Nicole Krauss: 'The idea of manhood is so beleaguered'

The novelist on writing in the voices of men, the benefits of having a dual identity, and lockdown jogging alongside New York’s mayor

Nicole Krauss is the author of four novels, including the bestselling The History of Love. She was brought up in the splendid isolation of a Bauhaus masterpiece on Long Island. Her mother is British, her father American, both children of Jewish immigrants. Krauss’s work explores Jewish culture and history, particularly the Holocaust and the traces it has left on contemporary American and Israeli life. She lives in Brooklyn with her sons, who are 11 and 14. Their father is the author Jonathan Safran Foer, whom Krauss married in 2004 and divorced in 2014. To Be a Man is her first story collection.

It seems as if you dwell imaginatively in two different places: Israel and America. What does this dual identity bring to you as a writer?
As a writer, it’s an enormous boon. What I don’t have in my American or New York context, for example 2,000 or 3,000 years of history, I have in Israel. What I don’t have here [in the US] is that thing of specifically belonging to a community that I feel I’m an authority on – Roth had his Newark, which I didn’t have. Israel, or at least Tel Aviv, is a much smaller community, much more manageable. I have two societies that offer very different systems of value. So whereas in America there’s the wildness of the idea that one can become anything, in Israel there are these other values that are about what it is to belong to a family, to history, this feeling of knowing what it is to operate under the burdens of history on a daily basis. A strong sense of the urgency of life.

The characters in these stories seem to live along faultlines. Is it the conflictedness of people that makes them come alive on the page?
I’m really interested in characters and situations where we have to live with paradox. I’m interested in tensions but not in resolving those tensions. This is a collection, for instance, shot through with the longing for freedom and for the stability of a relationship, of belonging. Now those things were always at heads with each other. That interests me, because I think that’s where most of us live. I was recently asked about the fine line between tenderness and violence in a relationship and I said the fine line is where the writer pitches her tent. I’ve always been drawn to those places, and never more so than now.

Both in these stories and, particularly, in your most recent novel, Forest Dark, it feels like you’re pushing the form to the limits of authorial control. It’s writing that constantly asks what the form can do, from the interweaving autofictions of Forest Dark to the extraordinary cycling of perspectives in the title story of this collection.
There’s something very attractive about recklessness in art, perhaps more so than in life. When I think of the writers, the musicians, the painters that I most love, there always a sense of danger about them, like what they’re doing might just fall apart.

Why To Be a Man?
I was thinking about the way I inhabited men in my novels, why I write as often in the voices of men as women. Then I began to think about my own experiences with men. About what it is to be the mother of two boys and what it means to raise those boys into men in the context of this moment where the idea of manhood is so beleaguered and problematic and complex. I wanted to find in this book a kind of perspective on masculinity that I haven’t found in the past years in the shadow of the #MeToo movement. Trying to think about the aspects of manhood that that movement couldn’t address because it had so many other things to address. The vulnerability of men and the complexity of what is asked of them in terms of strength both by their societies and personally, all of these complexities and contradictions were on my mind and I just wanted to find a form that would hold them with tenderness, with appreciation for their struggle and what it means to be a woman among them.

How was lockdown for you?
I have been doing an enormous amount of running. I’m a resister. I accepted all of our fate and the necessity of lockdown but everything in me wanted to move, and so I just ran. For the first month of lockdown, I was running every day in a nearby park on this wooded path. There was no one there. I was avoiding the main circuit, which is clogged with people and unreformed spitters. One morning I passed this tall man with a mask and this woman near me shouted at him: “Hey Bill! Bill de Blasio! [the mayor of New York] You mother-effer. You should have shut down the subway earlier! You should have closed the schools!” And this fight erupted on this quiet, pastoral path. I saw him again the next day, but this time he was head down, on his phone. I haven’t seen him since.

What books are on your bedside table?
I’m reading Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, which is coming out in the spring.

Which contemporary novelists or nonfiction writers do you most admire?
Jenny Erpenbeck for her moral clarity. She’s just brilliant. I really recommend Go, Went, Gone. Rachel Cusk for the acuity of her thinking, which I think scaffolds all of her fiction. Robert Macfarlane for his fluency in the language of the natural world. I think he’s truly a stunning writer and an important thinker given where we’re at in terms of the environment.

How do organise your books?
I’m quite organised. Alphabetically. By fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and the nonfiction is subdivided into different areas. I constantly return to the books that matter to me and so I need to know where to find them. Jenny Erpenbeck organises her books by the year they were published. I know no one else who does that.

What classic novel have you recently read for the first time?
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. Talk about exploding expectations of narrative, character, structure in a novel. It’s such a brilliant, strange novel. I really recommend it.

What book would you give to a child?
Do you ever read your kids the Eric Carle book Draw Me a Star? It’s so stunning, a book I’d give to every little child, because it’s about what it means to be an artist and recreate the world. There’s that beautiful idea in Judaism, Tikkun olam, the repair of the world, and it reminds me of that, and never have we needed it more. I’ve also been reading poems with my sons. We read Yehuda Amichai and Mary Oliver poems out loud just before bed. There’s something about giving them poetry at that age, which is the only chance that those of us who aren’t religious have of giving them a spiritual education.

• To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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