Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Desk Set

Minna Proctor


They say that if you dream of being inside a house, you are dreaming about the landscape of your own mind. Upstairs, downstairs, long corridors, vast foyers, dark passages, and mysteriously locked doors. Indulge this association: A desk, too, could haunt a writer's dreams. Massive yet rickety, loaded down with little drawers, one of which is locked with a missing key. Overlap a desk with a house—the task of a scribe, the container of a spirit—and the imagery veers into the religious. (Moses inscribing the Commandments, Saint Jerome translating the ancient texts, Rabbi Hillel conceiving of the Talmud.) At least it does, unmistakably, in Nicole Krauss's remarkable new novel, Great House.

Here both the desk (which is real) and the house (a tendril of an idea that emerges cumulatively) are weighted down with tremendous symbolism and combine to form the complex apparatus that unites five very different stories. Plowing a line through a dense plot, three continents, and more than half a century, the desk is at once an heirloom, a writer's space, and an incidental family tree. It passes from one person to another, from the beginning of World War II into the politicized 1970s and then to a kind of neutered yet spastic present day. The Holocaust stole it from its original hearth in Germany. It ended up in England, then New York, then pretended to go to Israel but really went into storage. The desk's odyssey traces a blood lineage, where history has thwarted actual familial bonds. As such, the desk and the stories of the people around it are the heart of a tiny Jewish diaspora.

Despite its intricate plotting and sagaesque bearing, it's difficult to explain exactly what happens in Great House. With her idiosyncratic blanket-of-words style, Krauss builds a consuming rush of a novel, far more organic and eloquent than her much-lauded The History of Love (2005), although like that novel this is a distinctly Jewish story, almost Talmudic in its interpretative layering. People tell stories about themselves, and these stories are shaped not by their voices or characters but by unique self-understandings. Each story is essentially a puzzling out of an experience of loss, and each in some way reveals a connection to the overbearing desk. There's a middle-aged novelist who uses it for decades before losing it to the illegitimate heir apparent of the young poet she borrowed it from. There's a secretive German Jewish refugee novelist who keeps the desk in her private study and then gives it away to a young man who shows up at her door one night. There's a retired Israeli lawyer, grieving his wife and his relationship to his son (their connection to the desk is so exquisitely tangential, I'd have to ruin the ending to explain it). There's an antiques dealer who specializes in recovering Jewish furniture lost during the war, and his two adult children, trapped in his excruciating mission. And there's a young poet, Daniel Varsky, killed in the political violence of 1970s Chile, who appears only to disappear again into a shadow of mystery.

It is striking that in this network of tangentially linked stories, the desk's absence is often more important that its arrival. It is, in fact, the loss of the desk that marks the beginning of three of the five stories. When Lotte, an elderly novelist who as a young woman escaped from Nazi Germany, abruptly gives the desk away, her devoted husband begins to investigate its significance to her tragic past. Nadia, the middle-aged New York novelist who used it for twenty-five years, can only explain her sudden unmooring in terms of the desk's disappearance. It is as if the desk were her home, in a life where marriage, family, and even her art have provided inadequate shelter. The desk changes hands, and the outpouring begins. (It's actually kind of a stately monologuing that succeeds more for its raw intimacy than for its realism.) "I wanted to be judged on what I did with my life," writes Nadia, "but now, I will be judged by how I described it."

Each of these stories shares the unmistakable quality of confession. This is an odd word choice, given the Jewishness of this book—the austere yet overwrought language, the pride and self-abnegation, the way objects are metaphors and actions are parables. But these are not private confessions between a sinner and her pastor, where redemption is the goal. These are stories of people—meant to be heard, understood, and, most critically, never forgotten. So this is Krauss's take on the Jewish confessional mode. Her storytellers, steeped in self-awareness and the complexities of their emotions, are at once their own best witnesses and defendants. Nadia addresses her entire tale to "Your Honor." And yet the narratives are not about crimes—at least not exclusively. Rather, they are paths to epiphany. The binding assertion of each tale: This is who I am, and these are the details of my life that define me. "Only before God," cries Nadia, "do we stand without stories. But I am not a believer, Your Honor."

The central riddle of Great House is embedded in the end: "What is a Jew without Jerusalem?" the aging son asks, repeating a lesson learned at his father's knee: "Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form." Which is how, I think, Krauss sweeps us in. All her people are bending around empty spaces, rehearsing loss. Listen to me is this novel's unconventional appeal. This is urgent. The whole point here is the telling and the listening—that is the contract, the art, the covenant.

Minna Proctor is the author of Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father (Viking, 2005) and the editor of The Literary Review.

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