Tradition, doubt, memory a potent mix on Krauss table

Nicole Krauss began writing “Great House” soon after her first child was born. As a new mother, she was thinking about what parents pass on to their children, and the burden of inheritance. For her third novel, she also was interested in pursuing characters who made different choices than she did.

“Great House,” an international best-seller, delves into themes of memory, as did her first two novels, “Man Walks Into a Room” and the award-winning “The History of Love.” She has said it is probably something she will always write about.

Krauss is the keynote speaker Feb. 26 at BookFest Sunday at the JCC of San Francisco, where she will discuss her work with Berkeley author Elizabeth Rosner.

Nicole Krauss

“Great House” — a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and the 2011 Orange Prize — unfolds through several interlinked stories. Krauss writes of a New York novelist, a Chilean poet, a father in Israel, an Oxford scholar, a Holocaust survivor and a Hungarian antiques dealer who specializes in helping people find pieces of their past — perhaps a chest from a living room broken up by the Nazis or a porcelain mantel clock. Slowly, the reader comes to fit together their stories and the mysteries that link them. At the center of the novel is a massive wooden desk.

With grace and originality, Krauss writes of loss and different kinds of loneliness, uncertainty, and the connections between memory and objects, and between memory and identity. The desk itself is a hulking mystery, and the characters in each story, even after many years together, are still in many ways unknown to each other.

Krauss, who began her writing career as a poet, pays careful attention to characters and captures the emotional landscape of each, often pausing for an extra moment in his or her private world. A Romanian housekeeper has “a limp, water on the knee, I think, a cup of the Danube that sloshed around as she thumped from room to room with her mop and feather duster, sighing as if freshly reminded of a disappointment.”

Krauss, whose books have been translated into 35 languages, writes at a huge desk in the study of the Brooklyn, N.Y. home she shares with her husband, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, and their two young sons. She inherited the desk of inlaid wood, created for the upper-floor studio space, when they moved into the house. It inspired, in part, “Great House.”

The novel’s title hints back at Jewish history, to an academy known as the Great House, set up in Yavneh in the first century by Yohanan ben Zakkai to preserve and strengthen learning after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

“Turn Jerusalem into an idea,” one of the narrators says. “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.”

Growing up in New York City, Krauss traveled to Israel with some frequency to visit her grandparents, who moved there from London. For her, Israel is familial, and whenever she visits, everything becomes potential material — every story she hears, every scene she witnesses.

Like many writers who are Jewish, Krauss does not care to be pigeonholed as a “Jewish writer.” But she also takes pride in it and “feels a certain gratitude to the bottomless well of Jewish life, to which, I’m sure, I’ll always return in my work,” as she said in an interview.

“What interests me most is … the tradition of argument, dissent, dissatisfaction and questioning that is so central to Judaism and forms the basis of all rabbinic literature. Perhaps the word is really doubt, which is the constant refrain in the Jewish relationship to God, and, as it filters down from the sacred, to all things.”

Nicole Krauss
, 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Feb. 26 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. $17-$25 keynote only; $22-$30 includes BookFest Sunday events. Book signing to follow.