by Nicole Krauss
W. W. Norton & Company
$24.95 List Price
They say that if you dream of being inside a house, you are dreaming about the landscape of your own mind. Upstairs, downstairs, long corridors, vast foyers, dark passages, and mysteriously locked doors. Indulge this association: A desk, too, could haunt a writer's dreams. Massive yet rickety, loaded down with little drawers, one of which is locked with a missing key. Overlap a desk with a house—the task of a scribe, the container of a spirit—and the imagery veers into the religious. (Moses inscribing the Commandments, Saint Jerome translating the ancient texts, Rabbi Hillel conceiving of the Talmud.) At least it does, unmistakably, in Nicole Krauss's remarkable new novel, Great House.
Here both the desk (which is real) and the house (a tendril of an idea that emerges cumulatively) are weighted down with tremendous symbolism and combine to form the complex apparatus that unites five very different stories. Plowing a line through a dense plot, three continents, and more than half a century, the desk is at once an heirloom, a writer's space, and an incidental family tree. It passes from one person to another, from the beginning of World War II into the politicized 1970s and then to a kind of neutered yet spastic present day. The Holocaust stole it from its original hearth in Germany. It ended up in England, then New York, then pretended to go to Israel but really went into storage. The desk's odyssey traces a blood lineage, where history has thwarted actual familial bonds. As such, the desk and the stories of the people around it are the heart of a tiny Jewish diaspora.