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Fractured Memories Haunt Masterful 'Great House'

Oct 16, 2010

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There are many rooms in the mansion of Nicole Krauss' fiction.  Readers who happily lost themselves in The History of Love — and we are legion — will be heartened to discover that, five years later, she's pulled off another extraordinary reminder of what fiction can do. Krauss' third novel, Great House, again interweaves several seemingly disparate narratives into a brilliantly orchestrated, mesmerizing whole that explores memory, solitude and an aching sense of loss and longing.

Where there is a lost eponymous manuscript at the heart of The History of Love, at the center of Great House is an imposing desk with 19 drawers. Over the course of more than 50 years, a Hungarian historian killed by Nazis, a young Chilean poet tortured and murdered by Pinochet's henchmen, and two reclusive women novelists — one a Holocaust refugee in England with a terrible secret, the other a lonely New Yorker — work at this desk. Krauss, a remarkably agile stylist and storyteller, fractures chronology and shifts among several confessional first-person narrators to relay their often heartbreaking tales. Linking them obliquely is an Israeli antiques dealer who has spent decades searching for every piece of furniture "that had sat in his own father's study in Budapest until the night in 1944 when the Gestapo had arrested his parents." The desk is the elusive, last missing piece.

Krauss' great theme is "the assault of memory" or, as one of her narrators calls it, "the crippling burden of memory." Loss, absence and memories don't just weigh us down, Krauss writes, but — in the dominant image of this book — bend us. Her characters speak of "that desk around which I had bent my life," and describe shedding partners so there was "no one toward whom I had to bend." They also "bend ... around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form." A particularly pliable narrator — the accommodating husband of the secretive Holocaust refugee — is even named Bender.

Great House is more solemn than The History of Love — there's no one like the charming 80-year-old Leo Gursky modeling nude for art students so he knows he'll be seen. And yet (as Gursky would say), it casts just as profound a spell. Krauss' characters expose their deepest secrets and doubts, questioning their work and noting the damaging role that silence has played in their lives. In a particularly beautiful passage, a father long at odds with his son comments, "We move through the day like two hands of a clock: sometimes we overlap for a moment, then come apart again, carrying on alone in our separate cycles."

Krauss' last novel was in part about the way books can change people's lives. Great House, a complex structure filled with writers who view words as lifeboats and strive to expose "the hidden depths of things" but worry about instead hiding "a poverty of spirit behind a mountain of words," is not strictly about the power of literature. Yet, evocative and moving, it ends up being another stunning example of just that.

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