Charlotte Moore

Desk-bound, needing to get out more

Great House is an ambitious novel, if it’s a novel at all.

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Great House

Nicole Krauss

Penguin/Viking, pp. 289, £

Great House is an ambitious novel, if it’s a novel at all.

Great House is an ambitious novel, if it’s a novel at all. It’s an exploration of regret, longing, loss, and of how Jews attempt to cope with the destruction that characterises their history. The title refers to the Book of Kings: ‘All the houses of Jerusalem, even every great house, he burned with fire’. If, as one of Krauss’ spokesmen puts it, ‘every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one’, would the Great House be built again?

The book divides into two sets of linked sections, the halves mirroring each other like parallel series of drawers in a desk. The action (and inaction) does, indeed, organise itself round a desk; an enormous complicated, dominating desk, passed from one character to another. Who, if anyone, truly owns the desk? And what is the secret of the one locked drawer?

There are four narrators, two female, two male. They are all Jewish, all connected with writing, and all, frankly, need to get out more. They inhabit different continents, different periods of time, but further connections emerge, very slowly. First is Nadia, a middle-aged New Yorker; she has written seven novels at the desk, entrusted to her by a murdered Chilean poet, but has done little else with her life. The putative owner of the desk turns up to claim it; will Nadia be able to write without it?

Next, an ageing Israeli widower, the most potent and convincing of the voices, rails against his failure to communicate with his estranged son.

Third is Arthur Bender, a gentle British academic; daily he accompanies his writer wife Lotte to the swimming holes on Hampstead Heath where she enacts a ritual of disappearance and re-emergence. As she slips into the shadows of dementia — there’s a touch of the Iris Murdoch story here — he becomes obsessed with probing the mystery of her war-damaged past. Unfortunately, the chief mystery for this reader is why Lotte continues to enchant him, since she seems thoroughly disagreeable.

The fourth narrative belongs to Izzy, a feeble young woman, another writer- academic, in thrall to a weird sibling pair, Yoav and Leah, who have an emotionally incestuous bond.

The intertwined lives of all four narrators reveal themselves in loops and coils round the monstrous or marvellous desk. At the end, a fifth voice comes in, that of an antiques dealer, father of the strange siblings, who seems to hold the answer to the desk’s strange power. This new voice disrupts the structural balance, as the 19th, locked, drawer disrupts the symmetry of the desk.

Krauss delights in subverting the rules of storytelling. Interested in the blurred boundaries between dreams, imagination and memory, she pulls down fences to force her readers to change direction. Mysteries remain unsolved. Quests fizzle out. Characters advance and retreat for no obvious reasons. Episodes pregnant with meaning remain undelivered of their burden. There’s a glimpse of a flaxen-haired child, for example; elfin, faintly androgynous, roaming a castle by night. This passage has a fairytale beauty, but unless I’m missing something (quite possible, as by this stage I was developing will-to-live issues), there’s nothing except a few vague thematic threads to link this child to any of the main narratives.

The result is a miry book, lit up by flashes of brilliance, of poetry, even of revelation. I don’t entirely blame Krauss for the mire; she was busy writing the great novel, and she got a bit carried away. But where was her editor? Long, long sentences; repetitive incidents; no speech marks; endless recounting of dreams; ruthless excision of humour ... reading Great House felt like walking through muddy fields on a lightless January day. At times only the thought of The Spectator’s modest fee kept me plodding through the sludge.

And then, I’d be startled and delighted by a sudden vista, a break in the clouds. At her best Krauss describes emotions precisely, perfectly; the delusion of a 50-year-old woman who believes a young man desires her, the raw intensity of the bereaved Israeli, the rationally irrational jealousy of academic Arthur. Her sense of place is strong; the instability that permeates all the houses her characters inhabit, as if these structures can barely keep out the elements, powerfully underlines the frailty of the lives led within them. If only she could have cleared away the portentous obfuscation, this could have been a marvellous book.