When I opened Nicole Krauss’s Great House to reread, three typed sheets of notes fell out. I realized that I planned a rather epic blog post about it when I finished it in 2010, but there was so much to say that I think I just touched on a single line from the book. What Krauss attempts to do in this book is pretty immense–there are four narratives that are connected only by the fact that at some point one of the characters in each owned an enormous desk that took on a metaphorical life of its own–to a point where it represented a deep kind of loneliness.
There are a few lines in particular that give a name to what these characters long for: a sense of safety and being known:
“Negotiating this obstacle course, stripped of any sense of purpose, all I longed for was to be home in my childhood bedroom, tucked under the covers with their familiar smell.”
“It’s something amazing to feel that for the first time someone is seeing you as you really are, not as they wish you, or you wish yourself to be.”
One of the narrators is an Israeli man whose business is to track down items stolen during the Nazi era. At the end, he shares one of his favorite Jewish stories about how if all the Jewish memories and experiences were put together as holy fragments, the Great House, or the destroyed temple, would be metaphorically restored to its original self. “We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.” It seems to me that the rest of the book is about disconnected people fiercely trying to preserve the tiny part of the world that makes sense to them, which sometimes means tip-toeing through life and bearing its weight alone. These moments of narration were utterly gut wrenching:
“I came across you standing in the garden, a strange stiffness in your posture as if you carried a wooden yoke like the old Dutch, only instead of water it was great reserves of feeling that you wished not to spill.”
“In her work the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.”
“He who never dared to break it, and I who bowed to the borders drawn, the walls erected, the areas restricted, who turned away and never asked.”
As I’m trying to make sense of all of this, I am remembering now why I didn’t try to address the entire book six years ago–the weight of it is so immense, that the act of reading it is perhaps all there is to do. I remember finishing it in my studio apartment the first time thinking that all I could really do was start reading again at the beginning. This is the kind of book that is worth rereading because it gives a poignant look into the mess that is the human condition.