The stories a desk can tell
The line between fact and fiction sometimes blurs in unusual ways, something acclaimed author Nicole Krauss discovered when working on her much-anticipated third novel, Great House.
Krauss’ own workstation wound up performing double duty as both the platform and the unwitting muse for the new novel about a seemingly disparate group of characters linked by a mysterious desk.
“What ultimately became the first half of the first chapter of Great House was initially published as ‘From the Desk of Daniel Varsky’ in the 2008 volume of The Best American Short Stories,” Krauss says by phone from Tel Aviv, Israel, where she has stayed for several months as part of a writers residency program.
It is a novel about the connections between people, which Krauss terms "one of the deepest existential questions there is."
“I had to write a blurb to accompany the story about the inspiration [behind it], and I legitimately had no idea what I would say, but I sat down to write in my office. I looked down at my writing desk and it was almost the same as the desk that I had described in the story!”
Interestingly, the desk in question is not one Krauss selected but one she inherited from the previous owners of her family’s home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. According to Krauss, the desk in question is “so huge and very masculine. It’s really overburdening, but we’d have to cut it into pieces to get it out. The previous owners had a painted panel that they had removed with them, so now this desk has a gaping hole that I can’t fill.”
For Krauss, this is why the desk that has such an important place in her life also has such prominence in the book. “It’s not a book about a desk, obviously,” she muses. “It was more about the idea of the desk; it became a symbol, in a way, about what passes from person to person and generation to generation. Its material existence was really beside the point, although I did make it very large with all these drawers. I was really trying to take this very daunting, abstract idea and give it physicality.”
Great House is perhaps best thought of as a series of vignettes centering on four characters whose lives gradually intersect as the novel progresses. Initially the most striking link between these people is a large and imposing desk, which each has owned at some point. This remarkable piece of furniture is the source of both agony and inspiration for each character, acting as an embodiment of sublimated disappointments and desires. Shuttling across time and space, the lives of writers, parents and lovers are gradually revealed, their superficial layers slowly stripped away, until all that remains are the cores upon which identity is based.
While the desk may have offered Krauss a tangible symbol during the early stages of the writing process, there was something even stronger motivating her. In recent interviews, her husband, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, admitted that much of the impetus for his first work of nonfiction, Eating Animals, came from the birth of his first child and the quandary he faced regarding what to feed his son. For Krauss, becoming a parent also clearly had an important impact.
“I started Great House about a year after having my first child,” she says. “I started to think about what parents pass on to their children genetically, but also the transference that goes beyond that, such as personality and fears. I was connected to my son through the umbilical cord and so much was going into him whether I liked it or not, and it made me think about myself as a child and what things my son would inherit from me. As I continued to write the book, the phrase ‘the burden of inheritance’ began to haunt me.”
Krauss is very clear, however, that just as Great House is a novel composed of many characters, it is also one of many ideas. It is a novel about the connections between people, something Krauss has explored in her two earlier novels, and something that she claims is “one of the deepest existential questions there is.” But it is also a novel that more deeply explores Krauss’ own Jewish roots. “I was raised Jewish,” she says, “but what interests me most is not faith, which I’ve never had, but the tradition of argument, dissent, dissatisfaction and questioning that is so central to Judaism. Perhaps the best word to use is ‘doubt.’ In Great House, almost every character in the book grapples with uncertainty, whether it’s existential, or moral, or has to do with the limits of how fully known we can ever be to one another, how often we must live unknown and unknowing.”
About one thing there is no doubt: There’s a lot riding on this new novel. Krauss’ deeply moving and intensely personal 2005 novel, The History of Love, captivated readers worldwide and was a bona fide publishing phenomenon. The news that her follow-up would be published this month was accompanied by rumblings of excitement in the literary world. Adding to the hubbub was Krauss’ recent inclusion on the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, which highlights young authors worth watching.
It is the rare author who can acknowledge such fervent accolades from both critics and readers alike, but not allow the hype to infect her work. When asked if she worries about whether her new novel will live up to the hopes many have pinned on it, she answers candidly. “I’m aware my books ask a lot from my readers, and I love the dedication of those readers who stay with [my books] and come through the other side,” she replies. “Ultimately, I write from a mindset where I have to please myself first. I feel that I wrote a better book here [than The History of Love ], and I think I’m becoming a better writer.”
But what of those folks at the New Yorker for whom 40 is the cutoff for a young author to make an impression? At 36, Krauss’ time on the venerable list is limited, but she’s not too worried about inspiration running dry; if there’s such a thing as a pragmatic poet, Krauss is it. “Life is a progression of questions,” she says. “Each question evolves and expands, and as your life changes, the questions do too. The work of a writer is not necessarily answering the questions, but exploring. . . . In my mind, when I’m past 40, I always expect and hope that I will continue to write books and get closer to the book I am meant to write. One always hopes one’s getting a little closer.”
If Great House is any indication, Krauss must be very close indeed. Surely if there is one book each author is meant to write, then there might also be one book each reader is meant to read. For plenty of Krauss’ fans out there, Great House just might be that book.