Desk Set

“Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.” Thus a contemporary antiques dealer named Weisz, a crucial but shadowy figure in Nicole Krauss’s new novel Great House, explains the first-century rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s radical response to the burning of Jerusalem. Weisz is familiar with the concept of radical reinvention after devastating destruction: he helps the relatives of Holocaust survivors reconstruct the pasts of their murdered loved ones by tracking down their stolen furniture. For many years, he has been searching for the massive and imposing desk of his own father, who was lost “on a death march to the Reich.”

That desk becomes the central motif in a novel suffused with mystery and shrouded in sorrow. In the opening pages, the reader meets one of the desk’s former owners, a solitary New York writer. She is addressing a judge with a disturbing confession of her sins, but the reader doesn’t know who the judge is, or why the writer stands before him. Neither is it clear why the writer refers to blood on her hands. The woman tells her audience––judge and reader––that she once had lovers and a husband, but now burrows into herself and her work. That work, writing fiction, means immersing herself in an unreality based on reality and confiscating stories for her own purposes; like confession, it becomes a key motif of the novel.

Krauss generates suspense as she tells the stories of the desk’s owners—the New York writer, who receives loan of the desk from a Chilean poet, later to be tortured and killed by Pinochet’s forces; a young Israeli woman who claims to be the poet’s daughter; a British writer who, though married, is in her own way as isolated as her New York counterpart. The suspense is an intrinsic part of Krauss’s narrative method, which fuses the plot-driven impulses of popular fiction with the metaphysical and highly literary musings of the novel’s multiple narrators. In bald summary, that high-concept desk plot sounds alarmingly like the recent spate of Hollywood single-thread-through-many-lives movies that manage to make multiple tearjerkers out of a solitary idea. Indeed, the idea of the desk connecting seemingly disparate lives is at least a little cheesy, and as old-fashioned—even Dickensian—as it is up to the minute. The novel’s power, however, depends not on its concept but on the intensity of the monologues spoken by those connected to the desk, as the plot moves back and forth from New York to London, Oxford, and Jerusalem.

Great House is the third of Krauss’s novels, all smart and moving, and all willing to experiment with narrative form and genre. All three are concerned with the psychological defenses humans construct to deal with unbearable loss. In her first, Man Walks into a Room, a man who has lost significant parts of his memory cannot reconnect with his wife; its style is taut, spare, and melancholy, reminiscent of Camus’s The Stranger. Her second, The History of Love, is narrated in part by a Holocaust survivor who has lost his entire world, including his own novel in manuscript, but who will ultimately connect to a young girl who has lost her father to an early death. (That concept, too, sounds maudlin in summary, but in execution it is frequently gripping.) The second novel is far more wide-ranging than the first, and dryly, absurdly humorous. Like Great House, it involves an elaborate construction of multiple narratives.

Krauss brings something original to the post-Holocaust literary ground for which other literary popularizers, including Michael Chabon, Art Spiegelman, and Jonathan Safran Foer (her husband), have created strikingly original forms. Her cerebral concerns are a fine complement to her intricate narrative puzzles. Great House is filled with metafictional conceits and delicious literary allusions (to the great Chilean antipoet Nicanor Parra, and to Lorca and Camus, for example). Krauss’s interest in the lasting effects of the Holocaust extends to other horrors perpetrated on other victims—hence her foray into Pinochet’s Chile––and to the grief of missed connections between survivors: father and son, husband and wife, grieving mother and child given up for adoption.

Despite my cranky reservations about its concept, this is Krauss’s best novel to date. It is utterly compelling in its willingness to explore sorrow, alienation, and grief. All her narrators reveal the depths of their spiritual isolation, and we readers come to see why a single piece of furniture (“an enormous, foreboding thing”) consumes their imaginations. As the novel draws to a close, Krauss draws the narrative threads connecting the desk’s owners tighter, but recognizes, too, the artifice and even the futility of solving every narrative mystery too neatly. Though the answer to a plot puzzle is written on a piece of folded paper, that paper is thrown into a fire, the identity of the mystery character never to be learned by the reader.

 The antiques dealer Weisz tells us that his customers, finally recovering their loved ones’ lost possessions, invariably display “disappointment, then the relief of something at last sinking away.” Weisz tells us, too, that the school founded by that first-century rabbi ben Zakkai to replace the burnt temple came to be known as the Great House, and the laws its scholars debated became the Talmud. “Now every Jewish soul,” his father once told him, “is built around the house that burned in that fire.” Krauss’s novel, too, is built around loss; it too burns hot and bright.

Published in the 2011-01-28 issue: 
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Valerie Sayers is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and the author of six novels, including The Powers.

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