Part of what I loved about The History of Love was that despite its sense of melancholy it also had a pervasive hopefulness that lasted until the very last, heartbreaking and lovely, page. Great House does not have any of that hopefulness. It is a novel preoccupied by death and a struggle to make sense of it. Of course it contains moments of beauty, and Nicole Krauss is, in my opinion at least after 2 books, is one of the best at those moments, and in those moments the melancholy becomes bearable, but it is not the same kind of “affirming” story that History was.
I wasn’t really going to include this part until I saw a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads. They all seem to be frustrated with the disjointed narrative, the lack of satisfaction, an “ending” (and, unsurprisingly, how depressing it can be!) and I suppose these are valid points. First of all, I didn’t really mind the disjointed narrative because they did come together for the most part. I feel like many people should have just reframed it as a book of short stories as they all seem to be so labeling it anyway and they would have enjoyed it more.
And regarding the “unsatisfying” ending, I didn’t really care, but I have a feeling that I didn’t care because I don’t have a Christian conception of death. At one point in the novel, Krauss writes “The Jews, who have made so much of life, have never known what to make of death. Ask a Jew what happens when he dies and you’ll see the miserable condition of a man left alone to grapple. A man lost and confused. Wandering blindly.” Meanwhile, in my own notes, I wrote “I don’t know if a Christian would really get this book,” which felt reductive even to me at first, but the more I see these reactions the more I wonder if there’s some truth to this.
I don’t necessarily want to make this review so morbid, and I know I’m generalizing and maybe even being too reductive, but: it’s actually not unfamiliar to me to think about death as something with no ending. I don’t really know what’s coming because it’s not something I approach as a separate thing from life. In Hebrew school we always learned “life cycle events,” but unlike other groups we almost never approached hell, and when we talked about heaven it was in the context of the Torah, not as a real Place We Would Go. Elsewhere, I also saw a (negative) review say that this book brought in more gentile influence, but I don’t really think that’s true; I think all the themes of this book are extremely Jewish, it’s just that people don’t recognize that diaspora Judaism is its own animal.
This book is a sharp contrast in that way to one of my all-time favorites, The World to Come, which has a lot to say about death and the afterlife (as one might expect), because frankly my saying that Judaism doesn’t really think about an afterlife is also reductive. Plenty of Jewish thinkers have spent time on what happens to the wicked when they die (Gehinnom, but it’s still not really like Christian Hell), or reincarnation (which is basically how I learned it), or even ghost stories (dybbuks). That’s okay – the saying “two Jews three opinions” doesn’t exist for nothing. I think the same reason people can’t agree on a single answer is exactly the reason Great House ends on a vague note. We don’t really know what happened to Daniel Varsky, Lotte remains a mystery even to her husband, and the fraught relationship between Dov and his father is never really explained. We only learn so much about Yoav and Leah.
I’m fine with that, because I think grappling with death is part of life. As such this wasn’t really a book about the people so much as it was about how the people interacted with this desk, which loomed so large. The desk is about when you don’t know what’s coming, you look for permanence where you can, but also how others’ lives can haunt you, and also how we live in a long shadow of our parents and grandparents and ancestors.
I don’t really know how to end this post, which feels appropriate for this book. I felt myself wanting this book to Mean something, but the longer I thought about it the more I realized that it did, it just didn’t decide for me what that was.