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TBTS Reviews: Great House

May 4, 2011

Sometimes, great books find you, rather than the other way round.

One of my friends at my bookstore approached me with a galley copy of Great House and ordered – ordered – me to read it. It was something of a random encounter. It came with little preamble. She skipped the usual exchange of pleasantries to jump straight to the presentation and command, left me fumbling for a response besides simply “okay”. I was left stunned and nonplussed with an unfamiliar book in my hands. I had heard of its author, seen The History of Love on our Essential Fiction table practically every day, had looked at it with mild interest but never opened it. I didn’t know anything about Nicole Krauss, but I turned the book over, looked at the author’s photo, the line of bold text above it: “A powerful, soaring novel about a stolen desk that contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through.” I felt somewhat perplexed at the idea of a desk being the axis around which a whole novel turns, but I was intrigued and vowed to give it a shot.

It took several tries to get through. I don’t mean this as any kind of statement on its quality, because it is excellent throughout, full of the kind of prose that makes aspiring writers kick themselves and consider going back to their day jobs:

In the publicity interviews I gave I emphasized that the book was fiction and professed my frustration with journalists and readers alike who inisisted on reading novels as autobiographies of their writers, as if there were no such thing as the writer’s imagination, as if the writer’s work lay only in dutiful chronicling and not fierce invention. I championed the writer’s freedom – to exercise the imagination, to alter and amend, to collapse and expand, to ascribe meaning, to design, to perform, to affect, to choose a life, to experiment, and on and on – and quoted from Henry James on the “immense increase” of freedom, a revelation, as he calls it, that anyone who has made a serious artistic attempt cannot help but become conscious of. Yes, with the novel based on my father if not flying then at least migrating off the shelves in bookstores across the country, I celebrated the writer’s unparalleled freedom, freedom from responsibility to anything and anyone but her own instincts and vision. Perhaps I did not exactly say but certainly implied that the writer served a higher calling, what one calls only in art and religion a vocation, and cannot worry too much about the feelings of those whose lives she borrows from.

Yes, I believed – perhaps even still believe – that the writer should not be cramped by the consequences of her work. She has no responsibility to earthly accuracy or verisimilitude, she is not an accountant, nor is she required to be something as ridiculous and misguided as a moral compass. In her work the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.

Instead I mean the book possesses a cool and unapproachable grandeur, like a person of striking looks and great poise. At once it impresses you with its craft and keeps your understanding out of reach. Krauss spells nothing out for the reader, but challenges you to put four disparate narratives, scattered over space and time, into one whole, to find for yourself how they fit together. The story turns from a writer in the waning years of her career to an old man in Israel to a man in England who has realized his wife has kept a great secret from him all her life to a young woman pursuing a young man whose life is held captive by his father’s obsession, and the author seems to trust – or perhaps defy – the reader to put it all together into a coherent, and in the end magnificent, whole. It is a book which demands your full attention. It’s no beach read – unless perhaps your beach is a rocky outpost in the Outer Hebrides or an icebound slab off the north coast of Canada – but a dark winter book, a rainy-day, send-the-kids-away kind of book for when you want something to challenge you and reward you accordingly.

The above-quoted line from the back of the galley is, naturally, woefully inadequate to describe Great House. I can’t blame the publisher for not being able to capture what this book is about in a single line. It’s about mankind’s losing struggle to create something permanent and lasting. It’s about loyalty, to people, to ideas, to identity. Its scope reveals itself to be far more sweeping and ambitious than initially meets the eye, and this, ultimately, is why I took so long in so many tries to finish it: I kept stepping back to reconsider what I’d read, realizing I was standing too close to see it all. I read and reread it, in whole and in parts, considering it in close detail while trying to get a sense of the whole. It’s a marvel, a real masterpiece. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and in my opinion deserved to win. Come inside this house and see for yourself why.

Great House is available in hardcover, $24.95, from W.W. Norton.

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