Great House

By Nicole Krauss
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for October 2011

Why we like this book

Smart women are reading Nicole Krauss.

In her debut novel (which is nothing short of stunning), Man Walks Into the Room, she introduces the theme of memory and loss through the provocative story of a man who is found wandering through the Nevada desert. A small brain tumor is responsible for his amnesia, but its removal does not restore his memory.

In dazzling sentences like: “Somewhere many  miles away, in the heart of the desert, a man was recording memories, preserving them as another desert air once preserved scrolls of parchment. Creating a vast library of human memory, and so that library should not be lost–so that is should not combust in fire of vanish into dust and light–he was learning how to inscribe those memories in the one place they were ensured survival: in the minds of other people,” Krauss introduces the theme that will anchor her two subsequent novels, The History of Love and Great House.

Both History of Love and Great House are must reads for smart women. In both novels, Krauss explores her central themes using four distinct storylines. Great House, as described below, is a complex yet gratifying tale of isolation and connection and of the pull of the past as it interferes with the present. Neither of the novels are ‘easy’ reads, so be prepared to do some heavy lifting. But, in the end, it will have been worth the effort.


In each of the short stories that nest like rooms in Nicole Krauss’s Great House looms a tremendous desk. It may have belonged to Federico García Lorca, the great poet and dramatist who was one of thousands executed by Fascists in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began. We know that the desk stood in Weisz’s father’s study in Budapest on a night in 1944, when the first stone shattered their window. After the war, Weisz hunts furniture looted from Jewish homes by the Nazis. He scours the world for the fragments to reassemble that study’s every element, but the desk eludes him, and he and his children live at the edges of its absence. Meanwhile, it spends a few decades in an attic in England, where a woman exhumes the memories she can’t speak except through violent stories. She gives the desk to the young Chilean-Jewish poet Daniel Varsky, who takes it to New York and passes it on (before he returns to Chile and disappears under Pinochet) to Nadia, who writes seven novels on it before Varsky’s daughter calls to claim it. Crossing decades and continents, the stories of Great House narrate feeling more than fact. Krauss’s characters inhabit “a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door,” and a desk whose multitude of drawers becomes a mausoleum of memory. –Mari Malcolm

Discussion Questions

When our book group met, we began by discussing the passage on page 279 (starting in the middle of the first full paragraph with the sentence: “Turn Jerusalem into an idea,” and concluding with the last sentence of the second paragraph). It is in this section that the theme of the novel finally comes into focus, and the big question the characters are wrestling with is clarified.

In a book that looks at characters who are shipwrecked by loss and disconnected from the present by what happened to them in the past (or to their parent, husband, wife), how is it possible that this idea of collective memory is the only thing that can save them from ‘a state of perpetual regret’?  The book explores the burden of memory and loss. In what way are Krauss’s characters trapped by their past? What, in fact, does it mean to become a prisoner of the past?

 Additional Questions

  1. Does the desk function as a character? What is the significance of the multiple drawers and the one that was locked?
  2. In what ways is this a novel about writing and literature as much as its characters? Consider the fact that both Nadia, Lotte, Dov, and Daniel Varsky are all writers.
  3. Talk about Lotte’s secret—and why she never shared it with her husband. Why at the end does Arthur do what he does with the scrap of paper?
  4. What power does Weisz have over his Yoav and Leah? Why do they behave so submissively toward him? Why does Leah withhold the location of the desk from her father?
  5. In a New Yorker magazine interview (June 14, 2010), Krauss says that good fiction has the “ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation.” Does Great House fulfill that goal for you?
  6. Is this book too cerebral—too intellectually driven—to hold your attention? Do you wish it had a stronger plot? Or do you find Krauss’s philosophical explorations compelling?



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