book review

Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark: What Is Kafka Doing in This Most Un-Kafkaesque Novel?

Nicole Krauss. Photo: Goni Riskin

Nicole Krauss’s new novel, Forest Dark, her fourth, is split into two narratives about New Yorkers who go to Israel in search of epiphanies. One is a wealthy 68-year-old Manhattan lawyer named Jules Epstein, recently retired and divorced and a father of three. The other is a 39-year-old Brooklyn novelist named Nicole, mother of two boys and spouse in a marriage that’s entered a terminal stage. Both characters pass through the Tel Aviv Hilton; both go to the desert; both are interested in trees; both regard the moments of their own conception, each in Israel, with a sense of wonder; both consider the conventional arcs of their lives to be at odds with their true natures; both yearn to return to a state resembling childhood. Beyond that, the narratives don’t have much to do with each other, though they do replicate the old man/younger woman parallel structure of The History of Love, Krauss’s second novel. Forest Dark also draws conspicuously on the works of Philip Roth — confession, writerly self-dramatization, metafictional communion with dead writers — but Krauss eschews Roth’s slapstick humor, self-lacerating irony, and libidinal impulses for a therapeutic model of redemption. It’s odd to see Roth marshaled to shore up a novel that reads like self-help.

The story of Jules Epstein is a fairy tale of a rich man’s conversion to “radical charity.” Having married rich and become a collector of Old Master paintings, he indulges in a charity that could also be called random: “He sent friends’ children through college, had refrigerators delivered, paid for a pair of new hips for the wife of the janitor of his law office.” There’s a cartoonish quality to his renunciations, which are a whimsical form of moral luxury. Because there’s no psychological rationale to it, his children and his lawyer can only see it as a “disease” or an “addiction.” Whatever the cause (the only obvious one is the author’s evident interest in irrational behavior, which she attributes to her reading of the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the source of the novel’s title), it also gives rise to a free-floating nostalgia. Epstein is “deeply moved” by the idea that he was conceived in the dark because his refugee parents couldn’t afford to replace a light bulb. He thinks of “time as a shaft of light moving across the floor” of his Upper East Side penthouse apartment with views of Central Park and the Met (“The apartment wasn’t large” — how could that be?) “and how at the end of its long tail was the light falling across the parquet at the house where he had been a child, in Long Beach. Or the sky over his head, which was the same sky he had walked under since he was a boy.” These ideas “filled him equally with joy and with yearning,” and they’re characteristic of the Deep Thoughts that fill Forest Dark.

Before Epstein leaves New York he attends a dinner for Mahmoud Abbas at the Plaza Hotel, and a member of the Palestinian delegation mistakenly leaves wearing his coat with his phone in his pocket. The lost or misplaced phone has become a trite plot strategy of late in American fiction, an all too easy way of engineering an existential crisis. An aspect of the episode more particular to Forest Dark is the way Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict repeatedly appear as distractions and inconveniences to the American protagonists. Epstein finds himself unable to show off pictures of his children and grandchildren and imagines his phone being used to place calls from Ramallah to Damascus. Later, when Epstein is in Israel and considers donating to the Israeli Philharmonic and learns that “the orchestra had not a single Palestinian musician,” he steers his attention elsewhere “knowing the earful he’d get from his daughters.” He decides to plant a forest of 400,000 trees on a desert mountainside outside Jerusalem in his parents’ honor and to fund a film about King David scripted by the daughter of a rabbi who’s told him he must be a descendant of David’s. To finance the film, he intends to sell off a Renaissance painting of the Madonna, but his doorman loses it on the way to Sotheby’s. Epstein also disappears, presumed dead, having left the set of the film in costume as David to climb a slope to look for the site of his forest.
The Epstein sections deliver some comic relief (not that they’re funny), a succession of dizzy epiphanies, and didactic digressions on art and Jewish tradition. But mostly they serve as a counterpoint to the Nicole sections.
Epstein abandons his family and disappears completely. Nicole doesn’t quite go all the way.

The Nicole sections of Forest Dark partake conspicuously of the autofiction that’s been in flower over the past decade, and invite comparisons to Knausgaard, Cusk, Heti, Lerner, etc. Of course, Roth also deployed alter egos and sometimes gave them his biographical details (Nathan Zuckerman’s success de scandale Carnovsky standing in for Portnoy’s Complaint in Zuckerman Bound) or his name (as in Operation Shylock). Krauss toggles between autofiction and Roth’s style of autobiographical metafiction, with a constant emphasis on preadolescent memories. Any book in these modes will be on some level narcissistic, but narcissism, though we tend to deploy the word pejoratively in everyday life, can be a fertile element in art. Sometimes the things writers see in the mirror are the things most urgently in need of description and can launch them toward crucial insights. Something different happens in Forest Dark. This is the first time I’ve come across a work of autofiction that’s at heart an elaborate project of self-flattery.

This is where Kafka enters the picture. Nicole goes to Tel Aviv to escape the depression that’s taken hold of her in Brooklyn as her marriage deteriorates. At age 39, she’s suffering from dissociative feelings, insomnia, can’t get any writing done, and is struck by the way she and her husband have come to love their children more than they love each other. She hears a radio show (probably Radiolab) about the multiverse and takes to the idea the way someone would to, say, astrology. The Tel Aviv Hilton was the place where her parents conceived her and the site of a childhood memory of finding a gold earring at the bottom of the pool — “a small tear in the fabric of reality” — so that’s where she goes. She says its brutalist architecture encodes “a message nearly as mysterious as the one we’ve yet to unlock at Stonehenge.” In Israel, Nicole is a celebrity, and she recalls being stopped by an old woman in a supermarket who compares reading her books to “spitting on Hitler’s grave” and another woman at a wedding who named a baby after one of her characters. Even Shimon Peres, a family friend, once “over an expensive dinner” told her he read her books and liked them. (She says she didn’t believe him — a typical note of false modesty.) These encounters culminate when she meets a man who claims to be an emeritus literature professor named Eliezer Friedman. He tells her a tall story: that Kafka didn’t die at age 40 in 1924 in Austria but faked his own death, moved to Palestine, lived out his life as a gardener on a kibbutz, secretly managed his falsely posthumous publications in a conspiracy with Max Brod, and died in the desert in 1956, leaving uncompleted manuscripts. It’s one of these, a play, that Friedman wants Nicole to complete for a film adaptation.

There are obvious antecedents in Roth’s work for this plot: Anne Frank imagined to have survived the Holocaust and moved to America in The Ghost Writer; the writer’s tortured relationship to fame in Zuckerman Unbound; the juxtaposition of alternate realities in The Counterlife. (And Roth has politely furnished a blurb to Krauss’s homage.) Krauss’s fantasy of Kafka’s emigration to Palestine is plausible enough given that it was a move Kafka himself contemplated in letters and diaries. His secret life as a gardener is rather inert as (fan)fiction, though it’s of a piece with Krauss’s cuddly portraits of aging men: “He was beloved among the children for the little dolls and balsa-wood airplanes he used to make for them, and for his mischievous sense of humor.” In Krauss’s telling, Kafka’s alternate afterlife is bogged down in logistics, so lines like this one are hard to swallow: “between the two stories of Kafka’s life and death, the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the more beautiful shape — more complex, but also more subtle, and so closer to truth. In light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” But the story of Kafka’s death and posthumous fame only now seems a cliché because after it happened it became a story everyone knew and a source of hope for every tortured writer toiling in obscurity.

Kafka fills this inspiring role for Krauss as well, since his ghostly task in the plot is to cure Nicole of her writer’s block. She reveres his portrait as one would a religious icon. Any great writer will be many things to many readers, and, in Nicole’s highly selective reading, Kafka’s essential quality is his “susceptibility to hope and vivid yearning.” Based on a passage from The Trial, in which a man sits until the end of his life in front of a door he’s never allowed to pass through, and a diary entry about Moses dying before he reaches Canaan, the reading is cogent if so narrow that it may be hard for many readers of Kafka to recognize. (I didn’t recognize it.) Toward the end of the Nicole sections, she is delivered to a house in the desert and left there with a dog and an old suitcase supposedly full of Kafka’s unfinished manuscripts: “it dawned on me that this was Kafka’s house that I’d been brought to. The house where he’d lived alone at the end of his life.” She contracts a fever, lays in Kafka’s bed, puts on Kafka’s coat, and thinks of the “emotional pain” she fears her divorce will inflict on her children; of a vacation to Greece with an old boyfriend; of giving birth to her first child; of Kafka gardening. She reads from his Parables and Paradoxes and comes across a passage in which he suggests that Adam and Eve “may never have really left Paradise … In this sense, we might be there without knowing it even now.” She decides to go back to her old life in Brooklyn: “I had children who needed me, and whom I needed, and the time when I might have been able to live confined to what was unquestionably within myself had passed when they were born.” Cosplaying Kafka turns out to be effective therapy. Ultimately, Kafka has been summoned from the grave to reassure Nicole that it’s time to go back to the banal business of being a mother. Other stifled parents might have booked a vacation at a spa or joined a book club.

Forest Dark suffers from the imbalance between the grandiosity of its conceits and the smallness of Nicole’s personal problems, at least in the way she discloses them. She worries most about sparing her sons from anything like sadness, but also remarks a couple of times that they seem coddled relative to earlier generations. She says their progressive private school teaches all its students that they’re artists and that her children can’t imagine becoming a doctor like her father, as if this were a universal problem among their generation and she couldn’t just send them to a different school. She remarks that if they had the experience of running through the forest escaping Nazis it might have result in more “personal growth” than their comfortable life in Brooklyn.

Although the narrative constantly circles back to it, we learn little about Nicole’s marriage. She’s interested in “impalpable” things, and he likes to watch documentaries, hoard facts in his head, and spout trivia at parties: “what the percentage of the bills printed in the U.S. were $100s, or that Scarlett Johansson was half Jewish.” She doesn’t mention their sex life, but she has other thoughts of sex that are of a piece with her feelings of having bound herself to a conventional life she wants to escape. While lying in Kafka’s bed she remembers exciting sex with the ex-boyfriend in Greece, being taken from behind, and by surprise, on a tourist visit to the mouth of a cave that’s said to be the gateway to the Underworld: “I don’t believe I have ever known real love that does not come with violence.” Later, in a hospital bed recovering from her trip to the desert, she has what she frames as a memory of the future:

With the orderly’s cool hand on my forehead, I recalled an afternoon the following winter when my lover arrived home and entered the bedroom carrying his bag. Get undressed, he said to me. It was a bright day, so cold outside that his fingers had frozen inside his gloves. I remember that from where I lay I could see the bare branches of the plane tree, with its spiked fruit still hanging on far past their season. I pulled my shirt over my head. Leave the curtains open, I said. For a moment he seemed to consider this. Then he proceeded to close them anyway, and removed four black ropes from her bag. They were very beautiful things, black and silken, but thick enough that a sharp knife would be needed to cut through them. The deftness with which he knotted my wrists to the bars of the headboard surprised me. What did you tell them it was for when you bought it? I asked. For tying someone up, he replied. And then do you know what they asked me? I shook my head. A woman or a child? he told me, running his freezing fingers across my breasts and down my ribs, and delicately turning my necklace until he could get at the clasp.

What did you say? I asked, shivering. Both, he whispered, and the gentleness with which he touched me, and understood this simple thing, filled me with peace and made me want to weep.

Being tied up in bed isn’t especially remarkable, and the erotic appeal of being told by her lover that she’s both a child and a woman makes sense since Nicole has spent the entire novel yearning to return to a purer, more childlike state. This does lead to one insight. While Nicole is lying in Kafka’s bed, she thinks of childhood as the time when she had access to “whatever originality I was born with … before I began to slowly learn to look at everything the way others looked, and to copy the things they said and did.” It’s an odd admission for an authorial alter ego to make in such an obsequiously derivative novel.

What’s startling about the sexy passage above is that Krauss can put the paragraph that immediately follows it to the page with a straight face:

By then, the brief winter war was over. A single missile had fallen through the Iron Dome and killed a man on the corner of Arkozorov and Ben Ezra. The barrier had been broken, a tear in the sky, but the reality of that world didn’t come pouring through. There was only another incommensurable onslaught of violence in Gaza, and then, at last, a fragile ceasefire. After I was released from the hospital, I spent another week in Tel Aviv…

Just “another incommensurable onslaught of violence” dropped into the narrative background to heighten the drama of the protagonist’s quest to work through her domestic anxieties. Why mention it at all? What is Kafka doing in this most un-Kafkaesque novel? Kafka himself had a lighter touch with geopolitical crises. On August 2, 1914, he wrote in his diary: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Went swimming in the afternoon.” An example of a more dignified way of dealing with a spiritual crisis is mentioned in passing in Forest Dark: A son of some friends of Epstein comes to Israel in a state of lassitude, then leaves to study philosophy and herbal medicine and backpacks across India. In the end he returns to Williamsburg to open a storefront business as a Kabbalist yoga instructor.

*A version of this article appears in the September 18, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

What Is Kafka Doing in Nicole Krauss’s New Novel?