Full disclosure: When I was first handed a copy of History of Love years ago, just months after publication, I wasn’t terribly interested in reading it. I had heard wonderful things about its author, Nicole Krauss, and her widely-celebrated sophomore novel from people whose taste I trust, but still I resisted. Ultimately though, I opened the stiff pages of the paperback and began to read. Almost instantly I found myself engrossed in Krauss’ rich language, emotional poignancy and colorful narrators. In fact, I read it twice.
Krauss’ third novel, Great House, is perhaps even more indicative of her ability to weave intricate storylines, craft emotionally layered characters and expertly draw out the pain, difficulty and extreme complexity of human relationships. Like its predecessor, Great House is a novel told in short stories—vignettes, really—that cross over and seep into each other at various points in the book. The characters are bound together, like History of Love, by an object: in this case an oppressively cumbersome and much sought-after desk, which spends time in the custody of one or more characters in each story, affecting their lives in different ways. Great House is primarily comprised of four interwoven storylines: Nadia, a middle-aged writer trying to find herself again amidst a series of ruined relationships; Dovik—or the memory of—an estranged son who reconnects with his father shortly after his mother’s death; Lotte, a writer whose painful secrets are posthumously discovered by her doting husband; the mysterious antiques dealer Weisz and his two children. These, along with a young man named Daniel Varsky, a poet who disappears at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police, are the figures around which the novel revolves.
Great House is a story of inheritance, relationships, legacy and the burdens we bear. It is also a story about the complexities of space: The spaces we inhabit, the walls we erect, that which we show the world and that which is shut away. The truths and lies we tell to others and the secrets we keep to ourselves; what can be seen, and what can’t.
Though the form and approach of Great House is similar to History of Love, it is an altogether darker, more anguished story. There is no redemption or happy ending, rather it serves as a meditation on, and exploration of, loneliness, responsibility and humanity in its various forms. Whereas History of Love invited readers into the whirlwind lives and adventures of its characters Great House pulls readers inward, into the space between sentences both spoken and unspoken by the book’s keepers. Both novels are stories of loss and discovery, though that which is discovered in Great House is often unexpected and disarming, calling into question the very basis of the lives lived and histories told between the pages.
I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to talk to the endlessly thoughtful and articulate National Book Award nominee about her brilliant new novel, her influences and goals, and the desk that inspired it all.
I’m always surprised by your novels, the simultaneous subtlety and emotional power of your prose. What were you reading while you were working on Great House?
Nicole Krauss: It was two and a half years of work, so there was a lot of reading. I know there are novelists who don’t like to read as they’re writing because it will direct them or, God forbid, influence them. But I’m the opposite, I love to read always. I find reading is like opening a faucet to the great streams of language come pouring out and splash around in your mind for the rest of the day or week. I find it incredibly helpful to have a ready flow of great language. For the past few years I read a lot of Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer. I read a lot of Roberto Bolano, who I discovered in 2003 when I read the first book that was translated here in America, By Night in Chile. He’s one of those writers who absolutely changed everything for me. I love Sebald, and he’s a writer I return to a lot. Perhaps my favorite is Beckett. I re-read a lot of his novels. I’m constantly reading new work or books that are new to me, but I tend to go back and re-read sections of books I love while I’m writing to remind me of what’s possible.
I know you used to write poetry. Do you still write poetry?
NK: I haven’t since I wrote the first words of my first novel. It’s an ongoing point of curiosity for me. When I was growing up as a teenager and all through college my great ambition in life was to be a poet and I couldn’t have possibly imagined that I would have fallen from the grace of poetry into the prosaic world of novels. I read and loved novels of course, I majored in literature, but it wasn’t my intention at all. It came as a surprise that I became a novelist and that I stopped writing poetry. I feel that someday there will be a return to it. I always say I need to be older and wiser but I don’t know if that’s true anymore, because the novel as a form fits me very well; the formlessness and elasticity of it, the fact that it doesn’t have a real definition. It’s the work of a novelist every time she sits down to write one.
But how is that different from poetry?
NK: I think with poetry the form is much more apparent and clear going out. You’ll have stanzas and line breaks; there is a certain attentiveness and clarity about formal tradition that novels don’t have. When you think about novels, all you can really say about them is that they’re long. They begin, and they end. The prose usually covers the pages, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s very unclear what a novel wants to be. It’s kind of amazing that it doesn’t paralyze us setting out because the possibilities are so vast.
But when you say you stopped writing poetry the moment you wrote the first lines of your first novel—what possessed you to start writing a novel in the first place, when you previously identified so strongly with poetry?
NK: I had reached a point where I felt ensnared by my own anxiety about writing poetry. I had had some mentors in college, most importantly to me Joseph Brodsky who is a real formalist and really insisted on being able to master as fully as possible formal verse before moving on. Seems like an obvious thing: you have to know what you are being free from if you’re going to write free verse. I followed that and at a certain point all of the great freedom that writing is meant to offer the writer somehow got lost for me, or was no longer accessible. I felt my poems were getting shorter and smaller and more airless. I knew in order to save the enterprise for myself I had to break a hole in my work where air could flood back in. I thought, what would it be like to write a novel? What is a novel, can I get to the end of it? I’m just going to see. It was more, what would the novel I wrote be like, and can I do it, even? I found very quickly that I just absolutely felt at home in the form, for this new freedom that returned to me and also the length of the project, the messiness of it, the necessary and integral imperfection of all novels really suited me. I liked the fact that novels can’t be perfect, and I feel that poetry can be. I don’t even think a novel aspires to perfection. It’s just too large to define. I felt at home there, and I still do.
Was that a daunting task for you? Endeavoring to write a novel understanding that there is no set definition for what you’re trying to do?
NK: I don’t know if I understood that yet. I read a million of them but you think differently when you try to write one. I think that realization came later. I can’t quite remember. It was daunting because how does one even write a novel? It’s an odd thing to try to do, and it seemed impossible. I wasn’t at all convinced that I could do it. Would I be able to get to the end, or think of a story sufficiently long enough or interesting enough? The first book, which I didn’t intend to publish, was just a question of being able to get from the beginning to the end. After that was when I sat down and thought, I really want to do this. But now the question is, what kind of novels do I want to write? I began trying to answer that in The History of Love.
The characters in Great House who are writers, Nadia, Lotte and Dovik, use writing as a means of retreat, as a way of distancing themselves from those around them. You talked about your relationship to form—novels, poetry—but what is your relationship to writing? In short, why do you write?
NK: I’m not sure I would describe their reasons for writing that way. I think what was interesting to me is the question of, what is the cost of writing? One begins to write and very soon you realize that there are things required of you, there are things you have to do and that involves solitude and a degree of remove, in order to simply have perspective on life, your relationships, the relationships of others. If you weren’t already you become an observer, and it’s very demanding in terms of a kind of willfulness you need to sustain. I was thinking about the costs of that.
But in these characters, writing is a way of not giving everything away, of keeping something to yourself, that is just yours.
NK: Absolutely, absolutely. I think what’s so interesting is, to what degree do writers have great recesses, and maybe secret recesses, that they guard in a certain way and preserve for their work, that they don’t allow to keel over into their normal lives and keep from their most intimate ones? In terms of what writing means to me is to return to the idea of freedom. As the years pass in my life, the rest of my life becomes filled up with the responsibilities of being a parent and having a family. The freedom that writing affords me is thrilling. As difficult and sometimes miserable, as hard as it can be on one’s confidence and sense of purpose, this sense of being able to sit down and potentially go anywhere and say anything; to put yourself in a position where you can get lost and enter the unknown, and put yourself up against very difficult things to discover who you are, what you’re made of, how you think about things. Again, what is the nature of life and human existence? It’s this incredible freedom that is impossible to find elsewhere in life. It’s kind of an enormous thing for me. The other thing is a sense of being able to create meaning. It seems like a bland and cliché thing to say but I find the disorganized chaos of life is not ultimately satisfying, and one wants to make out of that some solid thing. I don’t think it’s an accident that my books end up, though I never intend setting out, having a highly-wrought architecture in the way that I chose different voices and weave them together. There are echoes, thematic symmetries, it becomes, at least when I’m thinking about it, solid architecturally. It’s that sense of solid form that’s very satisfying to me because it seems like it will stand on its own after I walk away, and that all of life’s experiences can actually come to something
What are the costs, then?
NK: It’s hard to distinguish them from a personality type who often becomes a writer, and I probably fit that mold. Is one a naturally solitary and somewhat removed person and one naturally migrates towards writing because it’s an opportunity to express oneself clearly and communicate in a way that is difficult, or the other way around? I don’t know because I’ve been writing since I’m, like, 14. I think my personality has been largely formed around that work, and I was just like that since I was very young. My whole life I’ve been acutely sensitive to the divide between who we are and who we are able to bring to the surface of our lives to show to other people even those closest to us. I find that incredibly painful, from your average cocktail party to even a nice dinner party to familial relationships. The only place I find release from that is children. In children, you don’t have that sense of divide. There’s a kind of wholeness between you and them.
You talked about how a novel itself is inherently a challenge and Great House is somewhat experimental in form. You drift seamlessly between a series of very different and emotionally complicated narrators who serve as the keepers of the story. How do a series of stories become a novel? Where do you begin crafting the story, and what are some challenges associated with creating so many distinct voices?
NK: It seems to be emerging to me that this is a way of writing I’m very much drawn to. I’m attracted to beginning these stories in very remote places and moving them towards each other. In The History of Love I had three distinct storylines—Leo Gursky, Alma and the book within a book—and there, it was slightly more obvious. I wrote it in the order that you read it so I was always held in suspense: For the longest time I didn’t know how it was going to end. There was an old man, a young girl and they were going to be drawn to each other through this third story of a lost book. I was setting out to write the book that would become Great House, and I was less and less interested in concrete connection. I was much more interested in what happens if you start in very remote places and don’t aim for a concrete connection. Yes, the novel will only be interesting to me and anyone else if it absolutely holds together and is fused at some point, that these parts standing on their own would be nothing compared to what they are when they reflect and echo off each other. It’s sounding very abstract, and it is. I wrote a lot for a long time, different voices. A couple of them disappeared and I kept four. A lot of the pages got thrown away—they didn’t develop in authentic enough ways so there was a lot of aimless wandering for a long time until there was a bristling effect, where the character stands up and you know they’re alive. I was much more interested in what happens if you try to make a book where these connections, echoes, symmetries, these convergences are oblique and subtle. I wanted to hold them at a distance from each other. I was interested in that tension. At a certain point I depended on my uncertainty as a writer. I think in order to discover and go places you haven’t been before you can’t know the outcome. I write simply not knowing. That doubt and uncertainty of my capabilities as a writer and the possibility of this novel failing began to seep into the work. At a certain point, it had to shift from process to material. The characters are riddled with that uncertainty and doubt. Like Arthur’s doubt about being married to this mystery, this woman he didn’t really know. Or the Weiss children’s inability to trust others or believe in the possibility of a permanent home. Or the doubt of the Israeli father about what kind of father he was. It’s filled with intellectual and moral doubt and self-doubt. Most profoundly to me, this doubt about how fully known we can ever really be to each other, that distance between who we are and how much of ourselves we are able to ever communicate or expose to others. Then it became the characters’ uncertainty. Then, there’s a third level of the readers’ uncertainty. If the writer is uncertain of herself then the readers will be skeptical and that became interesting to me. For all this uncertainty to be mirrored in the reader, for her, the reader, to have to be held in doubt and to think about this idea of what it is to make one’s life in the shadow of uncertainty?
The four narrators: they are all so different but have certain similarities. Can you explain in more concrete terms where these characters came from?
NK: I always think there is a too-little-noted distinction between the autobiographical and the personal. I don’t write anything autobiographical, which means the characters really don’t come from anyone I’ve met, or even people I’ve observed, in my own life. They’re really complete inventions on every level. But, having said that, one of the most important things to me as a writer is that my work feels very authentic to me, and in order for it to be authentic, it has to be personal. The stakes have to be high. What does that mean? It means that you are inventing these lives and voices into which you can pour very deeply felt and personal feelings and thoughts. Not always your own, sometimes it’s an empathy for what it might be like in a certain situation. Some of the characters evolve in strange and accidental ways. Arthur and Lotte: I lived in England for awhile, and I used to live near Hampstead Heath and I used to always walk by these bathing ponds. I walked in the Heath every day. It was a melancholy time in my life. It was this landscape onto which I projected all of that and all these years later I find myself mentally revisiting them. I wanted to write about them, I didn’t know what, but there was something atmospheric I wanted to write about. This character was born who walks his wife to the pond every day. There was no story, just that scene. And I began to write more it became interesting to me. I sometimes use small details from life. For example, my grandmother is absolutely nothing like Lotte but she was a chaperone on a kindertransport. They are small, sketchy elements of life that allow me to invent these characters and pour all kinds of things into them. They were born, and as I was writing, it became clear to me that this swimming hole is a metaphor for Arthur, that he couldn’t follow his wife. She disappeared into this abyss where he couldn’t go, and that was somehow a metaphor for her mystery, her unknown quality. Their whole relationship was born out of that. For Weiss, the antique dealer, I became obsessed with the idea of a transplanted room. I think that came from two sources. One is the Freud house, where I did spend a lot of time myself, and that room is just so amazing. It’s reassembled for the last final year of his life, moved from Vienna to London. And there is Francis Bacon, the painter’s studio. After he died it was broken down into ten thousand pieces and moved piece by piece and resurrected in Dublin in a gallery. It was fascinating to me: Why would that happen, and why are people compelled to consider these things? So this idea of a room that is deconstructed in one place and reconstructed elsewhere became the source for thought.
A lot of the language you use to describe the characters in the book evokes the image of houses—doors being opened and doors being closed, secrets, hiding places, isolation, discovery, the notion of interior and exterior. What is it that compels you about structures?
NK: I was aware at a certain point that there were these houses in the book. I thought about the connection between walking through a house and walking through a mind. I was exploring their remembering minds. I was aware of houses, rooms, doors, but I didn’t think of that as an overarching rubber band until the very end when I thought about that Ben Zakkai story and something snapped in place. Structure is always an interesting subject when it comes to writing because in order to do it you have to be aware and unaware at the same time. For example: the desk in the book. I actually wrote the first half of the first chapter as a short story called From the Desk of Daniel Varsky. I published it in Harper’s in 2007. It was collected in Best American Short Stories, and when you’re in that anthology they ask you to write a paragraph explaining it. I sat down at my desk and tried to figure out why I wrote that story and it dawned on me that the desk I write at is awfully like the one in the story. Hugely dominating—it goes up one wall and has lots of drawers and shelves, and it’s absolutely enormous. More than that, I inherited it from the previous owner of the house who had it built to his esoteric specifications. I’ve never liked the desk. I’ve always thought, it’s this imposing thing that I’d like to do away with but I don’t know how. It would have to be chopped up to even get down the stairs and it seemed sad to me, to waste this desk. When the former owner left, he had the desk built around this painted panel that I guess was valuable to him, so he had it removed. So, there’s a gaping hole under which I work, and I realized this desk had always been a burden and responsibility to me. Then I realized that this story is actually about the burden of inheritance. I had written the story without really realizing I had written it about my own desk. You don’t know, but you know.
I was actually going to ask you, when Weiss says: “to call it a desk is to say too little. The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always posed to offer up its back for its owner to make use of…” Of course, in Great House, the desk represents so much more—family, the power of memory—but the story is, in fact, anchored around an object. Is there an object in your life that carries significant weight?
NK: I certainly am somebody who is attached to objects that come down to me from grandparents or the old world. I have things like that, small things; A German-English dictionary that my grandfather gave my grandmother when they first met in 1940. I don’t think about them a lot, but the desk is interesting because it’s my life. On a certain level I do sort of despise it. The drawers fly open because the floor is sloped. It does, in a way, have a life of its own and I’ve agreed to let it have a life of its own, imbued it with meaning that I’ve put upon it.
The themes of this novel, in my opinion, are very Jewish in nature: pain, memory, inheritance, burden, family, history, discovery. Even the title itself, Great House, a school of thinking designed to “turn Jarusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.” Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to Judaism, and to Israel, and how it has shaped you as a writer and influenced you as a person?
NK: Every writer is born into and also grows and arrives at her own material, and it became apparent to me pretty quickly as I was becoming a novelist that there’s something about Judaism that is contradictory and argumentative, which I find deeply useful as a way of thinking about the world, and therefore something to infuse my writing with. Being born into all of the complications of being a Jew, the beauties and complications, is a tremendous gift as a writer. I won’t always use those gifts but I’m lucky to have them. With this book, it wasn’t an overly conscious decision, but again this notion of doubt and uncertainty. Judaism is extraordinary in that it allows for and even encourages doubt; in the Talmudic tradition an argument that is refuted is considered a failure. The idea is to keep the argument or idea aloft for as long as possible and continue to peel it and peel it and dice it and get to the heart of it, but continue the questioning. That intellectual restlessness and inability to accept things as they seem or as they are is what makes the religion, to me, so incredibly powerful and intellectually interesting. It trickled down without me fully knowing it.
What’s next for you?
NK: I’ve been writing a lot of short pieces but in the back of my mind thinking about a new novel. Some of these characters are still enough alive in me. For example, Dov. I thought I’d write his story in this novel; the idea of a fallen judge who has somehow compromised himself morally, and finds himself in the position of then being judged. Part of me wants to know who he is and what he has to say. Sometimes the moment passes, and once the book is published there might be an unfortunate but necessary emotional distance. But, we’ll see.