I just finished reading Great House by Nicole Krauss, and I really liked it. Her writing reminds me of W. G. Sebald, for a number of reasons. Granted, the only Sebald I have read is Austerlitz, but they are strikingly similar in both theme (Kindertransport, memory, London), and in their confessional, stream-of-conscious style narration. Anyway, both are highly recommended.
One of the things I really liked about Great House was that an object, specifically a desk, is one of the central protagonists of the story, in fact, it could be seen as the story of a desk told from different perspectives. Don’t worry, by the way, no spoilers here. This is all stuff you could find out from reading the blurb on the back of the book. More or less. What interested me was the way that Krauss writes about the desk, both its presence and its absence, and how physical objects can actually shape us. One of the characters, a writer who writes at the desk for years, says that she has “physically grown around” the desk: “my posture formed by years of leaning over it and fitting myself to it.”
The truth of this struck me when our electricity went out last night. It was only out for a few hours, but it made me realize how dependent we are on our things, especially our gadgets. We were using our computer as a flashlight, because even though we have already hooked up the internet in our house, we have yet to buy any candles! Reaching for the computer or the cell phone is so automatic, it is almost embedded in our muscle-memory, we can do it with our eyes closed. But last night, Julie and I went out onto the porch (it was a tiny bit cooler out there), and just sat and talked. Only then did I realize (by contrast) how little we talk when we are both on computers, or doing something else, usually involving some kind of gadgetry. I don’t want to make it seem like we never talk, but sometimes we get caught up in doing things and communication suffers. All of our stuff gets in our way, and we miss out on some of the most important things which are actually absent in the sense that they are not tangible. Take for example they way Krauss describes a family’s house in a sentence that is full of both truth and crushing beauty:
“We stood in the hall of the house that had once been all of our house, a house that had been filled with life, every last room of it brimming with laughter, arguments, tears, dust, the smell of food, pain, desire, anger, and silence, too, the tightly coiled silence of people pressed up against each other in what is called a family.”
Everything that makes it a home is expressed through absence, memory and silence. Krauss writes, “the absence of things is more useful than their presence.” In some ways, I think that is true. Of course she also continues: “Useful for what?” That is a good question.
Here in Africa, there are a lot of things that really are missing (food, clean water, healthcare etc.), but we personally lack for nothing. What we experience are minor inconveniences, like power or water cuts, and though they may be frequent, they will not kill us. But they are a good reminder. Krauss also writes about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who left Jerusalem for Yavne when the holy city was destroyed by the Romans. The destruction of the Temple caused him to ask the question, “What is a Jew without Jerusalem?” In this way, Krauss says, he was able to “Turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book, a book as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.”
The pain of exile is one of the cruelest absences to endure, because it is a pain that our minds cannot help but go to, “like a tongue probing the tender spot of a missing tooth.” This is a dynamic familiar to both the Jewish and Palestinian people. They have been so shaped by exile that their longing and desire surpass in importance the object they long for and desire. It is a painful process, but it does change the way we view things. The physical object no longer matters, or at least it does not matter in the way that it once did. What matters is the idea, the intention and the spirit behind it. Through this crystallization, we are left with the essential.