Great House (Krauss)

Great House
Nicole Krauss, 2010
W.W. Norton & Co.
289 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780393079982

For twenty-five years, a reclusive American novelist has been writing at the desk she inherited from a young Chilean poet who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police; one day a girl claiming to be the poet’s daughter arrives to take it away, sending the writer’s life reeling. Across the ocean, in the leafy suburbs of London, a man caring for his dying wife discovers, among her papers, a lock of hair that unravels a terrible secret. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer slowly reassembles his father’s study, plundered by the Nazis in Budapest in 1944.

Connecting these stories is a desk of many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or have given it away. As the narrators of Great House make their confessions, the desk takes on more and more meaning, and comes finally to stand for all that has been taken from them, and all that binds them to what has disappeared.

Great House is a story haunted by questions: What do we pass on to our children and how do they absorb our dreams and losses? How do we respond to disappearance, destruction, and change?

Nicole Krauss has written a soaring, powerful novel about memory struggling to create a meaningful permanence in the face of inevitable loss. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Reared —Old Westbury, Long Island, USA
Education—Stanford University; Oxford University
Awards—William Saroyan Int'l. Prize; Prix du Meilleur Livre 
   Etranger (France); Edward Lewis Wallant Award
Currently—Brooklyn, New York


Nicole Krauss is an American author of several novels: Forest Dark (2017), Great House (2010), The History of Love (2005), and Man Walks into a Room (2002). Her work has achieved wide acclaim, with The New York Times referring to her as "one of America's most important authors."

Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, and Granta's Best American Novelists Under 40, and has been collected in Best American Short Stories (2003 and 2008). Her novels have been translated into thirty-five languages.

Krauss was born in New York City to an English mother and an American father who grew up partly in Israel. Krauss's maternal grandparents were born in Germany and Ukraine and later emigrated to London. Her paternal grandparents were born in Hungary and Slonim, Belarus, met in Israel, and later emigrated to New York. Many of these places are central to Krauss's 2005 novel, The History of Love, and the book is dedicated to her grandparents.

At the age of 14 Krauss became serious about writing. Until she began her first novel in 2002, Krauss wrote and published mainly poetry.

Krauss enrolled in Stanford University in 1992, and that fall she met Joseph Brodsky who worked closely with her on her poetry over the next three years. He also introduced her to such writers as Italo Calvino and Zbigniew Herbert, who would have a lasting influence.

In 1999, three years after Brodsky died, Krauss produced a documentary about his work for BBC Radio 3, traveling to St. Petersburg where she stood in the "room and a half" where he grew up, made famous by his essay of that title. Krauss majored in English and graduated with Honors, winning a number of undergraduate prizes for her poetry as well as the Dean's Award for academic achievement. She also curated a reading series (with Fiona Maazel) at the Russian Samovar, a NYC restaurant co-founded by Brodsky.

In 1996, she was awarded a Marshall Scholarship and enrolled in a Masters program at Oxford University where she wrote her thesis about the American artist Joseph Cornell. During the second year of her scholarship she attended the Courtauld Institute in London, where she received a Masters in Art History, specializing in seventeenth-century Dutch art, and writing a thesis on Rembrandt.

In 2004, Krauss married the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. They live in Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York, and have two children. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
An elegiac novel...achieved through exquisitely chosen sensory details that reverberate with emotional intensity. Here [Krauss] gives us her tragic vision pure. It is a high-wire performance, only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - New York Times Book Review

To me the most resonant sections of Nicole Krauss' widely anticipated third novel, Great House, are those narrated by Aaron, an aging Israeli who still hasn't figured out how to relate to one of his adult sons.... The two chapters he narrates pulse with his hot-blooded heartbeat; the drama of his family rises to the level of the epic because he makes it so. As for the rest of the novel, it's well done enough, nicely written and full of cogent insights, but compared with Aaron, it feels as if it's taking place behind a sheet of glass.
David L. Ulin - Los Angeles Times

Nicole Krauss' latest novel, Great House, is precisely the kind of work of art for which the phrase "oddly compelling" was invented. Like her celebrated best-seller, The History of Love, this new novel contemplates love, loss and the oppressive weight of memory on those left behind. The plot here, though, is even murkier than it was in The History of Love.... I'm not sure what it all adds up to; I'm not even sure that Great House has one cohesive theme. But I'm willing to tolerate this confusion because of the isolated moments of psychological illumination that Krauss provides through her startling language. Reading Great House is like being lost in a pitch black room (an image that Krauss gives us more than once here) and then suddenly having a dusty corner of that room brilliantly lit up and exposed.
Maurreen Corrigan - National Public Radio

The most heartbreaking part of Great House is having to finish it.... As the mysteries of this beautifully written novel come spooling out, you’ll marvel at how profoundly one brilliantly crafted extended metaphor involving a mute wooden artifact can remind us what it means to be alive.

This stunning work showcases Krauss's consistent talent. The novel consists of four stories divided among eight chapters, all touching on themes of loss and recovery, and anchored to a massive writing desk that resurfaces among numerous households, much to the bewilderment and existential tension of those in its orbit, among them a lonely American novelist clinging to the memory of a poet who has mysteriously vanished in Chile, an old man in Israel facing the imminent death of his wife of 51 years, and an esteemed antiques dealer tracking down the things stolen from his father by the Nazis. Much like in Krauss's The History of Love, the sharply etched characters seem at first arbitrarily linked across time and space, but Krauss pulls together the disparate elements, settings, characters, and fragile connective tissue to form a formidable and haunting mosaic of loss and profound sorrow.
Publishers Weekly

In this latest from Krauss (The History of Love), a huge old desk with many drawers becomes the symbol of love and loss for a host of characters from different countries and time periods. There is the New York woman who has written all her novels at the desk, which she was keeping for a Chilean poet who has since disappeared. Then there are the poet's daughter, who comes back years later to claim the desk; the antiques dealer who tracks down meaningful items from people's pasts; the brother and sister who live isolated in a Jerusalem home filled with other people's furniture; the elderly couple in England who live with the desk and a horrible secret; and the dictatorial father who desperately tries to understand his creative son. Verdict: While each character's story is engrossing, the connection among them is at times impossible to follow. Still, Krauss deals with heavyweight themes—the Holocaust, the different ways people cope with suffering, the special cruelty of fathers, the costs of creativity—with meditative, insightful prose that makes for an intense and memorable reading experience. —Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Krauss’ masterful rendition of character is breathtaking, compelling.... This tour de force of fiction writing will deeply satisfy fans of the author’s first two books and bring her legions more. —Ellen Loughran

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Great House:

1. What is this book about? How does the desk—and its 19 drawers—serve as a metaphor? A metaphor...for what?

2. The book explores the burden of memory and loss. In what way are Krauss's characters trapped by their past? What, in fact, does it mean to become a prisoner of the past? Apply that thought/question to your own life.

3. Spend time talking about each of the stories: narrators and characters. How are they related to the desk—what is the desk's importance to each?

4. Which of the narrators or characters are most sympathetic? Which ones are least sympathetic? Which story do you find most engaging? Least engaging?

5. Who is "Your Honor"—the judge whom Nadia addresses? What is the question that Nadia is pursuing in Israel? What epiphany does Nadia finally attain?

6. Recall Arthur's meditation on life's impermanence: he saw his life as...

a giant empty field where every day a circus erected and dismantled itself...from top to bottom, but never the same circus, so what hope did we really have of ever making sense of ourselves, let alone another?

What does he mean? Does his observation resonate with you? How is that observation played out over and over throughout this book?

7. Talk about Lotte's secret—and why she never shared it with her husband. Why had she never shared her secret with Arthur? Why did she do what she did?  Why at the end does Arthur do what he does with the scrap of paper?

8. Why Aaron and his story about Dov included as a narrator in this work? What is the significance of the chapter title his narration, "True Kindness"? What do you think will happen when he arrives at the hospital?

9. What is the thematic significance of George Weisz's observation about his role in locating goods looted by the Nazis:

My business has always been to listen.... Like a doctor, I listen without saying a word. But there's one difference: when all of the talking is through, I provide a solution. It's true, I can't bring the dead back to life. But I can bring back the chair they once sat in, the bed where they slept.

10. What power does Weisz have over his Yoav and Leah? Why do they behave so submissively toward him? Why does Leah withhold the location of the desk from her father?

11. How do you understand the last sentences of the book. Disappointment...and relief—for what...and why? 

11. Does the desk work as an organizing principle for this novel? Or does it make for a structually clumsy and confusing story?

12. What is the significance of the title, "Great House"?

13. In a New Yorker magazine interview (June 14, 2010), Krauss says that good fiction has the "ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation." Does Great House fulfill that goal for you?

14. Maureen Corrigan (NPR review) refers to Krauss as a "fiction us readers the thrill of seeing the novel stretched into amorphous new shapes." Do you agree that Krauss is a "pioneer"—does this novel break new ground? Why...or why not?

15. Is this book too cerebral—too intellectually driven—to hold your attention? Do you wish it had a stronger plot? Or do you find Krauss's philosophical explorations compelling?

16. If you've read Krauss's previous book, The History of Love, how do the two novels compare with each other? What similarities do they share?

17. Nicole Krauss is married to Jonathan Safran Foer. Is that cool, or what?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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