Please Note: The following summary is a spoiler. My primary reason for studying this book was to note how an object of furniture can play a significant role in both a story and a book. I also read this book as a study of books told from multiple perspectives.
On one level, Nicole Krauss’s book Great House is about an old writing desk that had nineteen drawers. On another level, the book is a series of stories about the family who had originally owned the desk, and the desk becomes the common thread of the stories. Great House is told from multiple perspectives.
I Part 1 of the book and in the subsection “All Rise,” the year is 1972 and Nadia, a writer, acquires the desk from the fictional Chilean poet Daniel Varsky, who suggests that the desk may originally have belonged to Lorca, who was an actual person.
In 1972, Nadia takes possession of Varsky’s furniture, including his desk. She had recently divorced, and she had no furniture. She agreed to keep Varsky’s furniture until he returned for it.
A few years later, Varsky was assassinated.
In 1999, a person claiming to be named Leah Weisz and the daughter of Daniel Varsky called, saying that she wanted to reclaim her father’s desk.
While waiting for the person who called herself Leah to come and take the desk away, Nadia realizes that the desk was more than a piece of furniture to her and says the following about it:
“I looked across the room at the wooden desk at which I had written seven novels, and on whose surface, in the cone of light cast by a lamp, lay the piles of pages and notes that were to constitute an eighth. One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now, on the cusp of their being suddenly taken from me, had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life, an order than when m work was going well, took on an almost mystical quality. Nineteen drawers of varying size some below the desktop and some above, whose [p. 30] mundane occupations (stamps here, paper clips there) had a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed, to write. Those drawers represented a singular logic deeply embedded, a pattern of consciousness that could be articulated in no other way but their precise number and arrangement.” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, pgs. 30-31.
The second Segment, “True Kindness,” introduces Dov, Dov’s son, and Dov’s brother Uri. In this segment, we are also introduced to the house:
“WE STOOOD in the hall of the house that had once been all of our house, a house that had been filled with life, every last room of it brimming with laughter, arguments, tears, dust the smell of food, pain, desire, anger, and silence, too, the tightly coiled silence of people pressed up against each other in what is called a family.” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, p. 106.
The brothers leave the house, and twenty-five years later, one returns:
“And just like that you walked back into the house that you had left so long ago. I heard your footsteps slowly ascend the stairs.
“Were they the lepers, Dov, those other kids? It that why you held yourself apart? Or was it you And the two of us, closed up together in this house–are the saved or the condemned?”
“A long silence while you must have stood at the threshold of your old room. Then the creak of the floorboards, and the sound of your door closing again after twenty-five years.” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, p. 113.
In the third section, “Swimming Holes,” we discover that the desk is in the apartment of Lotte Berg, who lived in England. Her apartment overlooked a section of bombed ruins:
“Many times I saw Lotte staring at those ruins with their solitary chimneys. The first time I visited her room I was amazed at how little was in it. She’d been in England for almost ten years by then, but, aside from her desk, there were only a few sticks of plain furniture, and much later I came to understand that in a certain way the walls and ceiling of her own room were as nonexistent to here as those across the street.
” Her desk, however, was something else entirely. In that simple, small room it overshadowed everything else like some sort of grotesque, threatening monster, clinging to most of one wall and bullying the other pathetic bit of furniture to the far corner, where they seemed to cling together, as if under some sinister magnetic force. It was made of dark wood and above the writing surface was a wall of drawers, drawers of totally impractical sizes, like the desk of a medieval sorcerer. Except that every last drawer was empty, something that I discovered one evening while waiting for Lotte, who had gone down the hall to use the lavatory, and which somehow made the desk, the specter of that enormous desk, really more like a ship than a desk, a ship riding a pitch-black sea in the dead of a moonless night with no hope of land in any direction, even more unnerving. It [p. 126] was, I always thought, a very masculine desk. At times, or from time to time when I came to pick her up, I even felt a kind of strange, inexplicable jealousy overtake me when she opened the door and there, hovering behind her, threatening to swallow her up, was that tremendous body of furniture.
“‘One day I got up the courage to ask her where she had found it. She was as poor as a church mouse….her answer plunged me into despair: It was a gift, she said. …nothing more was said on the subject.” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, pgs. 126-27.
Lotte moves into the apartment of her lover [the narrator of this section], who had hoped that she would leave the desk behind, but she did not.
“I heard a pounding at the door, and there it was, resting on the landing, its dark, almost ebony, wood gleaming with a vengeance.” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, p. 130.
A young man named Daniel Varsky visited Lotte, and she gave the desk to him. Lotte’s lover didn’t undertand why, but he discovered that Lotte had given up her own son who was about the same age as Daniel Varsky.
In the fourth section, the year is 1998, and Isabel oIzzy, the narrator of this story, meets and falls in love with Yoav Weisz. Yoav and his sister Leah were living in England in a Victorian house owned by their father George Weisz. He was an antique dealer, and he spent most of his time traveling to buy antiques. While the father was away, the narrator lived in the house with Yoav and Leah.
The father is haunted by memories of his own childhood home before the Nazis took away his parents and stole its lavish furnishings. George Weisz is obsessed with finding all of the furniture again. George Weisz discovers that Nadia has the desk in New York, and He sent Leah there to reclaim it.
During this segment, we discover that Leah and Yoav’s mother had died when Leah was seven and Yoav was eight. For years, their father essentially locked them in their home and removed them from society. During this time, the family moved a lot, and the family’s lifestyle becomes questionable.
We discover in this section that George Weisz uses a walking stick that has a silver ram at the top.
At the beginning of Part Two the brothers Uri and Dov are living in Israel. Cov has become increasingly sullen, and people like Uri. Do announces that he is moving to England. In this segment, Dov and Uri’s father is the narrator, and he expresses his grief about how Do had become more and more disenchanted with and withdrawn from life. The father comments that Dov had even given up on his decision to beDov and Uri’s father is a judge, and from the time that we first met Nadia, she seems to be telling her story to a judge.
In the second segment of Part Two, “All Rise,” Nadia has gone to Jerusalem. It seems that she has a need to reconnect with the desk, and Leah had left her address as living at Ha’Oren Street in Israel.
In Israel, Nadia meets a young man named Adam, who she thinks looks very much like Daniel Varsky. She also thought that Leah had looked like Varsky. Adam becomes Nadia’s driver and drives her to the address at Ha’Oren Street. The man there says that he doesn’t know anything about the desk, and that no one named Leah is at his house. That man is Leah’s father George Weisz. He walks with Weisz’s walking stick.
Adam robs Nadia, and Nadia, in turn, takes Adam’s roommate’s car and begins driving. En route, she runs over the judge, who is now in the hospital. Nadia is at his bedside telling him this story.
In the next segment of Part Two, also titled “Swimming Holes,” Lotte dies and her husband of fifty years begins consulting a man name Gottlieb about the creation of his will. The lover tells Gottlieb about Lotte’s desk:
“To call it a desk is to say too little. The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of the work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always poised to offer up its back for its owner to make use of, and which, when not in use, occupies its allotted space with humility. Well, I told Gottlieb, you can cancel that image immediately. This desk was something else entirely: an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room in inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers. Perhaps you think I’m making a caricature of it. I don’t blame you. You’d have to have seen the desk with your own eyes to understand that what I’m telling you is perfectly [p. 370] accurate. It took up almost half of her rented room. The first time she allowed me to stay the night with her in that tiny pathetic bed that cowered in the shadow of the desk, I woke up in a cold sweat. It loomed above us, a dark and shapeless form.” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, pgs. 370-71.
Lotte’s husband wants Gottlieb to find Lotte’s son, and Gottlieb did find the names and address of the people who had adopted the child. Lotte’s husband, who is finally named Arthur Bender, goes to Liverpool to try to meet the son, but when he speak’s to the adoptive mother, the mother tells Bender that her son had died twenty-seven years earlier.
In the end, George Weisz realizes that his daughter Lotte had double-crossed him and that instead of delivering the desk to her father in Israel, she had hid it from him by locking it in a New York City Storage Unit. George Weisz tracks down the address where the desk is stored, he pays $1,000 to spend only one hour with the desk:
“I opened the door. The room was cold, and had no window. For an instant I almost believed I would find my father stooped over the desk, his pen moving across the page. But the tremendous desk stood alone, mute and uncomprehending. Three or four drawers hung open, all of them empty. But the one I locked as a child, sixty-six years later was locked still. I reached out and touched the surface of the desk. There were a few scratches, but otherwise those who had sat at it had left no mark. ” Krauss, Nicole. Great House, p. 431.
©Jacki Kellum September 28, 2016
Jacki Kellum Read This Book September 28, 2016