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Nicole Krauss's 'Great House' Reviewed

Posted: 10/04/10 09:10 AM ET

One summer I was taken under wing by Al Alvarez, author of the suicide classic "The Savage God." We swam together from time to time in the Mixed Pond at Hampstead Heath. Al had briefly and disastrously married into the family of Frieda Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence's wife. I was writing a book about Frieda and had come to Al for background material. I would ride my bike up Regent's Canal to his house. The contrast between the beauty of the house and my own circumstances that summer -- the public-housing flat I was using had an outdoor concrete staircase that reeked of urine -- made me feel like an impostor. But Al was brisk and self-deprecating. His efforts masked a tender regard I hadn't done anything to deserve. Without hesitation or even very many questions, he handed me, the first time we met, a sheaf of irreplaceable documents -- certain sections of my book fairly wrote themselves after this. And then we walked up a hill to the Heath. I remember the light hitting the black-looking water. The place always put me in a heightened state of consciousness.

As evocative as the ponds are -- there are three of them -- they have curiously not been mined by novelists. Enter "Great House," Nicole Krauss's complex, richly imagined, and highly anticipated new novel. Krauss, author of "The History of Love" and "Man Walks into a Room," and one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40," has created not one but two writers in "Great House," and both are devastating portraits. Lotte Berg, a former Kindertransport chaperone, almost catatonic in her remove from the world but with a "lacquered friendliness" that she can turn on and off, never changes her morning ritual at the pond. Yet as unvarying as her days are, she is unknowable, even to her husband, Arthur Bender. Long ago she withheld from him a significant chapter of her life; he will unravel it in these pages. Arthur, a self-castigating academic, is one of the book's four narrators, and provides occasion for the mordant humor Krauss excels at but rarely deploys:

"Once or twice a year I attended the English Romantic conferences held throughout Europe, brief gatherings perhaps not dissimilar in feeling for the participants to the feeling Jews have when they get off the plane in Israel: the relief of at last being surrounded on all sides by your own kind -- the relief and the horror."

Shortly after we meet her, Lotte acquires a desk whose shifting ownership by several of the book's characters is "Great House's" organizing principle and central trope. (The other writer, Nadia, also possesses it for some years, and it's her undoing.) Whether this trope works organically to advance the plot or becomes an authorial albatross is beside the point; as in Kafka, whose sentences Krauss's bear an intentional stylistic resemblance to, or such neo-realistic films as Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, "Great House" builds more toward developing a theme than a plot. Among contemporary novelists, Krauss does not share, for instance, Jonathan Franzen's preoccupation with an accretion of detail in the service of social commentary; if anything, she is the antithesis of Franzen. In surges of mesmerizing sentences that are so complicated, clever, artful, and logically challenging that they read almost like aphorisms, Krauss aims to explicate, not the underlying implications of her characters' behavior, but the very cycles of history. Rivers of memory surge and overflow as each narrator, given two chapters apiece, pours out half-remembered dreams ("all I could remember was finding Weisz" -- another narrator -- "hanging upside down in the pantry like a bat"), snatches of Chilean politics, and references to Thomas Bernhard, Pessoa, and the Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski that don't feel superfluous. Beautifully engineered hyperlink-like narrative coincidences take the reader from London's present-day dwindling hedgehog population to the seventh-century lyric poet Archilochus -- "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing, as Archilochus said, but what was it?" -- by way of, one likes to imagine in this instance, Isaiah Berlin's essay on Tolstoy's view of history. As Arthur observes, "We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it's there, in that fissure, that we pitch our tents and wait." With "Great House," Krauss pitches her tent squarely in the region of history's fissures.

It's a daunting undertaking, one that not every writer under 40 would choose or can do justice to, but Krauss's talent runs deep. And she cannot write a bad sentence: pound for pound, the sentences alone deliver epiphany upon epiphany: "Bend a people around the shape of what they have lost, and let everything mirror its absent form," Weisz says. A Hungarian Israeli antiques dealer, he has spent his life going after furniture plundered by the Nazis. Finding the desk -- it was also his father's -- will afford him the grim satisfaction of a "fitting end": suicide. He is the least likable of Krauss's narrators, none of whom would win a popularity contest, though his character delivers many of the novel's key conclusions. The great house of the title, not revealed until the book's final pages (by Weisz), is a capacious metaphor; it is the name of the school founded by the first-century sage Jochanan ben Zakkai, who was driven out of Jerusalem when the Romans torched the city ("and they burned even every great house" -- 2 Kings 25:9).

As Krauss has said elsewhere, for fiction to work it must "remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant . . . deliver a revelation." My own was personal, brought about by Krauss's evocation of place and of -- through the offices of memory -- Al Alvarez. Like some secular, modern-day ben Zakkai, Al carries his school on his back; people have been coming to sit at his feet since the 1960s, when Sylvia Plath read her poems to him on the floor of his rental flat in the years just before her suicide -- a seminal give-and-take described in "The Savage God." For Plath memory was, as it is here for Krauss, not a balm but an incendiary fluid. And as Krauss suggests, it's through such agency that teaching and learning occur in heightened form even as resistance, loss, regret, and sorrow would seem most capable of blocking them.