Most of the time, we tend to think of fiction as a mirror held up, facing reality. Never mind if this is a clear mirror, a cloudy or an openly distorted one – our gaze rarely changes direction. Some books, however, attempt to cross through the looking-glass: they direct our gaze away from what is reflected in the surface and towards the very act of holding up a mirror. Some books take a step back, they peel off the glass surface, carving out the awareness of an opening, a small tear in the fabric of reality. They seem to suggest that our very attempt at seeing is a mirror held up to a mirror held up to a mirror – fictions embedded in fictions, stories within histories within stories. I think your novel Forest Dark (2017) is an attempt at doing just that: Lech-Lecha.
The novel follows two narrative threads in alternating chapters: in third person narration, we meet Jules Epstein, a 68-year-old New York attorney; in first person narration, we have Nicole, a 39-year-old Brooklyn novelist. Both are rich, successful Jewish-Americans. When we meet them, they are lost, searching for something they cannot even put into words.
The book opens with Epstein’s mysterious disappearance in Tel Aviv, and we follow the story of how he came to this point of vanishing. Soon after his parents die in close succession, Epstein dissolves his marriage of 36 years, leaves his partnership in a law firm, and starts to read books on mysticism and to give away much of his property. Drawn to his country of birth, Epstein leaves for Tel Aviv, where he stays for a while at the Hilton Hotel. After a strange dream, he donates $2 million to plant a forest in the desert, and drifts down the beach to Jaffa.
Then we jump to Nicole’s part. A successful novelist and mother of two children, she is now suffering from writer’s block, insomnia and, possibly, some kind of dissociative disorder. When we meet her, her marriage is in crisis, and she is stuck. Obsessed with the Hilton Hotel, where she was conceived and spent most of her childhood holidays, Nicole travels to Tel Aviv, in search not only of a possible storyline, but of herself. Once in Israel, she is sought out by Eliezer Friedman, a retired literature professor who may or may not be a Mossad agent. Friedman tempts Nicole with the most extraordinary story: Kafka faked his own death in 1924, emigrated to Palestine, and lived as a gardener under the name Anshel Peleg, until his death in 1956. Lured by the professor, Nicole is led to the desert, where she is left with a dog and an old suitcase supposedly full of Kafka’s unfinished manuscripts.
Nicole’s and Epstein’s are two parallel stories that run along the same physical and metaphysical path. You build meaning by making them hold silent conversations with each other. Both characters are pursuing parallel questions, and are teetering on the edge of some kind of metamorphosis: Epstein, a man who had been devoted to the material realm, makes a slow but steady move toward the spiritual realm, and starts to question the certainties on which he had built his life; likewise, Nicole starts to feel that the forms her life had assumed – as mother, wife and writer – were too constraining and no longer fitted her. Her struggle to find a new form for her writing mirrors her need to find new forms for her life, and finds in Epstein’s journey its fictional echo: while in Epstein we have the story of how he disappears, in Nicole we have the story of how she finds herself. Both characters are heading toward some kind of emotional purge, some kind of break into formlessness. We meet them at the precise moment when they are still permeable, at the stage of formlessness just before they undergo change. They are yet to assume another form, it seems.
Both Nicole and Epstein drop everything and head on to the Tel Aviv Hilton, in an attempt to reconnect with their pasts. In Tel Aviv, both of them meet characters who act as ‘spiritual seducers’ and lure them into a metaphysical journey: Rabbi Klausner tries to convince Epstein that he’s a descendant of King David; Eliezer Friedman tries to convince Nicole that she is the right person to finish an obscure work by Kafka. Guided through their personal dark forests by Klausner and Friedman, both Nicole and Jules will be drawn into the desert, where they will undergo some kind of metamorphosis, in bizarre circumstances: Epstein will play the part of the biblical King David, for a film; Nicole will be left alone and feverish in a cottage that may or may not have belonged to Kafka.
In your Forest Dark, we have the story of two characters who never quite meet, but share a taxi: going back to Tel Aviv, Nicole takes the same taxi driver who, listening to Mizrahi music on the radio, had left Epstein in the desert. But we also have the story of a narrator and her fictional character; the story of a writer who finds her novel in the desert – the character Nicole, who, trying to write her novel, alternates chapters with her fictional character, Epstein. They meet in their personal deserts, and they never really meet. We are thrown at the heart of paradox. We have the story of Epstein, who may or may not be a character of Nicole; the story of Nicole, who may or may not be a character in a Kafkaesque story, but who certainly is a character of Nicole Krauss.
And, finally, we have the tracks left behind by an author who is expanding her sense of reality: the story of Nicole Krauss writing about herself, but not quite, and with a grain of salt: as a character who is also writing about herself through another character. Here I must confess that, differently from most reviewers, who seem to be too eager to enumerate your forefathers (W. G. Sebald and Philip Roth being the most commonly mentioned), I am not interested in your literary influences. I prefer instead to explore your obsessions: the essayistic insertions and photographs interspersed throughout the book; the Tel Aviv Hilton; the ideas of home and belonging; the desert as a place of revelation and transformation (in your first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room”, we also have a man who disappears into the desert); the idea of the self as fiction, and the idea of fiction as reflection of the author’s perspective and memory.
And, of course, your obsession with Kafka, with whom you have been in conversation throughout much of your work. Forest Dark is full of Kafka: the title, taken from Longfellow’s translation of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno (“Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark,/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost”) reminded me of what the poet W. H. Auden once said of Kafka (“the Dante of the twentieth century”). Moreover, the first title you had in mind for the book (Gilgul, which now names one of its chapters) is not only a kabbalistic concept which means reincarnation and transformation, the idea of a cycle or a wheel (the transmigration of the soul, which goes round and round), but also refers to Kafka’s translation of The Metamorphosis into Hebrew and Yiddish as Der Gilgul.
If we look closely into your Forest, we find many allusions to Kafka’s books: on the very first page, a cockroach that “strutted majestically across the stone floor”, in a dilapidated apartment in Tel Aviv, might have been the last being to see Epstein (or maybe it was the character himself, transubstantiated?); as Epstein disposes of his possessions and of his former personality and finally disappears, he reminded me of the hunger artist – the only one who escaped while the audience remained, unconsciously, in a kind of prison; the metamorphosis the main characters go through in the book (“Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)”, as Susan Sontag wrote in 1965 in her diaries, collected in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980; “the question of going somewhere, of going over, of the impossibility of arrival”, in Judith Butler’s words.
Nicole sections, in particular, not only explore Kafka’s biography and the struggle over who owns Kafka and over the possession of his papers, but also deliver a literary interpretation of his work. Furthermore, Nicole’s story is shaped in a Kafkaesque fashion, and enacts many of Kafka’s own obsessions: the story of a character trapped by higher, unseen and contradictory forces, a character who are coerced to take part in a system she does not fully understand. Is Nicole trapped by her role, her life, her marriage, her books? Is she trapped by the Mossad, by the Israeli State, by Kafka, by the author Nicole Krauss? Is she trapped within her own mind? Perhaps the suitcase she has forgotten in the desert is not Kafka’s, but Epstein’s briefcase. Maybe she invented the suitcase and Epstein himself. Maybe she dreamed it all. How about that?
The (very Kafkaesque) theme of the doppelgänger is also at the core of your novel. Epstein and Nicole are tormented by the lives they might have lived and the persons they might have been. Epstein is never found, but his family speaks of his transubstantiation rather than death (perhaps he turned into an insect?). For Nicole, in particular, there is a sense that these parallel lives are really happening somewhere: she feels she is in two different places at once (her home and the desert, maybe?); she has a double somewhere (the character Nicole and the author Nicole, maybe?); and she is thrown into the life of Kafka’s double, the counterfactual account of his life, in which he, much like Epstein and Nicole, took his only chance of freedom and transformation and escaped to Palestine (a step the real Kafka contemplated in his letters and diaries).
If we are to defer to Thomas Mann’s reading of Kafka’s works as allegories of a metaphysical quest for God, we can perhaps see Epstein in a new light. As his personality begins to mirror that of King David, Epstein walks into the desert dressed in costume as David himself, and is later caught in the middle of a storm, like in the Psalm 69, which he was reading shortly before disappearing (“Rescue me, God, for the waters have come up to my neck. And there is no place to stand I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me”). Epstein disposes of his personality and his certainties; he divests himself of everything that had constituted his existence; he starts to question himself, to create space for such questions (“a space that seeks to be filled again with its portion of infinity”). Finally, he goes “out of himself so that he might make space for what God intended him to be.” Faith tempts him, and he stumbles into grace and into himself, vanishing, as if in a dance step, to repair himself to infinity. Nicole’s scattered references to the vanishing nature of dance (as opposed to the so-called permanent nature of writing) may be her personal way of stumbling into grace, while Epstein, differently, achieves that state precisely through the word, the reading of Psalms.
The topics of allegorical quest, metamorphosis and the double are here intertwined: like Nicole’s and Epstein’s stories, they illuminate each other silently. Being a writer is in itself an experience of creating doppelgängers and dwelling in contradictions and parallel stories. Nicole is as much a facet of you as Epstein: at this point, it is no novelty for us that writing always has an element of autofiction.
However, by creating a character who shares your name, who is also a writer, lives in Brooklyn and has two children, you trick us into feeling we know more than we in fact do; then, by later submitting this character to the most absurd situations, you break those expectations, thereby inviting us to question our certainties (much like Epstein did) and to stretch our sense of what is real. What is reality? Can a contradictory, fictional or even surreal situation still be true? Is the invention of Nicole’s character as subjective and fictional as the creation of Nicole Krauss’ real self? Are both a kind of narrative, a construct? If so, is reality malleable, unbendable or something in between? Your Nicole is not necessarily Nicole Krauss, as much as our image of Kafka, given to us by Max Brod, is not necessarily the real Kafka. The fleeing gardener in Palestine, as a step much desired but never taken, also claims his share of reality. “What more would you know about me than you know about Hell?”, asked Kafka in a letter to Oskar Pollak. “We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods.”
You seem to be exploring here not only how it is possible to be two things (the author Nicole Krauss and her character Nicole) or to be in two places at once (lost in the desert and crossing a forest dark), but also the point where one manages to break free from his own narrative, from the construct of the self; the vanishing point when one stumbles into formlessness, into the void, and ultimately into grace. If one lives all the time with many versions of oneself, and if all those versions have elements of truth ad fiction, intertwined – is one always walking the path in between? At the same time fallen from grace and continuously in paradise?
The fundamentally contradictory nature of writing – this walking of the in-between space – is another of your obsessions. Nicole’s questions about form and formlessness reflect her questions about her life. She is profoundly suspect of narratives which do not accommodate paradox and chaos (the equivalent, for her, of breaking an animal’s spirit, or to reading to her children, initiating them into convention), as she is doubtful about the constructs (wife, mother, writer) she has chosen for her life. Even writing, which had begun as an act of freedom, had turned into another form of binding for her. “Chaos is the one truth that narrative must always betray”. Nicole’s quest – to employ the mechanisms of narrative “in a form that could contain the formless” – much like Kafka’s own impossibility of arrival, is, ultimately, an incomplete quest, seeped into contradiction.
The only way out for Nicole is in: as in Frost’s poem, she is lost enough to find herself; and she will dare a leap of faith, a feverish epiphany, or an exercise in imagination. She will resist the very act of shaping a story, and will come out with an hybrid: essay, memoir, fiction, literary criticism. Perhaps if she had dared one step further and plunged herself into poetry – ultimately, breaking language and form – she would have been even closer to the formlessness she desired (as Epstein in the end, stumbling into grace).
Yours is a novel about escape – from one life into another, from one person into another, from form and convention, from one narrative into another, from Epstein to Nicole and back. That’s another of you long-held obsessions: that literature can afford us to invent ourselves, and to step into the heart of another. Here we meet the author escaping into a version of herself, so as to go to a place she couldn’t have gone otherwise. You enact Freud’s Unheimlich in the page: the uncanny experience of seeing something familiar in a different light. By doing so, you also manage to put the reader into your character’s shoes: how does it feel to be this writer, going through this situation under this kind of public scrutiny, writing this most absurd story, divesting her writing of the want to please and, in fact, of anything lovely or whimsical, and doing so for the first time through a female voice in first person narrative?
As your character Nicole, we – as readers of your novel – are also asked to break something, and to leave the thing exposed, vulnerable and open; we are asked to carve out a space for wonder, to create a void, to stay with the chaos and the trouble, and, finally, to dare a leap of faith. Lech-Lecha.
A small tear in the fabric of reality. Or is it called empathy?
[if this book were a playlist]
“I’d stood in the kitchen, convinced that I was also somewhere else close by. As if my mind had been not just touched by clarity, but poised at its very pinnacle, and all my thoughts and perceptions had arrived etched in glass. And yet it wasn’t the usual sort of clarity that results from understanding. It was as if foreground and background had shifted, and what I had been able to see was all that the mind normally blocks out: the endless expanse of not-understanding that surrounds the tiny island of what we can grasp.”
― Nicole Krauss,
Erkki-Sven Tüür – Lighthouse for string orchestra (1997). Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra / Juha Kangas Finlandia Records
“Epstein, new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry—took an apartment where he would never have lived in a thousand years, had he been living a thousand years, which, new again most of all to himself, he might have been.”
― Nicole Krauss,
I could have been your pillar, could have been your door
I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more.
Could have been your statue, could have been your friend,
A whole long lifetime could have been the end.
I could be yours so true
I would be, I should be through and through
I could have been
One of these things first
I could have been
One of these things first.
– Nick Drake, One of These Things First. In: Bryter Later, 1971
“Narrative cannot sustain formlessness any more than light can sustain darkness – it is the antithesis of formlessness, and so it can never truly communicate it. Chaos is the one truth that narrative must always betray, for in the creation of its delicate structures that reveal many truths about life, the portion of truth that has to do with incoherence and disorder must be obscured. More and more, it had felt to me that in the things I wrote, the degree of artifice was greater than the degree of truth, that the cost of administering form to what was essentially formless was akin to the cost of breaking the spirit of an animal that is otherwise too dangerous to live with.”
― Nicole Krauss,
A leopard went around his cage
from one side back to the other side;
he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat;
A boy who had been there three hours
began to wonder, ‘Is life anything like that?’”
“Just as religion evolved as a way to contemplate and live before the unknowable, so now we have converted to the opposite practice, to which we are no less devoted: the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect. Since Descartes, knowledge has been empowered to a nearly unimaginable degree. But in the end it didn’t lead to the mastery and possession of nature he imagined, only to the illusion of its mastery and possession. In the end, we have made ourselves ill with knowledge. I frankly hate Descartes, and have never understood why his axiom should be trusted as an unshakable foundation for anything. The more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where we once lived in wonder, and understood it to be a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of being and the world”
“Real. The word catches in the throat and won’t go down. It never occurred to me then that the earring might be fake in the way my mother had suspected it was. And yet only I knew just how unreal it really was, how against the odds was my brother’s discovery of it. How it had materialized in answer to a need. No young child naturally believes that reality is firm. To her its springs are loose; it is open to her special pleading. But slowly she is taught to believe otherwise, and by then I was seven, old enough to have mostly come around to accepting that reality was fixed and utterly indifferent to my longings. Now, at the last minute, a foot was put in the way of a door closing.”
― Nicole Krauss,
“I was only certain that a period had existed in which I looked at the things of the world without needing to subordinate them to order. I simply saw, with whatever originality I was born with, the whole of things, without needing to give them a human translation. I would never again be able to see like that, I knew that, and yet, lying there, it seemed to me that I’d failed to fulfill the promise of that vision I once had, before I began to slowly learn to look at everything the way others looked, and to copy the things they said and did, and to shape my life after theirs, as if no other range of being had occurred to me.”
― Nicole Krauss,
“If the sacheting of gentlemen
Gives you grievance now and then
What’s needed are some memories of planing lakes
Those planing lakes will surely calm you downNothing frightens me more
Than religion at my door
I never answer panic knocking, falling
Down the stairs upon the law
There’s a law for everything
And for Elephants that sing to keep
The cows that agriculture won’t allow
Hanky Panky nohow
Hanky Panky nohow oh”
“Narrative may be unable to sustain formlessness, but life also has little chance—is that what I wrote? What I should have written is “human life.” Because nature creates form but it also destroys it, and it’s the balance between the two that suffuses nature with such peace. But if the strength of the human mind is its ability to create form out of the formless, and map meaning onto the world through the structures of language, its weakness lies in its reluctance or refusal to demolish it. We are attached to form and fear the formless: are taught to fear it from our earliest beginning.”
― Nicole Krauss,
“Sometimes, reading to my children at night, the perverse thought would come to me that in rehashing for them the same fairy tales, Bible stories, and myths that people have been telling for hundreds or thousands of years, I was not giving them a gift but rather taking something from them—robbing them of the infinite possibilities of how sense should be made of the world by so early, and so deeply, inscribing their minds with the ancient channels of event and consequence. Night after night, I was instructing them in convention. However beautiful and moving it could be, it was always that. Here are the various forms life can take, I was telling them. And yet I still remembered the time when my older son’s mind did not produce known forms or follow familiar patterns, when his urgent, strange questions about the world revealed it anew to us. We saw his perspective as a form of brilliance and yet went on educating him in the conventional forms, even while they chafed us. Out of love. So that he would find his way in the world he has no choice but to live in. And bit by bit his thoughts surprised us less, and his questions came mostly to concern themselves with the meaning of the words in the books he now read to himself. On those nights, reading aloud to my children the story of Noah again, or Jonah, or Odysseus, it seemed to me that those beautiful tales that stilled them and made their eyes shine were also a form of binding.”
― Nicole Krauss,
– Bartok String Quartet No. 1, performed by Puck Quartet (2016)
“Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown come from understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered? In our view of the stars, we find a measure of our own incompleteness, our still-yet unfinishedness, which is to say, our potential for change, even transformation. That our species is distinguished from others by our hunger and capacity for change has everything to do with our ability to recognize the limits of our understanding, and to contemplate the unfathomable.”
― Nicole Krauss,
A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade.
They fell on the ground.
A voice arrived, the voice of God,
The face of God, covered in a cloud.
– Sufjan Stevens, “The Transfiguration”, in the album Seven Swans (2004)
“It isn’t that. It’s just that I happen to be—” But he stopped himself from telling her that for many nights now he had been reading the Psalms. That something in him, strong and flawed, might go all the way back to an ancient story.”
― Nicole Krauss,
Steve Reich/Alarm Will Sound, “Tehillim (1981) & The Desert Music” (1984)
“Was there a more complicated hero in the Bible than David? David who manipulated the love of Saul, of Jonathan, of Michal, of Bathsheba, of everyone who ever came close to him. A warrior, a murderer, hungry for power, willing to do whatever it took to become king. Betrayal was nothing to him. Killing was nothing. Nothing was left to stand in the way of his desires. He took what he wanted. And then, to let him rest from what he had been, the authors of David ascribed to him the most plaintive poetry ever written. Had him, at the end of his days, stumble into the discovery of what was most radical in himself. Into grace.”
― Nicole Krauss,
“Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah”
– Song composed by Leonard Cohen, originally released on his album Various Positions (1984). Here, performed by Jeff Buckley, recorded for his only complete album, Grace (1994) and posthumously released as a single in 2007.
“But Lech lecha was never really about moving from the land of his birth over the river to the unknown land of Canaan. To read it like that is to miss the point, I think, since what God was demanding was so much harder, was very nearly impossible: for Abram to go out of himself so that he might make space for what God intended him to be.”
― Nicole Krauss,
“God created Eve out of Adam’s rib. Why? Because first an empty space needed to be made in Adam to make room for the experience of another. Did you know that the meaning of Chava—Eve, in Hebrew—is ‘experience’?”
― Nicole Krauss,
“To write is, in a sense, to seek to understand, and so it is always something that happens after the fact, is always a process of sifting through the past, and the results of this, if one is lucky, are permanent marks on a page. But to dance is to make oneself available (for pleasure, for an explosion, for stillness); it only ever takes place in the present—the moment after it happens, dance has already vanished. Dance constantly disappears, Ohad often says. The abstract connections it provokes in its audience, of emotion with form, and the excitement from one’s world of feelings and imagination—all of this derives from its vanishing.”
― Nicole Krauss,
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
– Queen & David Bowie, “Under Pressure”, Single (1981)
About the book
- Harper, 2017, 304 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4,5 stars