In Great House, Nicole Krauss, the author of the much-acclaimed The History of Love, has created an elegant literary puzzle, crafting a series of vignettes related in disparate voices. Beautifully told, carefully researched, intriguing in its narrative mystery, it ultimately disappoints because the jagged pieces fail to become a cohesive whole.
Spanning generations and set variously in New York, London and Israel, the story concerns a huge desk. It is described very simply in the opening chapter by a woman novelist, who is the first of a series of narrators, as “a large wooden desk with many drawers.” It was lent to her by Daniel Varsky, a Chilean poet who disappeared into the darkness of Pinochet’s torture chamber. For a quarter of a century, it was the anchor of the writer’s solitary life as she completed one book after another—until the desk was claimed by a young woman who identified herself as Varsky’s daughter. The loss of the desk sets the novelist adrift on a sea of uncertainty that carries her to Jerusalem and an involvement that ends in a devastating tragedy.
Although its significance remains elusive, the chapters dominated by the novelist are entitled “All Rise.” She is a witness giving testimony in a court of law but the judge is mute and the legal chamber is a hospital room.
Almost without warning, the next segment is a psychodrama of a kind, set in Israel and told in the voice of a grieving widower who is attempting reconciliation with his long-estranged son. The desk is not mentioned, an odd lacuna for which no explanation is offered. Ah, but the prodigal son is a judge. A clue, perhaps, or perhaps not.
The desk is, however, dominant in the next sequence, related by the most sympathetic of the narrators, Arthur Bender, an Oxford academic whose wife, Lotte, a German refugee, had owned that very desk until it was claimed by the young Chilean poet. Lotte, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, had eventually died but Bender is determined to discover the secrets of her past and perhaps learn what that desk with its 19 drawers meant to her.
The narrative thread is then picked up by an American girl, who shares a London flat with Leah, whose brother, Yoav Weisz, is a fellow Oxford student in love with her. The siblings are the children of a Jerusalem antiques dealer who spends his life re-creating the vanished domiciles of Jewish families dispossessed by the Holocaust, locating the furniture that defined their vanished lives. It is the senior Weisz whose voice concludes this intricate story and whose words offer an odd explanation of the title Krauss chose for her novel.
He quotes a passage from the Book of Kings, which speaks of the conflagration in Jerusalem when “…even every great house be burned with fire.” Yavne, Yohanan Ben Zakai’s school of Torah study, came to be known as the Great House, where Jewish memory and Jewish knowledge were sheltered and preserved. Krauss would have the reader relate this esoteric scrap of Jewish history to that dark surfaced desk, which so tragically impacted on the lives of her many narrators. It is true that the desk, like Yavne itself, survived, but here the connection falters, the symbolism will not hold. The puzzle is incomplete and yet completion becomes irrelevant. Great Houseis a valuable reading experience, an imaginative journey through the maze of Jewish history. —Gloria Goldreich
Something Red by Jennifer Gilmore.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp. $14.95 paper)
Golden Country(Scribner), Jennifer Gilmore’s impressive debut, poured old wine into an attractive contemporary bottle; many critics had consigned the multigenerational Jewish family novel to the ash heap.
Her second novel, Something Red (first published by Scribner), is also a family saga, as three generations of the Goldstein family navigate their way through American culture. Snippets of history—long gas lines, the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, the grain embargo and the Iranian hostage crisis—are intertwined with the plot. Sigmund and Tatia, whose Russian roots and social activism are hard to re-create in Washington; their son, Dennis, who puts together grain deals for the State Department; and his wife, Sharon, who caters for the Beltway elite and seeks self-actualization in what looks like a cult. There are also Dennis and Sharon’s children: Benji, a freshman at Brandeis, whose world is defined by sex, drugs and the Grateful Dead; and his sister, Vanessa, a rebellious teenager.
At first glance, the Goldsteins appear to be a typical suburban Jewish family. But just beneath the surface something vital is missing. Gilmore throws in a few quick references to Judaism—at one point the sound of a shofar is remembered; at another, a bar mitzva memory pops up—but the Goldsteins are cultural Jews committed to social justice and all too aware of the gap between Sigmund’s days as an activist and the paler, less involved lives his son and grandson live. Dennis, who often travels to the Soviet Union, is a functionary rather than a radical and, at Brandeis, Benji runs across his grandfather’s name in a book assigned in his American Protest! class.
When novelists set out to depict a cultural landscape, they need more than facts; they also need to capture the voice of those who try to process the facts. The memory of the March 29, 1951, execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is one example. Each of the Goldsteins not only has to deal with ghosts of the Rosenbergs but also with the longer shadows of the Russian Revolution.
What gives Something Red its distinctive flavor are the themes Gilmore threads throughout. Take food, for example. We learn much, maybe too much, about how Sharon goes about catering an elaborate dinner. Granted, Sharon’s problems are a minor reflection of her husband’s work in the Department of Agriculture during the grain embargo. Or take music: Bootleg Grateful Dead tapes make a continual loop in and around Benji’s consciousness. If we know the world of his parents via the headline events of 1979-1980, we also know Brandeis undergrads by their choice of music, their sexual preferences and, tellingly, their bouts of (lower case) social activism. At one point, certain students are outraged to learn that the cafeteria of their Jewish institution is going to add shellfish to the menu. At another point, Benji leads a protest about the boycotting of the Moscow Olympics.
If Sharon cooked with as heavy a hand as Gilmore handles her various themes, she would soon be out of business. Add a shocking, absolutely unconvincing plot twist in the final pages, and I think it fair to say that Gilmore still has much to learn. Nonetheless, Something Red is both more ambitious and more culturally important than Golden Country—and Gilmore remains a novelist worth watching. —Sanford Pinsker