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Nicole Krauss On Writing 'Great House'

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There is something strange that happens at some point between when one turns a novel in to the copyeditor for the last time and the day it's finally published. The book, which for so long was something elastic, shifting to accommodate each new thought, every nuance in the writer's mood, begins to harden. One discovers that the chair that yesterday could be dragged across the room is now nailed to the floor. The novel begins to close itself to the writer who built it out of her private concerns and instincts. She who knows its measurements exactly, who invented its inner workings, begins little by little to forget how it was made. The more the novel becomes a solid thing in the world, the less access the writer has to the accidents, reversals, inventions, rejected ideas, passing weather, sudden triangulations, and unshakable intuitions that led to those words, and only those, standing there on the page with an authoritative air about them, as if they were always bound to be. The writer who locked the door not long ago loses the key.

So I thought I would try to record, before they slip away, how certain elements of my novel Great House came to be. Where they arrived from, and the unexpected transformations they underwent as they became underground forces in the writing. The novel is told in four voices, but the stories they each tell, how they fit together in the book, and the larger story they sum to--I won't say much about all of here; I'll leave that to the novel itself. Instead I'm going to tell you about a desk, a shark, a swimming hole, and a room that ceases to exist in one city, only to be reassembled many years later in another.

The Desk

A year after my first son was born, I started to write again. It had been a long time since I'd written anything, and what eventually emerged was a short story about a writer in New York who, in the early Seventies, inherits some furniture from a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky. Varsky returns to Santiago, and not long afterward is kidnapped by Pinochet's secret police and never heard from again. I'd been interested in Chile for some time, first as an almost imaginary place at the end of the world--which is how it appeared in my last novel, The History of Love--and then as a real place where thousands of people were disappeared, often tortured before they were murdered. I became consumed with what happened to these people. I read every book on the subject, saw every documentary, and made it difficult for myself to sleep at night. I suppose I sensed, in some way, that the nature of my horror, and the need to see it through to the extreme, had to do with a bottomless fear that I felt for the first time when I became a mother: the fear for my child's life, and the sense of being helpless to protect him against so much.

But the short story I wrote didn't become about motherhood, not directly, or Chile, or Pinochet, or even the disappeared about whom I'd read so much. Instead it became about that young American writer, who later becomes a published novelist, and who for the next twenty-seven years writes at the desk of her friend, the dead poet Daniel Varsky. It became a story about a desk. A story about a desk, and, I suppose, the burdens of inheritance, something else I found myself thinking a lot about as a new parent.

The story was published, and about half a year later it was collected in an anthology. The editors asked for a paragraph about how the story came to be. I sat in my study at home, trying to think about what to write. And as I thought, I looked up, naturally, at my desk. I say up because--and here what began, in that moment, to dawn on me will be already obvious to you--the desk I write on at home is a rather monstrous thing with a vertical wall of drawers that rises up from the desktop, just like in the story. In fact--and I'm aware that this is going to make me sound oblivious--the resemblance between the desk I'd spent a story writing about, and my desk, the one at which I wrote the story, hadn't occurred to me. It was what I've come to think of as a blind spot, a kind of trick the writing mind plays on itself in order to preserve its freedom, to invent things unhampered by reality, to go places it might otherwise not have the courage to go. Here is the paragraph I ultimately wrote for the anthology, explaining the origin of the story:

I inherited the desk I write at from the prior owner of my house, who had it designed to his esoteric specifications. It is a monumental piece of furniture, far bulkier than any I would have chosen for myself; I use it mostly because I have no idea how to dismantle it and get it down the stairs, and because I don't think anyone else would want it, which seems to me sad as well as a waste. Before moving out, the prior owner had a handyman dislodge a long rectangular painted panel that had been set into the shelves, and which must have been valuable to him. It left a gaping hole in the woodwork, centered above my head, that I have never known how to resolve or fix. It is an ugly hole, and at first it seemed necessary to do something about it, but with time I have come to reconcile myself with it, or at least with the idea that the hole and the desk are part of a burden.

But the story, quite literally doesn't end there. A little more than a year after I published it, unable to stop thinking about that writer and her inherited desk, I returned to the story again. What would happen, I wondered, if that desk she has written at for twenty-seven years were taken away from her? That story became the beginning of a novel whose many parts are connected, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, by the movements of that enormous desk.

Here is Nadia, the writer who inherited the desk from Daniel Varsky, describing it much later in the novel (The sections in her voice, by the way, are addressed to a judge):

I remember all those years ago how I almost balked when the movers brought Daniel Varsky's desk through the door. It was so much larger than I remembered, as if it had grown or multiplied (had there been so many drawers?) since I'd seen it two weeks earlier in his apartment. I didn't think it would fit but somehow it did, and then I didn't want the movers to leave because I was afraid, Your Honor, of being left alone with the shadow it cast across the room. It was as if my apartment were suddenly plunged into silence, or as if the quality of the silence had changed, like the silence of an empty stage versus the silence of a stage on which someone has placed a single, gleaming instrument. I was overwhelmed and wanted to cry. How could I be expected to write at such a desk? The desk of a great mind, as S said the first time I brought him back to my place years later, possibly the desk of Lorca for God's sake? If it fell it might crush a person to death. If my apartment had felt small before, now it seemed tiny. But while I sat cowering beneath it I remembered, for some reason, a film I'd once seen about the Germans after the War, how they starved and were forced to chop down all the forests for firewood so that they wouldn't freeze, and when there were no trees left they turned their axes on the furniture--beds, tables and armoires, family heirlooms, nothing was saved--yes, suddenly they rose up before me wrapped in coats like dirty bandages, hacking away at the legs of tables and the arms of chairs, a little hungry fire already crackling at their feet, and I felt the tickle of a laugh in my belly: imagine what they'd have done with such a desk. They'd have swooped down on it like vultures on the carcass of a lion--enough wood for days--and now I actually chortled out loud, biting my nails and practically grinning at that poor, overgrown desk that had so narrowly escaped becoming ash, had risen to the heights of Lorca, or at the very least of Daniel Varsky, and now had been abandoned to the likes of me. I ran my fingers along the nicked surface and reached up to caress the knobs of its many drawers as it stooped under the ceiling, because now I began to see it in a different light, the shadow it cast was almost inviting, Come, it seemed to say, like a clumsy giant who reaches out its paw and the little mouse jumps up into it and away they go together, over hills and plains, through forests and vales. I dragged a chair across the floor (I still remember the sound it made, a long scrape that gouged the silence), and was surprised to discover how small it appeared next to the desk, like the chair of a child, surely it would break if I tried to sit in it, but no, it was just right. I placed my hands on the desk, first one hand and then the other, while the silence seemed to strain against the windows and doors. I lifted my eyes up and I felt it, Your Honor, that secret quiver of joy, and either then, or soon enough, the immutable fact of that desk, the first thing I saw each morning when I opened my eyes, renewed my sense that a potential in me had been acknowledged, a special quality that set me apart and to which I was beholden.

The Shark Hospital

If I was blind to the origin of the fictional desk when I wrote the story, for a long time I was also blind to the critical role that desk was beginning to play in the slowly emerging novel. I've never written my books with any sort of plan or blueprint in mind, preferring to pursue accidents and intuitions. The eventual structure always rises out of the words and narratives as they unfold, and for much of the writing I am lost and uncertain, with only a mood and enduring preoccupations to guide me. The more experienced a writer I become, the more I've come to depend on this uncertainty, the deeper I've dropped myself in the woods each time, the farther apart I've plotted the starting points of paths that will eventually have to converge, or at the very least sum to something. This time I began to write in the voices of four characters with very different lives, happening far from each other in space and sometimes time. I had no sense of why they should live together under the same roof; even if they should live together at all. You've heard from one-- the writer, Nadia, who is forced to give up her desk after twenty seven years. As I was expanding her story, I also began to write in a number of other voices, one of which was an elderly Israeli father addressing his estranged son.

Around this time I went to visit my friend, a painter, at her studio. My friend has one of the most bizarre and spontaneous imaginations I've ever encountered, and I always like hearing her talk about her ideas. On this day, among the various unfinished canvasses, there was one showing people lying around in a large hall, some on cots on some on the floor. The painting already had a title, "How We Cured the Plague," and standing on a ladder, my friend began to describe how she thought she might paint a huge shark lying across the foreground, to which one of these patients might be attached, somehow, via tubes.

After that we talked of other things, and then I said goodbye to my friend and went home. But the still unpainted image of that terrible shark stayed with me. I knew, without knowing why or how, that something of the novel I wanted to write was embodied in that shark, or rather in the relationship between the shark and the person, or perhaps people, who would be receiving something from it, or maybe even channeling something to it, through those tubes and wires. So I began to write what I thought would be an entire novel about a shark and some dreaming people attached to it, until after many pages of what turned out to be the wrong direction, the story began to sink, deeper and deeper, becoming smaller and smaller, until it became entirely submerged in other stories that rose up around it. In the end, it became simply a book that one of the characters--the estranged son of that Israeli father--writes as a very young man, before he leaves writing behind and becomes a lawyer and then, later, a judge. Here is the father, Aaron, remembering the book, as he addresses his now grown, and very estranged, son:

I don't support the plan, I told you. Why? you demanded, with little angry eyes. What will you write? I asked. You told me a convoluted story about four, six, maybe eight people all lying in rooms joined by a system of electrodes and wires to a great white shark. All night the shark floats suspended in an illuminated tank, dreaming the dreams of these people. No, not the dreams, the nightmares, the things too difficult to bear. So they sleep, and through the wires the terrifying things leave them and flood into the awesome fish with scarred skin that can bear all the accumulated misery. After you finished I let a sufficient amount of silence pass before I spoke. Who are these people? I asked. People, you said. I ate a handful of nuts, watching your face. I don't know where to begin on the problems with this little story, I told you. Problems? you said, your voice rising and cracking. In the wells of your eyes your mother saw the suffering of a child raised by a tyrant, but in the end the fact that you never became a writer had nothing to do with me.

And here is that father again, later in the novel, describing how he came to secretly read the pages his son wrote:

All throughout your army service, before what happened to you, you used to send packages home addressed to yourself. Your mother passed on your instructions that these packages were not to be touched except to be placed in a drawer of your desk. You lavished no end of tape on them, so that you would know if anyone tampered with them. Well, guess what? I did. I opened them up, and read the contents, and then I closed them back up exactly as you had, with more tape, and if you ever asked I would have told you it was the army censors who were to blame. But you never asked. As far as I could tell, you never again looked at what you had written. Sometimes I even convinced myself that you knew I broke open the packages and read what you wrote; that you meant for me to read it. And so, at my leisure, when your mother was out and the house was empty, I steamed open the envelopes and read about the shark, and the interconnected nightmares of many. About the janitor who cleaned the tank every night, wiping the glass and checking the tubes and the pump that sent fresh water in--who would pause in his work to check on the feverish, shivering bodies asleep in their beds, who would lean on his mop and stare into the eyes of the tormented white beast covered in electrodes, attached to tubes, who every day grew sicker and sicker from absorbing the pain of so many.

So the story of the shark who becomes a repository for human sadness was reduced to a reoccurring but very slight strand in the narrative, and yet it became a strong underground current directing the novel, a way for me to think about the book as a whole, these different voices, confessions, or dreams, that are all being channeled toward some unified point: a great beast floating in an illuminated tank. Later on in the writing, it also dawned on me that the shark was yet another metaphor for the burden of inheritance, of how children absorb into their being the dreams and sadnesses of their parents.

Rooms

At the same time that these other preoccupations--Chile, the desk, the shark, parents and children--were taking on their fictional shapes, I found myself thinking a lot about the studio of the painter Francis Bacon. Bacon painted out of the same room in London for thirty-one years, and his studio was an overwhelmingly chaotic accumulation of slashed canvasses, brushes, rags encrusted with paint, crumpled and torn pages of magazines, notes, trampled sketches, all left to lie wherever they had fallen over the course of three decades, so that the studio itself became, if not itself a work of art, then a violent statement about what it is-- what it was to Bacon--to create. Some years after he died in 1992, it was broken down into tens of thousands of parts, packed into boxes, and fastidiously reassembled whole again, down to the last spatter of pain, in a museum in Dublin. There is a feeling I sometimes get--this must be the case for all writers--when something I come across seems, for reasons I can't explain, to scratch, in a pleasing way, an until then unreachable itch. The idea of this very complex room dismantled in one place and reassembled with exquisite care in another scratched such an itch for me. From Bacon's studio, I found my mind wandering to another such reassembled room, Freud's study in London, where I myself had spent a fair bit of time. When Freud left Vienna in 1938, fleeing the Gestapo, almost all of his belongings were crated up and shipped to the new house in London, where his wife and daughter lovingly reassembled, down to the last possible detail, the study he'd been forced to abandon at 19 Berggasse. Maybe all exiles try to recreate the place they've lost out of their fear of dying in a strange place. And yet when I was a living in London, and spent quite a lot of time in Freud's study, comforted by the hominess of the place and the sight of his many figurines and statuettes, I was often struck by the irony that Freud, who shed more light than anyone onto the crippling burden of memory, had been unable to resist its mythic spell any better than the rest of us. After he died in 1939, his daughter Anna Freud preserved the room exactly as her father left it, down to the glasses he removed from the bridge of his nose and laid on the desk for the last time. From twelve to five, Wednesday through Sunday, you can visit the room stalled forever at the moment the man who gave us some of our most enduring ideas of what it is to be a person ceased to be.

So now I was thinking about two transplanted rooms--although it's only in retrospect that the thoughts seem to possess a coherent architecture--and I began to consider how, in both cases, it wasn't only the objects in each room that possessed such powerful talismanic significance--to Bacon and to Freud, and later to us--but their precise placement and order in the rooms, an order that others would later obsessively, meticulously reassemble and almost religiously preserve. I found myself wanting to invent a room like that for myself, one that I could examine and experiment with. Soon I was imagining a man, a Hungarian antiques dealer named Weisz, who lives in a stone house in Jerusalem where he reassembles, piece by painstaking piece, the lost study of his father, plundered by the Nazis from Budapest in 1944. For fifty years he labors to recreate the study down to the millimeter--down to the velvet of the heavy drapes, the pencils in the ivory tray. As if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time. The only thing missing is his father's desk--where it should have stood, there was a gaping hole. Without it, the study remained incomplete, a poor replica.

Here is Weisz, who took on a crucial role in the novel, talking about his business:

I find it difficult to describe my work to others. I'm not in the habit of talking about myself. My business has always been to listen. People come to me. At first they don't say much, but slowly it comes out. They look out the window, at their feet, at some point behind me in the room. They don't meet my eyes. Because if they were to remember that I was there, they might not be able to say the words. They begin to talk and I go with them back to their childhoods, before the War. Between their words I see the way the light fell across the wooden floor. The way he lined his soldiers up under the hem of the curtain. How she laid out the little toy teacups. Their childhoods, because it is only the ones who were children who come to me now. The others have died. When I first started my business, he said, it was mostly lovers. Or husbands who had lost their wives, wives who has lost their husbands. Even parents. Though very few--most would have found my services unbearable. The ones that came hardly spoke at all, only enough to describe a little child's bed or the chest where he kept his toys. Like a doctor, I listen without saying a word. But there's one difference: when all of the talking is through, I produce a solution. It's true, I can't bring the dead back to life. But I can bring back the chair they once sat in, the bed where they slept.

There is an amazement that comes over each one, when at last I produce the object they have been dreaming of for half a lifetime, that they have invested with the weight of their longing. It's like a shock to their system. They've bent their memories around a void, and now the missing thing has appeared. I admit that there were times when it was impossible to find the exact table, chest, or chair that my clients were seeking. The trail reached a dead end. Or never began at all. Things don't last forever. The bed that one man remembers as the place where his soul was overwhelmed is, to another man, just a bed. And when it breaks, or goes out of style, or is no longer of use to him, he throws it away. But before he dies, the man whose soul was overwhelmed needs to lie down in that bed one more time. He comes to me. He has a look in his eyes, and I understand him. So even if it no longer exists, I find it. Do you understand what I'm saying? I produce it. Out of thin air, if need be. And if the wood is not exactly as he remembers, or the legs are too thick or too thin, he'll only notice for a moment, a moment of shock and disbelief, and then his memory will be invaded by the reality of the bed standing before him. Because he needs it to be that bed where she once lay with him more than he needs to know the truth. You understand? And if you ask me whether I feel guilty, whether I feel I am cheating him, the answer is no. Because at the moment that man reaches out and runs his hand across the rail, for him there are no other beds in the world.

Swimming Holes

As I began to wander back in my memory to the many visits I took to the Freud Museum and those years when I lived in London, I found myself often thinking of Hampstead Heath-- a large somewhat wild and very beautiful tract of woods and fields in northwest London--where I used to walk every afternoon, and which has become for me, as time has passed, one of those tender places where there is concentrated an overabundance of memory and feeling. One of the special features of the Heath is the bathing ponds there, and I found myself thinking about them, and an elderly English friend of mine who for half a century has begun every day, no mater the season, with a plunge into one of these deep ponds. It's a tradition I always felt that, in a different life, I would have liked to have myself, despite, or maybe because of, a secret fear I have of deep water. In this way Arthur, the fourth voice in the novel was born, an Oxford don who is looking back on his forty-five year marriage to his wife, Lotte, who has recently died. Here are some of the very first words I wrote in his voice:

Our lives ran like clockwork, you see. Every morning we walked on the Heath. We took the same path in and the same path out. I accompanied Lotte to the swimming hole where she never missed a day. There are three ponds, one for men, one for women, and one mixed, and it was there, in the last, that she swam when I was with her so that I could sit on the bench nearby. In the winter, the men came to smash a hole in the ice. They must have worked in the dark because by the time we arrived the ice was already broken. Lotte would peel off her clothes; first her coat and then her pullover, her boots and trousers, the heavy wool ones she favored, and then her body would at last appear, pale and shot through with blue veins. I knew every inch of her body, but the sight of it in the morning against the wet, black trees almost always aroused me. She'd approach the water's edge. For a moment she would stand completely still. God knows what she thought about. Up until the last she was a mystery to me. At times the snow would fall around her. The snow or the leaves, though most often it was rain. Sometimes I wanted to cry out, to disturb the stillness that in that moment seemed to be hers alone. And then, in a flash, she'd disappear into the blackness. There would be a small splash, or the sound of splash, followed by silence. How terrible those seconds were, and how they seemed to last forever! As if she would never come up again. How deep does it go? I once asked her, but she claimed not to know. On many occasions I would even leap up off the bench, ready to dive in after her, despite my fear of the water. But just then her head would break the surface like the smooth head of a seal or an otter, and she would swim to the ladder where I would be waiting to fling the towel over her.

And so they came into being, Arthur and Lotte, and only many pages later, after Arthur discovers that Lotte has kept a secret from him all her life, and I found myself telling the story of a man married to a woman who was a mystery to him, did I finally see that the swimming hole, which began as just a slightly thrilling abyss, had been transformed into something much more.

I'm often asked about the inspiration for my books, a term that to me suggests something romantic and almost mystical bestowed out of the blue. And so my reply has always been the same: I'm never struck by inspiration; writing as I know it involves a great deal of sweaty will and labor spent pursuing arbitrary things that very often amount to nothing. But it seems to me now that that answer isn't entirely true, that the truth lies somewhere between magical inspiration and earthly toiling. I once read that paleontologists spend days or weeks walking an area where they think they are likely to find a fossil; at last they will spot a loose knuckle, a claw, and begin digging. If their instincts were right, that small fragment will lead them to unearth a dinosaur, which all along they had been walking back and forth above. To me, writing is like that. Wandering back and forth, back and forth, I'm struck by a desk, a shark, a room, a swimming hole--and though I can't yet say why, or how, or where--I sense that these ideas will, if I work hard and long enough, lead me to something large that for the time being is still a mystery to me.

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