lives navel gazing and angst-ridden about whether to have toast or cereal in the morning. The book seems to be a product of the New York that wants the world to notice how sensitive and sophisticated it is; a first I thought it was a parody of this kind of thing, but then I realised it was taking itself entirely seriously. A good example of why it does not pay to strain too hard after a particular effect. Perhaps best summed up as Woody Allen without the jokes.