Great House

My last review for 2010 (!) is of Nicole Krauss’ Great House. Having not read Krauss’ former novels (but also having received many a glowing recommendation for her last book, The History of Love) I was looking forward to the book without much in the way of preconceptions. I also thought the premise–four stories connected by one object–was rather elegant and intriguing.

As to my thoughts now that I’ve finished the book, I’ll let the review stand on its own. It was originally published on The Second Pass, and the full text is below.

***

The premise of Nicole Krauss’ highly anticipated third novel, Great House, is elegant in its simplicity: four stories connected by one object. The object is a writing desk — at turns inspiring and ominous — which has occupied cramped quarters in New York, Jerusalem, London, and Budapest. Imbued with the experiences, imaginings, failures, and losses of each of the people who have sat and worked at it, the desk is seen by one of Krauss’ five narrators as a “grotesque, threatening monster,” yet symbolizes “a kind of guiding if mysterious order” for another. It is an imposing piece, intrinsically metaphorical, and described as having “[n]ineteen drawers of varying size, some below the desktop and some above, whose mundane occupations (stamps here, paper clips there) hid a far more complex design…”

The desk has an autonomy and character of its own, but it doesn’t actually occupy much space in Great House. Krauss uses it as a point of departure — or sometimes a point of return — in the four stories that comprise the novel. While these tales are loosely connected by the desk, they run parallel more than they intersect, dipping in and out of the lives of powerfully voiced individuals. Krauss is virtuosic in her ability to create characters, to make idiosyncratic and completely unique lives for her cast: an isolated, desperate American author named Nadia; an embittered Israeli father writing unanswered letters to his estranged son; a widower discovering unimagined secrets about the reticent wife with whom he spent most of his life; and an antiques dealer who specializes in seeking objects confiscated from their owners during World War II. Each individual has his or her own speech pattern and quirky turns of phrase, which Krauss artfully juggles throughout.

Her skill with language extends to evocative images. She describes a son’s voice “unraveling like a ribbon dropped from a roof” as he plans the details of his mother’s funeral. The reader walks with her through a maze-like castle, winding down dark corridors and up twisting staircases until arriving in the drafty turret room of a young boy, “one of those animal burrows one finds in children’s books . . . only instead of descending down under the earth we had ascended into the sky.” Through the eyes of another character, we’re shown an “enormous, vaulted room” in Jerusalem where a grand piano is “hanging from the ceiling in place of a chandelier,” swaying just slightly. On occasion, Krauss’ evocative descriptions feel a bit over-determined and forced, such as in a passage where a man’s sadness “seeped out of him . . . blooming into the atmosphere the way the water around a harpooned seal fills with a cloud of blood.” But in most passages, her mastery of language — of rhythmic, descriptive speech — is stunning.

It’s somewhat disappointing, then, that the promise of the novel’s beginning falls short as the plot lines begin to converge in the second half. As characters from one story encounter those from another, as secrets are revealed and explanations offered, the result is anticlimactic. According to Krauss, in a recent interview with The Atlantic, she “…didn’t want to write a novel with any kind of easy connective tissue. I wanted to, in fact, do the opposite. I wanted to see how long I could hold these stories at a distance from each other so that the connections wouldn’t necessarily happen with easy plot choices.” This may be an admirable approach, eschewing the sort of artificially resonant last-minute links that can undercut an otherwise strong piece of fiction. But while each of the stories in Great House feels meaningful on its own, the connections between them continue to feel arbitrary in the end. Krauss connects her characters through the desk. More pointedly, they are similar in their loneliness, their isolation, and the looming specters of their memories. But aren’t most strangers?

 

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Nordic Literature Prize Nominees Announced

The nominees for the 2011 Nordic Literature Prize were announced this morning. Here’s the list:

Denmark

Josefine Klougart

Stigninger og fald

Novel, Rosinante, 2010

Harald Voetmann

Vågen

Novel, Gyldendal, 2010

Finland

Erik Wahlström

Flugtämjaren

Novel, Schildts, 2010

Kristina Carlson

Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (Herr Darwins trädgårdsmästare)

Novel, Otava, 2009 (Swedish translation, Janina Orlov)

Iceland

Gyrðir Elíasson

Milli trjánna (Bland träden)

Short stories, Uppheimar, 2009, (Swedish translation, John Swedenmark)

Ísak Harðarson

Rennur upp um nótt (Stiger upp om natten)

Poems, Uppheimar, 2009, (Swedish translation, John Swedenmark)

Norway

Beate Grimsrud

En dåre fri

Novel, Cappelen Damm, 2010

Carl Frode Tiller

Innsirkling 2

Novel, Aschehoug, 2010

Sweden

Beate Grimsrud

En dåre fri

Novel, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2010

Anna Hallberg

Colosseum, Kolosseum

Poetry Collection, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2010

Faroe Islands

Tóroddur Poulsen

Útsýni (Utsikt)

Poetry collection, Mentunargrunnur Studentafelagsins, 2009, (Swedish translation, Anna Mattsson)

Greenland

Kristian Olsen Aaju

Kakiorneqaqatigiit (Det tatoverede budskab)

Novel, Forlaget Atuagkat, 2010

Åland Islands

Sonja Nordenswan

Blues från ett krossat världshus

Novel, PQR-kultur, 2009

The Sami Language Area

Kerttu Vuolab

Bárbmoáirras (Paradisets stjerne)

Novel, Davvi Girji OS, 2008

 

I must shamefully admit that I don’t know the work of any of these authors. That may have a great deal to do with their relative lack of availability in English, but I’ll still do some investigating, just in case. As ever, we can hope that at least the winner of the prize will make it into English in the coming years…

An Average of 552 Words a Day is Actually Not So Bad

November 2010 marked my first foray into the world of frenetic, “seat-of-your-pants” fiction writing. It also marks my semi-triumphant return to fiction writing in general, after a few years hiatus spent writing reviews, starting a library Master’s, and allowing my waning fictional inspiration to percolate a bit.

I didn’t undertake the goal of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is to write 50,000 words, or 175 pages, in one month. Rather, I wanted to use the structure of the contest to challenge myself to think about and make time for more creatively-inclined writing again. November was a particularly busy month for me–I won’t bore you with the details, but trust me–so it seemed like a particularly appropriate time to undertake this challenge. If I can make time for writing fiction in the midst of a fairly chaotic schedule of obligations, deadlines, holidays, and social events, I should be able to make time for it always.

The result? 17,090 words in 30 days, or one non-fiction travel essay and the start of a Clue-inspired mystery set in Red Hook, Brooklyn. It didn’t make the official goal by half, and I fell short of the more modest goal of 20,000 words that I set for myself, and yet, I’m feeling pretty good about it.

And a big, super-duper shout out to my “not-really-a-writer” friend of friends in AZ, who not only met the daily quota, but exceeded the 50K word goal. Consider yourself an authoress, Lulu!