Great House

By Henry Phillips,2014-11-04 22:04
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For twenty-five years, a reclusive American novelist has been writing at the desk she inherited from a young Chilean poet who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet "s secret police; one day a girl claiming to be the poet "s daughter arrives to take it away, sending the writer "s life reeling. Across the ocean, in the leafy suburbs of London, a man caring for his dying wife discovers, among her papers, a lock of hair that unravels a terrible secret. In Jerusalem, an antiques dealer slowly reassembles his father "s study, plundered by the Nazis in Budapest in 1944. Connecting these stories is a desk of many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or have given it away. As the narrators of Great House make their confessions, the desk takes on more and more meaning, and comes fina Published by W. W. Norton & Co. on 2010/10/12

Great House

Also by Nicole Krauss

The History of Love

Man Walks into a Room

    Great House

    Nicole Krauss W. W. NORTON & COMPANY


    I am deeply grateful to the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at theNew York Public Library, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and the American Academy in Berlin fortheir warmth and support, and for giving me a quiet room to work in when I needed it most.

    EruvRafi’s story of looking across no-man’s-land in Jerusalem is from Sophie Calle’s project. My account of Yochanan ben Zakkai is indebted to Rich Cohen’s Israel Is Real.

    Copyright ? 2010 by Nicole Krauss

    All rights reserved

    For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Krauss, Nicole.

     Great house / Nicole Krauss.—1st ed. p. cm.

    ISBN: 978-0-393-08036-0

    1. Loss (Psychology)—Fiction. 2. Memory—Fiction. 3. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

PS3611.R38G74 2010 813’.6—dc22


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

     500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110 www.wwnorton.com

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd. Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

For Sasha and Cy




    Talk to him.


    YOUR HONOR, in the winter of 1972 R and I broke up, or I should say he broke up with me. Hisreasons were vague, but the gist was that he had a secret self, a cowardly, despicable self hecould never show me, and that he needed to go away like a sick animal until he could improvethis self and bring it up to a standard he judged deserving of company. I argued with him—I’dbeen his girlfriend for almost two years, his secrets were my secrets, if there was somethingcruel or cowardly in him I of all people would know—but it was useless. Three weeks afterhe’d moved out I got a postcard from him (without a return address) saying that he felt ourdecision, as he called it, hard as it was, had been the right one, and I had to admit to myselfthat our relationship was over for good.

    Things got worse then for a while before they got better. I won’t go into it except to saythat I didn’t go out, not even to see my grandmother, and I didn’t let anyone come to see me,either. The only thing that helped, oddly, was the fact that the weather was stormy, and so Ihad to keep running around the apartment with the strange little brass wrench made especiallyfor tightening the bolts on either side of the antique window frames—when they got loose inwindy weather the windows would shriek. There were six windows, and just as I finishedtightening the bolts on one, another would start to howl, so I would run with the wrench, andthen maybe I would have a half hour of silence on the only chair left in the apartment. For awhile, at least, it seemed that all there was of the world was that long rain and the need tokeep the bolts fastened. When the weather finally cleared, I went out for a walk. Everythingwas flooded, and there was a feeling of calm from all that still, reflecting water. I walkedfor a long time, six or seven hours at least, through neighborhoods I had never been to beforeand have never been back to since. By the time I got home I was exhausted but I felt that I hadpurged myself of something.


    SHE WASHED the blood from my hands and gave me a fresh T-shirt, maybe even her own. She thoughtI was your girlfriend or even your wife. No one has come for you yet. I won’t leave your side.Talk to him.


    NOT LONG after that R’s grand piano was lowered through the huge living room window, the sameway it had come in. It was the last of his possessions to go, and as long as the piano had beenthere, it was as if he hadn’t really left. In the weeks that I lived alone with the piano,before they came to take it away, I would sometimes pat it as I passed in just the same waythat I had patted R.

    A few days later an old friend of mine named Paul Alpers called to tell me about a dream he’dhad. In it he and the great poet César Vallejo were at a house in the country that had belongedto Vallejo’s family since he was a child. It was empty, and all the walls were painted abluish white. The whole effect was very peaceful, Paul said, and in the dream he thoughtVallejo lucky to be able to go to such a place to work. This looks like the holding placebefore the afterlife, Paul told him. Vallejo didn’t hear him, and he had to repeat himselftwice. Finally the poet, who in real life died at forty-six, penniless, in a rainstorm, just ashe had predicted, understood and nodded. Before they entered the house Vallejo had told Paul astory about how his uncle used to dip his fingers in the mud to make a mark on hisforehead—something to do with Ash Wednesday. And then, Vallejo said (said Paul), he would dosomething I never understood. To illustrate, Vallejo dipped his two fingers in the mud and drewa mustache across Paul’s upper lip. They both laughed. Throughout the dream, Paul said, moststriking was the complicity between them, as if they had known each other many years.

    Naturally Paul had thought of me when he’d woken up, because when we were sophomores incollege we’d met in a seminar on avant-garde poets. We’d become friends because we always

    agreed with each other in class, while everyone else disagreed with us, more and morevehemently as the semester progressed, and with time an alliance had formed between Paul and methat after all these years—five—could still be unfolded and inflated instantly. He asked howI was, alluding to the breakup, which someone must have told him about. I said I was ok exceptthat I thought maybe my hair was falling out. I also told him that along with the piano, thesofa, chairs, bed, and even the silverware had gone with R, since when I met him I’d beenliving more or less out of a suitcase, whereas he had been like a sitting Buddha surrounded byall of the furniture he’d inherited from his mother. Paul said he thought he might knowsomeone, a poet, a friend of a friend, who was going back to Chile and might need a foster homefor his furniture. A phone call was made and it was confirmed that the poet, Daniel Varsky, didindeed have some items he didn’t know what to do with, not wanting to sell them in case hechanged his mind and decided to return to New York. Paul gave me his number and said Daniel wasexpecting me to get in touch. I put off making the call for a few days, mostly because therewas something awkward about asking a stranger for his furniture even if the way had alreadybeen paved, and also because in the month since R and all of his many belongings had gone I’dbecome accustomed to having nothing. Problems only arose when someone else came over and Iwould see, reflected in the look on my guest’s face, that from the outside the conditions, myconditions, Your Honor, appeared pathetic.

    When I finally called Daniel Varsky he picked up after one ring. There was a cautiousness inthat initial greeting, before he knew who it was on the other end, that I later came toassociate with Daniel Varsky, and with Chileans, few as I’ve met, in general. It took a minutefor him to sort out who I was, a minute for the light to go on revealing me as a friend of afriend and not some loopy woman calling—about his furniture? she’d heard he wanted to get ridof it? or just give it out on loan?—a minute in which I considered apologizing, hanging up,and carrying on as I had been, with just a mattress, plastic utensils, and the one chair. Butonce the light had gone on (Aha! Of course! Sorry! It’s all waiting right here for you) hisvoice softened and became louder at the same time, giving way to an expansiveness I also cameto associate with Daniel Varsky and, by extension, everyone who hails from that dagger pointingat the heart of Antarctica, as Henry Kissinger once called it.

    He lived all the way uptown, on the corner of 99th Street and Central Park West. On the way, Istopped to visit my grandmother, who lived in a nursing home on West End Avenue. She no longerrecognized me, but once I’d gotten over this I found myself able to enjoy being with her. Wenormally sat and discussed the weather in eight or nine different ways, before moving on to mygrandfather, who a decade after his death continued to be a subject of fascination to her, asif with each year of his absence his life, or their life together, became more of an enigma toher. She liked to sit on the sofa marveling at the lobby—All of this belongs to me? she’dperiodically ask, waving in a gesture that took in the whole place—and wearing all of herjewelry at once. Whenever I came, I brought her a chocolate babkah from Zabar’s. She alwaysate a little out of politeness, and the cake would flake onto her lap and stick to her lips,and after I left she gave the rest away to the nurses.

    When I got to 99th Street, Daniel Varsky buzzed me in. As I waited for the elevator in thedingy lobby it occurred to me that I might not like his furniture, that it might be dark orotherwise oppressive, and that it would be too late to back out gracefully. But on thecontrary, when he opened the door my first impression was of light, so much so that I had tosquint, and for a moment I couldn’t see his face because it was in silhouette. There was alsothe smell of something cooking which later turned out to be an eggplant dish he’d learned tomake in Israel. Once my eyes adjusted I was surprised to find that Daniel Varsky was young.I’d expected someone older since Paul had said his friend was a poet, and though we both wrotepoetry, or tried to write it, we made a point of never referring to ourselves as poets, a termwe reserved for those whose work had been judged worthy of publication, not just in an obscurejournal or two, but in an actual book that could be purchased in a bookstore. In retrospectthis turns out to have been an embarrassingly conventional definition of a poet, and thoughPaul and I and others we knew prided ourselves on our literary sophistication, in those days we

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