Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Nicole Krauss: Great House, Penguin Viking, £16.99

George Weisz does magic: he retrieves the past for those robbed of it.

Not entirely unlike the True Kindness - the special Orthodox who hold the dying victims of bomb attacks in Israel, and “collect the spattered dead” - he shuttles endlessly across Europe and America tracking down the lost, inanimate underpinnings of Jewish lives riven by the holocaust.

This forensic furniture dealer tracks down the plundered desks, bureaus, chairs and beds their dispossessed owners long for: “all that furnished the lives they lost or the lives they dreamed of living…”

He talks of his work profoundly: “There is amazement that comes over each one…when I at last produce the object they have been dreaming of for half a lifetime, that they have invested with the weight of their longing.”

A lost bed’s significance grows for its owner as death nears: “before he dies, the man whose soul was overwhelmed needs to lie down in that bed one more time.”

But there is one item that eludes Weisz. For 44 years he has laboured to reassemble the contents of his father’s Budapest study; the constituents of which were loaded onto a Nazi Gold Train when the SS plundered Jewish possessions ahead of the Soviet advance on that city in 1945.

He has been doing so: “as if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time and erase regret.”

He has found everything but a vast desk with 19 drawers: the desk at which his father, a history scholar, wrote and which, aged four, he was given the key to the only lockable compartment. Weisz says of it: “when I was very young I believed that two thousand years were stored in those drawers.” He’s not wrong.

Much of Great House concerns the post-holocaust history of that desk. It has travelled across continents, given by lover to lover, writer to writer and, perhaps, mother to son.

It has dominated: physically, emotionally and spiritually, the lives of all through whose hands it has passed.

But in his quest for it, Weisz has a rival who is even more accomplished and cunning a desk-detective than he: his daughter. Why his daughter should want to deprive him of this great prize is at the heart of the book, so I won’t reveal her motivation here.

But let me give you a quote that might easily form the poster teaser-line for a great movie-adaptation of this book: “My father died fifty years ago on a death march to the Reich. Now I sit in his room in Jerusalem, a city he only imagined. His desk sits locked in a storage room in New York City, and my daughter holds the key…”

If I have made Great House sound like a gripping and rather profound detective story then I’m afraid I am misrepresenting it. Sadly, the desk is the least wooden character among Great house’s cast of po-faced, self-absorbed writers and academics who endlessly faff about analysing their dreams and worrying if they will ever write again. The hope has to be that they won’t.

So while you could buy the book and labour, as I have, to extract the great story that is at its heart, personally, I’d recommend you wait for the movie.