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Another ‘Great’ work from Nicole Krauss’s big desk

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For years, Nicole Krauss’s latest story has been staring her in the face.

The author of the wildly successful “The History of Love” spends most of her time writing at her desk — a custom-built giant that she inherited when she moved into her Park Slope brownstone about eight years ago.

“I never really liked it — it’s really ugly and overbearing,” said Krauss. “The only way to get rid of it would be by chopping it up, which seemed to me sad, a waste. I just continued to write at this thing.”

In 2007, Krauss published a short story in Harper’s, “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky,” a story about inheritance that she realized had its origins in her own desk.

“I was writing about the burden of inheritance — emotional inheritance — that had come from this owner,” said Krauss.

Once published, Krauss realized she wasn’t finished with that story, and kept returning to it. This month, she publishes her third novel, “Great House,” a National Book Award finalist that tells an interweaving story of several characters — the daughter of a Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky, who disappeared at the hands of Pinochet’s secret police, a reclusive American novelist, an antiques dealer in Jerusalem, a London man caring for his dying wife — who are all connected by this one desk and the secrets it contains. It’s an enthralling, thrilling read about memory and loss.

Those acquainted with Krauss’s last novel will find the plot device familiar — multiple stories woven together and brought together by a literary item, which, in her last novel, was another book called “The History of Love.”

“In all of my books, the characters are on the whole very solitary, and it’s very hard for them to communicate with others or make themselves be seen or known,” said Krauss. “I think it’s no accident that my kind of solution or my hope, the place that allows for the greatest possible chance at that full communication, is literature. The effort to express oneself through writing is one that has led my life, really.”

That’s still the case, even after an international bestselling novel, numerous awards and being named as one of the New Yorker’s best 20 authors under the age of 40 this past year (another was her husband, the greatest writer of his generation, Jonathan Safran Foer — talk about a literary power couple). But she’s also figured out how to guard against what she calls “an erosion of self-consciousness.”

“Keeping one’s values straight and clear as a writer is an important thing,” said Krauss. “The success that I had with ‘The History of Love’ took me by surprise. It’s not something I take as a kind of norm. So many writers that I love [Bruno Schulz, Saul Bellow, Thomas Burnhard] did not have huge audiences, and yet their books are some of the greatest ever written. I try to remind myself, as wonderful as that is, as deep a pleasure as it gives me to have many readers, ultimately, it isn’t the goal in the work.”

Still, “Great House” shouldn’t disappoint for fans of “The History of Love,” which, like its predecessor, is a sweeping epic that reinvents the fiction form, and is as witty as it is devastating.

After devoting the last three years to “Great House,” Krauss isn’t ready to even think about writing just yet, either.

“A novel takes so much out of one. Everything I have goes into it,” said Krauss. “When it’s finished, there’s a kind of emptiness that follows, and it takes a while to fill up again.”

For now, she enjoys taking her and Foer’s young children to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, one of her favorite places in Brooklyn, to the playground at the new Pier 6 in Brooklyn Heights, or out around Red Hook.

“I live in Park Slope, but I love Red Hook,” said Krauss. “I feel like when I’m there, I’m in a small fishing village, in some other part of the country.”

When she’s ready to write again, the desk — her inherited burden — will be waiting.

“I haven’t chopped it up yet,” said Krauss.

Nicole Krauss reads from “Great House” at the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch [Flatbush Avenue at Eastern Parkway in Grand Army Plaza in Park Slope, (718) 230-2100], Oct. 16 at 4 pm; and at Congregation Beth Elohim [274 Garfield Pl. at Eighth Avenue in Park Slope, (718) 768-3814], Nov. 18 at 8 pm. Both are free. For info, visit www.nicolekrauss.com.

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Reader Feedback

J from Brooklyn says:
Interweaving stories tied together by an object - this is really a tired conceit. It's only her amazing characters and prose that rescue a bad habit of Krauss' to use really mundane ideas at the core of her stories.

Further, the problem only becomes magnified when such works are sold for the screen. What is overcome with her writing can't be overcome cinematically - a film about a desk will never translate into film.
Oct. 12, 2010, 2:40 pm

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