“Seeing Ershadi”
by Nicole Krauss
from the March 5, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I think Nicole Krauss is one of our better American authors working today. And while she does get attention, I still feel she is under-read. Last year her novel Forest Dark received lovely reviews, and I thought it was strong (though I didn’t review it!), but I still feel it just went under the radar.

I’m glad to see her back in the pages of The New Yorker. I haven’t had a chance to read it or look into it at all today, so I’ll just post this and hope you’ll all share your thoughts!

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By | 2018-02-27T15:56:54+00:00 February 26th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Nicole Krauss|Tags: |31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. William March 2, 2018 at 2:53 pm

    Hey — where are you guys? David? Eric? Roger? How do I know what I think about this story unless you guys enlighten me? One thing I know — it’s a very good story. But what does it mean? Especially the last graf? Help me out here.

  2. David March 3, 2018 at 11:33 am

    William, I blame Trevor for my delay in getting to this. he knows why…. :-)
    .
    Ok, so I read the story, am not 100% sure I know what I think about it, but I agree it is good if for no other reason than it makes me want to think more about what it all adds up to. I was a bit surprised and worried in the early part when there was a long description of the film. In fact, the description went on so long I was wondering if maybe the film did not really exist and this was some Borgesian exercise in fictional film criticism. So I googled the film and found it not only was real, but that the Wikipedia plot summary sounded almost identical to her description (and was written earlier – I checked that too), making me wonder if she might have lifted it from there. But anyway, she does eventually get past the plot summary of the film and on to her own story.
    .
    The story of the character’s career as a dancer is really kept more to the side than the center, but it does seem to be quite crucial. It is the main activity of her life, the reason she relocates to another country and the reason to then travel to yet another country. It is causing her great physical pain and she must deal with the difficult decision about whether to continue or quit. The idea that Ershadi might appear to her in Japan is rather absurd, but I think that it is supposed to seem that way. In the end the idea being explored is how we will draw on things like a film or even just the face of an actor in a film to inform us of how we are thinking about other matters in our life. To quote the famous lines attributed most often to Anais Nin, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.” For her (and, it turns out, her friend) there is something about this film and this man that seems to reflect back to them ways of thinking about what they are going through.
    .
    In the final paragraph we get the important information that on a subsequent viewing of the film the friend (yeah, I know, but I can’t remember any of the characters names offhand and can’t be bothered to look them up) had a very different sense of the character Ershadi plays. But the revelation is not that she misunderstood the film before and has a clearer idea about it now. The idea is that seeing it one way was important to her then, so that’s how she saw it, and seeing it another way now is equally important now, so this is the new way she sees it. The film is still speaking to her, but not about what it is. Rather, it is still speaking to her about her life. The final comment about the darkness and the rain is, I think, supposed to emphasize the idea that sometimes things are there for us to see and we miss them, but then later we do finally see them. So it’s just a visual metaphor for how observant we might be more generally.
    .
    Another reason I was delayed in commenting here (and I can’t blame Trevor for this, although if I try I suppose …. nah!) was because I got curious about the film and actually watched it. The film itself is a bit of an enigma (as the story indicates) and I am not sure seeing it helped me understand this story any better, but then again that’s as it should be. If you need to see the film to get this story then she’s doing something wrong. I’d be curious to know if anyone else has seen the film and what they think about whether seeing it informs us about the story, but at this point it might just be nice to get any other comments on the short story.
    .
    Ok. That’s enough from me. If anyone is looking for me, I’ll be spending the afternoon with Annie Proulx and John McGahern. And for that I blame Trevor 100%. Without a doubt. :-)

  3. Dennis Lang March 3, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    Hey William. I’m with you. “Very good story!” I’m confident someone out there in Mookseland will offer their decoding. In the meantime a fun, enigmatic ride for me. Like David, I turned to Google to learn something about “Taste of Cherry” via reviews on its release. Great due diligence on the part of David for actually watching it!
    This is the first thing I’ve read by Nicole Krauss since “Man Walks into a Room” her gripping first novel (I think) of about 15 years ago, also resonant with complex ideas.

  4. Arleen March 4, 2018 at 12:45 am

    Jumping in … I do suspect this is a riff… on other moments in time, experienced by someone who wants us to investigate a journey that I think may have been a big moment in another culture….or just another time…

  5. William March 4, 2018 at 7:54 pm

    David —

    Thanks for that enlightening interpretation. I agree with these comments:

    “Ok, so I read the story, am not 100% sure I know what I think about it, but I agree it is good if for no other reason than it makes me want to think more about what it all adds up to.”

    “In the end the idea being explored is how we will draw on things like a film or even just the face of an actor in a film to inform us of how we are thinking about other matters in our life.”

    “The idea is that seeing it one way was important to her then, so that’s how she saw it, and seeing it another way now is equally important now, so this is the new way she sees it. The film is still speaking to her, but not about what it is. Rather, it is still speaking to her about her life.”

    Right — each of them has 3 reactions to the movie (or a reminder of the movie) at different times in their lives.

    Also, good sketches of two very different and opposite characters — narrator, who is lost, and Romi. who always knows what she wants, or what she thinks she wants. Same thing to her. As narrator says: “What was it that I wanted to be when he turned and at last his gaze fell upon me?”

    Interesting that Romi shoveled the dirt onto her father’s grave herself — like Ershadi wanted.

    In technique, this story is very different from, e.g., Texas or Stanville. More narrative, rather than personal.

  6. Rai March 5, 2018 at 5:54 am

    The story sets and I think what is this guff? The name-dropping, the rambling account of a movie plot, Japan as an exotic, impenetrable, other place – it almost grates. And looking back I still wonder if that detour to Japan was necessary – is it perhaps little more than a too obvious metaphor for being lost, disassociated, adrift?

    Upon its return from Kyoto however I find myself being transported to a place that has always appeared in the distance but one that I have never reached. I find myself smack in the middle of the narrator’s world and do not want to leave. The scene with Romi lighting a cigarette, about to tell her own Ershadi story, is delightful. There is an absence of some of the usual elements of fiction – there is no dialogue – but I find it works well. I love its languid pace. How it conjures something out of nothing. I feel like a layman marching through an art gallery who stumbles upon an oil painting that suddenly captivates. So much so that I go back for a second tour, to see what I missed. It would take me more time to peel back the layers to understand why. But for now, I am refreshed.

  7. David March 5, 2018 at 8:34 am

    Rai, just one word of comment from me: For a great many people lots of other countries are “exotic impenetrable [on first arrival, anyway] other place[s]”. Anyone who has traveled and even lived in countries very different from one’s own knows that feeling. It should only be considered problematic if there is some suggestion that this is all this other place amounts to, which the story does not do. We get loads of stories about the immigrant experience to the English-language, Western world that are, in part, about how difficult and strange that can be for the person coming in because of course it can. For her, Japan is a place she very much wanted to go to. It is presented as a place you go to not because you are stuck with it or because it is merely “other”, but as a place of value. It would be much less that if it were a place where she could get off the plane and not have to make any adjustments. So it is there she has the inexplicable Ershadi experience. That part worked fine for me.

  8. Dennis Lang March 5, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    Rai– “I feel like a layman marching through an art gallery who stumbles upon an oil painting that suddenly captivates.”
    Beautiful!

  9. Rai March 6, 2018 at 6:22 am

    David – True, the inexplicable Ershadi experience occurs in a place that is already disorientating for her – and would work less well if she had to make no adjustments. I suppose it was really no more than a mild irritation – Japan seems often to be used as shorthand for strange, exotic in popculture. (Although Krauss herself does not use shorthand in showing us the characters experiences in Japan).

    In any case I should not be complaining since one of the things I most liked was that the story took us outside of an American setting. Interesting that you mention the immigrant experience – I admired and envied this story for how effortlessly it was told not as an ‘immigrant experience’ story but one of ‘life’, despite the ‘foreign’-ness of it. Not sure if that makes sense, but I wish I would find more stories like this written by travelers to the West.

  10. Eric March 6, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    I don’t usually bother with the author interviews but I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t one here, because if ever a story needed some helpful annotations it was this one. Perhaps I would not have found this so impenetrable if I were a woman–it does seem to me to be very redolent of the reputed “female communication style” of using conversation as much to build relationships as to convey information. Or maybe it’s just an indulgent bunch of nothing, skillfully dressed up to make it seem like there’s something going on underneath when there isn’t, really. It wouldn’t be the first story I read in either category.

  11. Slappy McDaniel March 9, 2018 at 5:15 pm

    Boring story…no humor, dancing is lame, Iran and the Middle East, who needs it?

  12. William March 9, 2018 at 6:04 pm

    Slappy —

    Who needs you?

  13. Greg March 11, 2018 at 7:37 pm

    Thank you David and Rai for increasing immensely my understanding and enjoyment of this story. You both have made the author’s intentions and themes crystal clear for us to see!

    Also, I loved these following phrasings:

    “And it was easy to understand just by looking at his face: how the world seemed to bend toward Ershadi as if it needed him more than he needed it.”

    “She was an actress but not a performer, the difference being that at heart she believed that nothing was real, that everything was a kind of game, but her belief in this was sincere, deep, and true, and her feeling for life was enormous.”

    “Sometimes she exaggerated the details, but she did it believing the exaggerations, and this only made her more lovable, because it showed you what she could do with the raw material of the world.”

  14. Kurt March 13, 2018 at 4:40 pm

    Nicole Krauss is a stunning mediocrity.

  15. Trevor Berrett March 13, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    I never know if I’m doing anyone a favor by allowing these fly-by comments into the conversation. I don’t mind them. They do nothing, really. But then I worry others will be derailed by them. Slappy above, for example, added nothing and threatened to turn this thread’s focus onto that comment’s lack of worth. Thank you Greg for bringing it back. And now we get this from Kurt.

    But I usually let all comments in, preferring things be sorted out in the long run with folks responding constructively or ignoring them entirely. Even these trite, thoughtless comments that are not offensive because of their position but because of their lack of consideration for discourse.

    And so I try to invite the poster to elaborate. To that end, Kurt, would you care to explain your position?

    My “allow” filter is definitely going to get more strict.

  16. avataram March 17, 2018 at 6:37 am

    Read this story only tonight and came here to check the comments.

    I love Abbas Kiarastomi’s “Taste of Cherry”. It was the first film by Kiarastomi that I saw, and I was similarly entranced by the film, watching it many times, and thinking about it on and off for most of 2000-2004. So, I am very grateful to Nicole Krauss for writing this story, for reminding me of the film, and the story can be thought of as appreciation, fan-fiction, or just as a great story.

    The Criterion version of Taste of Cherry has a wonderful, hour-long interview with Kiarastomi, where he makes a comparison of his films and Hollywood films that has stuck with me even longer than the film:

    Kiarastomi says, (my paraphrase) my films are kind. You can take a short nap in the middle, wake up, and continue seeing the film because not much has happened, but they keep you awake at nights thinking. Hollywood movies are different, they take you hostage, you are breathless to see the next minute, but by the time you come out of the theatre, you have forgotten everything about the film.

    If nothing, I feel this story reflects a lifelong obsession with Taste of Cherry. (“keeping awake at night, thinking about it”).

    As Arlene puts, this film was made at a different time, when the world was very hopeful about Iran. Mohammad Khatami was the president, and I remember a wonderful speech he made at the UN on dialogue between civilizations. Unfortunately the 2nd Gulf war would start, Khatami would be replaced by a hardliner, and any hopes for a dialogue between Iran and the western world would come to an end.

    I felt there were many movie references, not just this one in the story. A bit of Persona in the narrator & her friend, Romi, perhaps? There is a reference to Bergman early on in the story. Surely there is a reference to Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” with a slight reference to Louis Garrel?

  17. David March 17, 2018 at 8:10 am

    “You can take a short nap in the middle, wake up, and continue seeing the film because not much has happened, but they keep you awake at nights thinking. Hollywood movies are different, they take you hostage, you are breathless to see the next minute, but by the time you come out of the theatre, you have forgotten everything about the film.”

    Avataram, that description of the difference between his film (I have only seen the one) and a Hollywood special effects / action film is perfect. The problem is it’s also a false dichotomy. Films like Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Molly’s Game, to name just three Hollywood films from last year, don’t take you hostage but also don’t put you to sleep (and if they did you would miss a lot). They also give you a lot to think about after they are over. And to compare him to another Iranian filmmaker, Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, A Separation, The Past, and The Salesman are all great films that give you a lot to think about but do not give you time to nap or make you want to sleep. In fact, Asghar Farhadi is my pick for the best filmmaker of the 21st century.
    .
    I’d say Kiarostami has carefully picked his contrast class so he can make an excuse for the fact that a lot of Taste of Cherry is very slow and (unfortunately) boring. The reward for staying awake is it does give you something worth thinking about, but the price did not need to be paid to get there. Simply editing the film to something like half its running length and not removing any shots with dialogue would have made it a lot less sleepy a film with just as much to say. I’m glad I saw the film, but also glad I saw it using a film player that lets me accelerate the playing speed to 2.5 times normal speed, a feature I used frequently to get through the napping sections.

  18. avataram March 17, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Hi David, I loved your comment that you thought it was a Borgesian exercise in fictional film criticism, and then discovered that it was a real film. I remember giving a talk to a small group long ago on a Borges story – An Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, saying that Borges talks about a fictional book called “The Conference of Birds” by Farid-ud-din Attar, when one of the students pulled out of his bag the same book in translation and showed it to me, completely putting me off my stride.

    There is a small part of the story that I think references David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” as well as “Taste of Cherry”. When Romi is in Mark’s house and Mark and she watch porn on a giant screen (an actual scene in Lost Highway), and then later when Romi would flip channels and come across Ershadi’s face, and that appeals to her better self, remind her of her father and she leaves. It is also a moment, when within the story, a contrast is drawn between a movie that hijacks your senses and a Kiarastomi film. But then, I love Lynch’s Lost Highway even more than Mulholland Drive, so I am not sure.

    I was surprised to find Ershadi in a “Hollywood” film – A Most Wanted Man – a John Le Carre thriller, no less, acting as a muslim terrorist. In the film he is the only actor who can stand up to Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I wonder how he must have felt to be typecast as a terrorist, after years of working in Iranian films.

  19. David March 17, 2018 at 10:26 am

    Avataram, I have not seen Lost Highway, but it would not surprise me if there is an intentional reference to it as well as to the other films you previously mentioned. Once Krauss decided to make one film a central part of her story it seems reasonable she might look to other films for references as well, especially a scene describing watching a film. As for Ershadi, I would expect that the experience of being stopped while driving and being asked to be in a film despite having no acting experience might be more odd to him than being asked to play a terrorist in an American film. He was more likely thinking “this is so weird being an actor in a film with Philip Seymour Hoffman” than thinking about his own casting. But also, before appearing in A Wanted Man he played a member of al-Qaeda in Zero Dark Thirty, so his casting probably didn’t surprise him at all.

  20. William March 17, 2018 at 11:28 am

    Avatarm —

    Thanks for that appreciation. I too like the Hollywood/Kierostami distinction., And you reference to Persona — I felt that, too.

  21. Ken March 21, 2018 at 2:49 am

    I am perhaps more puzzled about this story after reading the comments above than I was while reading it. I was not puzzled about what happened or in terms of comprehending the writing, but I kept thinking that somehow this was not a short story, that it was more reportage than anything else and that the long descriptions of the Kiarostami film were interesting and also very odd.
    I have seen the film and think it is good. I was a little surprised that David would play the film on 2 1/2 speed. He, of all the contributors here, seems the most erudite so I am a bit taken aback at his impatience with what may be a slow film but which is also a film one needs to see as intended, i.e. at its correct speed. The long, slow passages are there for a reason and Kiarostami is if anything deliberate and thoughtful.
    Is there a scene in Lost Highway where they watch porn on a big t.v? I don’t remember that and I just saw it again a year ago.

  22. David March 21, 2018 at 8:20 pm

    Ken, to be fair, recall I said I only watched the parts with no dialogue at a faster speed. There are some scenes where we watch him driving for like five minutes shot by a camera hundreds of feet away from him. These are the parts Kiarostami described as the ones where the audience can take a nap and not miss anything. Even at the accelerated speed five minutes of watching him drive still takes two minutes and is WAY too long.

  23. Ken March 22, 2018 at 12:21 am

    Well…it may not be everyone’s cup of tea and yes Kiarostami does say that but I’d still say that his films depend on the rhythm of lived-time, a very meditative type of rhythm and pacing that many find excruciatingly boring to allow the viewer a phenomenologically different viewing experience, This slow pace is also why some people find Kiarostami’s films to be spiritual and profound. I would say that his films are what they are and should be seen complete just as I wouldn’t encourage skimming through slow passages in a book to get to the narrative and dialogue.

  24. David March 22, 2018 at 7:00 am

    Ken, my phenomenological experience of watching a car drive with nothing happening was boredom, so speeding it up helped me and I didn’t need the recommended nap. I would question the analogy to skimming in a book and say it is more like this: Suppose you are reading a book that is formatted such that at a normal, reasonable reading speed it takes you one minute to read each page. Then after about 50 pages you come to a section where the author has, for some legitimate artistic purpose, written a 25-word sentence putting just one word on each page for 25 pages. Would you continue to read those pages at the same pace of one page per minute? Or would you decide that a pause of a few seconds on each word an moving through those pages faster than you would the rest of the book is sufficient? I would not fault a reader for doing the latter.
    .
    Had the film involved anything visually complex or subtle without there being any dialogue, then watching it faster would be a very different story. One of my favourite films is Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. The section called “The Blizzard” begins with a five-minute section without dialogue and in slow motion. There also is a five minute period near the start of the film (in the section “Sunshine Through The Rain”) without dialogue. In those cases the visual presentation is one where you miss a lot and have a very impoverished experience of the film if you move through them more quickly. But in Taste Of Cherry there are lots of shots of literally just driving around in the middle of nowhere. There is no design to the shots. Set up camera. Get guy to drive. Film. Kurosawa’s sections without dialogue were riveting. Even Kiarostami admits his long silent sections are boring enough he advises people nap through them. There’s a big difference there.

  25. Ken March 23, 2018 at 3:11 am

    Very interesting analogy with the pages of the book. I don’t find Kiarostami’s films boring but I’m not awestruck by them either like some cinephiles who practically genuflect at his name. Maybe I’m just a purist and think one should watch the film as intended (and I’d ignore Kiarostami’s comment about napping) and just ‘go with it.’

  26. Ken March 24, 2018 at 2:39 am

    Actually, David, maybe I’m not so sure about the analogy. I’ve never seen a book printed the way you describe–that would be very experimental but Kiarostami is operating in a mode, called “slow film” by some critics, that is very common in certain international art filmmaker’s works that tend to play at film festivals. Directors like Tsai-Ming Liang and Hou-Hisao Hsien (Taiwan), Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Lissandro Alonso (Argentina) and Bela Tarr (Hungary) make extremely slow, “rigorous” films with long, often empty seeming and wordless passages such as in Tarr’s Satantango where a man walks down a road for minutes. Again, not necessarily anyone’s cup of tea but not such an anomaly either.

  27. Greg March 24, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Ken – Thanks for sharing with us your extensive knowledge of film…(I believe you told us last year that you teach film-related courses at a community college)

    Also, I’m curious, there is a slow developing movie called “Lost in Translation” from last decade which I loved and so did the serious critics; however, many of my friends and the general public called it a bore…I tried explaining to my friends to no avail that it’s a “deliberate” movie….thus, I have two questions for you:

    1) Would you consider “Lost in Translation” a ‘slow film’?

    2) Who’s correct in your eyes about the merits of this Bill Murray movie- I and the critics, or my friends and general public?

    (Roger Ebert was also puzzled by the disparate views!)

  28. Ken March 25, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    Hi, Greg: I really liked “Lost in Translation” when it came out but I”d only call that a somewhat slow film especially compared to the examples I gave in my last post. It’s just that those films are never going to be seen by the average viewer–they play at art houses and festivals for a specialized public who knows what they’re getting into–whereas occasionally something that’s arty like “Lost in Translation” or Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” gets a mass release and then is considered boring by many viewers who went to see Bill Murray/Scarlet Johansson or Brad Pitt. My reservations about “Lost in Translation” are in retrospect when considering what I’ve come to consider a rather blinkered, moneyed perspective from Ms. Coppola–far more evident in Marie Antoinette or Somewhere (which is much slower than “Lost in Translation” yet I quite liked)–in which the luxurious travel in fine hotels of her set creates a literal background of wherever her privileged travelers arrive at–in this case Tokyo. On the other hand, I consider Bill Murray almost a reason to live. Oddly enough, I don’t go on film blogs ever even though that’s my specialty. I like being here because as much as I like reading New Yorker stories, there are people here who are better read than I and whose opinions I’m always interested in reading.

  29. Jeff March 25, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    I really enjoy reading New Yorker fiction, but I found this story really weird and unfocused. I’ve have read every story since 2009 and this is the only one that I have a problem with. I looked on this site to see if someone could explain to me what was good about this story so that I could read it again and appreciate it, but unfortunately it still seems like a lot of garbage given the title of “art” so that people like me would be afraid to admit we “don’t get it”. I still haven’t figured out if I’m being bamboozled by this type of so called “art” or I just don’t have the intellectual faculties to appreciate high quality art. But don’t worry, I’ll never give up trying

  30. Greg March 25, 2018 at 11:58 pm

    Thanks Ken for your opinions on Sofia Coppola….and it’s too bad you never visit film blogs; I believe you would like the ‘User Reviews’ section on IMDb!

  31. Greg March 26, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    “I looked on this site to see if someone could explain to me what was good about this story so that I could read it again and appreciate it, but unfortunately it still seems like a lot of garbage given the title of “art” so that people like me would be afraid to admit we “don’t get it”.

    So Jeff – Would you mind sharing how David’s post from March 3rd and Rai’s from March 5th didn’t help you appreciate this story? Thanks!

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