Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Great House

Nicole Krauss, Great House (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010). 289 pp. $24.95.

Last December, when I surveyed the year’s best Jewish books for Jewish Ideas Daily, I left Nicole Krauss’s Great House off the list. Although eight other women were listed, I was accused of being a “serious male chauvinist.” Wow, the last time I heard that expression I was still driving a Mazda GLC. But I get what I am being accused of. I really do—even if it is better to be a serious male chauvinist than a frivolous one. What I don’t understand, though, is how you trust a critic if you suspect that his recommendations are made, in part or whole, to avoid the unpleasantness of being called a bad name. The current rule of literary criticism that every book list must include a sufficient (but unspecified) proportion of women resembles nothing so much as the National Football League’s requirement that African American candidates must be interviewed for every coaching vacancy (no exceptions allowed). How does anyone, including the candidates themselves, know whether the African Americans are being taken seriously? How does the indignity compensate for the bias?

I left Great House off my list of the year’s best Jewish books because I didn’t think it was among the year’s best. I realize that Nicole Krauss is a woman, that she is married to Jonathan Safran Foer, that her novel was praised in the New York Times Book Review by Rebecca Goldstein (although I’m pretty sure I am not to suppose that Goldstein praised it because it was written by a woman), that it was nominated for the National Book Award, that Krauss’s last novel, The History of Love, is highly regarded by many readers. None of these is a particularly good reason, however, for believing that the novel is particularly good.

Great House is about the adventures of a desk that passes from writer to writer as it makes its way from Budapest through Hitler’s Reich to London and then to New York and from there to Jerusalem, then back to New York, coming to rest finally in a storage unit. “It was made of dark wood,” says one of the book’s four narrators, “and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer.”

One of the desk’s nineteen drawers is mysteriously locked, but when it comes to solving the mystery, as Ron Charles snapped in his Washington Post review, “[D]on’t bother.” The solution to the mystery is disappointing. Much the same could be said for the symbolism of the desk. It turns out to have been Nazi plunder, stolen from a Hungarian Jew who perished later in a death march, and like the Golem of Prague in Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, it symbolizes the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust. As Karen Long observed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The Holocaust is offstage, and ever-present.” It “overshadows every breath taken in Great House,” Frances Guerin wrote reverently at the blog FX Reflects.

Which distinguishes Nicole Krauss very little from other young Jewish writers, three generations removed from the Jewish struggle to inform the world about the Holocaust, and in whose fiction it is “ever-present,” even when it is “offstage.” It “overshadows” any other fact or value of being Jewish. Ruth Wisse once told me that the world learned from the Holocaust how easy it is to kill Jews. Young Jews apparently learned how easy it is to be sad, and proud of one’s sadness.

That sadness dominates Great House like clutter in a house where no one picks up after himself. All of the characters in the novel are sad—the four narrators, the men and women they love and have lost, their parents and children, the people they know or meet in passing (there are no friends in the book)—while none even tries to find any occasion for joy. Two lines in Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, about a major league catcher dying of cancer, could have served as Krauss’s epigraph. “It is sad,“ says one teammate; “it makes you want to cry.” “It is sad,” counters another; “it makes you want to laugh.”

But the general dismalness suits Krauss’s purpose. Readers are more likely to pay attention to the intricate carving of a prose style if they are not encouraged to hurry on to the next part. And sure enough, at the Huffington Post, Jane Byrne claimed that Krauss “cannot write a bad sentence: pound for pound, the sentences alone deliver epiphany upon epiphany. . . .” It would be more truthful, though, to say that Krauss cannot write a simple sentence. To borrow a phrase from the late Wilfrid Sheed, as recalled by his friend John Simon in a tribute published in the Weekly Standard, her prose is “fine sentence-by-sentence writing at the expense of form.”

In her review, Rebecca Goldstein tried to put the best possible face on this defect in the novel. Its narrative structure, she said, “mirror[s] the characters’ own shattering and require[s] readers to reassemble the full story for themselves.” Or, in other words, her readers are required to piece together a coherent story, because Krauss chooses epiphany—giving the appearance of divinity to her prose—over storytelling. The result is a hard slog:

Now his face crumbled, but just for a fraction of a second, really, resuming its former appearance so quickly that someone else might have missed it altogether. But I caught it, and as it crumbled I saw through to another face, the face one wears alone, or not even alone, the face one wears asleep or unconscious on the gurney, and in it I recognized something. This is going to sound foolish, but though I lived with Lotte and, as far as I knew, this Daniel had never met her at all, in that instant I felt that he and I were aligned in some way, aligned in our position toward her, and that it was only a matter of degrees that separated us. It was absurd, of course. After all, I was the one keeping him from whatever it was he wanted from her. It was a mere projection of myself onto this young man clutching his briefcase in front of the skeleton of my hydrangeas. But how else are we to make decisions about others?Although Krauss uses such tangible words as face and briefcase and hydrangeas, the epiphany in this passage does not belong to any world in which faces and briefcases and hydrangeas are real and tangible. Her perceptions belong to a dream world, glistering and poignant, in which people do not meet, but encounter each other in word-choked solitude. In the end, the book is a flimsy poplin of these splendid perceptions, symbols, and quivers of feeling in which even the allusion to such hard and unforgiving events as death marches and Nazi plunder are out of place, because they belong to a different world.

But I don’t mean to give the impression that Great House is merely a technical flop, a dreary overlong book of less than three hundred pages. The worst thing about the novel is its image of man. Fairly early on, one of the narrators—the only one whose story is not connected to the haunted wandering desk from the Holocaust—explains what he is doing in the novel: namely, setting forth Krauss’s theme. An Israeli, he tries to guide his son:Sitting in the garden wrapped in a shawl, recovering from your forays into the world, you read books on the alienation of modern man. What does modern man have on the Jews? I demanded. . . . The Jews have been living in alienation for thousands of years. For modern man it’s a hobby. What can you learn from those books that you weren’t born knowing already?The Jew, in short, is the symbol of man’s unhappiness, his estrangement from a world that (only recently) he has discovered is monstrous and bitter. This is not a particularly Jewish sentiment to be heard from a Jewish writer. As the late Irving Kristol pointed out in a 1947 essay recently reprinted in The Neoconservative Persuasion, this is much closer to the Christian conception of the Jew. Kristol called it “The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew.”

On this conception, the Jew is both cursed and divine: “He is high up to the heavens, and he is low to the very depths of hell, but never does the Jew stand with two feet upon earth.” He is, in short, a symbol and not a man. Historically the Jews have suffered badly from being treated as supra-human, but there is nevertheless a tendency among some Jewish intellectuals and writers “to accept the stigma and glorify in it.” For many other Jews, though, living after the “efficient massacre of European Jewry,” the myth is intolerable. Many post-Holocaust Jews would prefer a “debasement to the human.” And if nothing else, Kristol concludes, the abandonment of the myth would require that adistinction is drawn between that concept of the “chosen people” which plays a unique role in Jewish theology—as an affirmation of the loving contract between God and man—and the more modern interpretations that are based, in one form or another, directly or by reaction, upon the stigma of the supra-natural Jew. Judaism is neither a divinely intoxicated form of liberalism nor an intellectual’s masochistic apologia for the historical sufferings and present alienation of the Jews. It is a religion—and a religion of quite ordinary men.An ordinary religion in an ordinary world of quite tangible objects and sometimes unbearable events does not appeal to Nicole Krauss, however. What she prefers is a world that is not real, in which nothing really happens.


Guy Pursey said...

Private Eye has this on the technical failures, which also seems to apply to the excerpt you included:

"[C]ertainly a portentous subject can sometimes demand a portentous treatment. Here, on the other hand, large numbers of the incidental flourishes look as if they were welded on with a metaphorical blowtorch, in an attempt to invest what sometimes seem to be quite mundane gestures and behavioural tics with a significance they may not actually possess."

I haven't read the book myself but doubt I shall be rushing to it after two negative reviews.

D. G. Myers said...

Excellent criticism, excellently phrased. Thanks, Guy.

Can you post the URL?

Guy Pursey said...

Looking at what's available currently, they probably don't make a habit of putting the Literary Review section online. Still, the current issue isn't even up yet so perhaps it'll make an appearance soon.

Lee said...

I found The History of Love inane. Take the last lines: 'He fell in love. It was his life.' No man that I've ever known would behave this way; most, when faced with a comparable loss, move on in far less time that we care to admit. Though it's a risky argument in general, Krauss was (or is) rather too young to understand the span of human nature - and particularly to portray an elderly man.

This, coupled with your view, means I'm likely not to bother with Great House. Even if it's written by a fellow woman.

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

I don't claim any particular expertise in Jewish or Holocaust literature, but it seems to me that Krauss could do with reading some I.B. Singer. Perhaps then she wouldn't feel the need to bludgeon her readers with sadness and self-aware referrals to the Holocaust.

I may be revealing an appalling ignorance and an inability to not read too much into writing, but I find, after Appelfeld, that Singer's writing is among the best fiction I've read that addresses the Holocaust.

In showing what was destroyed, rather than explaining how it felt to survive, he provokes a sadness I'm unable to articulate. Yet his writing is still joyful, comic, poignant and serious - without the maudlin victim hood you seem to see in Great House.

It may be unfair to Krauss to make such a comparison, but it is one I can't help but make.


Meytal Radzinski said...

Several interesting things in this review. I haven't read Great House, but I wasn't very taken with The History of Love. I can easily imagine the various shorcomings in Krauss' most recent novel, though I wouldn't assume that readers who praise it do so out of a conscious need to do so. Readers have different tastes. They like different things. That will always be the case.

Shelley said...

You're right: nothing matters except the quality of the writing.

Other criteria should be used not to assess the book, but to assess ourselves: potential blindnesses or assumptions which may or may not be operating on our thinking.

Reinoud said...

I like your blog, thank you.

Philippines properties said...

That seems interesting! I want to see that "Great House" can you post some picture of it? Thanks for sharing.


D. G. Myers said...

No, ’fraid not.

Really funny spam, though.