memory and love

by tobybee

It begins with a woman confessing her story to a judge. We don’t know why – this doesn’t seem like a story that requires confessing. But then maybe all stories require a confession to be known. This, after all, is something we have learnt from both Freud and Foucault: that a speech, a confession, a talk, with an interlocutor is how we make meaning, or make truth, of our lives.

But how to make meaning when meaning is so difficult to grasp?

This is a problem that Nicole Krauss grapples with in her books. I recently finished reading her most recent book, Great House, and in so many ways, I think, she nails what it means to live in the unknown. And this is in some ways a peculiarly post-Holocaust generations, early twenty-first century unknown. Her works are works of postmemory (the type of memory described by Marianne Hirsch, wherein the traumas the traumas of the Holocaust—and their working-through—continue across time, space and generations). But it’s also, as Hannah Arendt has pointed out, a part of the general modern human condition (which isn’t to say that it’s an inevitable part of all human nature, but that it’s a part of a particular, and continuing, historical moment or experience of alienation in modernity and nationalism).

But despite its potential generality, Krauss writes of Jews and trauma, memory, longing, replacement. She writes of a man who, from the time the Holocaust ends, works to reconstruct their father’s study, as though by bringing together the items of his study his being could be brought back. It points us to a fetishisation of objects, but also to the poignancy of the impossibility of filling the hole created by losing one’s parents (in a genocide). But I like that it’s a study that he recreates.

When you read (here) Krauss’ explanations of some of the stories in the book (for there are numerous different threads which run through Great House, all united by a desk and its travels), she makes clear that parenthood has made her rethink what it is to be intimately connected to people (Krauss has two young sons). But one of the other things I like about the book is that she never creates a model of a family where everything is perfect. She writes of love that is beyond understanding but that sometimes works. She writes of failed relationships. She ponders whether we can ever know another person, no matter how much time we spend with them. So while her characters are heterosexual, their relationships, for the most part, are not simply straight. She plays with the expectations of heteronormativity.

And then there are the moments in the writing that make me laugh: a woman is describing the poet who she is to inherit the desk from, and she says “He had a big nose, a big Chilean-Jewish nose, and big hands with skinny fingers, and big feet, but there was also something delicate about him, something to do with his long eyelashes or his bones” (p. 10). It’s the ways she nails the search for the semitic in the body that mirrors something I so often do. Looking at the obvious repositories of bodily jewishnesses.

So yes, you should read this book. And if you haven’t read The History of Love – her previous book – you should most definitely do that as well. Nicole Krauss’s writings of memory, love and loss make me swoon.