Don’t you hate it when a book is good, very good indeed, but you don’t dig it? ‘Great House’ by Nicola Krauss is a well written narrative that unravels many deep thoughts and contains a structure of some interest....but I didn’t like it. Prepare for possibly unfair justifications.
The structure of ‘Great House’ is technically interesting, compared to the more popular linear, single narrative. The book is made of two large sections. Within the first section there are four individual chapters: ‘All Rise’, ‘True Kindness’, ‘Swimming Holes’ and ‘The Lies Told by Children’. Each of these chapters introduces a new character’s story, but there are several similarities between the individual stories. Each of the individual chapters focuses on a person who holds themselves separate from an important person in their life. Each story is told using first person narrative, although sometimes the story is told from the perspective of the person who is disconnected from those around them and sometimes it is told for the perspective of the partner, or family member who they are detached from. Three of the sections mention the presence of a desk, which contributes a menacing presence to the atmosphere.
In the second section the titles of each of the chapters above are repeated in a slightly different order and each narrator’s tale continues under the appropriate heading (barring ‘Lies Told by Children’, which is replaced by ‘Weissz’ and gives a voice to a background character from ‘Lies Told By Children’). In this section real life connections are made between the four narratives, as characters from one section begin to show up in the stories of other characters. So, the subject of ‘Great House’ is personal disconnection, but connections exist between several of its separate narratives. Perhaps it is a novel of disconnection that never the less reminds us all how connected we are, no matter how we try to severe the links of human relations.
If the emotional resonance of such a small, but sustaining thread of hope exists in this book I could not grab on to it. I’ll admit that the kind of person that I am (intensely private) makes it hard to read ‘Great House’ without feeling as if it is kicking off about the way I live my life. The thesis of ‘Great House’ is that private people destroy lives. Many of the characters in ‘Great House’ retain what seems like ridiculous levels of privacy in order to remain capable of feeding a personal obsession and their behaviour often tips over into cruelty as it silences those around them. It’s hard not to feel challenged by ‘Great House’ being as attached to privacy as I am, especially when so many of Krauss’ characters are extremely punished for their behaviour.
After a deal of analysis, it’s clear that many of Krauss’ most negative characters have no direct relation to my own life. A character like Weissz, the obsessive, repressive antiques dealer determined to keep his grown children under his rule, has changed from being merely a private person to an obsessive who deliberately destroys personal connections between his children and their peers. Krauss also advances characters like Dov in ‘True Kindness’ who has become removed from those around him, but is less of a negative character (if no less sad for his inability to connect with his family, or lovers). Surprisingly this novel written by a stranger is not all about me and I don’t have to dislike it because it aims its criticism at me.
Instead I’m forced to admit to a cardinal sin amongst book readers. Part of why I didn’t like ‘Great House’ was because it was graphically, openly bleak in its depiction of human relationships. Wait, dudes and dudettes I am not getting on the ‘bring back the sunshine’ brigade’s badly soldered festival float. Lemme esplain myself.
I take no issue with any authors’ right to be bleak. The world is tough, things don’t always work out and relationships between people can turn nasty. While I am very much of the ‘little glimpse of hope would be nice’ persuasion, because I try my best to believe humanity’s goodness, if a book portrays the awful really well I am open to being persuaded that life is BAD. However, I do have a problem with the belief that all badness deserves equal punishment, that there are no extenuating circumstances for why people behave terribly.
Nadia, is a writer who works on her writing by herself all day, yet clearly shows her irritation when her partner finally returns for the day. Her irritation forces him into a home coming routine where he slowly allows her to come to terms with his return, which she sees as positive until the day he leaves her and learns how the need for that routine makes him feel:
‘I’d hardly stopped to think how S might have felt, for example, when he walked through the door of our home and found his wife silent, with back turned and shoulder hunched so as to defend her little kingdom, how he felt as he removed his shoes, checked the mail, dropped the foreign coins into their little canisters, wondering just how cold my mood would be when at last he tried to approach me across the rickety bridge.’
Once he explains, Nadia realises that she has failed to see him as a person, or to consider anyone else but herself as real in her quest to create. The truth of this realisation is backed up by the reader’s knowledge of other relationships that she has plundered for the sake of her work, without considering the feelings of others. Krauss has set up obsession with an occupation and the purposeful disconnection that can come from focusing so much on a task as the source of all evil in this particular novel. It is clear that the reader is supposed to be brought round to agree with this idea, as more and more horrendous actions are perpetrated by characters that separate themselves from full human companionship. These characters discard empathy and exact rigorous, stifling control on those around them.
Nadia’s storyline shows something about the walls that private people can create unnecessarily around themselves and the disregard for others this kind of attitude can foster. It reminds me of things that I need to work on myself and gives great insight into the ethics of the creative process. Although by the end of the book I didn’t like Nadia and I feel really sketchy about the implications of her inclusion in this story alongside so many other childless, creative female characters who come to no good (I’ll come to that later), I did feel satisfied with her storyline. I felt like she went through an appropriate level of pain for her behaviour, but that I could still find a way to empathise with her. I felt like she was capable of learning and change by the end of her story.
The terrible endings of Lotte and many other character’s stories can be seen as a punishment, or a corrective, a way for Krauss to demonstrate that not only does this type of behaviour endanger a person’s relationship with others and harm other people, but it brings bad things upon the perpetrators head. Again, ‘Great House’ is explaining something about the world to its reader, possibly in the hope that it will enlarge their understanding. However, to fully embrace Krauss’ ideas readers needs to agree with Krauss’ ideas of what constitutes estrangement, obsession and appropriate punishment when reading ‘Great House’. And while, as I said I found the punishment of Nadia appropriate, I felt saddened by the demise of Lotte and even by the death of Weissz. Both their obsessions stem from a place of serious pain. While I can see Weissz’s end is as justified as a fictional death can ever be, because his pain has caused him to mentally harm his children, Lotte’s pain has led her to push her child into the arms of someone better equipped to take care of him. Yet, it’s hard not to see her loss of memory and self, as a punishment for this action, an action which I found unbearably sad rather than the actions of a selfish person who can’t share her life with anyone. I grieved for Lotte and perhaps I was supposed to, but it didn’t feel like I was as the only has access to her is through her husband’s removed view point, which is ultimately full of judgement. There’s no room for any hope, or any real understanding when it comes to the reader’s interaction with Lotte and I find it hard to take, this blanket judgement and destruction of all people who aren’t capable of forming relationships.
I admit that the bleakness of ‘Great House’ is powerful. Krauss creates a world of moral ambiguity, where no one is right and although most of the characters perpetrate horrible crimes on each other, some are worse than others. This feeling of watching two devils fighting each other, so that the reader can judge who is the least evil is beautifully encapsulated in ‘Weissz’.
Perhaps at this point I should mention that three of the main characters who reject relationships with families and partners in favour of creative work are women. Two are childless women (Lotte and Nadia), one (Leah) is rather too young to be labelled childless, but the fact that she will never marry or have children is commented on by her father. Yep, that’s something we’ve all seen before right, the idea that creative, working women are uncaring, obsessed and usually too tied up in their work to have time for children.
Every unfeeling female character is childless, closed off from their lover and creative and ‘Great House’ seems determined to link its female character’s lack of feeling with these circumstances. In ‘Great House’ childlessness feels like a consequence of failings in these women’s emotions. If only characters like Nadia, Lotte and Leah had a child, the book seems to say, they could open up, defeat their lack of empathy and form normal relationships. And the implicit logic that if only they were less closed off they’d want a child seems to bring up the idea that only unnatural women don’t want children. The divide between the female characters who are emotionally isolated and don’t have children and characters like the nameless American woman who goes on to have a child and form a happy marriage unfortunately reinforces common negative stereotypes about women (childless women are hard, cold and uncaring, unlike mothers – creative women avoid having children). It’s a vicious circle of logic, that doesn’t allow for the possibility that women who don’t want children aren’t all closed down emotional wrecks.
You would never know that from reading ‘Great House’, as it is exclusively focused on the importance of the disconnection that can be found in romantic and parental relationships. This focus excludes the idea that a woman who is ‘bad’ at or incapable of having those kinds of relationships may find valuable ways to connect elsewhere. Not one female character in the book seems to have any serious friends, yet this missing class of relationship is not accorded the same importance as family, or romantic relationships. To me that feels like a bit of a flaw in a novel, which is trying to show how separation from human relationships can have negative consequences. I also wonder why, in a book that features so many creative women the idea of connection with an audience is never really explored. That’s another valid way of forming connections that is ignored.
I’m not levelling charges of sexism at Krauss’ novel, because there are also three male main characters that are so full of work that they can’t let anyone near them. Maybe the reader is even asked to question the relationship between childless women and estrangement issues, as two of these men have children, one does not and all do a bang up job of fucking everything up emotionally. I think an unfortunate, casual link has been made between gender, creativity and coldness as the central point of the novel (human beings are irreparably damaged, usually somehow through their parents and this leads them to damage themselves and others) is developed. Healthy, happy, lasting relationships of any kind (except apparently background relationships between the male characters and shady, dead wife characters of the past and one friendship which seems to exist purely to provide Nadia with support, would detract from this theme. It’s just unfortunate that while developing this idea ‘Great House’ reinforces traditional negative stereotypes about creative and childless women.
Like I said, ‘Great House’ is impressive and very good. The digressionary wending that each narrator deals in as they work their way through their section is detailed and interesting. It is insightful about the negative flip side of dedication to work. Many places in the novel felt true and painful. Oh and it contains the outline of a sci-fi story, that is being written by one of the characters, which I’d love to see as a novel.
I just didn’t enjoy it at all. Sorry. Maybe ‘Memory of Love’ will be more my kind of thing.
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