Nicole Krauss, Great House (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). 289 pp. $24.95.
Last December, when I surveyed the year’s best Jewish books for Jewish Ideas Daily, I left Nicole Krauss’s Great House off the list. Although eight other women were listed, I was accused of being a “serious male chauvinist.” Wow, the last time I heard that expression I was still driving a Mazda GLC. But I get what I am being accused of. I really do—even if it is better to be a serious male chauvinist than a frivolous one. What I don’t understand, though, is how you trust a critic if you suspect that his recommendations are made, in part or whole, to avoid the unpleasantness of being called a bad name. The current rule of literary criticism that every book list must include a sufficient (but unspecified) proportion of women resembles nothing so much as the National Football League’s requirement that African American candidates must be interviewed for every coaching vacancy (no exceptions allowed). How does anyone, including the candidates themselves, know whether the African Americans are being taken seriously? How does the indignity compensate for the bias?
I left Great House off my list of the year’s best Jewish books because I didn’t think it was among the year’s best. I realize that Nicole Krauss is a woman, that she is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, that her novel was praised in the New York Times Book Review by Rebecca Goldstein (although I’m pretty sure I am not to suppose that Goldstein praised it because it was written by a woman), that it was nominated for the National Book Award, that Krauss’s last novel, The History of Love, is highly regarded by many readers. None of these is a particularly good reason, however, for believing that the novel is particularly good.
Great House is about the adventures of a desk that passes from writer to writer as it makes its way from Budapest through Hitler’s Reich to London and then to New York and from there to Jerusalem, then back to New York, coming to rest finally in a storage unit. “It was made of dark wood,” says one of the book’s four narrators, “and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer.”
One of the desk’s nineteen drawers is mysteriously locked, but when it comes to solving the mystery, as Ron Charles snapped in his Washington Post review, “[D]on’t bother.” The solution to the mystery is disappointing. Much the same could be said for the symbolism of the desk. It turns out to have been Nazi plunder, stolen from a Hungarian Jew who perished later in a death march, and like the Golem of Prague in Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it symbolizes the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust. As Karen Long observed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The Holocaust is offstage, and ever-present.” It “overshadows every breath taken in Great House,” Frances Guerin wrote reverently at the blog FX Reflects.
Which distinguishes Nicole Krauss very little from other young Jewish writers, three generations removed from the Jewish struggle to inform the world about the Holocaust, and in whose fiction it is “ever-present,” even when it is “offstage.” It “overshadows” any other fact or value of being Jewish. Ruth Wisse once told me that the world learned from the Holocaust how easy it is to kill Jews. Young Jews apparently learned how easy it is to be sad, and proud of one’s sadness.
That sadness dominates Great House like clutter in a house where no one picks up after himself. All of the characters in the novel are sad—the four narrators, the men and women they love and have lost, their parents and children, the people they know or meet in passing (there are no friends in the book)—while none even tries to find any occasion for joy. Two lines in Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, about a major league catcher dying of cancer, could have served as Krauss’s epigraph. “It is sad,“ says one teammate; “it makes you want to cry.” “It is sad,” counters another; “it makes you want to laugh.”
But the general dismalness suits Krauss’s purpose. Readers are more likely to pay attention to the intricate carving of a prose style if they are not encouraged to hurry on to the next part. And sure enough, at the Huffington Post, Jane Byrne claimed that Krauss “cannot write a bad sentence: pound for pound, the sentences alone deliver epiphany upon epiphany. . . .” It would be more truthful, though, to say that Krauss cannot write a simple sentence. To borrow a phrase from the late Wilfrid Sheed, as recalled by his friend John Simon in a tribute published in the Weekly Standard, her prose is “fine sentence-by-sentence writing at the expense of form.”
In her review, Rebecca Goldstein tried to put the best possible face on this defect in the novel. Its narrative structure, she said, “mirror[s] the characters’ own shattering and require[s] readers to reassemble the full story for themselves.” Or, in other words, her readers are required to piece together a coherent story, because Krauss chooses epiphany—giving the appearance of divinity to her prose—over storytelling. The result is a hard slog:
But I don’t mean to give the impression that Great House is merely a technical flop, a dreary overlong book of less than three hundred pages. The worst thing about the novel is its image of man. Fairly early on, one of the narrators—the only one whose story is not connected to the haunted wandering desk from the Holocaust—explains what he is doing in the novel: namely, setting forth Krauss’s theme. An Israeli, he tries to guide his son:
On this conception, the Jew is both cursed and divine: “He is high up to the heavens, and he is low to the very depths of hell, but never does the Jew stand with two feet upon earth.” He is, in short, a symbol and not a man. Historically the Jews have suffered badly from being treated as supra-human, but there is nevertheless a tendency among some Jewish intellectuals and writers “to accept the stigma and glorify in it.” For many other Jews, though, living after the “efficient massacre of European Jewry,” the myth is intolerable. Many post-Holocaust Jews would prefer a “debasement to the human.” And if nothing else, Kristol concludes, the abandonment of the myth would require that a