The Distorted Mirrors of Nicole Krauss

A gifted writer perceptive about so many things–except her own class privilege

In a New Yorker interview about “Switzerland,” one of the short stories in her new collection To Be a Man, Nicole Krauss quotes words that Philip Roth reportedly said to interviewers: “Everything in this book actually happened. Now what do you want to know?”

One might guess that Roth had grown a tad irritable toward critics and reviewers whose curiosity about the autobiographical content of his writing was getting predictable, so he decided to preempt a grating question. It’s a reaction that Krauss appears, to some degree, to share.

“Everything in this story happened to me, in one form or another, at one time or another, and the reimagining of these experiences and observations now feels as real and true as my actual memories,” Krauss tells the New Yorker interviewer about “Switzerland.”

Nicole Krauss

Reimagination is key here. The stories in To Be a Man remind the reader that Krauss is a refreshingly unpretentious writer posing sly questions about, among other things, the nature of writing and the creative process. Krauss isn’t in too much of a hurry to tease out all the puzzles or to present answers that are, to quote the critic James Wood (writing about Paul Auster), “grindingly explicit, spelled out in billboard-sized type.” On the contrary, her stories and novels seem to revel in mysteries of identity and consciousness and to do so in the oblique, playful manner of a writer whose name has come up in past discussions of her work. That writer is Kafka.

To Be a Man presents writing at its most self-revelatory and confessional, and it’s not always because Krauss is describing events from her life in a literal way. Certain of the stories remind us that even when writers leave their so-called comfort zone, the choices that they make with regard to character, plot, scenario, and symbolism aren’t random. Even if you’ve never left the town where you grew up, you could write a story set in twelfth-century China or on Mars and still be engaging in autobiography.

 Age of consent

“Switzerland” is a murky tale about strange doings and sexual adventures in and near a boarding school in Geneva. The narrator seems both thrilled about and wary of the possibilities for amorous exploits out there in a city where suave men walk around eying her and their attentions at times contain veiled and or even explicit threats. In a disturbing passage, a stranger on the street tells her without preamble that he could break her in half if he chose.

While acting on a budding sense of daring and freedom, the narrator proves to be not quite as much of a daredevil as her young schoolmate, Soraya, who has a taste for French novels and nights out on the town. On one of the latter outings, Soraya crosses a line and hooks up with someone she’d probably have been better off avoiding. Her prolonged absence from the boarding school leads to the raising of alarms, the grilling of other pupils, and the arrival of Soraya’s intense, imposing father on the premises. Even when things seem to have taken a dangerous turn for Soraya, the narrator’s awe makes itself felt. In an institution that seeks to mold young women in rigid ways, Soraya’s a free spirit. Much later in life, the narrator yearns to meet her again and see how she’s turned out.

Reflecting on “Switzerland,” I thought of Henry James’s short story “Daisy Miller,” which is also set, partly, in the alpine nation and features an American, Mr. Winterbourne, who’s an aficionado of physical beauty thrilled at the idea of finding romantic partners, and another American, the eponymous naif. Both stories contrast American innocence with European jadedness and sophistication, though the narrator in Krauss’s story comes across as brighter than Daisy Miller, who has little interest in the cultural offerings around her, or what she off-handedly calls “the pictures and things.”

That’s about it for the parallels. The tone of “Switzerland” is darker and the sexuality, at least on the part of some characters, more predatory. Of course I don’t know the exact ratio of embellished to literal reality in “Switzerland,” but there can be little doubt that Krauss’s experience over there impressed on her at least the contours of a disturbing and intriguing reality, one that haunts her as an adult.

Past is future

In another story, “Future Emergencies,” first published in 2002, Krauss renders a personal and social reality that very much belongs to a time and place in our national past while foreshadowing 2020 to an uncanny degree. The protagonist is in a relationship with a highly intellectual man named Victor, under whom she has studied at a university in Manhattan, and the intensity that their passion reaches can’t quite hide a persistent feeling of dissatisfaction on her part.

The backdrop for this fling is a New York that will be familiar to anyone who lived here in the aftermath of 9/11, but seems even more afflicted with pervasive unease and fear. People wear gas masks in preparation for unspecified emergencies, and life in the city recalls nothing so much as the reality we today are mired in as we glumly don our COVID-19 masks and face another day with no set date for a vaccine’s wide release in sight. The fling with Victor might have some inspiration in Krauss’s life prior to 2002, yet the layers of unease in her story appear to anticipate both the collapse of her marriage to writer Jonathan Safran Foer and their high-profile divorce, and the pandemic from which we haven’t yet emerged.

Off the beaten path

Social and personal realities have ways of intertwining and reinforcing and contrasting with each other, and nowhere is this more evident than in the title story “To Be a Man,” which ran this month in The Atlantic. Alternating between the first and third person, the story relates a woman’s romantic involvements with men who in ways are utterly different yet who both have grown into certain ideals of manhood. One is a German boxer whom she can’t convince herself wouldn’t have been a Nazi had he lived at a different time, and the other is a dancer named Rafi. Before he was a dancer, Rafi was an Israeli commando. We learn how Rafi underwent grueling training and then, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, took part in a mission whose goal was to kill a Hezbollah official with a car bomb.

nothing brings home Kafka’s influence on Krauss more directly than the moral quandary that presents itself to Rafi. I thought of Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony,” where a visitor to a country watches as an official and a soldier prepare to execute a condemned man with an elaborate machine that makes the torture devices in the Saw franchise look like Tinkertoys. Through a series of bizarre events, the condemned man gets out of the death machine and the official himself faces torture and bloody execution.

The shocked visitor asks the soldier and the erstwhile condemned man to help him save the official from the death machine’s maw, but they refuse. Seeing that there is no principled objection in this strange country to torture and execution—it’s only a question of who’s doing what to whom—the visitor flees in horror and disgust, in the hope of reaching a better place. It’s unsettling to think there is no better place to be found.

The ambiguity of Rafi’s mission, in which worthy goals intertwine with unbearable and horrific sacrifices, mirrors the messiness of human relationships, with their trade-offs and dashed hopes and expectations that people will stay together after saying the unsayable to each other. Pretty much the last thing I expected was to read an account of a military operation in a Nicole Krauss story, but one of her themes is how subjects, messages, and ideas sprout in foreign soil we assumed to be too arid for them to survive. We see the stuff of our life in a distorted mirror. Even when we leave our comfort zones as writers, we really don’t.

Nowhere does that theme come across more inventively than in Krauss’s story “The Young Painters,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 2010. The narrator of the story, a New York writer, happens to knows a man—another dancer—who keeps an interesting painting made by a pair of young siblings on a wall in his apartment. Part of the interest derives from the fact that the mother of the small boy and girl took their lives in a ghastly murder-suicide.

She drove them out to a remote place in a forest in Germany and set the car on fire. After seeing the painting, the narrator can’t resist the impulse to write a story inspired by the murder-suicide, though she’s uneasy about how the dancer will react if he finds out that she took the liberty of adopting for her literary purposes the backstory of the painting he was kind enough to show her in the privacy of his apartment.

Whether the narrator even could resist the temptation isn’t clear. It’s not just that she thinks the painting has a cool backstory and decides to use it, you see. Krauss divulges that the narrator has felt acutely conscious, as she has aged, of her dwindling chances of having kids. The extent of her discomfiture over this fact comes across in a bizarre episode where she hears through a window a loud scream from a nearby playground.

It’s clear that specters are haunting this narrator—children who can never come into the world, lives that will not be, murdered possibilities, as tragic and resonant as the canceled lives of the boy and girl painters whose fate her less than fully conscious obsessions drove her to pick as material for a short story. Even though the narrator doesn’t live in Germany and had no part in a strictly literal way in the story, her choice of subject matter wasn’t arbitrary. She kept firmly within her comfort zone while supposedly straying far from it. “The Young Painters” holds the interpretive key to much of Krauss’s work.

Social unreality

Maybe it’s wrong to expect gifted writers to have good judgment about other things, but a curious op-ed piece Krauss wrote for the New York Times in September 2017, “Do Women Get to Write With Authority?”, dampens my enthusiasm for her work somewhat. One wonder whether the independence Krauss celebrates in her writing includes the freedom to depart from politically correct orthodoxy once in a while. After reading the piece, one may feel that maybe it’s not such a great thing after all that she can’t seem to transcend completely certain facts of her existence, or leave her comfort zone, if you will, and see and grasp how other writers live from day to day.

In this piece, one of the world’s more fortunate and privileged people complains at length about supposed disadvantages she faces as a writer compared to men with the same vocation. Krauss asserts, with no methodology, evidence, or really any basis at all other than her personal sense, that female writers must work harder to prove themselves, to attain a right to authorial authority, than male writers. “Young men purchase authority on credit for which they are preapproved. But if you are a young woman, even now, no one and nothing will guarantee you,” she writes.

The literary journals to which writers submit work are staffed with progressive-minded, female and male creative writing MFAs who are highly intelligent and usually show good judgment. It’s a stretch to believe that they practice favoritism toward male writers. Many of the top literary agents are also women, as are a good number of the acquisition and development editors at the major publishers.

But that’s not really what’s galling about this op-ed piece. Krauss leads a life of luxury, privilege, and the very highest literary success. Meanwhile, lots of male and female writers are waiting tables, struggling to make rent, trying to place their work, and looking for a reason not to cut their wrists.

Krauss’s op-ed piece would seem odd even if the minor quibbles she raises had merit. They don’t. She has to make her female characters relatable? Well, the same expectation very much applies to male writers. One of the common charges against Edgar Allan Poe, who was one of a number of famous writers who died in poverty and while still young, is that some of his male protagonists are flat and one-dimensional. We don’t like or relate to them enough for them to be compelling.

Krauss received questions about her character Leo Gursky in The History of Love. “In some ways he afforded me a greater range, without risking the sacrifice of readers’ empathy, than if I had written the story of Leah Gursky. No matter that I would be asked, endlessly, if Leo was a portrait of my grandfather, as if the authority on the page was someone else’s, which I had only observed.”

Well, given Krauss’s blunt acknowledgment of the autobiographical content of her work, it might seem reasonable for her fans to want to know on what person in her life she based Leo.

Krauss is a fine writer, from whom I hope to see a great deal more, but in the words of Shakespeare, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this review incorrectly stated that Krauss sold her Brooklyn brownstone, co-purchased with her ex-husband Jonathan Safran Foer, for $14.5 million. Though they did once list it for close to that amount, Krauss still owns the home). 

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

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