To Be a Man: Stories
“With exceptional precision, concision, grace, wisdom, and insight Nicole Krauss creates a magnificent collection of stories that explore what the narrator effectively asks her son in the last lines of the final tale: Who will you be?”
The brilliant, beautifully-crafted short story collection To Be a Man, by Nicole Krauss, explores through the lenses of multiple perspectives and narrators, in a variety of settings, including New York, Tel Aviv, Europe, and Latin America, what it means to be a husband, son, friend, lover, father, and brother—namely, what it means to be a man.
Krauss’ pithy, perfectly pitched, precise prose, which she conveys through first-person female and male narrators as well as third-person narrators, proffers profound, sometimes wry or funny observations about what it means to be human. While the title of her collection refers to “man,” her stories focus on women, too. Perhaps Krauss is questioning what it means to be a mensch, a term derived from German and Yiddish, meaning a human being or man, an admirable person of good character. For most of the men or humans in her stories, while different from one another, possess a certain rectitude or character.
Many of the stories in the collection, from the first “Switzerland” to the last “To Be a Man” examine the ethical, emotional, and experiential legacies that parents and friends pass on to the next generation. As the narrator of “Switzerland” concludes, “a person can happen to you and only a lifetime later does this happening ripen, burst, and deliver itself.”
The subject of inheritance is also prevalent in the story “Zusya on the Roof,” whose main character Brodman’s first grandchild is born when he is gravely ill in the hospital. While recovering, Brodman contemplates whether, like the folk character Rabbi Zusya he “had failed to be the man he should have been.” The story ends with Brodman absconding to the roof of the building with his infant grandson right before the boy’s bris, which will be performed by a woman from Riverdale, crisply described as “This woman, with her crocheted kippa the size of a dinner plate, had arrived in a prepaid sedan to remove his grandson’s foreskin as a mark of God’s covenant.”
The narrator’s last words describing Brodman’s fleeting moment with his grandson poignantly suggest that part of being a man may include the failure to realize one’s goals or hopes: “But Brodman could not say what it was that he was meant to tell the child. Restored to life, he could no longer parse the infinite wisdom of the dead.” The stories “I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake,” “In the Garden,” and “The Husband” also examine what children, parents, lovers, and employees inherit from the various men in their lives.
Krauss is a keen observer of human nature, speech, and of the environments she depicts. In her story “The Husband,” about an elderly Israeli widow who is introduced by Social Services to a man who claims to be her long-lost husband from Hungary, a country she has no ties to and a man who cannot possibly have any connection to her. In the midst of relating this wild situation to her daughter in New York, the narrator humorously writes, perfectly capturing the mother’s tone and manner, “She could swear she hears her mother say very quietly, ‘The chicken will be ready in twenty minutes.’”
The final multi-part, multi-narrator title story, “To Be a Man” ties together many of the themes of the collection including fatherhood, parenthood, a woman’s relationships with her sons, a lover, a friend and his wife, and, like the opening story “Switzerland,” frames the book with concerns about our legacies to one another.
The story and book close with the narrator, a mother saying goodnight to her younger son, who is on the cusp of adolescence or manhood: “When I go to kiss him goodnight, he curls his body into mine and in nervous voice tells me he wants to remain a child, that he doesn’t want anything to change. But already he is no longer a child. He is standing out on a bank between the shore and a sea that goes on and on, and the water, as they say, is rising.”
With exceptional precision, concision, grace, wisdom, and insight Nicole Krauss creates a magnificent collection of stories that explore what the narrator effectively asks her son in the last lines of the final tale: Who will you be?