Great House

By – September 8, 2011

Great House, Nicole Krauss’ new nov­el, is a tri­umph. Smart­ly exe­cut­ed and beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed, this mul­ti-lay­ered nov­el moves back and forth through the chaos of mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry. Krauss touch­es on the Holo­caust, the Yom Kip­pur War, Chile under Pinochet, and trav­els from New York to Jerusalem to Lon­don to Budapest as she weaves a sto­ry focused on a desk. This seem­ing­ly mun­dane phys­i­cal object becomes the mys­te­ri­ous cen­ter of the tale. This desk, whose prove­nance is murky, is a wit­ness to his­to­ry. Much writ­ing goes on at this desk, as many of the main char­ac­ters are writ­ers, but all the char­ac­ters, whether writ­ers or not, are mem­o­ry keep­ers in dif­fer­ent ways, though not always will­ing­ly. Mem­o­ry and his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly Jew­ish his­to­ry, are dif­fi­cult bur­dens, often painful but some­times also desired respon­si­bil­i­ties. The title itself is an allu­sion to Jew­ish his­to­ry, from a Bib­li­cal ref­er­ence that was used as the name of Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s school, estab­lished as a way to trans­form and main­tain Judaism in the wake of the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple. Krauss pays homage to the idea that it was the ear­ly rab­bis like Ben Zakkai who cre­ative­ly turned Jerusalem into an idea, a trans­portable mem­o­ry. The writ­ers in Great House are part of that cen­turies-old Jew­ish tra­di­tion of hold­ing onto the mem­o­ries and ideas of lost lives and civ­i­liza­tions, an endeav­or that reach­es back to those ear­ly rab­bis. Krauss imag­ines a Mes­sian­ic time in which every infi­nite frag­ment of Jew­ish mem­o­ry is put back togeth­er, cre­at­ing a com­plete, per­fect mem­o­ry. Until that time, how­ev­er, the peo­ple in Great House strive to hold onto mem­o­ries, find ways to pre­serve mem­o­ries, and strug­gle to live with the weight of memories.

Hara E. Per­son was ordained by Hebrew Union Col­lege-Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion. She is a writer and editor.

Discussion Questions

By W.W. Norton

1. The enor­mous desk with the mul­ti­ple draw­ers is the cen­tral sym­bol of this sto­ry. What does the desk rep­re­sent to the peo­ple who inher­it it? How does it affect their lives once it is tak­en away?

2. Dis­cuss Weisz’s moti­va­tion behind reassem­bling his father’s study. How does it affect his life? The lives of his children?

3. Dis­cuss the role of mem­o­ry through­out the novel.

4. How is Dov’s sto­ry of the shark that col­lects people’s dreams rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the work as a whole?