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To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss review – how far do we really know ourselves?

The weight of history and the tenuousness of human bonds are brought to the fore in a supremely intelligent collection

In a conversation about her short story “To Be a Man”, the American writer Nicole Krauss was asked about the “thin line” that marks the relationship between her male and female characters, namely “the promise of tenderness versus the threat of violence”. Krauss answered: “I’ve been drawn to many thin lines in my work.” In her 2017 novel Forest Dark, the thin line was between one kind of life and another; the protagonist suddenly gives up his job and all his possessions to move to Israel. In Great House, published in 2010 and a finalist for the National Book award, lives are connected across continents and through catastrophic events by a wooden desk, and in Krauss’s preceding novel, The History of Love, people living through different eras in Poland, Chile and the US are linked through a book and through the tenuous bonds of human affection.

To Be a Man is full of thin lines. There’s the thin line that connects one human being to another, the thin line between being the rebellious girl and becoming a victim, between what religion offers and how it constrains. There is also the line that connects the past to the present. “We were European Jews, even in America, which is to say that catastrophic things had happened and might happen again,” declares a character on the first page. The same could be said of many of the protagonists in the 10 stories. Each lives under the weight of history, noted by Krauss sometimes almost in passing, as if to show that the history we are born with remains indelibly part of who we become.

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