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Conversation: Nicole Krauss’ ‘Great House’

It’s a looming and inspirational antique desk, passed through different hands over generations and connecting each character in Nicole Krauss’ latest novel, “Great House.”

Four narrators weave their own stories investigating the effects of loss, loneliness and deep uncertainty. From a poet in Chile to a New York novelist, these characters, like those in Krauss’ last novel, “The History of Love,” tell the story of what it means to inherit something both physical and emotional.

“Great House” is also a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award. I spoke to Krauss last week while she was in Washington.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nicole Krauss, welcome.


JEFFREY BROWN: This is a novel that explores what you call, the burden of inheritance. What do you mean by that?

NICOLE KRAUSS: When I started writing “Great House” I had become a mother about a year-and-a-half earlier, and one of the things I found myself writing about was this enormous desk, which for a long time I didn’t know sort of what the significance of it was. And at some point I wrote a story, a short story about this desk that was published. I thought that was the end of it. And found that I couldn’t stop thinking about this desk. Meanwhile it got collected in an anthology, and I was asked to write what was the inspiration of the story. So I sat down at my own desk to sort of think about this, and I had one of these sort of revelatory moments that sometimes happens in writing when you suddenly realize that what you thought was an invention, what you thought was just pure imagination actually comes from your life. So the desk that I was writing about in the story — I know this sounds crazy, as I talk about it now it seems so obvious — but I didn’t realize what I was writing was the desk that I write at, this enormous desk that extends up one wall and is really quite overbearing. And just like the character in the story, Nadia, I inherited the desk. In my case not from a Chilean poet who later disappears but.

JEFFREY BROWN: You made up the rest.

NICOLE KRAUSS: Right. But I inherited it from the former owner of the house. And I began to think about how I hated this desk. I wished I could get rid of it, and yet something in me wouldn’t allow for that. It’d be a waste. You’d have to chop it up to get it down the stairs. It was built into the room and all that. So I began to think about this idea of the burden of inheritance. Now as I said at the same time I was a new mother, and of course I wasn’t writing about furniture, I wasn’t writing about physical objects really. I think what I thinking about was the idea of what is it that our parents pass down to us emotionally in terms of moods, griefs, sadnesses, angles at which we view and face the world and what then do we pass down often unknowingly to our children. This became a subject of great intense importance to me as I was facing the idea of bringing up my own child.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the desk became a way of reaching out and pulling in a group of characters, disparate characters who to the reader seem unconnected at least for a good while.

NICOLE KRAUSS: And they seemed to the author unconnected for a very good while.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was curious about that. So you had to connect them.

NICOLE KRAUSS: Yeah. Well, that’s the place where I like to start. I like to throw myself in a position where I have many sort of remote points and they’re each alive to me, each of these characters is somehow important to me and I don’t understand why. I don’t understand who they are and why they are the way they are. And I had this sense that they all come from the same mind, my own. So there must be a coherence there. And it’s part of my work as the writer to find that coherence and I have this sense that whatever architecture of echoes and symmetries will be created among these moving parts, these remote characters and stories will be far more interesting then what they each might be if they kind of stand alone. You had said the desk is the thing that connects them and I think it is one of the things that connects them. It’s a very hard novel to describe. When I was writing the novel I tried to think of it as almost a novel without a center. So many novels have a main protagonist or they’re set in a central place and everything takes place in that city or that landscape, or they have one strong idea. And I was interested in doing something very different.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s of course very interesting, because you’re in a sense then putting — I’ll use the word burden, although I’m not sure I mean burden, but you’re putting that on us as the reader to unlock that puzzle a little bit. You’re not giving us a straight forward narrative.

NICOLE KRAUSS: If the book is a mystery to its author as she’s writing, inevitably it’s going to be a mystery to the reader as he or she reads it. And that became something quite interesting to me, which is to say that as I was writing it I was very aware of my own uncertainty. And I held myself as a kind of willful uncertainty, because I felt that if stuck with that long enough I could reach an unknown place. I would find out, I would discover things. If I know in advance what I’m going to write, then in a way what’s the point of writing, there’s no revelation. But as I stayed in this, stuck with this sense of doubt, first of all it seeped into my characters. The characters are filled with all kinds of doubt. They’re struggling with self doubt and the moral doubt of whether or not in the case of one character he is a good father or the doubt of how much we can ever fully know each other. So my doubt became my characters’ doubt, and then on this third level it becomes yours, the reader’s doubt. And that was something I was very aware of it. I know that I was asking a lot of my reader, but I wanted to sort of write a book where the reader has to dwell with the characters with the writer in this kind of place of uncertainty to consider what it is to make a life, to stake one’s tent in the shadow of uncertainty, which to me is the only place we’re given to live. We have to make decisions without knowing.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is that what the book then became about for you? I was using the shorthand of the desk connecting, and I understand what you’re saying, that’s just one piece of it. I could name loss, doubt and memory, of course, right? Everybody’s looking back through own lives and connecting to memories of history, as well, whether it’s Chile, the Holocaust, etc. But is there a something that it ended up being about for you?

NICOLE KRAUSS: All of those things. I mean it’s in a way too — it would be too easy to write and ultimately it would be for me a less rich novel if it were about only one of those things. I’m interested in all of those things and in how they knock and echo and connect off each other. The themes are doing that, the characters are doing that, the stories are doing that, so you have these many different levels of parts, which are in concert with each other. I almost think of it as this kind of moving galaxy of parts and planets and stars that are all held together by a force, an intellectual force, I hope, an emotional force. Both of those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And all of that adds up to what you call the “Great House.”


JEFFREY BROWN: But playing with form — I mean, as I’m talking to you, playing with form sounds as important to you as the characters, the story. I don’t if it’s as important, but it sounds very important to you.

NICOLE KRAUSS: I think that’s true and I think the way I would put is that I feel that — I mean, one of the great privileges of writing a novel and one of the things that makes it A very anxious undertaking is that as a form it’s very ill-defined. When you think of other artistic forms — a symphony, for example, or a sonnet — there’s a clear sense of what the things should be. A novel — what can we say about a novel? It has a beginning and an end, it’s a long story. But more than that we don’t really know, and I feel that that’s an enormous opportunity that is given to the novelist and every time she sits down to write a novel it’s up to her to define for herself, for her readers, for that book what the form is. And I feel like to not seize that privilege somehow is in a way a less interesting way of writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, sort of on that subject, I can’t help but notice the centrality of books and literature to many of the characters in this novel. A couple of them are writers, others are really great readers. We don’t seem to live in a time where that’s true for most people anymore.

NICOLE KRAUSS: It’s certainly true in my life. I think I am who I am because of the books that I read, and I think of myself still as first and foremost a reader and then following that a writer. But I’m aware that both in my last novel “The History of Love,” where there was a book that was a center that connected all the characters, and now here is this desk, which is at least one of the components that connects, that these are objects that are saturated with the possibilities of literature. I do feel like I’ve staked my life on this, which is this idea that literature affords us this absolutely unique possibility in no other moment in life. Really, I think again in no other art form can you step so directly, so vividly without any mediation into another’s inner life. You are stepping fully into this stream of what it is to be another person. And I think when you do that, you inevitably form a kind of compassion. It teaches a kind of empathy. So for me this is like a great value of literature. It’s also again for me, somebody who’s obviously — all my characters are often solitary, they’re struggling with that solitude, but they are not content with it. They would like to move beyond it, to transcend it to express themselves to others in a way that I think they all feel is possible. And it’s no accident that literature becomes a kind of singular way for many of them to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The novel is “Great House.” Nicole Krauss, thanks for talking to us.

NICOLE KRAUSS: Thank you for having me.

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