Wingate Winner Nicole Krauss opens up about the stories that stunned the judges

3,000 years of Jewish history forms the background to the American author's work


Like the characters in her Wingate Prize-winning book, To Be a Man, Nicole Krauss is often on the move.

“It is a necessity for me. Something about existing in two places works very well for me as a writer,” she says.

In fact, as we spoke, she was in three places. Though she lives in Brooklyn she spends a lot of time in Israel — and during her JC interview earlier this week, she was in Costa Rica.

It was 5.30am her time. She answered the phone and I introduced myself. “I wasn’t expecting anyone else to call at this time,” she said, sounding remarkably cheery considering the hour.

She had good reason to be. Her short story collection had been awarded the 2022 Wingate Literary Prize. Surprisingly, it is the first time she has won Britain’s leading Jewish literary prize — despite being one of America’s best writers for the past 20 years.

At the heart of To Be a Man, a collection of very Jewish tales about loneliness, the fragility of relationships and families, is the theme of change.

Her characters change so much, she says, because they have to. “I am not so much interested in how people are haunted by their past, as in the response. How people reinvent themselves. How they survive.”

That is what is so attractive about many of her characters. They have suffered so much and yet they are so full of life. Naturally, however, the stories are also imbued with the weight of Jewish history.

As she puts it: “We are all born in a local neighbourhood. Mine happens to be 3,000 years of Jewish history, a very rich background… History is always a shadow in my work.”

In one story, Amour, she introduces two young lovers: “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.”

Not unlike Ms Krauss herself. Her maternal grandparents were born in Germany and Ukraine and later emigrated to London. Her paternal grandparents were born in Hungary and Slonim, Belarus, met in Israel, and later emigrated to New York.

Her former husband and the father of her two sons is the acclaimed Jewish-American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose work also deals with his Jewish roots in Eastern Europe.

Israel has long been an important subject for Ms Krauss. “I have been returning there. I say ‘returning’ because my parents met and married in Israel as did my grandparents in the 1930s.”

Her most recent novel, Forest Dark, published in 2017, is set in New York City and Israel. Jules Epstein, a wealthy retiree, goes missing in Tel Aviv and Nicole, a novelist from New York, goes to Tel Aviv to research her new novel.

But the Israel she writes about in To Be a Man is a place of apartments and cafes, archaeologists, engineers and lovers, rather than terrorists and politicians. “I’m writing about the experience of living there,” she says.

It is perhaps for that reason that although many of the stories were originally published over the last 20 years, they do not feel dated.

Some of the best tales are the darkest. In Switzerland, she describes the country as “neutral, alpine, orderly”. But in the story, it is anything but. Everywhere there is the risk of violence and chaos.

The judges described her new book as a powerful work, “original and beautifully written”.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck, chair of the panel, said: “Nicole Krauss’s To Be a Man is a collection of remarkable stories. It is a contemporary and beautiful piece of writing and we particularly admired the fact that the subject matter supported the literature rather than the literature being subordinate to it — a testament to Krauss’s special talent as a writer.”

In response to receiving the prize, Ms Krauss said: “At a time when antisemitism is everywhere on the rise, a dedication to Jewish themes and a deep engagement with the question of what it means to be Jewish feels as important as ever.”

Despite that answer, Ms Krauss insisted to me: “I don’t think of myself as a writer responding largely to sadness or writing only about pain.”

And it’s true. The History of Love, published in 2005, one of the best novels written in the last 20 years, is deeply moving but also often hilarious.

Her next book will be a novel. “I am still towards the beginning of it. The best place to be. The beginning is always full of promise.”

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