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.
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?
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