Gabriel Krauze on Who They Was: “Literature is insanely serious for me”

LLeaning over the balcony of a city, Gabriel Krauze watches the police gather in front of an apartment below, preparing to break down the door.

The officers are actors filming a TV show, but the scene isn’t all that different from what Krauze, 35, saw growing up in the business.

“When I lived here, the number of raids I saw, or just the number of incidents where the police would come and tape pieces of the property…” he says. “Like, right there,” Krauze adds, pointing to a block, “a girl was killed a few years ago.” The TV crew is actually a good sign, he says, suggesting that the area is “calming down a bit.”

Krauze, whose name from his first book is tattooed on his hand, is an anomaly in publishing – a novelist whose life and work is rooted in a side of London that many writers do not know or recognize .

His novel Who they were – published by Fourth Estate and shortlisted for the Booker Prize – is a barely fictional first-person account of his late teens and early twenties. At the time, he was living in Blake Court, a tower named after William Blake, which is part of the South Kilburn Estate, north-west London. (In Zadie Smith’s 2012 novel, NO, a fictional estate is located in the same area, with towers named after philosophers.)

Who they were is heavy on London slang – people get stung, not stabbed, and everyone is ‘naked loud and aggi’. It starts with a character named Snoopz trying to steal a woman’s diamond ring (“I always thought if you break someone’s finger you’ll feel the bones break, hear the same, but I don’t feel anything at all it’s like folding paper ‘), then documents Snoopz’s life, including stabbing an addict in the head and smashing his favorite knife in the process, stories of honor and revenge and finally going in prison.

I was in a youth club, and someone right next to me got stung, blood all over the floor, boom, boom, boom

There are breaks with the violence, as Krauze’s character completes an English degree across London, spends time with friends, and escapes to his parents’ house, but critics have pointed out that there was little optimism.

“This is, I guess, the only honest way to tell the story,” Jake Kerridge wrote in The daily telegraph.

“I must have taken a shower after reading it,” Lemn Sissay, poet and Booker Prize judge, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never heard people talk like this before,” he adds. “He’s not trying to apologize, he’s not trying to contextualize the subclass. It is to say: ‘This is what it is.’ “

Douglas Stuart, who won the Booker last year for Suggie Bath, his first novel about working-class life, said in a telephone interview: “When you read these worlds in books, it’s normally by a middle-class writer who creates a one-dimensional villain, but Gabriel has created a world so rich in detail. , and motivation and consequences.

Krauze insists the book is more than a sinister tale.

“It’s a moral confrontation with the reader,” he says, claiming that it forces readers to realize that some people commit crimes because of their psychology, as well as poverty or lack of opportunity.

The author’s note in some editions of the book is even clearer. “This is the life I have chosen,” he writes. “Maybe I was looking for a sense of family and identity that I couldn’t find at home. Maybe this is how I found my people and they found me.

Krauze was born in north-west London to a cartoonist and painter who had both immigrated from Poland. He grew up on the corner of the South Kilburn Estate, in an apartment where his twin brother played the violin for hours a day. He became obsessed with books as a child, devouring everything from Tolkien to WWI non-fiction, and realized he wanted to be a writer at the age of 13.

That same year, he also threatened someone with a knife for the first time and saw his first stab.

“I was in a youth club, and someone right next to me got stung, blood all over the floor, boom, boom, boom,” he says.

The author and his Booker Prize-winning novel


At 14, Krauze was arrested for the first time after being caught stealing videotapes. He began to spend more time on the South Kilburn Estate with his friends, in part to escape his mother’s gaze. At 17, he was embroiled in so many run-ins with violence and the law that he started writing it down – on scraps of paper, in cellphones – insisting he would make one. day a book. At a hearing, he joked with his lawyer about the books he should read in prison.

Crime and PunishmentKrauze suggested.

“Maybe something more penitential like The pilgrim’s progression», Replied the lawyer. Krauze has scrawled the conversation on the back of a probation report. He went to jail twice – once on remand at the university. Being white has allowed him to get shorter sentences, he says, adding that he is aware of the privilege his skin color gives him over his friends.

Krauze spent most of his 20s selling drugs, he says. It wasn’t until the age of 31 and deeply frustrated with life that he took the notes he had written and turned them into Who they were. He wrote the book by hand in four months, he says, then Google “how to find a literary agent” and started sending it.

One striking aspect of the book is its lack of redemption, with Snoopz never showing remorse. The first agent approached by Krauze asks him to add a moment where Snoopz realizes the error of his ways and the changes. Krauze refused.

“A redemptive story arc would have been a total artifice,” he says. “If you want to know what this life is like, you have to have the reality of it, and the reality is brutal and grim.”

We can dance around the work and his life, but deep down, he is a writer of beautiful sentences.

Joel golby

While writing the book, he found a note he had written in prison.

“It was that rant against society, me talking about ‘we are the wolves and they are the sheep’, and all that,” he says. “I was shocked, because I couldn’t believe I used to think like that.”

As much as Krauze now apologizes for his past, he doesn’t try to walk away from it. Many of the characters in the book are based on his friends, and it shows the intense bond between them, partly built from what they saw together.

“It’s not like I’m living in this world, now I’ve run away from it and wrote a book about it,” Krauze says.

Despite (or because of) the book’s praise, Krauze faced some tough times. Last fall, a journalist from Time opened an interview by asking Krauze if he carried a gun, then made an important reference to his diamond dental grill.

Joel Golby, who edited three Krauze short stories for Vice magazine, says that seeing him as a one-note writer is a mistake: “You can dance around his work and his life, but basically he’s a beautiful sentence writer. “

Krauze is already tackling topics beyond his life in South Kilburn. His next novel will focus on how trauma is passed down from generation to generation, he says, focusing on people like his Polish parents, born shortly after World War II, when the Nazis attempted to destroy their country.

“It’s not a game,” he said. “Literature is insanely serious for me.”

He then riffed on a quote from Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher.

“What I’m trying to do with my art is to sum up the truth of being – the truth of existence,” Krauze says. He did it for a handful of people in an area of ​​London; he can also do it for others.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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