Excerpt from Great House by Nicole Krauss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Great House

A Novel

by Nicole Krauss

Great House
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2010, 289 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2011, 289 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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It was then that he told me the desk had been used, briefly, by Lorca. I didn't know if he was joking or not, it seemed highly improbable that this traveler from Chile, younger than I, could have gotten hold of such a valuable item, but I decided to assume that he was serious so as not to risk offending someone who had shown me only kindness. When I asked how he had gotten it, he shrugged and said he had bought it, but didn't elaborate. I thought he was going to say, And now I am giving it to you, but he didn't, he just gave one of the legs a little kick, not a violent one but a gentle one, full of respect, and kept walking.

Either then or later we kissed.


She injected another dose of morphine into your drip, and fixed a loose electrode on your chest. Out the window, dawn was spreading over Jerusalem. For a moment she and I watched the green glow of your EKG rise and fall. Then she drew the curtain and left us alone.


Our kiss was anticlimactic. It wasn't that the kiss was bad, but it was just a note of punctuation in our long conversation, a parenthetical remark made in order to assure each other of a deeply felt agreement, a mutual offer of companionship, which is so much more rare than sexual passion or even love. Daniel's lips were bigger than I expected, not big on his face but big when I closed my eyes and they touched mine, and for a split second I felt as if they were smothering me. More than likely it was just that I was so used to R's lips, thin non-Semitic lips that often turned blue in the cold. With one hand Daniel Varsky squeezed my thigh, and I touched his hair, which smelled like a dirty river. I think by then we'd arrived, or were about to arrive, at the cesspool of politics, and at first angrily, then almost on the edge of tears, Daniel Varsky railed against Nixon and Kissinger and their sanctions and ruthless machinations that were, he said, trying to strangle all that was new and young and beautiful in Chile, the hope that had carried the doctor Allende all the way to Moneda Palace. Workers' wages up by 50 percent he said, and all these pigs care about is their copper and their multinationals! Just the thought of a democratically elected Marxist president makes them shit in their pants! Why don't they just leave us alone and let us get on with our lives, he said, and for a minute his look was almost pleading or imploring, as if I somehow held sway with the shady characters at the helm of the dark ship of my country. He had a very prominent Adam's apple, and every time he swallowed it bobbed around in his throat, and now it seemed to be bobbing continuously, like an apple tossed out to sea. I didn't know much about what was happening in Chile, at least not then, not yet. A year and a half later, after Paul Alpers told me that Daniel Varsky had been taken in the middle of the night by Manuel Contreras' secret police, I knew. But in the spring of 1972, sitting in his apartment on 99th Street in the last of the evening light, while General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte was still the demure, groveling army chief of staff who tried to get his friends' children to call him Tata, I didn't know much.

What's strange is that I don't remember how the night (by then it was already an enormous New York City night) ended. Obviously we must have said goodbye after which I left his apartment, or maybe we left together and he walked me to the subway or hailed me a cab, since in those days the neighborhood, or the city in general, wasn't safe. I just don't have any recollection of it. A couple of weeks later a moving truck arrived at my apartment and the men unloaded the furniture. By that time Daniel Varsky had already gone home to Chile.

Two years passed. In the beginning I used to get postcards. At first they were warm and even jovial: Everything is fine. I'm thinking of joining the Chilean Speleological Society but don't worry, it won't interfere with my poetry, if anything the two pursuits are complementary. I may have a chance to attend a mathematics lecture by Parra. The political situation is going to hell, if I don't join the Speleological Society I'm going to join the MIR. Take good care of Lorca's desk, one day I'll be back for it. Besos, D.V. After the coup they became somber, and then they became cryptic, and then, about six months before I heard he'd disappeared, they stopped coming altogether. I kept them all in one of the drawers of his desk. I didn't write back because there was no address to write back to. In those years I was still writing poetry, and I wrote a few poems addressed, or dedicated, to Daniel Varsky. My grandmother died and was buried too far out in the suburbs for anyone to visit, I went out with a number of men, moved apartments twice, and wrote my first novel at Daniel Varsky's desk. Sometimes I forgot about him for months at a time. I don't know if I knew about Villa Grimaldi yet, almost certainly I hadn't heard of 38 Calle Londres, Cuatro Alamos, or the Discoteca also known as Venda Sexy because of the sexual atrocities performed there and the loud music the torturers favored, but whatever the case I knew enough that at other times, having fallen asleep on Daniel's sofa as I often did, I had nightmares about what they did to him. Sometimes I would look around at his furniture, the sofa, desk, coffee table, bookshelves, and chairs, and be filled with a crushing despair, and sometimes just an oblique sadness, and sometimes I would look at it all and become convinced that it amounted to a riddle, a riddle he had left me that I was supposed to crack. 1 4 Gr ea t Hous e From time to time, I've met people, mostly Chileans, who knew or had heard of Daniel Varsky. For a short time after his death his reputation grew, and he was counted among the martyred poets silenced by Pinochet. But of course the ones who tortured and killed Daniel had never read his poetry; it's possible they didn't even know that he wrote poetry at all. Some years after he disappeared, with the help of Paul Alpers, I wrote letters to Daniel's friends asking if they had any poems of his that they could send to me. I had the idea that I could get them published somewhere as a kind of memorial to him. But I only received one letter back, a short reply from an old school friend saying he didn't have anything. I must have written something about the desk in my letter, otherwise the postscript would have been too strange: By the way, it said, I doubt Lorca ever owned that desk. That was all. I put the letter in the drawer with Daniel's postcards. For a while I even thought of writing to his mother, but in the end I never did.

Reprinted from Great House: A Novel by Nicole Krauss Copyright (c) 2010 by Nicole Krauss. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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