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Nicole Krauss: Forest Dark

Looking back at the novels I have read this year (2017), there are easily half a dozen about writing novels and one – Hotel Europa – about a novelist struggling to write a novel while the novel we are reading is the novel he is struggling to write which, of course, he does write, because we are reading it. This novel falls into that latter category but it is also much more.

Since her last novel, it has been no secret that Nicole Krauss’ marriage to Jonathan Safran Foer has ended. Indeed, it is discussed in this book. Partially because of her marital problems, Krauss suffered writers’ block and this book deals in part with her attempt to overcome the block and write another novel. At the same time it follows the story of Jules Epstein, a divorced man of sixty-eight (who dies or, at least, disappears, during the course of the novel) who had been highly successful and rich but who ends up giving away much of his wealth and moving from his very expensive Manhattan apartment to a hovel in Tel Aviv.

Epstein, like Krauss, at least by the time he has reached old age and divorced his wife of thirty-six years, Lianne, is struggling with his Jewish/Israeli roots and reconciling them with his US life. He is also struggling with his relationship with and the memory of his deceased parents. We know that he disappears near the barren hills halfway between the caves of Qumran and Ein Gedi but his body was not found. We also know that, prior to his death, he had started giving away both his property (valuable works of art, for example) as well as his money, though it is not entirely clear why. While he is not Krauss’ father (to whom this book is dedicated and who is mentioned several times in this book), the two men do seem to share some features. Both, for example, can either be very loving or very harsh. They can both love very strongly and hate very strongly.

We know that Epstein seems to to lose his appetite for life in old age. We also know that he was influenced by a book given to him by his daughter, Maya, the testament of a man alone facing God. (The book is presumably Pinchas Sadeh‘s Life as a Parable.) He takes out a $2 million line of credit on his apartment and heads off to Israel with a view of making a donation for some worthy cause, in memory of his parents. In particular, he meets Rabbi Menachem Klausner who sees Epstein, because of his name, as a direct descendant of King David.

Meanwhile, we also follow the narrator, the novelist called Nicole. She has what we might call an epiphany, i.e. a realisation that something is different. In this case, it is a strange feeling, on returning home one day, that she was already there at home and that she was no longer confined to her body. Everything was touched by stillness, she comments. This leads on to the idea of a multiverse, i.e. that there is not one universe but many parallel universes, an idea first posited by Erwin Schrödinger. She discusses this idea at length. She sees life not as the Cartesian one where one should follow the straight line out of the forest (from the second maxim of Discourse on Method) but the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where once we lived in wonder. (The title of the book partially comes from but this but, as she tells us in an afterword, a direct quote from Longfellow’s translation of Dante.) In other words, we don’t know everything, cannot know everything and should not know everything. Each of us is actually born alone into a luminous blankness. (She compares this with her husband’s approach, which is one of knowing everything, even the most trivial fact.)

She follows up this issue of being somewhere else by feeling that, for her, she somehow belongs to the Tel Aviv Hilton. She was conceived there and has since stayed there frequently, both as a child and adult. The place has a kind of mystical aura for me. She also feels more at home in Tel Aviv than in the US. Part of it is due to the time her brother found an earring in the swimming pool, when diving for money which was in the pool. She subsequently wore it as a pendant. (I have to wonder why she or her mother did not hand it in to reception as someone almost certainly lost it but that would detract from the almost mystical significance that is attached to the jewel.)

All of this is leading us to Eliezer Friedman, a retired professor of literature at the University of Tel Aviv. Nicole is struggling with her novel and is sure that the Tel Aviv Hilton and her relationship to it holds the key to getting going again. She meets Friedman (through a mutual friend). He gives her a fascinating account of the relationship of Jews to writing but also takes her to the house of Eva Hoffe, who had ownership and control of a large number of Kafka’s papers. Friedman has somehow managed to obtain a copy of an unfinished play written by Kafka. He wants to turn it in to a screenplay and wants Nicole to finish it.

In the rest of the book we follow the respective journeys of Epstein and Nicole. Both acquire a historical person to act as a sort of spiritual guide – King David in Epstein’s case and Kafka in Nicole’s case (Krauss has long been a devotee of Kafka.) Both have a real person to guide them – Menachem Klausner in the case of Epstein and Eliezer Friedman in the case of Nicole, though both have their oddities as a guide.

The other key element of this book can best described as a certain level of chaos. Chaos, in a novel can be bad or good. A writer who does not fully know what s/he is doing will give us bad chaos, i.e. a disorganised novel whose disorganisation is merely distracting and annoying, and reflects the inability of the novelist to structure the novel properly. However, a good novelist can give us an element of chaos to show the chaotic nature of the world or characters s/he is writing about and this is certainly the case with this novel. Krauss’ chaos, by which I mean that the novel at times shoot off at tangents or takes an unexpected turn (such as the introduction of King David and Kafka who barely feature in the first part of the novel but are key in the second part), clearly reflects both the chaotic nature of the lives of the two protagonists but also the chaotic world that they are struggling with. It also avoids the standard approach of telling two disparate stories, which seemingly have no connection but follow a more or less linear plot line, and finally converge. Krauss’ novel, however, goes off, instead on its own road, with the two not always linear story lines only glancing off one another.

This is another superb novel from Krauss, better even than The History of Love, which has, till now, been recognised as her best. It deals with two people struggling to come to terms with their lives, with their individual past and the collective past of their race as it affects them. It deals with philosophy, religion literature and an artist’s struggle with her oeuvre. It tells a good story which leaves us guessing what is going on and why. In short, it will surely be seen as Krauss’ best novel.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Harper