A few years ago, after her novel The History of Love became an international bestseller, Nicole Krauss reflected on her unexpected fame: "Something about the feeling of writing seemed to change for me once the book was published. I felt, a bit, as if I'd lost something hard to put my finger on, something personal and natural that I'd loved about writing."
Today, Krauss is more accustomed to sharing her inner world with the public. Her newest book, Great House, has been nominated for a National Book Award, and early reviews have been packed with praise. "It is a high-wire performance," wrote fellow author Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in a glowing New York Times book review earlier this week, "only the wire has been replaced by an exposed nerve, and you hold your breath, and she does not fall."
Though the novel itself is currently in the spotlight, its characters are intensely private people. Many of them, like Krauss herself, are writers. And in the course of the novel, many of them end up sitting at the same enormous desk. When we first encounter this piece of furniture, it belongs to a Chilean revolutionary poet. Later, we see it in the lonely apartment of a divorced New York writer and in the London attic of an elderly German-Jewish refugee.
For most of the novel, it's unclear what the desk represents or whether the book's far-flung characters will ever meet. But Krauss has a unique way of assembling novels—baroque, complex, and with a stunning tidiness that isn't clear until the very last page. All the parts do fit together in the end. The shape they form is a ghostly Great House, and its walls are ideas that leave the reader reverberating.
Krauss lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and their two small boys. I spoke with her about her architectural approach to writing, her dark fascination with history, and the challenges she faced as she sat down to write her most recent book.
Great House is about a desk that gets passed from owner to owner. Your previous book, The History of Love, was about a novel that gets passed from author to author. What interests you about objects that get transferred from one character to another?
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What interests me in writing a novel is taking really remote voices, characters, and stories and beginning to create some kind of web. At least, the stories seem remote to me setting out, because I have no sense at all of how they're going to relate to each other.
Setting out to write this book, I was aware that I 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. They'd happen on emotional, philosophical, thematic levels. The desk in this novel becomes like a needle and thread that stitches some of the stories together.
The other thing I might say is that in The History of Love, it was a book-within-a-book that was passed between characters. And in this case, it's this enormous desk. I suppose it's no accident that these two objects stand for literature. I think literature became a character, almost, in these past two novels that I wrote.
It's surprising that you sit down to write without any idea of how the stories will relate to each other. Your novels seem more carefully assembled than most. Is there a point where you do have to stop and make notes or draw diagrams?
I take almost no notes when I write. I have one notebook—this old green leather notebook that my dad gave me a decade ago. I used it to take some notes for my first novel, Man Walks Into a Room. But the notes were so sparse that there was room enough for the notes for my second novel, The History of Love, and then for Great House, and probably a few more novels.
So I have all these notes—actually, two sorts of notes that I take. The first happens during the writing, often in the first year of writing a book, when I'm trying to figure out how the stories will dovetail and connect. I almost think of it as sort of architecture or woodwork, the way you lay pieces together and how the joints will kind of fit. Those notes are arrows with the character's name. So arrow-Lottie—will she connect to this judge? Or will it be Nadia who connects to the judge? And who is the judge? Is he this person's son?—these endless kind of pictorial descriptions of how these abstract ideas will relate.
The second form of note is a kind of mathematical calculation that happens later in the book, which is chronology. Because if you want two people to meet on the boat, one of them can't get on the boat in 1946 while the other one gets on the boat in 1947. But it doesn't always work out that way when you first write it. So there are endless mathematical calculations—you know, 22 minus 13—and just desperately hoping that I didn't make some massive plot mistake in all of my free association.
I really take great pleasure in that kind of architecture. I guess in life I have a very strong spatial sense. There's something about how my mind works that has patience for the delicate complexity of how parts can fit together—and the great discovery of the whole, which you can only see as you walk away and look back on the whole thing. I don't get a sense for the whole until very, very far into the writing.
Your last two books both featured characters who were Holocaust survivors. Do you think writers our age approach this subject differently than writers of previous generations?
I know this goes against the grain of what most critics might say about my work, but I would not say that I've written about the Holocaust. I am the grandchild of people who survived that historical event. I'm not writing their story—I couldn't write their story. There are characters in my novels who have either survived the Holocaust or been affected by it. But I've written very little about the Holocaust in terms of the actual events. What interests me is the response to catastrophic loss.
My first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, is about a man who's lost his memory and has to start a second life. On one level, it's about how we create a coherent sense of self. But I suppose you could also say it was my own response to my familial history—this history of surviving real catastrophe during the Second World War and the need to start a second life. How does one do that?
The story that the title Great House comes from speaks to this specifically. It's the story of the first-century Jewish sage Yochanan ben Zakkai who's faced with a question. He's in Yavneh, he's started a small school, he's left the besieged Jerusalem, Jerusalem falls to the Romans, the Temple is burned, the Jews are exiled—the question becomes, "What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can we continue to be who we have always been?"
His answer to that: the idea of replacing sacrifice at the Temple with prayer, which is portable. Or taking the oral law and beginning to codify it into what will become the Talmud, a book, which can be taken anywhere. And to me, this is so beautiful. Because the answer to catastrophic loss was absolute reimagination. It's a Jewish story, but it's a very universal idea.
Even so, the characters in Great House are very attached to a localized, physical object: the desk. When it's taken away from them, they feel a deep sense of loss. The character who tells the story of Yochanan ben Zakkai is especially attached to it.
I don't think the desk only represents the idea of what's lost. Think, for example, of Arthur, the Oxford don who is married to a German-Jewish refugee. She writes at this enormous desk. Now, Arthur doesn't know who she got this desk from. He assumes it was a gift from a former lover, but it's something she won't talk about. This desk, in a way, represents the part of his wife that remains elusive to him. It has to do with the unknown, with uncertainty.
For me, uncertainty was another really deep theme in writing this book. Uncertainty has become a critical part of my process. It allows me to have these accidents and reversals. So if I happen to wander and stumble into some difficult place—well, there I am. And I'd better figure out where it is and what it's about.
In the case of Great House, my own willful uncertainty as writer begins to seep into the characters themselves. It becomes the self-doubt of Nadia, who's 50 years old and has this question that rises up and terrifies her: "I've given up everyone and everything to wed myself to my work. And what if I was mistaken?" Or it's the moral doubt of Aaron, the Israeli father at the end of his life who is facing the question of what kind of father he really was. My doubt becomes the characters' own doubts.
At the same time, as I've said, I crave some structural coming together. I have a need for things not to be perfect but for the architecture to be fully wrought. We can't be left to dwell in a muddy bog of just being vaguely doubtful. There also needs to be a sense of things coming together so that once I, the writer, step away from the book, it doesn't crumble without me.