Author(s): Nicole Krauss
From the bestselling, twice-Orange Prize-shortlisted, National Book Award-nominated author comes a tale of transformation; a richly layered masterpiece' (Financial Times)
A brilliant novel ' Philip Roth
Impossible to put down ' Independent
Dazzling ' Guardian
Jules Epstein has vanished from the world. He leaves no trace but a rundown flat patrolled by a solitary cockroach, and a monogrammed briefcase abandoned in the desert.
To Epstein 's mystified family, the disappearance of a man whose drive and avidity have been a force to be reckoned with for sixty-eight years marks the conclusion of a gradual fading. This transformation began in the wake of Epstein 's parents ' deaths, and continued with his divorce after more than thirty-five years of marriage, his retirement from a New York legal firm, and the rapid shedding of his possessions. With the last of his wealth and a nebulous plan, he departs for the Tel Aviv Hilton.
Meanwhile, a novelist leaves her husband and children behind in Brooklyn and checks into the same hotel, hoping to unlock her writer 's block. But when a man claiming to be a retired professor of literature recruits her for a project involving Kafka, she is drawn into a mystery that will take her on a metaphysical journey and change her in ways she could never have imagined.
Bursting with life and humour, this is a profound, mesmerising, achingly beautiful novel of metamorphosis and self-realisation.
Does anything that happens extinguish by the fact of happening all the things that could have happened in its place (extinguishing thereby also all the things that could have been going to happen as a result of any of those things)? Whether everything that can happen does happen (each possibility in its own universe) may be a matter of serious discussion among quantum physicists and multiversalists but it is self-evident to writers and readers of fiction and forms the basis of their shared practice. In Forest Dark, a novelist named Nicole, who evidently shares the memories, circumstances and history of the author (at least up until the moment the book is written), despairs both about her relationship with the father of her children and about her seeming inability to write another novel. “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 in 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.” She despairs of the novelistic conventions that bind both writer and reader, obscuring greater with lesser truths. “Chaos is the truth the narrative must always betray, for in the creation of its deliberate structures that reveal many truths about life, the portion of truth that has to do with incoherence and disorder must be obscured.” One day Nicole has the sensation that she is already in her house, that she is a double of herself, and leaves New York to stay in the brutalist Hilton hotel in Tel Aviv, a place she had stayed many times in her childhood, ostensibly to start writing her novel. She meets an enigmatic retired academic (or Mossad agent), who convinces her of the possibility that Franz Kafka did not die in Austria in 1924 but emigrated to Palestine and lived out his life quietly and pseudonymously as a gardener. Nicole recognises that this alternative history is fraught with implausibilities, but “between the two stories of Kafka’s life and death, the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the most beautiful shape — more complex but also more subtle, and so closer to the truth. In the light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” Soon she resigns herself to being driven by Friedman into the desert, with a suitcase seemingly containing the unpublished Kafka papers (that at the time of the novel were in the possession of Kafka’s friend and de facto literary executor Max Brod’s secretary’s daughters and the subject of a complex court case concerning ownership (of Kafka as much as of the papers)). The chapters of Nicole’s first person account are alternated with those concerning Jules Epstein, a prominent and wealthy New York lawyer, who, following the deaths of his parents, leaves his wife and his practice, sells off his art collection and travels to the Tel Aviv Hilton, ostensibly to fund a fitting memorial to his parents if he can find something worth funding (trying to overcompensate, perhaps, for the hatred he feels for his parents but cannot admit even to himself). Like Nicole, he has been accustomed to living in an active mode: “All his life he had turned what wasn’t into what was, hadn’t he? He had pressed what did not and could not exist into bright existence.” And, also like Nicole, his progress through the novel is characterised and enabled by his relinquishment of this active mode, relinquishment leading to the desert and dissolution. There are many resonances between the two strands of the novel, and the reader wonders whether perhaps the characters might meet (though it is likely that they inhabit parallel universes rather than a shared universe), or whether the third-person Epstein thread has been written by the Nicole character in the other thread (though it is likely that both the Nicole thread and the Epstein thread were written by the Nicole from whom the Nicole of the Nicole thread split at the time the novel was begun (well, obviously, we know this to be the case)). All this makes for a wonderfully supple and inventive (and often funny) exploration of the possibilities of fiction. Krauss is ambivalent about fiction in the same way that she feels the ambivalences of her Jewishness: tradition, expectation and understanding are forms of binding, losses of freedom, traps, but the struggle to be free of tradition, of expectation, of understanding, to break the binding, to invert the trap, to unmake and remake, are also inherent in being a writer and a Jew.
Forest Dark is wonderfully complex and thought-provoking, and I don’t say this lightly. Like her previous novel, Great House, which I read half of and put aside to come back to at least a year later (and so pleased that I did - it is still memorable several years on), her work rewards the persistent reader. Her writing is as frustrating as it is brilliant and this is what makes it so interesting. In Forest Dark the novel is told in two voices, one in the third person (Epstein) and the other in first person narrative (Nicole). Julian Epstein is a highly successful, ambitious and confident New Yorker who at 68 has what his family, friends and lawyer would call a crisis. He divorces his wife, starts giving away his wealth and his art, and leaves for Tel Aviv with the purpose of finding a fitting cause or project to memorialise his parents. Epstein is questioning his life, his motivations and is, for the first time in his life, uncertain. Interspersed with his chapters is the voice of Nicole, a 39-year-old writer who is struggling with her next novel. One night, suffering from insomnia, she packs a suitcase and in the morning, almost surprised to see her packed bag, she announces she is off to Israel to research her book. Feeling suffocated by her failing marriage, her adorable but increasingly independent children and her fame, she is running away, looking for answers but ultimately finding only questions. As the novel progresses I expected the lives of these two narrators to intertwine, but Krauss gives us nothing so obvious. There are links between the two, they are both American Jews, they both have a connection to the Hilton in Tel Aviv, and they are both on a quest to understand themselves and their place, or perhaps lack of importance, in the worlds they are familiar with. Set in Israel, a place that both have links to, as does the author herself, Epstein and Nicole are both at home, yet dislocated - their experience is one of history and family - a tenuous and sometimes fraught relationship. Both are free to wander, to be unburdened of their responsibilities, whether they are in the chaos of the city or the barrenness of the desert. Whether they achieve a sense of freedom is debatable, with both finding themselves drawn into schemes which each would, in a different mindset, run a mile from. Nicole’s story is a reflection on the place, and possibly the relevance, of the writer. Krauss is questioning the form and significance of the novel. Krauss is not alone in using the novel form as a vehicle for blending fiction and autobiography. Nicole is not Krauss, but they are closely related. Forest Dark is both serious and wry: Krauss is an intelligent writer who feeds us more questions than answers. Like her previous novels, this will be one to contemplate for a while.