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Krauss' 'Great House' Built On 'Willful Uncertainty'

Oct 14, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Nicole Krauss' characters are consumed by uncertainty about the future — and with good reason. Their doubts reflect the nature of the novelist's writing process — Krauss says she starts writing without any idea where her story's going.

"That includes the themes, that includes the plot, that even includes the characters," she tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. "I really just begin writing, without any sense of where the writing will take me."

It's an anxiety-producing approach, but Krauss' writing process serves her well. Her novel The History of Love has been translated into 35 languages. Great House was recently nominated for the National Book Award.

'Close To Failure'

Great House alternates between the voices of four different narrators, woven together in surprising ways at the end of the novel. Krauss says there was a real "danger" that these disparate narratives wouldn't tie neatly together — and that's a good thing.

"I feel I have to be working very close to failure," Krauss admits. "I have to feel somehow that I'm going to a place that's unknown to me, where things will happen that will throw me off guard. And so I sort of commit to this doubt, this uncertainty."

The "willful uncertainty" that Krauss holds herself to had a profound influence on Great House. The novelist had no sense of where her characters were taking her, so she knew as little as her readers did — and was able to view her own story from a reader's perspective. She found that her own uncertainty began to "seep into the characters."

"Not only was the uncertainty my process, [but] now it was becoming my subject as well," Krauss says.

Living in doubt became one of Great House's most powerful and melancholy themes.

"I began to think a lot about what it is to ask the reader to dwell in this uncertainty," Krauss says, "and that became for me a kind of constant meditation in the book: That all of us — me, and you as the reader, and these characters that we share — would all have to think about what it is to make a life, without knowing ... to commit to our lives, all the while being uncertain about so many things."

Krauss' First Desk

The stories of Krauss' isolated protagonists revolve around a formidable writing desk with 19 drawers — one of which remains locked at all times. As the desk is passed down from one character to another, it becomes a character in itself. As one of Krauss' characters describes it:

To call it a desk is to say too little. The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always poised to offer up its back for its owner to make use of, and which, when not in use, occupies its allotted space with humility. ... This desk was something else entirely. An enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a venus fly trap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers. Perhaps you think I'm making a caricature of it. I don't blame you. You'd have to have seen the desk with your own eyes to understand that what I'm telling you is perfectly accurate.

Though the genesis of Krauss' plots and characters are often a mystery even to her, the writing desk is not. As a child, Krauss also worked at a very large desk, with a drawer that could be locked.

"It's the first desk that I wrote at, and I always sort of think of that drawer — that space — that I could sort of put things in and lock at will," she explains.

Krauss says that she herself didn't know what was in the locked drawer until she wrote the very end of the book.

'Year After Year, You Must Dig Yourself Up'

Loneliness looms large in Krauss' Great House. One character, Nadia, an aging novelist in New York, describes the challenge of maintaining human relationships — as she talks to a judge about her failed marriage:

How little by little I grew lazy with the effort required to hold and to keep us, the effort to share a life. Because it hardly ends with falling in love. Just the opposite. I don't need to tell you, Your Honor, I sense that you understand true loneliness. How you fall in love and it's there that the work begins: day after day, year after year, you must dig yourself up, exhume the contents of your mind and soul for the other to sift through so that you might be known to him, and you, too, must spend days and years wading through all that he excavates for you alone, the archaeology of his being, how exhausting it became, the digging up and the wading through, while my own work, my true work, lay waiting for me.

For Krauss, the constant emotional excavation that defines a marriage is very similar to the process of writing about one.

"I'm interested in moments," Krauss says. "Very fragile, and quite difficult moments, I suppose — in my characters' lives. I feel like in those struggles — in their weakest moments, when they are sort of faced with who they really are at the depths of themselves — that is the moment, not only for revelation, but for ... transformation of the conditions that they've always felt locked in."

Though Great House is preoccupied with the loneliness and self-doubt of profoundly sad people, Krauss says that it is in their solitude that she finds their passion and drive.

"I think the characters in this book are struggling," she says — and yet, it is their efforts to escape their solitude that makes them most alive.

"All of them are dissatisfied with that alienation or that isolation that they feel. They all quite desperately would like to be known, would like to be seen and understood, would like to communicate themselves. I feel the litheness and exhilaration of their effort. The effort to be known and go beyond solitude."

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Great House: A Novel
By Nicole Krauss
Hardcover, 289 pages
W.W. Norton and Co.
List price: $24.95
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