National Book Award finalist Nicole Krauss (“Great House,” “The History of Love”) doesn’t, to my knowledge, identify herself as an Israeli American author. But her new collection of 10 short stories, written over a period of 20 years, has deep roots in both countries — specifically, in New York City and Tel Aviv, Israel. “To Be a Man” takes side excursions to Berlin, Geneva, Kyoto, Japan, and Southern California, too, making it a bracingly cosmopolitan affair with a strong Judaic core.
Krauss’ tales sometimes echo the fanciful-acerbic early work of Cynthia Ozick. She has a fine eye for conflicted identities and problematic legacies. She also has a knack for ending most of her stories on an oblique yet deeply satisfying note.
“I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake” captures the divided essence of Krauss’ fictional world in a single tale. The narrator, after her father’s death in New York, is presented with the keys to a Tel Aviv apartment belonging to her father that she had no idea existed. “He thought it was someplace you might go sometimes,” her dad’s estate executor tells her.
So it’s off to Tel Aviv. A week into her stay there, she’s startled by a stranger with keys to the apartment letting himself in and making himself at home. He is, he says, an old friend of her father, though her father has never mentioned him. Soon he’s preparing meals for her and taking care of household chores. (“So what are you saying?” he asks. “You don’t want me to do your laundry?”)
Resenting his intrusion initially, she starts intruding on his privacy, but gets no real answer on who he is. Ultimately, he seems destined to become a part of her new domestic geography — to such an extent that he may soon fade from view.
“The Husband” tackles similar territory with a comic touch. Tamar, a New York psychiatrist, is told by her mother in Tel Aviv that “the lost Husband has arrived.” This is startling news, since Tamar’s father is dead. Tamar, however, is the only one in the family unsettled by the old man whom the Israeli authorities have dropped into her mother’s life. Tamar’s brother and his husband accept his presence nonchalantly, even affectionately. And when a family crisis strikes the gay couple, this so-called “Husband” proves his worth.
“The moment,” Tamar concludes as she observes her reconfigured family in action, “has no logic, it exists outside of reason, nor does it carry anything inauthentic.”
The book’s title story is still more wide-ranging in its settings and concerns. The narrator, a divorced Jewish mother of two boys who are on vacation with their father, visits her strapping lover in Berlin. Dubbing him her “German Boxer,” she perversely wonders whether he would have been a Nazi in Hitler’s Germany, hoping perhaps that the answer is no.
He quickly sets her straight. “I am exactly the kind of person they would have recruited,” he amiably declares. “I’ve always overly idolized my mentors, and strove to fulfill every last demand they made of me, because it struck fear in me to imagine failing their expectations.”
Her Berlin visit is followed by a trip to Tel Aviv where a friend who’s an Israeli military veteran recalls a harrowing incident he took part in during his country’s occupation of Lebanon. In the story’s coda, her focus returns to her sons, one of them entering his teens. All three far-flung episodes incite in her what she sees as a “generational confusion about what it was to be a man and what it was to be a woman, and if these things could be said to be equal, or different but equal, or no.”
“Switzerland,” like the title story, is one of Krauss’ most recent efforts and suggests a new direction she may be taking, as it examines the influence that reckless and possibly damaged figures can exert over the impressionable souls around them. Its narrator looks back across the decades to a rooming house in 1987 Geneva where she, at age 13, boarded with two 18-year-old girls.
Remembering the time when the more sexually precocious of the older girls disappeared for several days with her 40-something Dutch lover, the narrator wonders, half enviously, what it means to play “a game that was never only a game, one that was about power, fear, about the refusal to comply with the vulnerabilities one is born into.”
The collection isn’t flawless. The editor in me itches to delete the overly explanatory final paragraph in “The Husband” when Krauss has the perfect understated closer in the lines just before it.
Still, each tale in the book bends the formal possibilities of the short story in a pleasurably elastic way. Krauss’ ability to tackle novel-worthy subjects at compact length is particularly bracing.
“To Be a Man” by Nicole Krauss, Harper, 229 pp., $26.99