I didn’t deliberately plan that this month’s library discussion group novel would tie into Passover week, but so it turned out. Nicole Krauss’s Great House is essentially a book about Diaspora Jews trying to find meaning in their lives in the decades after World War II. The novel involves four separate families—or three families and a single woman—who feel cut off and alone, and the stories themselves appear to have no connection to each other. The characters are like the dreamers in a haunting story created by the child of an Israeli lawyer who bears the emotional scars of the Holocaust. Perhaps because the father is unsettled by the image of his own deeply buried pain, he quashes his child’s budding imagination. Revisiting the moment years later in a confessional letter to his son, he writes,
I don’t support the plan, I told you. Why? you demanded, with angry little eyes. What will you write? I asked. You told me a convoluted story about four, six, maybe eight people all lying in rooms joined by a system of electrodes and wires to a great white shark. All night the shark floats suspended in an illuminated tank, dreaming the dreams of these people. No, not the dreams, the nightmares, the things too difficult to bear. So they sleep, and through the wires the terrifying things leave them and flood into the awesome fish with scarred skin that can bear all the accumulated misery. After you finished I let a sufficient amount of silence pass before I spoke. Who are these people? I asked. People, you said. I ate a handful of nuts, watching our face. I don’t know where to begin on the problems with this little story. I told you. Problems? you said, your voice rising and cracking. In the wells of your eyes your mother saw the suffering of a child raised by a tyrant, but in the end the fact that you never became a writer had nothing to do with me.
One can see the story originating out of the sensitive child’s awareness of the suppressed pain in his family, and the novel’s other characters have their own unexamined suffering.
As one reads the novel, one begins to realize that three of the stories are linked by a massive writing desk with 19 drawers and compartments, one of them empty and locked. At one point I wondered why the novel isn’t called The Desk, but Krauss explains the title toward the end of the novel. The desk symbolizes the Torah, and the Great House is the school of rabbinical studies that produced many of the interpretations and rituals that would come to define the Jewish identity following the Diaspora. An antique furniture dealer, searching for the desk in order to recreate his father’s study (the Nazis killed his father and rifled the family home), explains how the Torah was also an attempt, by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, to recreate something holy that had been lost—namely, the Temple of Jerusalem:
[Rabbi ben Zakkai] announced that the court of law that had burned in Jerusalem would be resurrected there, in the sleepy town of Yavne. That instead of making sacrifices to God, from then on Jews would pray to Him. He instructed his students to begin assembling more than a thousand years of oral law.
Over centuries, the rabbi’s ultimate plan revealed itself:
Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form. Later his school became known as the Great House, after the phrase in Books of Kings: He burned the house of God, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; even every great house he burned with fire.
The story clarifies the plan of Krauss’s seemingly fragmented novel. Every character, having experienced a deep loss, is flailing around in a spiritual wilderness. The desk, which also brings to mind Jesus’s “in my father’s house are many rooms,” sets people off on journeys that are painful but ultimately fulfilling. Although the characters aren’t particularly nice and though their lives are filled with dark secrets and unspoken sorrows, the Torah infuses even tiny events with significance.
The antique dealer uses memories of lost houses to metaphorically capture this significance:
Two thousand years have passed, my father used to tell me, and now every Jewish soul is built around the house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. In the next world, we will all dwell together in the memory of our memories. But that will not be for us, my father used to say. Not for you or me. We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.
At the end of the book, the dealer locates the desk but he cannot possess it. He realizes, however, that possession is not important and that he just needs a momentary reassurance that the Great House, the object of his long search, once existed whole. In the moment of connection, his doubts sink away:
I reached out my hand and ran my fingers across the dark surface of the desk. There were a few scratches, but otherwise those who had sat at it had left no mark. I knew the moment well. How often I had witnessed it in others, and yet now it almost surprised me: the disappointment, then the relief of something at last sinking away.
The other characters also find connection by the end of their stories although, in two cases, they do so through talking to the author of the shark story, now in a coma. In that state he functions as the dreaming shark, and his “absent form” gives them a chance, for the first time in their lives, to unburden themselves.
Passover and Easter speak to both the pain of the years in the wilderness and the hope of the Promised Land. Krauss provides no easy reassurance as her characters struggle, and the images of hope she provides are subtle—a Scheherazade story to keep alive a man in a coma, a father reaching out to his son for the first time, a note burned unread in a fireplace as a man forgives his dead wife and himself for their silences. Holiness breaks through in those moments where all those defenses we have built up, all those routines and coping mechanisms we have laboriously crafted, fall apart. As Krauss puts it,
We search for patterns, you see, only to find where the patterns break. And it’s there, in that fissure, that we pitch our tents and wait.
To further emphasize the themes in the book, I share two other passages. The first, a description of the desk, captures how it functions as a symbol of the Torah and the destroyed Temple. The second, a small event occurring during a Passover seder, shows Nadia, like the other the other characters in the book, lost and adrift as she identifies with a child crying out in the night:
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 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 larger, 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 that, when my work was going well, took on an almost mystical quality. Nineteen 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 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 tow rite. 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. Or am I making too much of it?
And here a moment of the seder, which is being held late after the children have gone to bed. In an earlier passage Nadia has been haunted by another child’s cry. Now, on this “night different from all other nights,” she captures a glimpse of what comfort looks like:
Suddenly, into this raucous roomful of adults enters this child. We were all so busy with each other that we didn’t notice her at first; she couldn’t have been more than three, dressed in those pajamas with the feed, her bottom still saggy with a diaper, and clutching a sort of cloth or rag, the shredded remains of a blanket, I suppose, to her cheek. We had woken her from sleep. And suddenly, bewildered by this sea of strange faces and the clamor of voices, she let out a cry. A wail of pure terror that cut through the air, and silenced the room. For a moment everything froze as the scream hung above us like the question to end all the questions that particular night, of all nights, is designed to pose. A question which, because wordless, has no answer, and so must be asked forever. Perhaps it was only a second, but in my mind that scream went on, and still goes on somewhere now, but there, on that night, in ended when the mother stood, knocking over her chair, and in a single fluid motion rushed to the child, gathered her in, and held her aloft. In an instant the child quieted. For a moment she tipped her head back and looked up at her mother, and her expression was illuminated with the wonder and relief of finding, again, the only comfort, the infinite comfort, she had in the world. She buried her face in her mother’s neck, in the smell of her mother’s long lustrous hair, and her cries slowly grew dimmer and dimmer as the conversation around the table started up again, until at last she became silent, curled against her mother like a question mark–all that was left of the question that, for the time being, no longer needed to be asked–and felt asleep.