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Reading Nicole Krauss’s ‘To Be a Man’ feels like talking all night with a brilliant friend

Long admired for her deeply probing, beautifully crafted investigations into human complexity, Nicole Krauss amply qualifies as a writer’s writer. Her work (four prior novels), while varied, rewards close attention. Palpable yet dreamlike, sensuous yet sometimes disembodied, its language remains clear and lucid, its reasoning intricate, challenging and seductive.

Her first story collection, “To Be A Man,” sustains her reputation. Reading her can feel like talking all night with a brilliant friend.

Krauss’s background merits its own double takes. Beginning as a poet who worked closely with the late Joseph Brodsky, she completed a master’s degree in art history at the prestigious Courtauld Institute in London before turning to literary fiction. The New York-born child of British and American Jews, well-traveled recipient of multiple honors, Krauss imbues her prose with authoritative intensity. In short, her work feels lived. Some of these stories appeared earlier, in the New Yorker and elsewhere. But re-encountering them in a collection lets us absorb them as siblings. Their focuses often converge upon predicaments of preternaturally smart, Jewish women.

“Switzerland” casts a typically Kraussian spell with its opening line: “It’s been thirty years since I saw Soraya.” Quiet, declarative, it suggests we’re about to skim swaths of time and space smoothly as an airborne drone, dropping swiftly and steeply into lives we already sense we’ll want to know.

We will. We do.

In “Switzerland,” a middle-aged woman recalls witnessing a beautiful roommate’s sexual experiments while they attended a boarding school for wayward girls in Geneva. All Krauss’s narrators deploy a cool, precise, almost disaffected tone, often forged by harsh history. “We were European Jews . . . which is to say that catastrophic things had happened, and might happen again . . . We were not allowed to [speak] anything even remotely Deutsch, the language of our maternal grandmother, whose entire family had been murdered by the Nazis.”

Krauss’s explorations of interior struggle press on, unflinching; aperçus feel wrested from depths. When Soraya breaks up with an early boyfriend for his dull ordinariness, the observing narrator instantly recognizes in herself “the sudden disassociation that comes with the fear of realizing how intimate one has been with one who is not at all what you imagined.”

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With chilling casualness, Krauss conveys the murderous realities lurking behind the scrim of social surfaces, that young women routinely face. “Switzerland’s” narrator remembers a well-dressed man approaching from behind as she gazes into a shop window. “I could break you in two with one hand,” he whispers, then disappears. Krauss’s women often test these threats. As Soraya becomes dangerously involved with a sadistic older man, the narrator feels “afraid for her. Or afraid of her, maybe.” Soraya “had gone further than anyone I knew in a game that was never only a game, one that was about power and fear, about the refusal to comply with the vulnerabilities one is born into.”

Inevitably, Jewishness is examined — often with intimate wit. In “Zusya on the Roof,” an old professor, recovered from near-death illness, believes he’s been “called back” to somehow transmit to his newborn grandson a life un-tyrannized by Jewishness. “Somewhere in the wide world there must be children who were born and raised without precedent . . .Who might he have been, had it been given to him to choose?” And: “Because I was a Jew . . . there was no room left to be anything else.”

Likewise, consider another couple’s shared cultural heritage: “They’d come down from more or less the same number of Holocaust survivors, had more or less the same number of relatives in Israel . . . raised with the same death-penalty prohibition against marrying a goy, or failing in any way, which is to say that each was a product of the same proud, closed-minded, hotheaded, anxious, comforting, all-consuming tribalism.”

Settings range globally without fanfare, as do Krauss’s gelid portraits of modern arrangements. “End Days” finds Noa, a young florist, helping her Israel-based father and Vienna-born mother obtain an orthodox Jewish divorce in wildfire-plagued California. During the ceremony, “her mother made conversation. She would feel the need to make conversation at a beheading, too.”

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The title story, narrated by a young, divorced mother, recounts an Israeli friend’s military ordeal (with its indelible image of children’s shoes on a doorstep). Why, this mother muses, do people tell her such stories? Her answer resembles an artist’s statement. “Maybe she had the look of someone who was trying to work something out, something at once vast and fleeting, which could never be approached head-on but only anecdotally.”

But the hallucinatory “Seeing Ershadi,” in which a dancer and her friend become obsessed with an Iranian actor, seems to distill the strange urgency of Krauss’s art. “I had the feeling that I could save Ershadi . . . What would I have asked him about devotion? What was it I wanted to be when. . .at last his gaze fell upon me?” What Ershadi represents to the women slowly unfurls, and (like much of this fine collection) continues to haunt a reader’s mind and heart.

Joan Frank’s new novel, “The Outlook for Earthlings,” was published in October by Regal House Publishing.

To Be A Man


By Nicole Krauss

Harper. 240 pp. $26.99.

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