BASS 2019: Nicole Krauss, “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker 3/5/18

Like Romi in the story, I first saw Taste of Cherry In London in 1998, the year it was released. I was living in student housing near Russell square ….I was already a fan of Abbas Kiarostami films, but when Ershadi’s face appeared on the screen “it did something to me,” as the narrator of the story says, and what it did to me, and continued doing to me for the next twenty years, is what I tried to work out in this story.
….Six years later I traveled to Japan for the first time and visited the temples of Kyoto. Did I really think that I saw Ershadi in the Zen garden of Nanzen-ji? I remember believing that I had seen him. But now I can’t say for sure if what I am remembering is a scene I invented for this story, or something that actually happened to me. I really can’t.

Nicole Krauss, Contributor Note

One of the plusses I find with stories that have appeared in The New Yorker is that a lot of people have written about them online by the time I encounter them in BASS. This is particularly helpful when, as is the case here, the story falls between a story and… something else. An enhanced memoir by a fictional dancer, with particular emphasis, considering the Contributor Note above, on the memory-sense of memoir? The robust Burlington Writers Workshop used the story in a session on ekphrasis, the literary art of writing about, and thus enhancing, a work of art from another medium.

Ekphrasis is probably the best description, since I find the story somewhat mimics the film in terms of pace and structure: stretches of thought, interrupted by brief scenes of interactions, finished off with a coda. And yes, I did watch the film, or rather, the Youtube version, which was somewhat problematic as two or three sets of subtitles kept overlaying and competing with each other. It was, however, helpful to my read of the story.

Not once in the film are we told anything about the life of Mr. Badii, or what might have led him to decide to end it. Nor do we witness his despair. Everything we know about the depth contained within him we get from his face, which also tells us about the depth contained within the actor Homayoun Ershadi, about whose life we know even less. When I did a search, I discovered that Ershadi was an architect with no training or experience as an actor when Kiarostami saw him sitting in his car in traffic, lost in thought, and knocked on his window. 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.
His face did something to me. Or, rather, the film, with its compassion and its utterly jarring ending, which I won’t give away, did something to me. But, then again, you could also say that, in some sense, the film was only his face: his face and those lonely hills.

Complete story available online at TNY

While this film won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in the year it was released, Roger Ebert hated it. I wouldn’t have watched it had I not been working on the story, but I have a long history of not getting art films. I will, however, admit to some interesting effects. In the opening scenes, it seemed to me that Badii/Ershadi (for, having read the story, I was unable to see the actor and character separately) was looking to pick up a quick trick. Is this my Western indecency? Or was it intentional misdirection on the part of the film, only later replacing the tawdry with the profound? The second moment of high interest came as Badii/Ershadi stood at the bottom of a hill, watching construction crews pushing dirt and rocks down the side of the hill towards him. I imagined he must be thinking, this is what it will look like, when they pour dirt over my body, if I am still there to see it.

The final scene – which the narrator does give away despite the promise not to – is one of those art-house specials, the pulling back to expose the movie makers and reinforce that this is a movie. Some viewers found this a terrible ending to an otherwise great movie. Others found it the point. Again, I don’t belong to the art-house set, so I could only think of how Blazing Saddles did it so much better.

Our narrator (to return to the story at hand) is profoundly moved by the film, specifically, by Ershadi’s face.

Love: I can only call it that, however different it was from every other instance of love that I had experienced. What I knew of love had always stemmed from desire, from the wish to be altered or thrown off course by some uncontrollable force. But in my love for Ershadi I nearly didn’t exist beyond that great feeling. To call it compassion makes it sound like a form of divine love, and it wasn’t that; it was terribly human. If anything, it was an animal love, the love of an animal that has been living in an incomprehensible world until one day it encounters another of its kind and realizes that it has been applying its comprehension in the wrong place all along.
It sounds far-fetched, but at that moment I had the feeling that I could save Ershadi.

I was glad I could watch the film only to see Ershadi’s face for myself, to try to understand what the narrator saw in it. I still have no idea. It’s an ordinary face. But, as I keep saying, I don’t belong here, so I’ll take the word of someone more at home that there’s great depth of feeling here.

Our narrator has an experience at a temple site in Japan of seeing Ershadi – maybe – but being prevented from approaching him by a group of temple visitors, trying with great urgency to convey something, we never find out what. This is the experience that Krauss tells us in her CN may have been real, and may have acquired a sense of realness for her when she created it for her story.

I wonder about the people Badii (the character this time, as I’m considering the plot of the film rather than the experience of watching it) tried to convince to bury him. A soldier, a seminary student, a taxidermist: the first two refuse the request, the last agrees after delivering the necessary admonition against suicide. Did he agree because as a taxidermist he is more familiar with the dead? Soldiers might be a cause of death, or witness to death; religious figures worry about the after-death experience. It’s the taxidermist who deals with dead bodies themselves.

The coda to the story flashes forward over the years, until the narrator, now a new parent, happens upon a poster for Taste of Cherry and writes, after years of silence, to Romi.

In the letter, I admitted to her the reason that I’d cried the night she told me about her encounter with Ershadi. Sooner or later, I wrote, I would’ve had to admit that in the blaze of my ambition I’d failed to check myself. I would have had to face how miserable I was, and how confused my feelings about dancing had become. But the desire to seize something from Ershadi, to feel that reality had expanded for me as it had for her, that the other world had come through to touch me, had hastened my revelations.

Dancing begins the story, and an injury has an important role, but it seems a secondary element until now, when it turns out the entire story, the obsession with Ershadi, is about dancing, the need to end a career before it ends the careerist, and the grief that entails; the regret at not careering more wisely. It’s only now, after realizing this, that a passage from the first paragraph stands out:

When I met people in bars and cafés, I spoke excitedly about the experience of working with the choreographer and told them that I felt I was constantly on the verge of discovery. Until one day I realized that I had become fanatical—that what I had taken for devotion had crossed the line into something else. And though my awareness of this was a dark blot on what had been, up to then, a pure joy, I didn’t know what to do with it.

It’s not the experience, but the awareness of the perception of the experience by others, that makes it real. Obsession realized becomes real, becomes a dark blot. The film ends with the realization that it is a movie, which changes the experience of lying with Badii/Ershadi in the grave, looking up at the moon through the clouds, listening to the rain. Doubt, hesitation, shame, fear, are all part of realization, not part of experience.

This surreptitious dance theme makes me think there’s something in the movie I have overlooked, something the art-house crowd would get. Ebert mentions the courage it takes to make a film about suicide in a place like Iran.The soldier Badii/Ershadi encounters is a Kurd, which has overwhelming echoes right now that would not have been necessarily part of the film for me originally. The mysterious question of whether or not either of the people in the story actually encountered Ershadi also becomes a theme of the boundary between real and not-real.

I had something of an experience with a movie once. My husband and I had just separated (for the first time; only the second time would take); the first Gulf War had just begun, becoming my initiation (everyone’s, I think) into watching a war live on TV. I had to get out of the house, so I went to a movie: Awakenings happened to be playing, and I’d read Sacks’ work so chose it. On the drive home, I couldn’t shake DeNiro’s psychotic ramblings about how wonderful everything could be if we’d just care about each other and see the good around us. I started to cry, to sob. I had to pull over until it passed. I think it was raining – hard, pouring – but that might be part of the feeling rather than the reality. I realized how frightened I was: of being alone, of the war changing things (little did I know how much, though it took decades to reveal), of change, of the unknown.

I checked the Awakenings DVD (yes, quaint) out of the library about a week ago, just before I started reading this story. Is that why it’s on my mind? Or was there some wave from the future echoing back in time? It’s just a movie now. A good movie, but that’s all.

Another aspect of the story fascinates me. Jake Weber’s post on the story – perceptive as always, viewing the relationships of the narrator in conjunction with an earlier story from this anthology – mentions in a shout-out to me that the narrator is not named. This references a drinking-game we invented for this edition of BASS, in which each time an unnamed narrator, or sensitive portrait of the end of a marriage, or bittersweet coming-of-age tale, showed up, we’d take a shot. In this case, it was the unnamed narrator.

But I could do him one better: I read the narrator as male all the way through. In fact, I only realized this was unusual when I saw another commentary calling the narrator a ballerina. Oh! My perception of maleness made this a very different story for me, and it’s why I’ve been careful to avoid gendered pronouns in this post so far.

But on rereading, I feel like an idiot. I don’t think there are any places where the sex of the narrator is specified, and there is no reason the narrator can’t be male. But I have to admit, the dancing, the emotionality, the friendship with Romi, the plan to travel again together, nudge the needle towards female. Yet I have to wonder: given how tricky it is to write without gender, why did she write it to read either way?

The trick in putting these anthologies together, I think, is in selecting a broad range of stories. That almost ensures that not every story will be to any one person’s liking. That’s the value of doing this kind of blogging instead of a single post of two-sentence impressions: I’m forced to deal with ekphrasis – or, what Doerr refers to in his volume Introduction as a series of subplots that “wrecked’ him – and find my value. I’m not always successful. But I came away with something this time, and no one is more surprised than I.

Nicole Krauss: “Zusya On the Roof” from TNY 2/4/13

josefdreams: "Wavy Tefillin"

josefdreams: “Wavy Tefillin”

Heels dug into the tar paper, twenty-three floors above the street, cradling his newborn grandson—how did he wind up here? It was not a simple thing, as his father would say. Simplicity was not his patrimony.

Wow – a story that really, impressively, reaches. But I don’t think it quite grasped. Of course, it could be I’m the one a little short in the grasp department – but check for yourself, it’s available online.

Brodman is an elderly Jewish professor – and writer of ” a meagre output of books, themselves commentaries on commentaries on other books” – who’s just recovered from a couple of hallucinatory near-death weeks following surgery. As close brushes with death are wont to do, he’s been re-examining his life, particularly in terms of a Jewish tale about the Rabbi Zusya:

Yes, Brodman had been Brodman and was still Brodman, and yet he had failed to be Brodman, just as Rabbi Zusya had failed to be the man he should have been. He had learned the tale as a boy: How after the rebbe from Hanipol had died he stood awaiting God’s judgment, ashamed that he had not been Moses or Abraham. But when God appeared at last, He asked only, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” The story ended there, but Brodman had dreamed the rest: how God concealed Himself again and Zusya, all alone, whispered, “Because I was a Jew, and there was no room left to be anything else, not even Zusya.”

Most of the story is an examination of what author Nicole Krauss calls ” the burden of emotional inheritance” implicit in Judaism in her Page-Turner interview (it’s a great interview, by the way, worth reading on its own): “The integrity of an entire people came to rest on the power of their memory. Zakor, Hebrew for the duty to remember, is at the core of Jewish practice and, I’d argue, the strain of that obligation is central to Jewish psychology.” The Torah, the Biblical books of history – these contain not only the heroes of Jewish history, but the fools, the mistakes that were made, and the prices paid. The Jews do not hide their mistakes, they sanctify them. But that, too, has a price, and part of that price every male pays in the form of a fraction of a gram of flesh.

The bris is the central plot device of the story. While Brodman was dead, as he thinks of it, his first grandson was born. Brodman’s daughters have somehow freed themselves from the Jewish burden of duty, one being insane and one being gay (the grandson is the product of the 41-year-old lesbian and her sperm-donor-friend). It’s an interesting pairing of ways to escape the bonds of Judaism. Krauss could have given Brodman a son who’d taken a more secular path, but she chose this route, to leave the old Brodman and the newborn as the only male heirs. Orthodox Judaism is, after all, prone to sexism; even today, enlightened rabbis struggle with the blessing of shelo asani isha. Is it any wonder the women in this story have, in one way or another, rejected some of the burden Orthodox Judaism would place on them?

It’s this notion of the Jewish burden, particularly on the male, that fills the story, giving Brodman the idea that he should rescue his grandson, both of them recovered enough to attend the Bris, by taking him up on the roof. It’s a powerful concept:

Abraham bound Isaac once so that Isaac would go on binding himself forever. Each night before bed, Brodman checked his bindings, the way a man double-checks the doors and windows of his house. When he left the apartment, he locked the door quietly behind him, and on his back he carried his mother, with her blue ankles, and his stooped father, and their parents, too, dead in a trench at the edge of a pine forest.

I was intrigued by Millhauser’s examination of the life-encompassing quality of Judaism in “A Voice in the Night” and the views of different ways of being Jewish, the very idea of what it means to be Jewish, that Nathan Englander explored in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” and dozens of others. I’m not sure this story works for me in the same way, however.

When Brodman says, “Who might he have been, had it been given to him to choose? But his chance had passed. He had allowed himself to be crushed by duty” I don’t get a sense of what he’s missed out on, and I think that’s because it’s not in the story. We don’t hear about the paths he wanted to take, but shunned. About an interest in, oh, jazz or astronomy, that went unpursued due to the rigors of academic study of Judaica, or about a lovely Gentile girl who remained on the other side of a Great Divide, or about anything other than this realization, in his 80s, that his life has been misspent. But… why? He’s not impressed with the output of his scholarship, but we don’t know if that’s an accurate representation or merely part of his malaise. There’s nothing in this story that tells me that, prior to his near-death, he had any wish to be anything other than who he was.

Not that I’m asking for the clichéd “what might have been,” not at all. But some inkling that something else, anything else, might have been, would’ve helped me fully feel the burden Brodman carries. Without that, I’m left with a more intellectual appreciation for the weight of history, and that’s where the story fails: it doesn’t lead me to a deeper understanding of the human impact.

But this isn’t an omission on Krauss’s part; it’s built into the story:

No, he was not angry! he bellowed in the therapist’s office. “I simply object to the burden!”
“Of what?” she asked, pen poised, waiting to copy it down in his file.

Brodman himself doesn’t know what he might’ve been; he simply knows that he had no choice. And so I suppose that’s the point: an impotent rage against a nebulous sense of having been forced, having never seen, let alone been offered, any choice: a burden he now sees enacted as his grandson is to go before the mohelet (the female mohel).

Maybe that’s the more powerful story after all. It’s one thing to mourn what you could have been. It’s another to not know what you could have been. Especially when, at the end of your life, you feel that what you were wasn’t all that. But I can’t help but wonder: would Brodman have felt this way had he had a son?