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.
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.
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.