“To Be a Man” is a new story by Nicole Krauss, adapted from the author’s upcoming story collection of the same name (available November 3). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, Krauss and Thomas Gebremedhin, a former senior editor at the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Thomas Gebremedhin: “To Be a Man” is anchored by two longer stories. The first recounts the narrator’s romantic relationship with a man known as the German Boxer; the second concerns her friend Rafi’s marriage. The two longer stories are told in the third person, but they are bookended by sections of first-person narration, in which the protagonist considers her adolescent sons. When did you first land on this structure, and why does “To Be a Man” require it?
Nicole Krauss: I had that title for many years, but waited until all the other stories in the collection were finished before I wrote it. All along, I knew that I was gathering material and momentum to write something more overtly about manhood, as seen through the eyes of a woman raising sons on the cusp of becoming men, a woman who possesses a lifetime of experience with men—tender, passionate, volatile, sometimes all at once. How to create a structure that can hold together the many layers of her visceral experience of manhood and her perspective on it, leaving the contradictions intact? A structure subtle and shapely enough to allow for associative connections, but loose enough not to tame the mysteries and conflicts, or to strangle the life-flow: That’s what I’m after, whether writing novels or stories. This four-part structure, which begins with the narrator’s father and ends with her sons, and in the middle contains her experience of male lovers and friends, felt like my best shot.
Gebremedhin: A current of tension runs through every male-female relationship in this story—the promise of tenderness versus the threat of violence. The line between the two, we discover, can be very thin. What appealed to you about exploring these themes?
Krauss: The thin line is where the writer pitches her tent, isn’t it? I’ve been drawn to many thin lines in my work, but this particular one has been on all of our minds a lot these last years, if it hasn’t been on many of our minds forever. But movements often have to be reductionist to be effective on a mass scale, and there was much that the #MeToo movement, in its address of sexual assault and harassment, couldn’t include about my own and other women’s complex and intimate experiences with manhood. In a New Yorker profile written by Judith Thurman, the writer Yasmina Reza said of her father that his brutality wasn’t malicious, that he was violent but loving, and from her relations with him she understood that human beings can’t be reduced, and that without that revelation, she couldn’t have become a writer. When I read that, years ago, it struck a deep chord in me. A resistance to reduction has guided me in the kind of characters I’m drawn to inhabit—in other words, the ones shot through with thin lines. I’m not working to resolve those lines in either direction, but I’m moved by how we live with their paradoxes.
Gebremedhin: The story suggests that equality in relationships and personal freedom are incompatible, because one must always sacrifice and compromise one’s self in order to achieve parity in romantic partnerships. Is one condition more noble than the other?
Krauss: I’ve been committed to both conditions at different times in my life, and each is filled with plenty of noble and ignoble qualities. It doesn’t help that romantic partnerships are the speedboat that leads to the around-the-world cruise of raising children, a spectacular undertaking that cancels personal freedom on nearly every level. I feel less skeptical about the possibility, on the other side of that venture, of a romantic relationship spacious enough to preserve independence and many forms of freedom. Still, there is something that feels very pure about waking each day into the starkness of one’s independence, with a sense of possibility of all the varieties of experience available to one, even if it’s a position that comes at some cost.
Gebremedhin: After sex one night, the German Boxer recites the Lord’s Prayer in German to the protagonist. How does religion function in that moment and in the story overall?
Krauss: They are in a tent in the middle of the forest, which is the only reason she is present at the moment he prepares for sleep; normally he is unable to find the peace he needs to fall asleep with another person beside him. To fall asleep in someone else’s presence is to make oneself vulnerable. And sleep itself—a stepping-off into nothingness, a little death—has at its core something frightening; any child can tell you as much. At the moment the German Boxer asks her if she minds if he recites the Lord’s Prayer, I think she, and we, understand many things about him: his sense of fear, despite his largeness and strength; his ritualized belief in some power that can be appealed to for protection, that goes all the way back to his childhood.
That, before reciting it, he asks if she minds can be read in different ways. She is Jewish and he is German, she is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and he may or may not be the grandson of Nazis, and this strangeness is explored between them from the beginning. Is it appropriate, he may be asking, to recite this prayer, in this language, in the presence of this woman? What will it invoke for her? There is a gingerness in the question, and also a sense of an ingrained sensitivity that is either special to him, or a reflection of how Germans of his generation were taught to think about their history, or both. But another way to look at his question is as a way of asking whether she can be trusted to witness a moment of vulnerability. After all, they are alone there in the heart of that forest, and there is little choice except to return to childhood next to her, to try to sleep.
Gebremedhin: As your title suggests, you explore every contour of manhood in “To Be a Man.” The final image, which sees the protagonist accepting that her older son is going to soon cross over into the land of men, suggests a kind of submersion or drowning. Are there aspects of manhood that should be resisted?
Krauss: That ending, which opens out into a vastness, can, I hope, be read in different ways. One is as you’ve described. Another is as a contemplation of time and life and the forward pull into the future, into the unknown, into change that will be irreversible. To me, it is very much a mother’s moment of regarding a child who must grow to leave her for other shores. It’s a letting-go, with all of the sadness and joy and trepidation and wonder she feels. The story, which focuses on her observations of the men and boys near to her, is only obliquely about her own feelings. But I think they come rushing to the fore in that final moment.
Gebremedhin: Some of the stories gathered in To Be a Man date back to the early 2010s. What was it like to revisit your older stories? Did you rediscover anything about yourself—as a writer or otherwise—in reading them again?
Krauss: Most of the stories were written over the past eight years, before and after writing my last novel, Forest Dark. But one, “Future Emergencies,” dates back to 2002. I wrote it just after 9/11, after I’d finished my first novel but before it had been published. Writing fiction was almost entirely new to me then—until I’d sat down to write that novel, a year earlier, at 25, I’d dedicated myself to poetry. There were many strange things about returning to it all these years later. Not least of all that people in the story are walking around New York in masks—gas masks, in this case, but the sense of large-scale catastrophe and fear is the same. Also strange was that, in the years since writing it, the young narrator’s much older boyfriend had become my own age. Which raised another strange feeling, namely: And here I am, still at it! This absurd job! These forever unresolvable questions! Like many characters in the later stories, the narrator of “Future Emergencies” is poised on the cusp of deciding whether to stay or go; to commit to the shape her relationship requires of her, or leave it, to go and become who knows where or what. The future emergency of that story is, in all senses, still ongoing.