Nicole Krauss and Cynthia Ozick together

Last night J. Courtney Sullivan, co-ed of Click and author of Commencement, and I went to see Nicole Krauss and Cynthia Ozick read at the 92nd Street Y. The first thing that I noticed, as I settled into my seat and took a deep breath, was that I rarely go hear people read anymore, especially from novels. The act of sitting there and simply listening–with no visual entertainment, no humor or hijinks–is something I don’t do enough. It requires a certain level of attention that I want to keep cultivating.

My one irritation of the night, I have to say, was Nicole Krauss’ false modesty. She came out on stage and immediately talked about how surely everyone was there to see Cynthia, not her, and she was shocked to find that there was a line of people who wanted her book signed, and on and on. This is a woman whose second novel, written when she was just in her late 20s, went on to become an international bestseller. If you haven’t read A History of Love, do not delay. It is one of the first books I’ve ever read that, upon finishing, I literally wanted to turn to page one and start all over. This is a woman whose recent book, Great House, was reviewed on the front cover of the New York Times, featuring a picture of her. Is her success so overwhelming to her that she feels the need to diminish it? Is it a gendered thing? Would her equally celebrated and successful husband, Jonathan Safran Foer, have done so much self-effacing banter before launching into his reading?

Krauss’ reading, nonetheless, was gorgeous–a contemplation of death and parenthood and memory. Just beautiful. Cynthia Ozick was delightfully funny and seemingly un-phased by her own success. She read a really funny section from her new novel, Foreign Bodies, that had everyone giggling–particularly at the descriptions of an American teenage guy in Paris in the early 50s, trying to live a romantic literary life. Ozick takes delicious aim at those who have unexamined privilege, the “lords of the world,” as she put it. I thoroughly enjoyed her work.

The evening ended with a Q&A with both of them. It was fun to see two women on different ends of the career spectrum be so smart and collaborative and funny together. With all the talk about intergenerational divisions, these two women read beautiful work and shared the stage, it seemed, quite happily. They honored one another in wonderful, little ways.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted November 9, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    False modesty can either be something close to actual modesty, or it can be pure manipulation of a sort. True modesty can be confused with a lack of self-confidence and I suppose false modesty can be seen as a realization that ego can be destructive, just not voiced in an effective way of diffusing it.

  2. Posted November 16, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Another option to consider: it’s kind of a typical writer response. Even though Nicole Krauss is quite successful, I can certainly understand the near-constant feeling of surprise that someone actually cares about what you are doing (and I say this as someone who works every day to try to be a writer). The tireless process of crafting, editing, and essentially living with your work is a dirty one; oftentimes books go to print years or decades after they’ve been begun, when writers no longer feel the fresh excitement of a new idea. It’s the final product that’s pretty and popular, not the hard work or the lifestyle that goes with it. In a way, it’s almost a mechanism of self-protection (though perhaps not the most polished one) against bad reviews or personal failure. Krauss’ comments may come off a little weird, but I’m sure there are many writers (published and unpublished alike) who are always worried that the last good thing they wrote will actually be the last. Having one novel published now-days doesn’t exactly mean you’ll be a sensation, or that you’re a good writer. Being a writer is a lifelong job, and even if she’s a little self-doubting, it’s nice to see that Krauss is working hard.

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