- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2011

By Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95,289 pages

The central character in this compelling novel is a piece of furniture. Well, maybe not exactly, but it does figure in almost every one of the eight separate but interwoven tales that make up the book.

The object in question is a desk, but no ordinary desk. First, it’s massive; its many drawers can hide all sorts of things, such as secrets. Like the characters Nicole Krauss plays off against it, the desk also has a history.

In the first story, “All Rise,” (the narrator is addressing an unseen arbiter, a judge to whom she appeals for, if not forgiveness, then understanding) it is 1972, and a young man, a Chilean poet and anti-Pinochet patriot named Daniel Varsky, is leaving New York City to join the revolutionary forces in his homeland.

He needs someone to keep his furniture until he returns. A mutual friend puts Varsky and the narrator in touch, and she goes to meet him and see his furniture. He prepares a meal (eggplant) and they talk for seven or eight hours, mostly about poetry, which she also writes. Later they kiss.

He tells her the desk once belonged to the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Whether or not it did is beside the point. What’s symbolically important is that Lorca often wrote tragedies, and in his great poem “Poet in New York,” he depicts ordinary people crushed by civilization, which is exactly what Ms. Krauss does in “Great House.”

Two years pass; Varsky sends the narrator a few postcards, once saying she should take good care of his desk because some day he may come back. But he doesn’t come back.

“Sometimes I would look around at his furniture, the sofa, desk, coffee table, bookshelves, and chairs, and be filled with a crushing despair, and sometimes just an oblique sadness, and sometimes I would look at it all and become convinced that it amounted to a riddle, a riddle he had left me that I was supposed to crack.” That too is what Ms. Krauss does in “Great House.”

The narrator eventually learns that Daniel Varsky was arrested, tortured and killed in Chile, where he had earned a fine reputation as a brave man who cared about his country and its people.

Her life has been vastly different; opposite, really. All she, who gave up poetry for fiction, cares about is her work, and if she takes pieces of other peoples’ lives and makes them her own, even if that hurts them, so be it.

“Yes, I believed,” she says, ” … that the writer should not be cramped by the possible consequences of her work. She has no duty 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.” The problem is that this dangerous attitude will leach into her work.

Many more years pass, and in 1999, she gets a phone call from a young woman who says she is Varsky’s daughter. She asks if the narrator still has her father’s desk. If so, she would like to have it.

The desk goes, just as, we then learn, the narrator’s husband did, and then pretty much her life as she has known it. As the story ends, she is boarding a plane for Ben Gurion Airport.

If I understand the term Judaica correctly and it means the historical and literary materials that deal with Jewish culture, customs and artifacts, then “Great House” fits that category. But while almost all the oh-so-believable characters in this oh-so-well-written book are Jews, their problems are universal.

Whether it’s the old father trying desperately to re-connect with the son he pushed away as a child but who is now a grown man with serious problems of his own; or the fascinating figure of Simon Weisz, whose lifelong attempt is to reassemble the furniture of his father’s study that was “appropriated” by the Nazis; or Simon’s two strange children, whom he loves yet treats like two prized pieces of human furniture, what comes across is that they are God’s children, not just those of Abraham.

Be forewarned that this is a dark book in which the characters find themselves in harsh and hard situations, but every once in a while, the gloom lifts. When the narrator of the weird but lovely “Lies Told by Children” describes her love for and (temporary) happiness with Yoah, son of Simon Weisz, it’s as if someone turned on the lights, and a dark room is revealed to be simply beautiful.

This is Nicole Krauss’ third novel. Her second, “The History of Love,” won the William Saroyan International Prize and France’s Prix du Meilleur Live Etranger. It’s time she’s honored at home. Why? Because “Great House” is a great book.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.



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