Forest Dark – N. Krauss
reviewed by Zachary Severt
Jules Epstein is a successful New York lawyer whose life, once full of argument and excess, has come to him to feel spiritually empty, a condition provoked by a book of psalms, given him by his youngest daughter, and lost on the day that we find him. Jules will lose a lot over the course of Nicole Krauss’s beguiling Forest Dark, and so will we: our introduction to him is prefaced by the knowledge that he will disappear just like the book of psalms, and his chapters, which are written at a mystified remove, as if we’re always one step behind the miracle of his unfolding, will walk a path to the vanishing point.
Figures like Jules aren’t new to Nicole Krauss’s fiction; he is only the most recent of her disappearing men, a type whose lineage can be traced back to her first novel, Man Walks Into A Room, in which an aging man is recovered from the American desert, his identity obliterated. Although Jules represents an advanced rendering, his character is too thin, too weak to carry a novel alone. He depends, though he’ll never know it, on another.
Nicole, a conspicuously named novelist who is the book’s second – and in some ways, first – protagonist, hears a story from her cousin Effie: “Did you hear that a man fell to his death there last week?” He’s referring to the Tel Aviv Hilton, a place of monolithic importance to Nicole, who was conceived there and has returned to it every year since her birth. Effie is an unreliable source – the man who had leaped to his death is only rumored to have done so – but the story finds Nicole in the midst of a blockage resembling deep depression. She’s stuck in her marriage, which is disintegrating, and in her writing, which isn’t getting written, and the image of the falling man jars something loose in her. Without realizing, she’s resolved to return to Tel Aviv, telling her two children it’s “to conduct research for my book.”
“Loss of self and search for self. These are among Krauss’s most persistent preoccupations; reworking them as a dichotomy, as two halves of a whole,
achieves startling effects.”
The mind trips on the word “conception,” which is freighted with meanings Nicole would not resist unpacking, and which have much to do with the novel’s progressions. Although first conceived biologically, by our parents, we do the work of self-conception again and again throughout our lives, and in Forest Dark, Krauss tells a tale of two Jewish Americans, both drawn to their cultural birthplace of Israel, in search of new selves at the source.
What Jules will find is hard to tell. In fact, in many ways he exists only to be withdrawn, and his energy transferred. In a scene witnessed by Jules, the Rabbi Klausner, who’s brought him to Israel to attend a retreat for Jewish Americans, blesses the Challah. “Klausner tore hunks from the braided loaves, stabbed them into a dish of salt, stuffed one into his mouth, and tossed the rest around the table. It was a form of crudeness Epstein had been known to praise: the crudeness of passion that refuses to dull itself with manners.” It’s this delight in the physically ecstatic that Jules is walking listlessly away from at the end of his known life, and that Nicole is just waking to.
Loss of self and search for self. These are among Krauss’s most persistent preoccupations; reworking them as a dichotomy, as two halves of a whole, achieves startling effects. The novel is a passage through existential illness that will deliver Jules to myth and Nicole to her self, and despite Jules’s somewhat unstable presence, his diminishment is contingent with the book’s thematic designs.
Whereas Jules is written with increasing distance, Nicole is granted the closeness of the authorial “I.” You’d be forgiven for not knowing which Nicole I’m referring to here: the character, or the author. The character shares her author’s name and autobiographical data, and her outcome is presumably preamble for the recent changes in Krauss’s own life (not least of all, her separation from the author Jonathan Safran Foer). This reading is clearly invited. Forest Dark depends on it. The power of literature to remake experience is the novel’s magic trick.
While staying in the Tel Aviv Hilton, Nicole is introduced to Eliezer Friedman, a retired literature professor known to her cousin Effie. Friedman has a preposterous proposition having something to do with Franz Kafka and the possibility of his Palestinian afterlife. The idea is ridiculous, and they’re hard pages to read with a straight face. But then something remarkable happens. Doubt dissolves, and so do barriers between life and literature, real and make believe.
“The door was cracked open,” Nicole writes, “and through it came the gentle, slow rocking of the sea. From time to time Kafka discretely lifted a foot and rubbed his slender, hairless ankle against the long curtains. His preoccupation filled the room, heavy and foreboding, and somewhere in my subconscious the suicidal fantasy Kafka had often rehearsed in his diary of jumping out the window and smashing himself on the pavement below must have twined together with the man who had leaped to his death from the hotel terrace.”
Krauss steals a glimpse behind the curtain, and recovers this scrap of the sublime. It’s a fictional metaphysics of awesome power in which old makes way for new, a baton is passed, and an author finds a fresh trajectory in freedom.
Harper, 2017 304 pp