The title “Being a Man” attracts attention, especially when it is emblazoned on an author’s book and the cover shows two women kissing. So is Nicole Krauss’ new work a further feminist farewell to the male principle, a further measurement of “toxic” masculinity – or even a counter-call? To expect this or that would be to start reading the ten fabulous stories with a misunderstanding.
But even if Krauss avoids anything bold and obtrusive in them and her characters don’t engage in gender debates, underlying gender identities are also at stake. In terms of their “being”, most of the narrator characters in this volume are female. In all ten stories, however, the focus is on fascinating, idiosyncratic, and sometimes disconcerting men.
In the first story “Switzerland”, the first-person narrator remembers her time at boarding school in Geneva. At the time, she was listening intently to the reports of Iranian Soraya, with whom she shared a room and who had already had many affairs, including with a rich Dutch businessman who appeared menacingly dominant and embodied the sex appeal of power. Thirty years later, the narrator tries to understand the “shining flame” in her friend’s eyes: was it carelessness, fear, “perversity” or an “indomitable will”? When Soraya disappeared one day, her father came, a former royal engineer of the Shah, “her face was knotty with anger” – such formulations incidentally show Krauss’s class. In any case, Soraya’s independence with the knotty father’s face turned out to be an illusion.
Born in 1974, Nicole Krauss was very successful with novels such as “The History of Love” and “Waldes Dunkel”. She is part of New York’s literary jet set; she has two children with the writer Jonathan Safran Foer, to whom she was married for ten years. The expectations of her first collection of stories were just as high as the advance payment she received for the book from her American publisher HarperCollins. The stories are actually good, some very good, perhaps best of all “The Husband”, the longest piece in the volume, in which Krauss takes up the Jewish theme of the found people.
Organizations such as the Red Cross often only reunited scattered survivors of the Holocaust with their relatives many years later. In this story, for example, a “social service” suddenly rings at the door of an old, slightly confused widow in Tel Aviv and presents the once lost “husband”. He comes from Hungary; a charming gentleman with a hat, who initially stands a little lost in the apartment, but in the weeks that follow he enchants the whole family with his Central European charm, except for Tamar, the suspicious daughter of the old woman, who arrives from New York shortly after and who has committed a scam supposed. Rightly so, because the data do not match. But does one have to question such a fortunate turn of events in favor of the concept of truth?
It’s a psychologically nuanced family comedy with historical depth and contemporary twists. Tamar’s own marriage failed due to the imbalance in everyday duties, her gay brother Shlomi and his husband are able to fulfill their wish to have children thanks to an Indian surrogate mother. In this form, the nuclear family, so often dismissed and ridiculed, may still be successful in literary terms. Hetero-relationships, on the other hand, are regularly described as failing, women tend to fall in love with their independence. Even if the longing remains.
Several stories have a touch of the fantastic, such as the Kafkaesque story of a woman who inherits an apartment in Tel Aviv from her father. The inventory also includes a strange stranger who comes to the apartment to sleep and cooks omelettes for the heiress without being asked and takes care of her laundry. The story “Future Emergencies”, written in 2002, picks up on the feeling of the threat after 9/11 and at the same time seems to anticipate the mood of the corona pandemic. As protection against a diffuse danger, gas masks are distributed to all citizens of New York, some of whom later do not want to part with. Perhaps they had “just got used to, even grown fond of, putting on the mask and were now reluctant to take it off and go back bare-faced, exposed to everything and everyone.”
The cover story “Being a Man” tells a German-Jewish love story. The male partner is only referred to as the “German boxer”, which sounds brutal, although in reality he is a sensitive giant. The couple go for a walk at Berlin’s Schlachtensee and discuss the thorny question of whether “the German boxer” would have appeared as an SS man at the narrator’s door, back in 1941. Given his size, the SS would certainly have courted him, he admits, and he would because of his desire been receptive to fame and glory.
Again and again it is about Jewish identity. 3000 years of religious tradition can be felt as a burden. This is shown in the story “Sussja on the roof”. An elderly history professor survives an operation for colon cancer and from then on sees his survival as a mission: He wants to free his only grandchild from the spell of Jewish history, which for him is condensed in the memory of how his own father tied his phylacteries every day at the pious dawn of the Lord. In a spontaneous protest, the professor disappears from the circumcision party with the baby while the knife is being prepared in the next room.
Krauss writes intelligent prose, which is concentrated in the stories, while her novels sometimes suffer from prolixity. The tone of the narrative is reflected, with an aristocratic coolness; it delivers precise details, not mood values. Conventional sophistication can be attested to in these well-crafted stories, smoothly translated by Grete Osterwald. In the end, however, the attraction of good reading is that we forget all fabrication and get the impression of reading from “real” people. Nicole Krauss succeeds time and time again in these stories.
Nicole Krauss: Being a man. stories Translated from the English by Grete Osterwald. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2022 256 pages, €24.