Review: To Be a Man

The Holocaust looms large and Israel looms even larger, though not an Israel at war. 


To Be a Man: Stories by Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

Nicole Krauss made her name with three novels in eight years: Man Walks into a Room (2002), The History of Love (2005) and Great House (2010). She was part of an extraordinary new generation of Jewish-American writers that included Nathan Englander, Michael Chabon and her ex-husband, Jonathan Safran Foer. 

In a few years, in the 2000s, they gave the American novel a tremendous new energy and, arguably, Krauss’s History of Love and the final pages of Great House were as good as anything written in English over the past 30 years.  

In the past ten years, however, things have gone quiet for Krauss. She has written one disappointing novel, Forest Dark (2017) and a handful of very Jewish short stories, now published in her first collection, To Be a Man

In one story, Amour, she introduces two young lovers, Sophie and Ezra: “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, each had a mother born in Europe and a father just barely born in America.” 

In many of the stories, the action moves between New York and Tel Aviv. The Holocaust looms large and Israel looms even larger, though not an Israel at war. 

The Israel in Nicole Krauss’s stories is a place of apartments and cafés, archaeologists, engineers  — and lovers. Hezbollah gets mentioned once, Gaza and Mossad, never.  

The stories were originally published over the past 20 years and they don’t feel remotely dated. 
The subjects are timeless: loneliness, how grown-up daughters relate (or don’t) to their parents, the fragility of relationships and families. Few marriages last — a constant theme throughout the collection — and smart, professional children try to deal with the wreckage over the following years. 

Krauss’s characters live in a cultured, middle-class world. They read Borges and watch films by Bergman, Fellini and Pasolini. 

One story, Seeing Ershadi, is named after a famous Iranian film actor. Characters travel constantly: from Israel to Berlin or Japan — one young woman is in California while her father is working in Israel and her mother in Germany. 

The best stories, though, are very different. Switzerland is an autobiographical tale about a 13-year-old who has gone to finishing school in Geneva. 

Her parents “fought violently” but the story is about teenage girls, desire and dangerous men. Switzerland — “neutral, alpine, orderly” — is anything but. Everywhere there lies the risk of violence  and chaos.

Zusya on the Roof is about Rodman, an old, Orthodox Jew, who has spent “fifty years trying to write unnecessary books”. 

Recovering from a near-fatal illness, he is estranged from his two adult daughters. They don’t understand him or his world. 

Will Rodman manage to build a relationship with his baby grandson or is it all too late?  

This and the other dark, sad stories in the collection show Nicole Krauss at her best. The rest of the collection is uneven and one wonders — and hopes — if she will ever return to the sheer brilliance of her early works. 

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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