Saturday, 18 January 2014

Book of the Month: Great House (Nicole Krauss)

Nicole Krauss announced herself as a writer to watch out for with her second novel, The History of Love. The History of Love was published in 2005 to great critical acclaim and was a world-wide bestseller.  It won Krauss many fans (I count myself as one of them). It was a very clever novel characterized, amongst other things, by its plot-structure. To call the plot of The History of Love puzzling would be an understatement. Trying to solve the riddle of the plot is a rewarding exercise in itself as you read the novel; and Krauss brought all the seemingly disparate strands of the novel very neatly towards its climax. The History of Love was a graceful, fresh novel of great poignancy.

Six years after the success of The History of Love Krauss published Great House in which Krauss attempts another tale of mystery and suspense, but not with the same success as she did in The History of Love.

Like The History of Love, Great House is built around multiple narratives at the centre of which is an old desk.

The novel opens with Nadia who is a moderately successful American writer of Roman a Clefs. Nadia has written most of her novels at a massive desk that was given her years ago by a Chilean poet Daniel Varsky. Varsky’s anme was suggested to Nadia by a common friend who knew that Nadia, recently split from her partner, was looking for furniture. Nadia and Daniel meet only once before Varsky goes back to Chile where, two years later he disappears, assumed to have been tortured and killed by the secret service of the then Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. In the present, more than two decades after Varsky’s disappearance, Nadia is contacted by a young woman who calls herself Leah Varsky. Leah tells Nadia that she is the daughter of Varsky; apparently Varsky had a brief affair with Leah’s mother—who now lives in Israel—before he went back to Chile and disappeared. Leah wants to know whether Nadia still ahs Varsky’s desk with her. Without making any further inquiries about this supposed daughter of Varsky Nadia allows Leah to collect the humongous desk which has been in her apartment for several years; however, afterwards she is assailed by doubts soon after and decides to travel to Israel to make further investigations. Nadia’s narrative is addressed to someone whom she refers to as ‘Your Honour’.

Next the reader is hurtled into a long monologue—bristling with barely concealed fury—of a retired Jewish lawyer named Aaron who has recently become a widower.  Aaron has two sons—Uri and Dovik. His relationship with his younger son, Dovik, is troubled. Dovik has returned from London, where he had lived for several years and was a judge, to Israel to attend his mother’s funeral. He has informed his father—with whom he has, for years, involved in entrenched combat—that he has resigned his position in London and now wishes to live for the foreseeable future with him. The link of Aaron and Dovik to the novel’s plot does not become clear until the end.

The third narrator in the Great House is another widower named Arthur Bender. Bender has been married for decades to a survivor of the Holocaust named Lotte Berg, who, like Nadia, from the first narrative segment, is a writer, albeit of literary short stories. Originally from Nuremberg, Lotte lost her family in the Holocaust and managed to escape the camp just in time to arrive in England.  Lotet and Arthus are childless and Lotte, who was almost 30 when she first met Arthur, rarely talked about her past. The only possession of any significance Lotte has when Arthur first meets her is a huge, slightly menacing desk. The desk travels with Lotte wherever she goes and she too has written her stories at it, until, in 1972, she is visited by a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky who announces himself as a fan of her work. Lotte gives the desk as a present to Daniel.  As Arthus Bender’s narrative continues the reader learns that Lotte has died of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the final phase of her illness Lotte has said something that has made Arthus question the foundation of their marriage. Lotte had a son before she met Arthur, whom she gave away for adoption. The son would have been the same age as that of Daniel Varsky who met Lotte in the 1970s. Arthur is obsessed with this son of his wife whom he never met; he wants to find out more about him.

Next ‘I’ in the narrative stream in Izzy or Isabel, an American student studying at Oxford in the 1990s, who meets Yoav and Leah Weisz. The brother and sister have led a peripatetic existence as they are hauled from city to city, across continents by their widower father, George. Yoav and Leah were born and raised in Israel where their father still lives in a family house. Izzy falls in love with Yoav but soon figures out that the siblings have an uneasy, almost oppressive relationship with their father who is in the habit of descending upon them at short notices. George is an Antique dealer. His speciality is tracking down properties confiscated from Jews by the Nazis before and during the Holocaust. George is an Hungarian Jew and, after his family perished in the Holocaust, has made his way to Israel at the end of the Second World War. George’s family home in Budapest used to have a study which had a desk at which his father used to write. It has been George’s life-long mission to create the study of his Budapest home in his Jerusalem home by tracing down all the objects from that study.

The plotting of Great House is fractured. As the reader goes from one segment of the story, a novella in itself, to the next, a kind of suspense builds up. You are eager to find out how the different strands of the narrative would connect; you want to know whether the different narrators of the story are connected with one another—and with the desk—in a meaningful way. Alas! That never happens. Too many strands are left unexplained. The desk Lotte Berg gives to Daniel Varsky ends up with Nadia, who gives it to Leah Weisz who poses as Daniel’s daughter at the behest of her father who is tracking down a desk belonging to his father. Why does he send his daughter to Nadia to obtain the desk which he ought to know—if he is as good an antique hunter as he goes around telling people—cannot be his. The relationship of Aaron the Israeli lawyer and his son Dovik to the main plot is so superficial—almost incidental— that you wonder whether it was really necessary to devote so many pages to that strand. Daniel Varsky, the Chilean poet, is central to at least two narrative segments—Nadia’s and Arthur Bender’s. His entry into the lives of Arthur and Lotte is so contrived, it lacks credibility. As to why Lotte decides to give Daniel, whom she has never met until then—he is indeed a fan of her stories and has travelled to London to meet her— her huge desk, the only memento of her vanished family, is left unexplained. The trail of her adopted away son—he is not Daniel Varsky and is adopted by a couple in Liverpool—is another loose, unnecessary, and irrelevant strand.

The prose style of Great House is heavy, ponderous, melancholy, and, with the exception of Aaron’s narrative, monotonous. All the narrators—even the scouser who adopted Lotte Berg’s son and has probably not travelled beyond a five-mile radius of Anfield—speak with the same measured tone and make profound observations on the human condition. And they all sound the same, as if they are all on the psychiatrist’s couch. It is as if Krauss is unable to change gear when writing for characters removed for one another by upbringing, continents, and generations. (A novel that comes to my mind is David Mitchell’s superlative Cloud Atlas, which, like Great House, has different narrative voices. To me, it is a sign of Mitchell’s great talent as a writer that he takes on and sheds different prose styles when writing different sections of that novel. ) It is exquisite writing, mind, but even as you read page after page of brilliantly constructed sentences, it does not somehow ring echt; the experience wearies you; and the writing does not touch your heart.

Great House is a novel of ideas. It is a meditation on loss, grief, and the soul crushing burden of memories. But it is an elusive novel. Reading Great House is akin to listening to someone who is ever so slightly out of focus and tells you about almost everything, leaving out the vital pieces of information, which leaves you with a sense of partialness.