In her shadowy third novel, "Great House," Nicole Krauss slowly interweaves characters who seem at first to be entirely unconnected.
Since 2005, when Nicole Krauss published her second novel, "The History of Love," a lot has happened in the writer's life. There was the critical and commercial success of "History," which was shortlisted for a fistful of literary prizes, translated into more than 30 languages and optioned for a movie.
Krauss, just 36, this year was named one of New Yorker magazine's "20 under 40." (Another one of the 20 is her husband, writer Jonathan Safran Foer.)
And, oh, yes, she gave birth to two children. Krauss took time off from writing around the time her first child, Sasha, now 4, was born. And she and Safran Foer have a second son, Cy, now 18 months old.
Somewhere in there she found the time and energy to write another novel, the just published "Great House," which she dedicates to Sasha and Cy. Krauss will speak Oct. 28 in a Talking Volumes appearance at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
"I wrote it while Cy napped," Krauss said recently by phone from her home in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. "The book is not obviously about parenthood," she said, "but it is about the burden of inheritance -- what do we pass down to our children, knowingly and unknowingly? That was of great worry and concern to me."
In "Great House," the lead characters -- a writer in New York, an aging father in Jerusalem, a peripatetic antiques dealer, a young American woman studying in England, an elderly British couple -- relate stories that at first seem unconnected. Only later does it become apparent that "the burden of inheritance" is represented by a mysterious old desk that passes through the hands of some of Krauss' characters over a period of about 60 years.
"I was aware of holding the characters apart for as long as possible," Krauss said. "The uncertainty lasted in a deep way much longer than in 'History of Love.' I think I ask the reader to also live for a while in that state of uncertainty, to feel what it is to make a life there. The solutions are there, but I also became very interested in what can't be known, ultimately." While a short final chapter does tie up some loose ends, others remain loose.
The characters who ended up in "Great House" are just the tip of the iceberg. "I wrote for a long time, many pages and many voices, much of which I threw away," Krauss said. "Then I settled on these voices that I couldn't shake."
The 'Great House' cast
The novel opens with Nadia, the New York writer, giving a lengthy confession addressed to someone known only as "Your Honor." Nadia relates how, at 24, she met a young poet and agreed to take some of his furniture, most notably a giant wooden desk with many drawers, while he returned to his native Chile.
Nadia goes on to write novels at the desk, gets married and later is divorced. She celebrates "the writer's unparalleled freedom, freedom from responsibility to anything and anyone but her own instincts and vision." That freedom also means possibly hurting friends and family members whose life stories Nadia uses in her fiction. More than 25 years later she surrenders the desk to a young woman claiming to be the daughter of the Chilean poet. Afterward, Nadia's own mental state grows increasingly unstable.
In two sections titled "True Kindness," an angry and tyrannical father, Aaron, speaks to one of his two grown sons after the death of Aaron's wife, Eve.
Another narrative strand involves globe-trotting antiques dealer George Weisz, who left Hungary after World War II and devoted himself to helping Jewish families find and reclaim furniture looted by Nazis. He becomes wealthy, but is a mostly absentee father to his two children, one of whom falls in love with the American college student. George fixates on re-creating the study of his father, a scholar of Jewish history.
In London, an Oxford professor marries Lotte Berg, who left Germany in 1939 as a teenager and came to England. Their sedate lives are jolted when a young man shows up at their door. Without explanation, Lotte lets the visitor have the desk, which has been in her possession since the end of the war. Only toward the end of her life does Lotte release a long-held secret.
Writing in a tone that is elegaic, somber, crepuscular, often downright gloomy, Krauss explores the ways in which her characters have sacrificed love for an artist's life, or failed to love a child until it's too late, or obsessed about the past instead of living in the present. Her characters are haunted by memories, missteps, regrets and secrets. The "Great House" of the title refers not to a particular building but to the notion in Jewish history of a shared cultural memory built up over millenniums.
If her new novel is downbeat, Krauss said, it's partly by design. "After 'History of Love,' which was about love and redemption in many ways, I felt I had done that, and I wanted to look at it from a different angle," she said. "Writing was a way of survival in that book. I wanted to think about the darker elements" of both love and writing.
"Saul Bellow would sort of alternate between manic and depressive books," Krauss said with a laugh. "Which is not to say that I'm going to write a manic book next."
Putting the 'new' in 'novel'
As a writer who has played with various kinds of formal experimentation, Krauss said she was "unnerved" by some of the recent critical response to Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom."
"So many reviewers seemed to celebrate that, at last, 'Freedom' was a return to a conventional form that the novel was always supposed to have," she said. "I found that eerie and disconcerting. To me, that's like saying , 'Ah, after the great advances of cubism, we're doing portraits again.' I'm interested in the novel as having no distinct form. I think it's up to the novelist to figure that out every time she sits down to write one. It sort of surprises me in a way when novelists don't do that."
Like many women, Krauss has learned to balance family and career. She finished "Great House" at the beginning of 2010, and spent most of the summer on a writing fellowship in Israel. Now she's back at home in New York, but getting ready for book appearances in the United States and Europe that will stretch into early 2011. She's asked to be routed back home on weekends to be with her family.
"Having children can be a kind of sacrifice, but so can choosing only to create," she said. "My own life has managed so far to be a kind of happy middle ground of being able to have a family and have children and to write."
Claude Peck • 612-673-7977