Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, review by Bruce Jacobs
Nicole Krauss's fiction doesn't come easy. It is often steeped in philosophy with an undercurrent of Jewish history and thought. As she said in a 2011 interview in the Guardian: "I'm so grateful for my inner life; it's almost visceral.... I take real pleasure in thinking." A National Book Award finalist and shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Krauss (The History of Love; Great House) sets Forest Darklargely in Tel Aviv, where her two protagonists are unsettled and transformed from their previous lives in New York City. Jules Epstein is an effervescent scholar in his 60s who methodically jettisoned his art collection, Upper West Side trappings and significant wealth to move into a slummy Tel Aviv apartment. From there, he mysteriously disappears, leaving his three children to sort out the details. Sandwiched into the third-person story of Epstein, first-person chapters tell of an unnamed mid-40s woman whose marriage is broken and new novel is stuck in neutral. She holes up in Tel Aviv's hulking seaside Hilton hotel and tries to bring her book back to life. A local scholar tracks her down to involve her in a project, filming a Kafka play and mining a surprising cache of Kafka's unpublished papers.
Neither Epstein nor the novelist meet, but both are on quests to understand their places in the contrasting worlds of New York and Israel, and in their Jewish families and history. The decisive Epstein, always quick to engage in debate, has fallen under the spell of a rabbinical radical such that "the twenty-four hours he'd once filled with everything under the sun was replaced by a scale of thousands of years." He is alone, with grown children and dead parents, and sees that "it was becoming harder to ignore the slow drain of interest in the things that once captivated him, he had become aware of a sense of waiting." Similarly, the novelist walks the streets of Tel Aviv in search of some order to her thoughts and life. She knows that this is at the heart of fiction--that "Chaos is the one truth that narrative must always betray... the portion of truth that has to do with incoherence and disorder must be obscured." Having left her husband and two young sons in New York, she has only her sister living in Tel Aviv and her writing to bring some comfort. The Kafka proposal is flattering, but she tells the scholar: "I have a hard enough time with my own books. My life is already complicated. I'm not looking to contribute to Jewish history."
Less interested in the dramatic, Krauss focuses on how her two protagonists intellectually and emotionally handle their respective pilgrimages. Along the way, Forest Dark dips into Freud, Descartes, Kafka and the Torah. There is little that is didactic or discursive in her prose. If, as the Dante source of her title suggests, her protagonists have found themselves "in a forest dark,/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost," they acknowledge their fates and seek a rewarding alternative path. Krauss grapples with the questions more than the answers, and it is in this struggle that Forest Dark shines.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.