Book Review: Nicole Krauss’ “To Be a Man” — A Virtuoso Performance

By Drew Hart

Nicole Krauss’ new book of short stories generates a curious, understated, but genuinely transporting spirit, pretty much throughout.

To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss. Harper Collins, 240 pp., $26.99.

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Although one can grow weary, discovering that so many literary fiction writers work from Brooklyn nowadays, credit has to be given where it’s due. The borough may have settled down since the early years of the last decade — we no longer hear about new fair trade chocolate or coffee places every day — but in fairness (although a bit lost on yours truly) it must still be an interesting place to live. That’s where Nicole Krauss, author of acclaimed novels and now a story collection, To Be a Man, plies her trade. And at present at least, she is doing it most impressively. Her new book of tales, set not in Brooklyn, but in a number of international cities, has a curious, understated, but genuinely transporting spirit, pretty much throughout.

It was an exposure to the book’s opening story, “Switzerland,” in the New Yorker this fall, that triggered curiosity in these parts — it’s a deeply felt account of a woman reminiscing about her teenage days in a boarding house near Geneva, and her relationship with an older girl who fascinates her with her sexually adventurous ways. Many of the stories here have a woman narrator behind them; anyone who imagines the book’s title suggests some feminist diatribe or something like it is mistaken. Krauss displays an ability to capture the hearts and minds of men and women alike.

Some examples: “Zusya On The Roof” tells of a New York professor of Hebraic studies who revives after a near death experience to encounter his newly-born grandson. In “End Days,” a college student delivers final divorce papers for her parents to a rabbi’s house — in the midst of a wildfire threatening her city — and finds herself making love to his son, an assistant rabbi himself. “Future Emergencies” features a museum guide and her professor lover contemplating uncertain news which has caused them, and everyone else, to acquire gas masks. Before learning the reason was just a government drill, the pair have played Scrabble, made love, and become pregnant, even though she was considering breaking up with him. (As with Don DeLillo’s recent novel, The Silence, there seems to be a bit of clairvoyance here, as though the Covid crisis was anticipated? End days seem to be on a lot of people’s minds right now… Huh, how come!)

Though a couple of pieces in To Be a Man feel disjointed, structurally puzzling, for the most part we are being served a virtuoso performance. Krauss has a way of evoking places, atmospheres, and feeling with a spare subtlety that is very effective. Another thing: if she wants another path to go down in the future, she can make quite a career in film reviewing. Two stories are built around great contemporary movies: one is a Kiarostami picture, Taste of Cherry, that she made me want to see, while another especially powerful tale references Haneke’s Amour (and shares its same name) without identifying it. Great turns of phrases abound — a “miserable school” is filled with “petty, hormonal girls, olympic in their cruelty”; “I Am Asleep But My Heart Is Awake” evokes a Tel Aviv apartment where there’s “salt in the cupboard, but never olive oil; a knife, but a knife that doesn’t cut”; in “Seeing Ershadi”, an actor’s face (from the Kiarostami film) conveys “a gravity and depth of feeling that could never come from acting — that could only come of an intimate knowledge of what it is to be pushed to the brink of hopelessness”; the title story depicts a beach in early summer, “under the great bell of the sky.” We’ll stop now — there are many writerly moments here. And while her often Judaic subjects may bring Bellow or Singer to mind, Krauss is clearly a writer of her own making.

Seems 2020 is still with us at this late date —  for whatever might be said about it being a horrendous year, it also has to be noted as being a strong one for fiction? To Be a Man is a high point.

Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California

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