Book Review: Great House

By Nicole Krauss

From the back cover: “A heartbreaking meditation on loss and memory and how they construct our lives.”

I’m full of loss and memory. When my parents divorced my dad went to live with his friend Bruce, sleeping on a futon in the basement. Bruce was a very eccentric hippy who had inherited a fortune and a very great house that was filled with exquisitely cool furniture and decoration and details that defy explanation. One room was full of the most 1970s style furniture and asthetic, with shag rugs and bright colors; another was furnished with dark, rich mahogony wood antiques, with mother-of-pearl inlay and 1920s Art Deco style details; there was an enormous pool table in a room with red velvet wall coverings; the living room had a skylight full of ferns hanging over a slate stone coffee table surrounded by low sitting white leather couches that made the room feel like a garden. More: the t.v. was one of those huge consoles from the early days of home entertainment, over two meters long and one meter wide that included a stereo and record player and boasted of “hi-fi” sound; a hot tub, of course; an iron stove in the kitchen and the first microwave I had ever seen; a spiral staircase that led to a second floor sunroom with wicker furniture and three massive fish tanks. I visited Graceland, Elvis’ famously eccentric house, and seriously, Bruce’s was wilder and better in so many ways. Bruce also owned a 1950s Studebaker AND a DeLorean before the DeLorean became famous in Back to the Future, but he drove a Harley Davidson (Don’t ever try to outrun a State Trooper, he told me, with a swollen nose and two black eyes. It only ends bad.) And a customized brown van with carpeting, swivel seats and a stained glass window. The distinguishing feature of this great house, you see, was the stained glasswork. Everywhere. Bruce and my dad were professional stained glass… well, “artists” seems like a stretch, but certainly artesans. They were constantly designing and making and selling lamps, windows, window hangings, mirrors, garden accessories, candle lanterns, etc., etc. The house was completely full of their work. The basement was a workshop, and the whole great house was a studio. One particular piece stands out in my memory. On the back porch, where the hot tub (which Bruce also built himself out of wood), one entire wall was removed and replaced with a stained glass wall with an intricate Chinese dragon design that also served as a sliding door opening into the garden. The detail is so vivid in my mind’s eye. Speaking of the garden, the last time I saw Bruce, in 2008, he invited my sister and I over to see the giant glass and stained glass pyramid, with copper pipe framing, that he had constructed in, or, better, over his back yard. It was a small, (small being about 10 meters in length and width at the base and maybe just as high) scale replica of the famous I.M. Pei pyramid outside la Louvre. The top half of the pyramid was beautiful stained glass windows, but it was open below. It was incredible. My lasting memory of Bruce is him standing in the center of the pyramid that day and showing off his expert nunchuck skills. Nunchucks!

My father got his own place eventually, but continued making lamps and windows, but then remarried and that part of his life slowly faded away. I have three pieces of my dad’s here with me in Spain. The most precious is this lamp that he gave us for our wedding present.

This is the only piece of furniture I have any concern for or connection with. My father made it. It’s a beautiful gift and it reminds me of Bruce’s great house. My children understand that if one of them breaks it, let’s say with a thrown pillow or stray football, they will be immediately escorted out of the home and not allowed to return until further notice. If our home caught on fire, it’d be the only thing, besides photos, that I’d really be upset to have lost. I might be sad about my childhood Teddy as well, but that’s a different sentiment.

All of this gets us to the book, Great House, and the desk at the center of the story. The connection that different characters develop with the desk, and the way the desk connects the characters is what got me thinking about my father’s lamp and the history behind it. I have a photo somewhere of my son as a baby, with his head on my shoulder, staring at the soft light of the lamp. The photo would just be another photo if the lamp was from Ikea. But this photo is my new son connecting with the spirit of my father, through a lamp. The story behind lamp, the sentiment and emotion it imbues … Wait… How can an inanimate object like a lamp or a desk imbue sentiment or emotion? Exactly. But they do. Memory, nostalgia, sentiment. Animism is the belief that all things, even inanimate, contain a soul or a spirit. I hold on to sea shells and pens, dried flowers or bird feathers, teddy bears or tea cups, because I’m somehow connected to the spirit inside these objects, the memories and lessons they inspire.

The desk in Great House inspires a succession of writers, and much of the book details the delicate and deceiving dance of the writer’s muse. The author describes the deepest turmoils and turbulations of the characters most affected by the decades long voyage of the desk through Nazi occupied Budapest to London and New York. Its owners and their friends and family discover their connection to the desk is far more meaningful than they understood. The inner lives of these characters are deeply explored, and it seems the author believes that we are all, in our deepest places, speaking to ourselves with the same voice. The voice, tone, cadence, motivation, ideas and emotions of an elderly Jewish man are virtually the same as a middle aged American woman from the Midwest. This is my one quip with the writer. Whereas The Slap was very adept at creating and showing different characters and perspectives, most of the characters here seem to feel the same inside. That is, their internal thoughts, (there is almost no dialogue in the story… it’s all happening in retrospect) all not only sound the same as written, but are not distinguishable from the character in the previous chapter. Not everyone can experience memories and loss, and loss of memories, the same. Right? And if they do, at least each of us would use our own way to describe it. In this book, each character’s way is the author’s way.

It is, however, beautifully expressed: “… I thought of my childhood, of my mother and father who are both dead now, but whose child I cannot escape being any more than I can escape the nauseatingly familiar dimensions of my mind. Now I am fifty, Your Honor. I know that nothing will change for me. That soon, maybe not tomorrow or next week, but soon enough the walls around me and the roof above me will rise again, exactly as they were before, and the answer to the question that brought them down will be stuffed into a drawer and locked away. That I will go on again as I always have, with or without the desk. Do you understand, Your Honor? Can you see that it is too late for me? What else would I become? Who would I be? “

Despite my criticism about the author not making the character’s inner thoughts more distinctive in voice and person, it’s probably true that most people who have felt like this and have had “a heartbreaking meditation on loss and memory and how they construct our lives,” would express it in fairly the same way. I know I have, and I know I do.

I found Great House in an empty classroom. It has these notes scribbled and crossed out inside the back cover. Fascinating. Like a bonus chapter of the inner workings of a person’s mind.

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