Switzerland by Nicole Krauss

Kimberly and Jane, ever on the lookout for women artists and writers who capture women in the act of becoming women, found Nicole Krauss’s short story illuminating across generations and cultures. 

KC: “It’s been thirty years since I saw Soraya,” reminisces Nicole Krauss’ narrator in the first line of her short story “Switzerland” for the New Yorker. She then proceeds to walk us down memory lane to a time when she was a thirteen-year-old girl, daughter of combustible Jewish parents whose family motto was “Don’t trust anyone.” Our narrator finds herself in a Swiss boarding house with two 18-year-old girls, one of whom is Soraya, a Middle Eastern vixen; in the way some girls are vixens before they are old enough to really understand how to truly capitalize on that title.  We see this young narrator fall into a sort of adulation of Soraya who is exotic, sexual, rebellious, and participating in a very real secretive relationship with an older man that reeks of dominance and submission.

JAS: What really struck me about Nicole Krauss’ story, and why I wanted you to read it, was that it was about how girls learn from each other. We are always talking about how young women bloom, how young girls are influenced by their mothers, how young women are heavily informed by our popular culture, etc. But this story was such a strong example of how we look toward each other, especially at younger ages, to glean information, and particularly around sexuality.

KC: I only remember one Soraya in my life. Her name was the same as mine and what I loved about her, was that on Friday nights when she was charged with babysitting me, we would put on glossy lipstick, dance to the Bee Gees, and walk around the neighborhood visiting the other girls she knew as the sun went down in Southern California as if we were from a roving pack of wolves. These nights always sparkled with potential because I felt I was being let in on a secret club.

JAS: And so did our narrator who was quite innocent compared to her older friend. She speaks of the delight she felt wandering city streets by herself, feeling free until an older man approaches her while she’s looking in the window of a chocolatier, leans in affectionately and then whispers in her ear, “I could break you in two with one hand.”

KC: Yes, an act that causes her to run all the way to a tram stop gasping for air until she’s out of breath with fear. This as a time when she knew Soraya was playing in a very real, dark sexual sphere with her older lover that oftentimes finds her back at the boarding house attempting to hide purple bruises on her neck.

JAS: Yes, but Soraya isn’t afraid. She’s pushing limits we don’t see, appearing to be in control, and this fascinates our narrator who doesn’t understand a girl having this kind of upper hand at all.

KC: As a matter of fact, it causes her to study Soraya like a textbook. At one point she says, “Soraya didn’t radiate trouble. At least not the sort of trouble that comes of rebellion but more from a desire to cross whatever boundaries or limits others have set for you, without consideration of the consequences. If anything, Soraya radiated a sense of authority, exquisite because it derived from an inner source.”

JAS: It does seem that Soraya was more interested in knowing herself than confronting authority. Krauss is drawing our interest to Soraya’s and the narrator’s pursuit of sexual knowledge. And an inner female desire to know which is key. Our narrator is absorbing what it means to have a certain kind of confidence that comes from knowing who you are as a ‘natural born’ woman. And througb her period of knowing Soraya, she comes to know more about who she herself is.

KC: Yes, and as she starts to grow into her own sexuality and sexual escapades in life, she often comes to this understanding of who she is by juxtaposing her actions against Soraya’s. For example, going home with a man she barely knows and his admonition of her actions as something she should think about in the future as potentially dangerous is, to her, not viewed in an unsafe way when compared with what she’s known Soraya to do. This causes her to think, and come to understand, that she is not the type of person to take the same kinds of risks as Soraya.

JAS: Her explorations come later, of course, when she’s 19, living on her own in Paris. Toward the end of Soraya’s story, Soraya disappears for a few days that brings her alarmed father to the boarding house to find and retrieve her. Our narrator spills the beans about Soraya’s older lover and a search ensues. When Soraya comes back on her own, she says nothing, seeming to be quietly resigned to a fate of going back home with her father. We never know if Soraya knew what was ahead for her, whether she was – as they say about boys – sowing her wild oats before acceding to a family agenda. Our narrator loses touch with her.

KC: And yet we get the idea that Soraya’s influence on her remains throughout her whole life. She states: “And yet I never really doubted her strength. Never doubted that she was in control and doing what she wanted. Playing a game according to rules she had agreed to, if not invented. Only looking back do I realize how much I wanted to see her that way: strong-willed and free, invulnerable and under her own command.” That’s how I feel about my own Soraya.

JAS: And I think girls like Soraya have a real place in the formation of other girls’ perspectives and opinions of their own sexuality. It’s fairly well known now that influences don’t come from parents, classrooms, boys and then men as much as from sisters and girlfriends, peers but slightly older like Soraya who we think know something we don’t know. Of course, there’s always the movies. Through curiosity and identification, information is filtered through a more personal lens, one where we can determine the parts that work for us and the parts that don’t. We can fit them into what we’re struggling to achieve for ourselves, make them our own.

KC: These girls are role models of sexuality rather than our lecturing parents or others with purely cautionary tales. I remember clearly being Soraya in my life, and oftentimes sharing my own information on sexuality with my girlfriends. When I think about that in terms of this story, I laugh, because I thought I knew what I was doing much more than I actually did. I actually recall a mother not letting her daughter have me over because I was “too fast.”

JAS: When I was in the fourth grade I’d discovered books that explained all kinds of things about sexuality and would gather some kids in the cloakroom at recess to share what I’d found.  I had no idea I was doing something risqué but the teacher soon put a stop to it.  I also remember turning a playground game of tag around so the girls were tagging the boys instead of the other way around. I laugh now; was I being a Soraya? 

KC: As women, we all have these stories—the stories of our sexual history that have influenced and informed other women, and the stories of how other women’s sexualities have influenced or informed our own. This sisterhood makes me smile.

JAS: I was really thrilled to find Nicole Krauss’ story. And, yes, it did remind me of when as a thirty-something woman in the ‘70s I was part of more than one group of women gathering to tell our stories, stories that we’d never told anyone before. Now women’s stories are mainstream, no longer breaking ground but taking their place as a reality to be reckoned with. Nicole ends her story with reflections on the daughter of the narrator, a teenage girl who embodies her female body with a knowing her mother had only glimpses of, who already knows the power of lifting her eyes and engaging with a man’s stare on a subway – knows enough to make her own choice.

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