Monday, August 8, 2011

A Krauss House

As I think I've reported on this blog before, I have a tendency to discover new writers long after most of the rest of the country does. This is certainly the case with Nicole Krauss, author of three novels--Man Walks Into a Room, The History of Love, and Great House--each more successful than the last. Great House, a National Book Award finalist, came recommended by my wife. In fact, she practically forced the book on me. One of those Oh-my-gosh-you-have-to-read-this moments. Well, I didn't right away. (I usually have too many other books I'm trying to get through.) But I have now, and I can't urge it strongly enough to anyone interested in literary historical fiction. The book is so carefully crafted, each sentence a model of clarity and incision, and yet too brimming with subtle--and sometimes not so subtle-- feeling. It's a book that is both small and vast at the same time. Similar to Erika Dreifus's superb short story collection Quiet Americans, Great House doesn't merely dramatize historical events but explores the very nature and force of history itself, revealing how seemingly insignifcant decisions and actions can affect the lives of those who live decades further on and in entirely different continents. It's the old "If a butterfly flaps its wings . . . " adage brilliantly rendered.

The novel is broken into two parts and each part into four sections. Each of the four sections is rendered in a different first person voice and details the lives of very different characters. We are shown New York, London, Oxford, and Israel, with quick stopovers in a host of various European cities. Meanwhile, we move back and forth in time, from the 1930s up until the present day. By design, for the longest time the different sections remain vastly separate from one another, so much so that a reader might ask himself what some of them are doing in the same novel. But, ah, you must trust the book. The connections gradually and unerringly and even tragically come into focus. If there's any theme the book demonstrates it is the Law of Unintended Consequences. One of the central characters, a Jewish novelist named Lotte Berg who was forced to flee her hometown of Nuremberg for England in the 30s, long ago accepted the gift of a desk from a gentleman lover (exactly who the lover was is one of the few matters left unclarified by Krauss). Lotte later gave the desk away to a fan of her books, an action that, with fatalistic inevitabilty, acts as the catalyst for much of the disappointment, rancor, and literal devastation dramatized later in the book. Great House comes to its realizations and its climaxes indirectly--that is, through its seemingly disparate four fold structure and its back and forth movement in time and space--but come to them it does. And the reader is not left unaffected. It is a masterfully, pristinely rendered work, a novel that has been carved rather than shot out, one that will dwell inside you long after you stop reading. Of all the many lessons I took from the book, one is this: In a world in which you can never completely control the consequences of your actions, a world in which finally you can't control anything but yourself, the very least you can do, maybe the only thing you can do, is Tell the Truth. Whatever comes after that, let come.

Personal Note: As you read this--if you're reading it on or near the day it's posted--my family travels along the east coast of the United States visiting our relatives. And it happens to be the birthday of my oldest son. Happy 15th, bud. I can't believe you're that old. You still seem like a kid to your mom and me. But I know that you know you certainly aren't.


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