A Poet’s Novelist
September 14, 2011, by Aja Gabel
In a 2005 New York Magazine interview with Nicole Krauss (click here to read), the interviewer asks to see some of Krauss’s poems, and Krauss declines, “having set aside what she describes as an impossible quest for poetic precision.” Of course, you can still listen to some of her poems here, at the Paris Review. And even these days–after the critically acclaimed Great House was a finalist for the National Book Award –she is often described in reviews and magazines as a “former poet” or someone who has abandoned poetry for the more suitable genre of prose. This might make sense considering that while her most recent novels are gorgeous tragedies, sprawling across time, with textured characters in vibrant settings, something of the poet in search of precision remains in her language.
In Great House, a novel weaving four separate narrative threads into a complex tapestry of sorrow, each voice carefully bears its specific tragedy in small, beautiful sentences. In the thread narrated by Arthur Bender, who is losing his wife to a slow dementia, he thinks this about the nature of their love at the end of their life togethe
The act of love is always a confession, Camus wrote. But so is the quiet closing of a door. A cry in the night. A fall down the stairs. A cough in the hall. All my life I had been trying to imagine myself into her skin. Imagine myself into her loss. Trying and failing. Only perhaps—how can I say this—perhaps I wanted to fail. Because it kept me going. My love for her was a failure of the imagination.
I thought Great House was one of the best books of last year, not only because the construction of it is a brave, multi-voiced beast of a story, but because inside that big structure are precise images and poetic confessions. The whole of Great House is made up of sentences like those above, and while you will be impressed by the structural feat, what will stay with you is the way the lyrical prose glimmered, making you feel as though each confession was only for you.
Toward the end of Great House, Arthur discusses his sadness by way of remembering the small things that represent the bigger, unspeakable loss:
We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.
In much the same way, what I remember most and appreciate most from Great House are the precise details and images that speak to something larger, but reverberate on the page all on their own. Perhaps Krauss’s inner poet has not been abandoned after all, but rather finally satisfied by the intricate assembly of poetic details into a grandly orchestrated novel.