Nicole Krauss: “Zusya on the Roof”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Nicole Krauss’s “Zusya on the Roof” was originally published in the February 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

My review of Nicole Krauss’s Great House is one of the most viewed pages on this blog (that review here), so I believe there is a lot of interest in her work. Though I didn’t particularly think that book came together, I loved pieces of it, particularly the portion that was published in The New Yorker when Nicole Krauss was selected as one of the ” 20 Under 40″ authors to watch, “The Young Painters” (my review here). So I’m sure that I share with many other readers my excitement that we have a new piece by Krauss.

Sadly, I didn’t particularly like this one, it’s tone and pacing reminding me a great deal of Great House, though “Zusya on the Roof” comes together nicely. I’ll get to that at the end of my thoughts.

“Zusya on the Roof” begins where it ends, with a man (Brodman) up on a roof holding his newborn grandson: “how did he wind up here?” the story asks and then goes back to tell us:

To begin specifically: Brodman had been dead for two weeks, but then, sadly, he had come back to this world, where he’d spent fifty years trying to write unnecessary books.

Lying in a coma in the hospital, Brodman “dreamed wildly,” and could “parse the infinite wisdom of the dead.” He counsels with Buber, Rabbi Akiva, and Gershom Scholem, with Maimonides, Moses Ibn Ezra and Salo Baron. During this period of physical release, Brodman “saw the true shape of his life, how it had torqued always in the direction of duty.”

While Brodman has these visions, his first grandchild is born in the same hospital. His daughter Ruthie is a forty-one-year-old lesbian, so when Brodman heard the news he took it “as a miracle of immaculate conception.” When he wakes and learns the child has been born, Brodman feels that he is, in no small part, responsible:

Sweating and moaning, in horrific pain from his gut, he had pushed the idea of the child through the tight passage of  incredulity and borne him into existence. It had almost killed him. No, it had killed him. He had died for the child, and then, by some miracle, he  had been brought back again. For what?

For what? The doctor who treats Brodman, assuring him he’s come back and will be the same as before, is young, most of his life still before him. Broadman thinks, “What could such a person know of regret? [. . .] What could he know of a life misspent?” I felt the story was most interesting when we learn about why Brodman doesn’t want to hear he is the same as before. He’s been a failure as a scholar, a husband, and a father. His daughters rejected him and went their own way, something he could not conceive of doing to his own parents: “His own children had not suffered under the same filial yoke as he.”

“Zusya on the Roof” is about this sense of duty — to parents and, particularly, to the Jewish tradition — which can be a burden, restrictive. Brodman questions whether he ever became anything in his life, under such restrictions. In a sense, Brodman is born again — at the same time as his grandson — and, with much less time, how can he help this child to be free?

It’s an interesting question because, as mentioned above, the grandson is already going to be raised in a home far from the type of home Brodman grew up in. He will have two mothers (the man who donated his sperm is one of their gay friends). It’s very unorthodox. There will be a ritual circumcision, but even there they hired a female mohel “who broke custom to allow for a topical anesthetic.” Still, Brodman hopes his grandson will not have to live a life so defined by tradition. But even if this were possible, what, then, would define it?

I found “Zusya on the Roof” to be an interesting story about the relationships and traditions that define and bind us, but I did feel there was something heavy in the prose, a kind of gravity that slowed me down to an uncomfortable pace. I felt this when I read Great House as well, so it is more than likely just a style that doesn’t appeal to me. Even though I think Krauss comes up with great sentences, I feel that there is a lack of humor and spontaneity that begins to weigh things down, perhaps even more than the subject matter itself. True, the subject is “weight,” but it is also about life and urgency and a desire to break free.

So, all in all, this one didn’t appeal to me, primarily because of the style. I do hope others can help me find more here.

Betsy

Trevor,  I could not not read Nicole Krauss’s story, “Zusya on the Roof.” But whether I can convince you of the story’s worth, I don’t know. In fact, I do think each of us has fine authors and books that just don’t speak to us. As for Nicole Krauss, she speaks to me. But the fact of that is both accidental and specific to me.

The gravitas with which she speaks has a familiar weight and mystery to me: in my family, a grandmother-in-law died in the Holocaust, most likely at Theresienstadt. I remember the February blizzard that gave me the time to search for her name in the newly released Austrian records of all the Jews who had been removed, during the war, from their homes in Vienna. Shortly after that, my husband received the transcript of the interview that the Austrian Nazis had held with her to determine just what it was she owned. By that time, she had insured her son’s freedom, and he was safely in the United States, and so what she owned meant less to her, having already purchased his freedom. Within just a few years, he enlisted in the US army to serve as a doctor in a mash unit in Normandy. When the war was over, he returned to Vienna to search for her, but she was gone.

So I understand the weight, somewhat, with which Krauss contends. My whole life has had this surprising turn: I am someone who has spent half a lifetime — more — learning about what it might mean to be a particular Jew with a particular mother. Me, a lapsed Christian, it weighed on me: my ignorance.

My father-in-law was a man who lived for meaning: family, patients, music, roses, painting. Krauss’s Brodman could not be further from who he was. But Krauss’s Brodman was also my father-in-law’s brother, so to speak. “Because I was a Jew, there was no room left to be anything else, not even Zusya.” Mourning is the common thread.

But Brodman’s awakening to life was late. My father-in-law’s awakening had happened years before, in the trenches, or maybe it was the day in Vienna that he realized his mother had disappeared. But the weight of it all remains: one way I know its weight is that it all — the losses, the holocaust itself — was  a forbidden topic. What cannot be talked about is heavy, heavy, heavy. There is a duty, there, to observe that silence, and carry it. Despite his terrific embrace of life, my father-in-law was a man in mourning, but the complexity of what he mourned was never clear. Did he mourn what he had lost? What might have been? What he would never know? What danger being who he was meant for all the rest of us?

Forgive that long, personal, and not quite apt aside. I just remark that the gravitas with which she speaks to you is joyless and you rightly resist that. And to me, the gravitas with which she speaks is filled with mourning, and I, because of my accidental life, am compelled to listen.

There is much more I would like to add — about her sentences (in another register than conversation and perfect, like  music), about her imagery (birds, flight, rescue), about her spot-on, devastating  portrait of Mira, about Brodman’s collapse upon his father’s death. But what I truly, truly admire is the period of Brodman’s hallucination — during which Brodman dies and is reborn. The reader reels with him from scholar to scholar and rabbi to rabbi. This reader regrets with him all that wasted time, all that darkness, all that mourning, all that rage. And yet, there is that explosion of birds –

There is the central question of the story — can one renounce one’s Judaism? That is what Brodman is doing when he takes the baby to the roof — renouncing, for the baby’s sake, the bris, and the weight of all that memory. And in my own family? There is that same question. My father-in-law let it all go.

The difference is that Krauss says it all aloud — where in my family it is all silence. And so I cannot not read what she has to say.

13 thoughts on “Nicole Krauss: “Zusya on the Roof””

  1. Trevor says:

    I realized that I wrote a brief response to Betsy via email, but I’d like to thank her on here as well for producing and sharing such a personal response to this story.

    I did wonder, as I finished it, whether it might speak more to someone with a more personal relationship to the Jewish religion and culture. Though we all grow up in and under cultures of one kind or another, so in a sense this is universal, Krauss is nevertheless very particular. I’m sure the weight I refer to and don’t particularly respond to is that much more familiar.

    I’m not sure you’ve helped me get more out of the story, but you’ve made me respect it a great deal more and I do not doubt its worth. And, of course, I did get a great deal out of your personal response. Thanks!

  2. Betsy says:

    Thank you, Trevor. I hope that people will take you up on your request – to be convinced of the artistry in the story. I only addressed an edge of it – that Krauss speaks to silence, and that it’s no easy task.

  3. Betsy says:

    To get down to brass tacks, the issue is whether or not Brodman is going to throw the baby from the roof.

    Brodman had a period of halluciantion in the hospital, hallucinations he now considers a revelation. There is some evidence to suggest Brodman has been in and is still in the grip of mental illness: extreme withdrawal, an inability to perceive other people as people, a tendency to hear voices and have delusions, as well as a marked dissociation from reality accompanied by bizarre behavior.

    One per cent of the population suffers from schizophrenia, but it is a disease we don’t talk about, and for sure, it’s one for which our society does not provide, and it’s one our pharmacology has difficulty maintaining a cure.

    Has Krauss given Brodman the broad look of schizophrenia, and is it a purposeful metaphor?

    I had a clue in my first reading when I encountered the “cured” Brodman observing that his doctor’s white teeth felt to him like an access to God. That made me laugh. But the things that schizophrenic people think can at first make you laugh. That’s before you cry.

    We leave Brodman with the baby on the roof. Just exactly what is his vision of freeing the baby? I’m rather worried that he thinks that perhaps the baby can fly, like the birds exploding from the roof.

    At the same time, I take the title seriously – “Zusya on the Roof”. We all have to become ourselves at some point. Is Brodman emerging into a truer sense of himself? One thinks this might take a novel to develop.

  4. Roger says:

    My reaction to this was similar to Trevor’s: The story seemed too self-aware, as if it was about itself, its ideas and the idea that its ideas are so very weighty. At times it read more like an essay to me than a story, with the characters conscripted into the service of the overtly and repeatedly expressed ideas. There are some aspects that rose beyond this for me: Brodman was a vivid character, especially because of his voice. And there are plenty of superbly crafted sentences (like “But he, her father, had kept his mind, and closed himself up in it as a man closes himself up in a faultless argument.”). But not anything more, and not more that Philip Roth hasn’t done much better, including with the short stories published together with Goodbye Columbus.

  5. Betsy says:

    Hi Roger, When you compare Krauss to Philip Roth, I’m interested. For me, what distinguishes Nicole Krauss from Philip Roth, makes her necessary,is the simple fact of her womanhood. I think she sees things from a different point of view, especially in this story: the women have been deeply affected by Brodman, shaped by him, but he is barely conscious of them. This interests me.

  6. Roger says:

    Hi Betsy,

    I can see how, in principle, Krauss’s womanhood could be expected or hoped to lead her to write fiction that deals with female characters more thoughtfully than Roth. Ironically, though, this story seemed very Roth-ian to me in part because of how well Krauss captured the character and voice of an elderly Jewish man. I don’t believe Roth has ever accomplished a similar feat, or tried to, with any of his female characters.

    To me, Brodman was almost the only character in the story. I agree that his effect on his wife and daughters is important to the story, but thought that effect was revealed mainly to show how Brodman now feels about the way they deal with him, in particular his regrets for having largely driven away his daughters. And those daughters are depicted almost cartoonishly – both have rejected aspects of Jewish tradition in flamboyant ways (Carol is an anti-Israel protester and Ruthie is in a relationship with another woman, which at least from an orthodox Jewish perspective conflicts with Jewish teachings, I think).

    I am not familiar with most of Krauss’s work, and I don’t doubt her talent in crafting sentences that evoke powerful emotions, but this particular story generally didn’t do that for me. It struck me as too overt, to the point of exploring social science-type questions about the historical burden of Jewish identity through the point of view of a Jewish social scientist burdened by that history and identity.

    Stories by Roth like “The Conversion of the Jews” and “Eli, the Fanatic” deal with big issues concerning Jewish identity in ways that I found more satisfying than “Zusya,” in large part because they are, at the literal level, stories with characters and dialogue – and daring plots, too – in which the “Jewish issues” arise organically and, of course, subversively. Which is not to say these stories are subtle about what they are doing, just that they are, or give the satisfying illusion of being, stories first and foremost, with the characters and their actions giving rise to the ideas and feelings. “Zusya,” by contrast, seemed to be ideas first, Brodman second, and the other characters in a distant last place.

    I realize that it’s unfair to compare Kraus, or many other authors, to Roth. To an extent I mean it as a compliment because the narrative tone here is so Rothian. So the disappointment felt keener to me once that initial similarity dissipated.

    But, I bet the New Yorker will keep publishing Krauss’s stories, and I hope we all like the next one….

  7. Betsy says:

    Hi Roger,

    Your thoughtful comments interested me very much. I need to read the two Philip Roth stories you mention.

    I was particularly interested in your comments about the Krauss story being ideas first and characters second. This is interesting in the light of this week’s Zadie Smith story – which feels, at first encounter, like an “ideas first” story, but which was fascinating to me – perhaps as the story of someone thinking. Maybe what I’m saying is I enjoy stories that are in the service of working out an idea, and perhaps that puts me in a minority. I enjoy Montaigne, for instance, and Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking”, which aren’t even fiction. So fiction that crosses that line tempts me; where it becomes a problem is when it’s a polemic. Because of Zadie Smith’s Okwonkwo, I have Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” in mind, and surely that is an ideas novel, and yet it stays with you. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of whether “Zusya on the Roof” has that staying power.

    Certainly the image sticks – the despairing/elated scholar on the roof with a baby: what the heck is he doing up there? It looks crazy, but maybe it isn’t. Makes me think. Just to continue with the Achebe thought – the difference between Achebe and Krauss is Achebe being first – and being so hard for other writers to top. In her subject matter, Krauss is definitely not first. Though perhaps, as time allows her, she will find her topic that will be first.

    Brodman seemed real to me – reminded me of real people – but your comment that the daughters have been drawn cartoonishly rang true. But I wonder if they are cartoons because they reflect how Brodman saw them. Brodman certainly hardly sees his wife at all, a fact about the story which touched me very deeply. Actually, the way Brodman sees women seems a central part of the story.

    Anyway – when I’ve read those 2 Roth stories, which I don’t have at home, I’ll get back to you. Thanks for the push in that specific direction.

  8. madwomanintheattic says:

    In this story I think Nicole Krauss may be referring to the traditional image (see Sholem Aleichem and Marc Chagall)in Judaism of the fiddler on the roof, a metaphor for survival through tradition, in a life of difficulty and imbalance. I agree that the story may be idea-driven, because I read it as a metaphor in that sense. Yes, Brodman (a Jewish everyman, bread-man, broad-man), reflecting on his failures in a painful re-birth, may be despairing enough to throw the baby off the roof; tradition as he knows it, as it trammeled him, has created in him also this terrible ambivalence as its power slips away.

  9. madwomanintheattic says:

    A little more: every author writes in his time, of course. Roth was writing (especially in his bad-boy mode) soon after the Holocaust. He was able to satirize the Jewish world he knew (almost none of his writing religiously informed) in part from a safe stance after an enormous external threat to its continuation; Nicole Krause is writing (with well-informed scholarly and sacred content) from a time when the threat is internal, when the Judaism Brodman knew and studied and practiced is disappearing before his eyes. Before his ‘rebirth,’he is blocked. He cannot call up new thoughts on historical Judaism for his students to grasp. The moment when he wonders whether the baby would be named for him (in his tradition, he would have to be dead for that to happen) is another sign of the precariousness of normative Judaism in his tilting world. I think he is not going to throw this (about-to-be-circumcise into the convenant) baby out with the bathwater of his disillusionment, but will look into its beautiful face as a new incarnation of Judaism, and of the terrible/amazing mutations of life.

  10. Betsy says:

    So many thanks to you, Madwoman, for each careful and helpful observation. You bring things nearer. Love the explication of Brodman’s name, the deft comparison of Roth and Krauss, as well as what is going on in hte story. It all reads true.

  11. Elinor says:

    Madwomanintheattic’s comments should always be read and digested. A scholar and a teacher, she is a treasure.

  12. Elinor says:

    Oe should moderate one’s description of her posts but I cannot.

  13. Ken says:

    I also found this too much, like Roger, about ideas and not enough as fiction yet I do think Krauss can write well and involve the reader in the narrative. Heavy yes, but worth considering. It just requires a more artful presentaiton.

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