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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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.
One of my favorite stories in The New Yorker this year was Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters,” which turned out to be a short selection from her new novel Great House (2010). When I made the connection, I knew I would have to read this book. That it is now a finalist for the National Book Award is just a bonus incentive for me (especially since I don’t plan on reading any of the other finalists this year).
Review copy courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co.
When I began Great House I had no idea what it was about; after all, the short story, about the guilt a writer faces later in life upon reflecting on whether she has exploited personal stories for the sake of her art, is nicely contained. What does it have to do with a story that apparently centers on a desk?
To be honest, I have had a hard time writing this review, though I really enjoyed this book. Great Housecontains two parts, and each part contains four sections. The four discreet narratives that begin in Part I all end at an important moment and are then picked up again when the sections (and their characters) reappear in Part II. The book is very character driven, and Krauss is at her best when she has her characters opens up and speak about their pasts and what haunts them. Because the characters have interesting stories that tie into the main themes, my review has come off a bit heavy on the plot summary. I apologize for that, though I have decided it works for my purposes.
The first section is “All Rise”; it is about that guilty writer, Nadia, who showed up in The New Yorker this past summer. As in the short story, Nadia is addressing “Your Honor,” though at the moment we have no idea who Your Honor is or why she is recounting her life to a judge.
Nadia’s story begins when she is much younger and had not yet become an established writer. She was living in New York in the early 1970s when a relatively long-term relationship ended. When this happens, Nadia is unsure what to do and how practically to go on living in New York. Another friend recommends that she get in touch with an acquaintance, a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky. Varsky is planning to go back to his native Chile, and he is looking for someone to watch after his furniture while he is away. The central piece is a large desk with an unknown past. The young Chilean goes back to his troubled country only to become a victim of the Pinochet regime. Though she barely knew him, Nadia is haunted by Varsky, but for the next 25 years the desk is her own and “renewed in my sense that a potential in me had been acknowledged, a special quality that set me apart and to which I was beholden.” Nadia doesn’t necessarily lead a happy life — she marries, but it doesn’t last (none of her relationships last) – and as she ages she wonders about her relationship to her art (and to the desk): she wonders how much of her art is just a way of “countering the appearance of a certain anemia in life with the excuse of another, more profound level of existence in my work.”
This section ends when a young woman appears claiming to be Varsky’s daughter. She would like the desk. After 25 years, Nadia gives up the desk which she has used to write every novel she’s published. It is where she sat as she forged meaning in her life. In its absence, Nadia suffers a major breakdown. “All Rise,” and the story of Nadia and her desire to learn more about this daughter, is taken up again in Part II.
When “All Rise” ends, suddenly we readers are thrust into a vehement diatribe in “True Kindness.” We are in Israel, and the new narrator’s wife has just died. His son Dov, who moved to England for his professional life, has returned for the funeral, but in this first part, the narrator cannot accept Dov’s return. Uri, the narrator’s other son, never left. The newly widowed narrator has resorted to writing down his rant to Dov. In his lengthy epistle he uses a variety of cruel methods to make Dov feel he is hated and not wanted. For example, we despise the narrator when he recounts this to Dov:
Suddenly I saw you as you were at the age of ten on the trail in Ramon Crater, pacing wildly, out of breath, your little mouth agape, sweat trickling down your face, the ridiculous sun hat drooping around your head like a wilted flower. Calling and calling to me because you thought you were lost. Guess what, my boy. I was there the whole time! Crouched behind a rock, a few meters up the cliff. That’s right, while you called, while you screamed out for me, believing yourself to be abandoned in the desert, I hid behind a rock patiently watching, like the ram that saved Isaac. I was Abraham and the ram.
“True Kindness” in Part I is consistently and believably bitter and cruel. We know that the narrator is angry at his loss and is directing his fury at Dov, yet we know that there are other reasons his heart is so filled up with Dov. Part I’s section ends when Dov arrives at the narrator’s home after the funeral, fully expecting to stay there a while. It turns out he has quit his job in England and is not sure what he’s going to do now that he’s returned to Israel. Honestly, I didn’t know if the father would allow his son in the door.
When we take up “True Kindness” again in Part II, it is ten days later. Dov has been staying with his father, but the father’s tone has changed. He has moved from anger to sorrow and regret. It is a masterful and believable shift in tone, and it adds many layers of feeling to Great House‘s overarching narrative.
The third section, “Swimming Holes,” is narrated by another widower named Mr. Bender. He has spent his life in England with his wife, Lotte Berg, who fled Europe during World War II when she managed to become an escort with the Kindertransport. Bender knows that his wife lost all of her family during the war, something she rarely spoke to him about. It turns out she never particularly shared any aspect of her life with him. She was a reclusive writer (used to write on a massive desk until 1970 or so) whose mood often required he leave her alone; after all, part of the reason she wrote was to distract her from the guilt she feels at having, he thinks, abandoned her parents. He was happy to oblige, to become a servant to this great woman. Nevertheless, he is surprised to find out that she harbored another secret. “Swimming Holes” is an excellent account of grief subverted by doubt.
Of course she needed me — to keep order, to remember the shopping, to pay the bills, to keep her company, to give her pleasure, and, in the end, to bathe, and wip, and dress her, to bring her to the hospital, and finally to bury her. But that she needed it to be me who performed these duties and not some other man, equally in love with her, equally at the ready, was never entirely clear to me. I suppose it could be said that I never demanded she make the case for her love, but then I never really felt I had the right. Or maybe I feared that, honest as she was, unable to tolerate the smallest insincerity, she would fail to make the case, that she would stutter and grow silent, and then what choice would I have but to get up and leave forever, or continue with things as they had always been, only now with the full knowledge that I was simply one example where there could have been many?
That full range of emotions and the uncertainty of the real source of the pain is in each section of Great House.
The last of the four sections, “Lies Told by Children,” is narrated by a young woman named Leah. In 1999 she was spending a semester at Oxford, but she fell in love with Yoav Weisz. Before long she has moved in with him and his sister Leah (and people have often mentioned how strange the siblings’ relationship is). Their father is a famous collector of antiques who has an astonishing ability to find the pieces of furniture stolen from the Jews during World War II. He rarely surfaces at home (and they’ve had several homes), but he maintains a high degree of control over his children — or rather, when he is present they are subservient; when he is away, they run their own lives and share nothing with him.
All of the characters are interesting and well developed. The desk, though important, is entirely on the side and eventually comes to represent the relationships these characters have with other people in their past rather than their relationships with each other. As such, the desk is a powerful (if familiar) symbol of the past, a physical remainder that is now haunted by ghosts. Mr. Weisz, whose passion for antiques is really just a result of his obsession with finding his father’s lost desk, explains the symbol to Mr. Bender:
Their childhoods, Mr. Bender, because it is only the ones who were children who come to me now. The others have died. When I first started my business, he said, it was mostly lovers. Or husbands who had lost their wives, wives who had lost their husbands. Even parents. Though very few — most would have found my services unbearable. the ones who came hardly spoke at all, only enough to describe a little child’s bed or the chest where he kept his toys. Like a doctor, I listen without saying a word. But there’s one difference: when all of the talking is through, I produce a solution. It’s true, I can’t bring the dead back to life. But I can bring back the chair they once sat in, the bed where they slept.
I’m afraid this summary may not sound like much, but Krauss’s greatest skill, in my eyes, is her ability to create believable obsessions out of these characters’ troubled lives. It turns out that we are hearing from these characters at moments when circumstances have forced them to be (somewhat) honest with themselves, when they must admit to things they have avoided for much of their lives. It is a well written, interesting, emotional work.