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Discussed in this essay: Forest Dark, a novel by Nicole Krauss. HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 304 pages.
IN HER INTERVIEW for the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” column, responding to a question about what she sought in a novel, Nicole Krauss answered, “I want, if possible, a little bit of infinity, which I don’t think is too much to ask.”
A desire for “a little bit of infinity” is what the two protagonists of Krauss’s newest novel, Forest Dark, have in common. The journeys of Jules Epstein and Nicole, narrated in alternating chapters, are parallel: they never meet, but their stories follow similar trajectories, each one dissatisfied with their current lives and seeking some kind of transcendence. Whereas Epstein seeks infinity and transcendence through giving away his worldly possessions, planting expansive forests, and ultimately disappearing into the desert, Nicole seeks it primarily via the possibility of being someone else through writing. For both, their quests take them to Israel, and specifically, to the Tel Aviv Hilton.
For those who see this book and think “major contemporary American Jewish novelist finally writes about Israel — aha!”, it may come as a disappointment that, when it comes to Zionism, this novel remains agnostic. In examining to what degree Israel — both the idea and the place — can spark inspiration for an American Jewish artist, it poses smart questions about cultural Zionism. For the protagonists of Forest Dark, Israel does not prove to be a path to transcendence, artistic or otherwise. Yet this is not a grandiose political statement; the novel makes no sweeping claims, instead preferring to treat these questions obliquely. And due to this, Forest Dark feels especially relevant: like its protagonists, it is restless. In its quest for its bit of infinity, it roams and rambles. It does not provide clear answers to most of the questions it raises. It challenges norms of all kinds. It embraces our post-postmodern condition.
Epstein is an aging New York Jew with an oversize personality. He collects fine art, hobnobs with Israeli and Palestinian diplomats (but not without a healthy dose of casual anti-Arab racism), and attends events with the likes of Alan Dershowitz. (He is a sort of more reputable literary cousin to Norman Oppenheimer, the protagonist/antihero of Joseph Cedar’s recent film, which is required, albeit controversial, viewing for those interested in contemporary American Jewish culture.) When the novel opens, Epstein is at a crossroads: he has been giving away ever more of his possessions; he has lost both his parents, and can’t seem to find the right way to honor them; he is no longer that interested in the social functions he used to frequent.
Nicole (whose last name is not given) is, naturally, a Jewish American novelist. We are introduced to her as she, too, arrives at a crossroads in her life: her marriage is falling apart, and she is suffering from writer’s block, but is inexplicably drawn to the Tel Aviv Hilton as a potential subject for her next novel, so she heads to Israel seeking inspiration and clarity. Along the way, we are treated to her musings on several subjects that interest her, from Kabbalah to quantum physics to writing. These seeming digressions (which are thought-provoking and gracefully written, if sometimes esoteric) are, in fact, crucial to the novel’s theme: the redemptive possibility of discovering or inhabiting alternate selves and alternate universes.
This concept of alternate selves is fleshed out perhaps most interestingly by way of Nicole’s encounter with a retired literature professor, Eliezer Friedman, who tells her a well-kept secret of literary history: Franz Kafka did not die of tuberculosis in an Austrian sanatorium in 1924, as is popularly assumed, but in fact moved to Palestine, where he lived out the rest of his days under a pseudonym, at peace in the desert, gardening. Friedman first entrusts Nicole with the project of writing the ending to an unfinished Kafka play, and then — though he never says so explicitly — rewriting the story of Kafka’s life so that it reflects the “true” history as opposed to the narrative that Max Brod (Kafka’s friend and executor of his estate) had crafted through his careful curation of the great writer’s documents.
For someone seeking to escape from herself and her reality, this is the ideal project. Kafka, in this counterfactual story, achieved just that by penetrating the borders of himself and his known world. Moreover, by molding the story of this transcendence into literature and thereby changing Kafka’s literary legacy, Nicole herself is able to achieve her own transcendence as a writer. She has been given the power “to shape, through fiction, the story of Kafka’s afterlife in Israel, as Brod had shaped the canonical story of his life and death in Europe” (198). Thus Nicole, by taking on the Brod role, obtains a new level of writerly authority. (The real Krauss is no stranger to this subject; just a few weeks after Forest Dark’s publication, she wrote in the New York Times opinion section about the difference between being an “author” and a “writer,” the former allowing an authority often denied to women writers.)
In doing so, Nicole, the character, also steps into the shoes of another (male) Jewish writer whose work and image have left an indelible mark on Jewish literary history: none other than Philip Roth. Roth is all over this novel: literally, the front cover bears that formidable writer’s name, in the form of a blurb in which he declares Forest Dark “A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration.” Though the blurb is no doubt an advertising ploy by the publisher, and though the old maxim warns against judging a book by its cover, in this case the Roth quote is not merely incidental.
ROTH’S INFLUENCE on this novel is clear. The character of Nicole is reminiscent of Roth’s perennial protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman: a Jewish writer doppelganger who likewise experiences the highs and lows of being a recognizable, successful Jewish writer, who thinks about the implications of that identity, and who confronts writer’s block. Nicole is to Krauss as Nathan Zuckerman (and, occasionally, “Philip Roth”) is to Roth.
The counterfactual reimagining of Kafka’s life evokes Roth’s hybrid essay-story, “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting; Or, Looking at Kafka,” as well as Roth’s overall fixation with Kafka: Kafka is referenced numerous times in his novels, and Roth was involved with the publication of the Other Europe series, of which editions of Kafka were the centerpiece, and for which Krauss expressed her admiration in the “By the Book” column. In The Prague Orgy, Roth’s Zuckerman attempts to rescue the work of an imaginary Yiddish writer, Sisovsky, just as Nicole attempts to salvage fragments of Kafka.
And Roth’s influence lingers, too, over Krauss’s subtle interrogation of the generative possibilities (or lack thereof) that Zionism holds for diaspora Jewish writers. It is a theme which Roth’s work has also explored, as his protagonists in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock travel to Israel in hopes of using it to shape their fiction. (Indeed, in still another recent New York Times article, Krauss specifically stated her admiration for The Counterlife and Operation Shylock.)
Krauss even takes a page from Roth’s book in the form of a seemingly insignificant gesture, which highlights just how much her work is influenced by the latter’s expert blurring of the writer-narrator boundary. After the end of the novel, on non-numbered pages that seem to exist outside the world of Forest Dark, she slips back into the character of Nicole and addresses Friedman in her acknowledgments: “I hereby excuse all those named in this book, including Eliezer Friedman, from all liability. Should he ever wish to contact me, he knows where to find me.”
Roth did much the same thing in the faux-autobiographical Operation Shylock, whose subtitle is A Confession. At the end of an apparently nonfictional, legalistic disclaimer (“This book is a work of fiction…. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental”), Roth declares, “This confession is false.” Does “This confession” refer to the novel itself, thus confirming the novel’s status as a work of fiction? Or does it refer to the disclaimer paragraph alone, meaning that his pronouncement of the novel’s fictitiousness is false, and that the fiction is in fact nonfiction? This ambiguity is a brilliantly simple representation of Roth’s indefatigable thematic interest in the relationship between fiction and reality and between writer and narrator, in this case couched in something utterly mundane. Krauss does much the same in her acknowledgments; just as the reader is about to close the book, she brings fiction into reality, raising the question one last time of the degree to which reality is present in the fiction.
That is not to say, that Krauss’s novel is not original, dexterous, and brilliant in its own right. Roth of all people understood that positioning one’s work in a (Jewish) literary lineage can have a certain empowering and generative creative potential. His Zuckerman and Roth(s) see themselves as the literary descendants of older Jewish writers, American writers writing in English and Old World writers writing in Yiddish, with whom Roth peppers Zuckerman’s world: Lonoff, Sisovsky, Abravanel. Additionally, he understood that embracing that lineage and critiquing it are not mutually exclusive; his protagonists often rail against the legacies of these older Jewish writers just as much as they admire them.
Forest Dark similarly embraces this complexity. For Krauss’s Nicole, whose fiction Kafka has inspired, the task of living in — and, ultimately, shaping — Kafka’s shadow proves daunting. For the real Nicole Krauss, engaging with Roth’s legacy has produced art that is entirely worthy of it: this novel. To be imitative is not necessarily to be derivative.
Krauss, too, does not fall into the common trap of merely making metafictional gestures. Like the best of Roth, Forest Dark is an incisive commentary on the public role of the writer and the making of fiction. It is also a meditation on memory, an exploration of metaphysical conundrums and their intersections with religion — a testament (no pun intended) to Jewish religious texts as literary texts, an examination of the difference between American and Israeli modes of Jewishness, a subtly feminist critique of the politics of literary canonization, and a quiet elegy for a marriage.
At one point, Krauss, from Nicole’s perspective, writes: “It is never really a novel that one dreams of writing, but something far more encompassing for which one uses the word novel to mask delusions of grandeur or a hope that lacks clarity” (167). If Krauss’s hope lacks clarity, the ambition and artfulness of her expression more than make up for it.