Monday, June 13, 2011

Great House by Nicole Krauss 2010 (fiction)

"Great House is a smart, serious, sharply written novel of great care and yearning." from a review by Patrick Ness in The Guardian 2/19/2011

Nicole Krauss’s latest novel is a profoundly Jewish book. One way to interpret Krauss’s Great House is to see it as a novel whose subject is how history, but most specifically Jewish history, shaped the lives of her characters.  This is not an easy novel. Krauss constructs four distinct but interconnected stories. Each story is divided into two chapters, but the two chapters of each story are not placed side by side. She adds to the reader’s difficulty in following each strand by introducing characters with similar names. One of her narrators is named Arthur; another narrator is named Aaron. There’s an important character named Lotte in one strand and another named Leah in a separate strand. There is a Dov and a Daniel in two different strands.  But these confusions serve a purpose: They help blur the distinctions of plot and character and force us to ask the question: Why did she make these choices?

By making it difficult to keep track of various characters and plots we’re more likely to see them less as distinct individuals, but more as just slight permutations - threads in the strands that make up the tapestry of a traumatizing Jewish history. They all live “now” but their stories range over time and they all have been formed and scarred by historical events, most especially events of Jewish history. The narrator of one of the threads talks about his growing up in Budapest and being routed out by the Nazis in 1944. His father died on a death march. Another character in a different strand tries to puzzle out his wife’s behavior in light of her having been born in Nurenberg and of her having been part of the kindertransport to England. She never saw her parents again. In a third story that takes place in Israel the narrator’s sons go off to fight in Israel’s Yom Kippur war. In another, the narrator tells us about her involvement with a Chilean Jewish poet who went back to Chile and died under Pinochet’s regime fighting the dictatorship.

Characters are haunted by the past. Ghosts appear in dreams and float into everyday life. Krauss's narrators make allusions to people and events in Jewish history that stretch all the way back to Biblical history and forward into recent Israeli history. For example, there are mentions of Molech, Bar Kochba, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Moshe Dayan. Readers who are interested in an exploration through the medium of fiction of the psychic burden that a history of loss has exacted and continues to exact on the Jewish people are urged to read Nicole Krauss’s Great House.

To read an interview with Nicole Krauss discussing Great House, click here.

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