Ah literary minefields. Don’t you just love them? Those topics guaranteed to have certain people froth, tweet extraordinary outpourings of rage and refuse to consider any other view but their own. Ah to be alive in such times when a book is published that walks boldly across not one but two such literary minefields. The first – ‘the relationship between an author and their work’. The second – quite simply, ‘Jewishness’. It’s impossible to talk about Nicole Krauss’ fourth novel, Forest Dark, without entering the fray on each of those topics. So gird yourselves.
What we have here are two stories unravelling in parallel – the first tells of Jules Epstein, an elderly man who has given away almost all he owns in the search for some late in the day truth, the second of a novelist in the midst of a failing marriage struggling with her latest book. Now, Nicole Krauss was herself a novelist in the midst of a failing marriage at some point in recent years, as it’s on the record now that her marriage to author Jonathan Safran Foer is no more. And just as Jonathan Safran Foer has himself said his most recent book, Here I Am, which amongst other things, concerns a writer dealing with a failing marriage isn’t about his own failing marriage – so one imagines that Krauss’ book on a failing marriage isn’t a book about her own failing marriage. And so to our first literary minefield – can a writer in the midst of a failing marriage who chooses to write a book involving a failing marriage be equipped to say whether or not the end product is or is not about their own failing marriage? Conversely, if one follows the Beckettian dictum that one cannot be known, how then can a book serve as a stand-in for a human being? One only has to peer briefly behind the door marked ‘Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath, marriage thereof’ to know that, to this day, ferocious tangled debates ensue as to whether works can be understood with or without biographical detail. It’s a game, isn’t it, of sorts, and Krauss’ nameless novelist narrator makes enough references to her husband’s faults to have the reader wondering what Foer would make of it. (It’s also worth adding that one of the narrators of her previous book, Great House, was a female novelist who was in a failing relationship so, you know, it’s a subject that interests her. Obviously.)
The actual failing marriage within Forest Dark is quite a small part of the book – its presence allows the narrator permission to leave her life in New York and fly to Tel Aviv because she is haunted by memories of the Tel Aviv Hilton, a place she has known seemingly all of her life. She wonders if there is something in the Tel Aviv Hilton itself that will provoke her next book, perhaps the mysterious death of someone who either tumbled or jumped from one of its upper floors (although journalist friends, internet searches and a cleaner at the Tel Aviv Hilton all repudiate the rumours). The next book (which we, of course, hold in our hands) remains frustratingly out of reach. The novelist remains in a highly strung state of exploration, theoretical ideas running away with themselves.
“What if life, which appears to take place down countless long hallways, in waiting rooms and foreign cities, on terraces, in hospitals and gardens, rented rooms and crowded trains, in truth occurs in only one place, a single location from which one dreams of those other places?”
This skein of the book – which begins with the author returning home to find herself, the idea of herself, already there – is a pretty hook that nags at the reader, the constant sense of reality, of book reality at least, ill at ease, unsure, questioning what is real within the confines of a fiction – reaching its apotheosis in an offer made to the novelist by a friend of a friend concerning Kafka. Like Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (which imagined Anne Frank surviving into adulthood), Forest Dark posits a Kafka who faked his own death and eked out his last decades as a gardener in Israel. Roth’s own attraction to the idea of Frank meets a dark mirror in Krauss’ novelist’s attraction to the image of Kafka, perhaps the only image of Kafka, conjured up by the very sound of his name.
And is it here – but also in the story of Jules Epstein, also in the presence of Israel (so here but also not here, constantly elsewhere) – that we arrive at our second minefield of sorts. Jewishness. Any seasoned reader, whether Jewish or not, is aware that there is a vast body of literature concerning itself with Jewish identity. Forest Dark is as much a book about what it is to be Jewish in the twenty-first century as it is a book about what it is to be a writer in the twenty-first century (or what it is to be a Jewish writer in the twenty-first century) and (the reviewer steps into the minefield) there are parts of the novel that feel somewhat academic in the parsing of Jewishness, somewhat too academic, as if a body of knowledge, acquired over a lifetime, is required to really get what is going on. And so we have Epstein and a rabbi debate the meaning of Menucha, we have Krauss’ nameless novelist dealing with the deforming pressure of “adding to the Jewish story”, we have Kabbalah –
“How does the Infinite – the Ein Sof, the being without end, as God is called – create something finite within what is already infinite? And furthermore, how can we explain the paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence in the world?”
until we get to Epstein attending a sort of informal lecture in which
“…everything in this world longs to return there. To repair itself to infinity. This process of repair, this most beautiful of processes which we call tikkun, is the operating system of this world. Tikkun olam, the transformation of the world, which cannot happen without tikkun ha’nefesh, our own internal transformation.”
Krauss’ novelist is on a journey, just as Jules Epstein is on a journey, and sometimes the journeys are comic and sometimes the journeys are serious (as serious as cancer, to paraphrase a popular 1990s pop song). You expect the journeys to converge and perhaps they do but their convergence is fleeting (if it even happens at all). The novelist is given a suitcase that may or may not contain work, possibly unseen work, by Kafka. (It’s worth adding that Krauss likes these literary anchors – in Forest Dark it’s a suitcase of possibly unread Kafka material, in Great House it was a desk once owned by Lorca.) Epstein donates $2m to create a forest, almost part funds a film about Goliath-slaying David (himself an ambiguous, dual figure), loses a treasured artwork. The Tel Aviv Hilton plays a part. The novelist recalls reading a book “filled with fascinating things” including the two Greek words for time – chronos, meaning chronological time, and kairos, which is “used to signify an indeterminate period in which something of great significance happens”. Forest Dark operates on kairos time.
What to make of the book as a whole? It’s full of grit, certainly, full of luminous writing, a cousin of Elif Batumen’s The Idiot in its love of language, a book gripping in its attempt to get to the heart of a pair of lives. It’s also difficult, though – and not difficult / challenging but rather difficult in the sense of a person who perhaps complains in every restaurant they ever visit. There is something in the personality of the book that makes you think, if this book was a person I really wouldn’t want to get stuck next to them on a flight. It’s a working through – whether that is a cathartic working through of a failed marriage or a more rigorous assault on what it is to be Jewish – and each working through requires a sympathy from the reader – and this sympathy is something that Krauss resists. Forest Dark feels like a book that still belongs to its author, which is a curious impression to be left with.
Any Cop?: It’s certainly a book that warrants reading, by an author who is doing extremely interesting things.