In an essay published earlier this year in The New York Times, the novelist Nicole Krauss questioned the notion of the author as a figure of authority, “someone who invents or causes something.” It is a notion, she writes, that “returns me to a question that bothered me to no end when I was younger: Who gives her the right? Or more like: How does she take it?” For Krauss, who published her first novel, Man Walks into a Room (2002), when she was twenty-eight, the answer when she was a young writer had been simple—adopt a man’s voice:
To speak as a man on the page, in his third or, even better, his intimate first person, was to have quicker access to the sort of authority that allows one to be assertive, brazen, even difficult, without losing the possibility of empathy, which might lead to the slamming shut of the book.
Taking on a man’s voice carried Krauss well into her second and best-selling novel, The History of Love (2005), half of which is narrated by Leo Gursky, a solitary octogenarian, the kind of man who walks around with a note in his wallet that says “PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.” The other half of the novel is told from a female perspective—that of a fourteen-year-old girl, to be precise—but even this seems in keeping with Krauss’s professed strategy: the narrator’s youthful precocity is sure to preempt whatever loss of empathy her author is worried about causing.
If that wasn’t enough, The History of Love came armed with metafictional devices, such as a novel-within-the-novel also titled The History of Love, that too neatly tied together both halves of the book. And the narrators themselves read like the studied products of their literary forefathers: Singer and Roth, Borges and Ozick. It was as if Krauss couldn’t proceed “without the understanding,” as she writes in her Times essay, that her work “better scale some invisible mark, proving the worth and seriousness of the mind it came from.” So winsome did The History of Love prove to be that I have heard parts of it recited at two wedding ceremonies. (You can see why: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”)
Nor did Krauss altogether abandon her narrative strategy in her next, and far superior, novel, Great House (2010). Two of the four storylines in that book are told in the intimate first-person voices of elderly men: a retired Israeli judge addressing his estranged son and a widower in London mourning his enigmatic wife. And yet what made Great House memorable were the other two storylines, those narrated by two women, in particular one told by a withdrawn novelist looking back at her gradual detachment from lived experience. The tightly controlled tone of those chapters, free of excess or artifice, demonstrated their author’s prodigious talents. They include delicate sketches, such as of a young Chilean poet whose hair “smelled like a dirty river,” or of an amnesiac grandmother in a nursing home, “wearing all of her jewelry at once.”
Like its predecessor, however, Great House tended to rely too heavily on a single object—in this case a bulky old writing desk instead of an imaginary novel—to unite its various narrative strands. I was surprised to read in an interview that Krauss has no blueprint or structure in mind when she writes her books. “They’re complete improvisations,” she has said. Their inner logic reveals itself to her at the same time that it does to the reader, lending them a suspenseful, whodunit quality. Oddly, the effect in her earlier novels had been one not of loose improvisation but of authorial omniscience. The desk in Great House served as an artificial common denominator, a deus ex machina of sorts that threatened to undermine the truthfulness of the narrative for the sake of plot or, worse, that dreaded word “closure.”
How thrilling, then, to open Forest Dark, Krauss’s new novel, and find not only an insistence on its own formlessness but a general refusal to please. One of its two main characters (the bifurcated structure appears to be a Krauss favorite) is a Brooklyn-based author named Nicole who, like Krauss herself, has frequented Israel all her life. Israelis are readers, and Krauss, as well as her ex-husband Jonathan Safran Foer, is a literary celebrity there. The same is true of her narrator, whose books are said to be “undeniably Jewish” but who feels deeply ambivalent about being trotted out as a token Jewish ambassador. In one scene, Nicole recounts being stopped by an elderly woman at a supermarket in Tel Aviv:
Gripping my wrist between her meaty fingers, she’d backed me into the dairy section to tell me that reading my books was, for her, as good as spitting on Hitler’s grave (never mind that he doesn’t have one), and that she would read every page I wrote until she herself was in the ground. Pinned against the kosher yogurt display, I smiled politely and thanked her, and only after she held up my wrist in the air like a heavyweight champion’s and shouted out my name to the disinterested checkout girl did she finally leave off, though not before flashing the faded green numbers tattooed on her forearm like the badge of an undercover police.
The irreverence here is animating. It would be wholly out of place among the sentimental pages of The History of Love. On the next page, we encounter the overly eager director of the Holocaust remembrance museum Yad Vashem who whisks the narrator away to a back office and there, beaming, presents her with a notebook commemorating the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, much to her horror.
Nicole has two sons and a successful career, but has lately been overcome by lassitude. She arrives in Tel Aviv with the vague notion that her next novel should take place in the Hilton Hotel there, but finds it impossible to write. There’s another problem:
If my writing was a kind of sinking ship, the larger landscape—the sea in which I had begun to sense that every boat I tried to sail would eventually go under—was my failing marriage.
The shared love that the narrator and her husband used to feel had been completely transferred onto the kids, so that “it only shone a light on how alone each of us was, and, compared to our children, how unloved.”
We know better than to read a novel for signs of its author. Still, it is impossible to read such observations and not think of Krauss’s much-publicized divorce from Foer. She not only shares a name and important biographical facts with her narrator, but her real-life friends—journalist Matti Friedman and choreographer Ohad Naharin—also have cameos in the book. This mining of autobiography for what is ostensibly still a novel calls to mind recent works by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, Jenny Offill, and especially Rachel Cusk, who in a 2014 interview said that she had come to think of fiction as
fake and embarrassing…. For me, writing and living are the same thing, or they ought to be. It is only by paying great attention to ordinary living that I actually learn anything about writing.
And here is Krauss in Forest Dark:
I could no longer write a novel, just as I could no longer bring myself to make plans, because the trouble in my work and my life came down to the same thing: I had become distrustful of all the possible shapes that I might give things. Or I’d lost faith in my instinct to give things shape at all.
Nicole’s visit to Israel is depicted as a research trip as well as an attempt to reclaim her sense of self—her authority, for lack of a better word. It is also a paean to Tel Aviv, and includes some of the finest evocations of that city in recent fiction (in English or, indeed, Hebrew):
The shameless dilapidation of the buildings, sweetened by the bright fuchsia bougainvillea that grew over the rust and the cracks, asserting the importance of accidental beauty over that of keeping up appearances.
The way in which
the whole city seems to have agreed collectively to deny the existence of winter. To deny, in other words, an aspect of [its residents’] reality, because it conflicts with what they believe about who they are—a people of sun, of salt air and sultriness.
It is a paean to Israelis, too, like the “type of Israeli woman over sixty” with shorn “Kibbutznik hair” who “took a walk with the same two friends every morning for forty years”—“already I loved her,” the narrator adds—even as Krauss also shows a deft hand at parody. There’s the famous Israeli directness: “You don’t come off well in interviews,” an Israeli man tells the narrator unprompted. And an eagerness, however misplaced, to impress: after a soldier at a roadblock stops the narrator’s car, he flashes her a smile. “So,” he says, “You like Israel?” (American Jews are also gently skewered, such as at a conference in Manhattan in which the participants are forever “unspooling their questionless questions.”)
In Tel Aviv, Nicole meets a shadowy literature professor named Eliezer Friedman, who attempts to enlist her help in writing “the story of Kafka’s afterlife in Israel.” If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is: Friedman believes that Franz Kafka did not die in Kierling, Austria, in 1924, as the official story goes, but rather went on to lead a secret life in pre-Israel Palestine, where he worked as a gardener by the name of Anshel Peleg. In introducing this bit of narrative flourish, Krauss weaves together fiction with the real-life legal fight over Kafka’s archive, parts of which had, until recently, been kept in a Tel Aviv apartment by the daughter of a former secretary (and presumed lover) of Kafka’s friend Max Brod.
The story of the archive has all the makings of a thriller—an unrecognized genius, a last-minute escape from the Nazis, a reclusive and paranoid heiress—and Krauss, a Kafkaphile, is clearly having fun with it. There are long musings on Parables and Paradoxes, The Trial, and Diaries. But the Kafka insert ultimately feels like just that: an extraneous addition to the novel, theoretical rather than necessary, as well as, at times, intellectually inert: “It was never the potential reality of Israel that inspired his fantasies,” Friedman tells Nicole of Kafka, in what counts for an aha moment. “It was its unreality.”
Increasingly, Friedman infringes upon the novel and wrests the narrative away from Nicole. Forest Dark thus seems to correspond to W.G. Sebald’s 2001 masterpiece, Austerlitz, whose narrator—an obvious stand-in for the author—becomes a vehicle through which to tell the story of one charismatic character. (In Sebaldian fashion, Forest Dark also includes black-and-white snapshots of the places it depicts.) The result is a study in uncertainty. Whose story are we reading? On whose authority? And can it ever be “real”? “This lie that we tell ourselves when we write makes me more and more uneasy,” the narrator says at one point. (Cusk again: “The idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.”)
Much as these questions are at the heart of the novel and explain Friedman’s significance in it, one wishes that Krauss had stayed with her narrator a little longer. Because when she does, there are flashes of insight and heft. In one moving scene, Nicole describes her creeping sense that she exists “in two places at once.” That she is here but also, simultaneously, there:
I was myself, I felt utterly normal in my own skin, and yet at the same time I also had the sudden sense that I was no longer confined to my body, not to the hands, arms, and legs that I had been looking at all my life, and that these extremities, which were always moving or lying still in my field of vision, and which I had observed minute by minute for thirty-nine years, were not in fact my extremities after all, were not the furthest limit of myself, but that I existed beyond and separately from them. And not in an abstract sense, either. Not as a soul or frequency. But full-bodied, exactly as I was there on the threshold of the kitchen, but, somehow—elsewhere, upstairs—again.
This preoccupation with one’s physical boundaries (or nonboundaries) is truthful in a way that bookish asides can never be. It also feels crucial to female experience. It gets at the competing demands made of a woman—by children, spouse, work—that can cause her to perceive herself as fragmented, erased, or, in this case, doubled. It’s telling that the two places the narrator feels herself to be are the kitchen and “upstairs.” At home, in other words, where there is real life and, presumably, real chores to be gotten through.
A similar instance of phantasmagoria can be found in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, in which one of the main characters describes a repeated sensation of having “dissolving margins,” of “moving for a few fractions of a second into a person or a thing or a number or a syllable, violating its edges.” In Ferrante, the problem appears to be medical as well as mystical. In Cusk’s Outline, it is closely associated with trauma: a woman who had been attacked on the street and has since experienced a severe writer’s block “began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.” In Krauss, the image is less tragic but nevertheless haunting. It makes her think of Freud’s theory of the uncanny (in German, unheimlich—“not homelike”). Perhaps it’s no surprise that Krauss’s narrator would choose Israel, a country obsessed with defining its self-borders, as a place from which to examine her own.
Another figure staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton is Jules Epstein, a blustery New York attorney, recently divorced and retired. Epstein has begun to give away his Matisses and Patek Philippes, having come down with what his lawyer diagnoses as a case of “radical charity.” He travels to Israel to fund a memorial in his parents’ name but is waylaid by Menachem Klausner, a Kabbalistic rabbi who organizes religious retreats in northern Israel for Americans. Klausner is planning a “reunion” for the descendants of King David, and tries to convince Epstein that he is part of that lineage. “Epstein had the competing urges to pull a fifty out of his wallet in order to get rid of Klausner and to ask him more.”
The implied parallels between Epstein and the biblical David don’t end there. In a cringe-inducing Bathsheba moment, Epstein gawks while Klausner’s beautiful daughter draws a bath. David, in Krauss’s telling, was a “warrior” who “took what he wanted” and was used to getting his way until his authors “had him, at the end of his days, stumble into the discovery of what was most radical in himself. Into grace.” Epstein, one is left to conclude, should be viewed along the same arc of hubris and humility.
The problem is that, unlike Nicole, Epstein never quite comes to life. His section of the novel is told from a close third person until, inexplicably, it isn’t. At one point the perspective shifts to Epstein’s Fifth Avenue building’s doorman; at another, we hear a dialogue that supposedly takes place in Hebrew, although Epstein doesn’t speak the language. And toward the end of the novel, we suddenly get the unfiltered thoughts of a Tel Aviv real estate agent. Though well crafted—the agent “knew better than to trust the first flush of American enthusiasm”—these changes in point of view are baffling. When we learn of Epstein’s yearning for the “tribally tattooed” arms of the rabbi’s daughter, whose words are these? His? (Would a sixty-eight-year-old man differentiate between a tribal tattoo and any other kind?)
Just as Friedman takes over the story from Nicole, so Klausner threatens to co-opt the story from Epstein. The rabbi’s organization features chanting young people with satin white yarmulkes, “open to miracles.” It is called Gilgul. This being Krauss, Gilgul also happens to be the Hebrew title of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and you can see where this is going: though they never meet, Epstein’s story and Nicole’s overlap in more ways than one. Thankfully, the connections between the two narratives remain subtle enough to be open-ended. There are no easy solutions here. As in the well-known opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, from which the novel takes its name, “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
Krauss has described her previous novels as centering on “the burden of inheritance.” Knowing what we know of the past, these novels asked, how do we move forward? Though Forest Dark examines the notion of inheritance, too—more of a cultural one, through Kafka, Freud, and the story of King David—it is, at heart, a story about the present. Both Epstein and Nicole have to pick up the pieces of their broken marriages and figure out how to start over. They may be in Israel, but their journey of reinvention is a thoroughly American one.
In her New York Times essay, Krauss mentioned, not very obliquely,
the frustrations of female artists, for example, whose work is most consistently referred to as “lovely,” as if its beauty were its most worthy attribute, leaving its potentially more threatening aspects—its originality or strength—unrecognized or ignored.
In Forest Dark she has written a book that is not lovely; it is original and, for the most part, strong. By shrugging off her previous shortcuts to authority, she has expanded her own, as an author.