Book 104: Great House by Nicole Krauss
Great House by Nicole Krauss is like a savory bouillabaisse prepared by a promising, yet clumsy chef. You may first spoon up an exquisite text, but dip in a second time and you come away with a mystifying narrative that befuddles even the most attentive reader.
There are four narrators in Great House, three of the four have links to an imposing desk that carries the burden of a large, but elusive symbolic meaning. The fourth narrator, a Jewish man writing about his strained relationship with his son, seems to have no apparent connection with the other stories that comprise this novel.
Only seems to have no apparent connection. It's there, but it is all to easy to overlook. I owe Slate Magazine a debt of gratitude. Only after listening to a podcast on the novel did the connection become apparent to me.
That lack of clarity ruptures the pact between writer and reader, and is a serious flaw in such a serious work.
And Great House is flawed.
Many critics would not agree. In the New York Times, Rebecca Newberger Goldenstein found much to praise in Great House, and the book was shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Awards.
But the Slate podcast alone describes the book as: Fragmentary, mystifying, confusing and bleak, its characters imported from a European art house film and the writing, so distant and removed, that it feels as if it were "from behind a glass."
I list the criticism above because I find the observations valid and because it captures, accurately, much of my thinking on this book.
I also agree with Carlo Strenger, who wrote in his blog on Haaretz.com, "While it is, no doubt a masterpiece of novelistic writing, it leaves the reader with a sense of emptiness."
It is difficult to understand what Krauss is trying to say, to parse the deeper meaning buried in her characters and the narrative. As a reader, I am impatient with writers who force us to gut a novel like a chicken and spill out the entrails in search of meaning.
Far from compelling, the Great House characters emerge as dark, brooding figures, unlikable, and bowed by the weight of the symbolic tonnage vested in them by the author.
Krauss is a gifted writer and she is poised to emerge as an important literary voice. There are glimpses of her genius in Great House, but the promise is not fully realized.
Great House is not too my taste.