In new Nicole Krauss novel, Tel Aviv is the backdrop for two US Jews’ reboot

Celebrated author mines her own lifelong relationship with Israel in ‘Forest Dark,’ a meditation on love, Franz Kafka and the ‘what ifs’ of life

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Author Nicole Krauss (Goni Riskin)
Author Nicole Krauss (Goni Riskin)

‘Tis the season for the “Best Books of 2017” lists, and many of them include celebrated Jewish-American author Nicole Krauss’s new novel, “Forest Dark” — and for good reason.

Coming seven years after her last book, “Forest Dark” (whose title is taken from a line in Dante’s Inferno) is dazzling and disorienting, dancing on what many would consider the edge of the fiction genre.

The book, her fourth, is comprised of two alternating narrative threads, each with its own main character questioning the givens in their life and fleeing ostensible stability in New York to go to Israel in search of transformation. Both protagonists initially check into the Tel Aviv Hilton and then move on to other locations around the city and country, eventually ending up in the Judean Desert.

One strand, narrated in third person, begins with the only trace remaining of the character — an abandoned briefcase in the desert. The story then takes us backwards to meet Jules Epstein, a 68-year-old combative Manhattan lawyer who, after his parents’ deaths, unexpectedly divorces his wife of many decades, gives away nearly all of his material wealth, and travels to Israel to research where to give a major gift in memory of his parents.

‘Forest Dark’ by Nicole Krauss, 2017 (HarperCollins)

Nicole (no last name) is a 39-year-old Brooklyn-based novelist who has enjoyed success around the word, including at home in America and, especially in Israel, where old ladies, upon recognizing her, grab her arm in the grocery store aisle and won’t let go.

Unhappy in her marriage, Nicole, the mother of two young boys, decamps to Israel indefinitely in hopes of overcoming writer’s block and nagging doubts about the road not taken. Narrating this thread in first person, she meets an elderly man who claims to be a retired literature professor (or is he a retired Shin Bet agent? Or neither?) named Eliezer Friedman. He ropes Nicole into writing a book from notes written by Franz Kafka he has boldly stolen from a cat- and mold-infested Tel Aviv apartment.

The professor insinuates that Kafka did not really die young in Europe in 1924, but rather escaped to Palestine undetected and lived out the remainder of his life as an anonymous gardener. (This is a fantastical spin on a drawn out legal case involving writer Max Brod’s estate, which included Kafka’s papers.)

The parallels between the fictional Nicole’s life and those of her creator are obvious. In 2014, Krauss split from her husband, author Jonathan Safran Foer, after 10 years of marriage and the birth of two sons. It also took her longer than usual to produce this latest book.

In addition, the book’s verisimilitude is heightened by the author’s inclusion of her real-life friends, such as Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and Canadian-Israeli writer (and former The Times of Israel reporter) Matti Friedman, neither of whom are household names for most readers.

Yet, Krauss maintains that “Forest Dark” is neither memoir nor autofiction.

In Jerusalem recently for the launch of the Hebrew edition of the novel, Krauss spoke to The Times of Israel about her lifelong connection to Israel, the limitations of what we think of as reality, and what she terms Kafka’s “sublime escape.”

Nicole Krauss (left) interviewed by Rana Verbin at launch event for Hebrew edition of ‘Forest Dark,’ Jerusalem, November 28, 2017 (Ido Peretz)

How did you acquire the knowledge to create such a detailed and authentic description of Israel in the book?

It was accumulated over a lifetime of visits that go back to earliest childhood. I don’t even remember my first visit to Israel, I was so young. I’ve been returning there all my life, and it’s the only geographical consistent over three or four generations of my family, because my grandparents were all from different countries in Europe. My mom grew up in London, and my father grew up in America and then Tel Aviv and then back in America. With all of those different places, Israel was the one place that everybody went. One set of my grandparents met each other and fell in love and married in Nahalal. The other set made aliya when I was young and lived 25 years of their lives and died in Jerusalem. My parents met and got married in Israel.

Wedding of Nicole Krauss’ parents at Tel Aviv Hilton, 1970 (Courtesy)

There were a few moments when I was in Israel working on the book when I was searching for how it would unfold through the reality of the place. But for the most part this book was written out of the depths of lifelong reflections on Israel.

Why did you set this novel primarily in Tel Aviv, and not Jerusalem?

This is a novel about people engaged in acts of self-reconsideration, invention, and creation. Tel Aviv is the right place for that. Israel is the right place for that, because it is such a young society and it is involved in the process of deciding what society will be, what the character of the nation will be. It’s something that is constantly being urgently argued over in a deep existential way, and in superficial ways, too.

Nicole Krauss, age 15, in the desert in Israel. (Courtesy)

You feel that work less in Jerusalem, because in Jerusalem and in the desert you are overwhelmed by ancientness, of the old, ancient and the complex problems of being bound to the past. Whereas Tel Aviv is a city invented out of the sand. Lots are drawn and a city is born and it’s about novelty. And all these years later it is the place that draws not just youth, but also inventors and artists — those literally involved in their professions with creation.

Some have called “Forest Dark” a fictionalized autobiography. What’s your reaction to this?

I have no interest in memoir. I’m a fiction writer and this is a work of fiction. I’ve been writing novels for 16 years now and I know very well that every character I have ever written is a combination of what [some] might call memoir and fiction, and what I would call experience, memory, and close observation of my life, myself and my world, welded with a leap of the imagination and empathy. I imagine myself into another being.

In the realm of art and novels we know and are very comfortable with the idea that when we write or read a character, we become them and we add aspects of who we are, and we grow in terms of our sense of ourselves. Characters become part of you and expand who you are.

The book seems to play with what is real and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Over time I became more and more conscious that as I would leave my writing room — like when a reader closes a book — I would go back to “reality” and my sense of self would shrink down to something much more narrow and unchangeable. Back in reality is a more narrow story that doesn’t always fit us and limits our freedom and sense of being authentic. I wanted to write a book about stretching that and to provoke questions and invite the reader into the process in a more outspoken way than in my past novels.

‘Forest Dark’ Hebrew edition (center) on sale in Jerusalem, December 2017 (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

You chose to do this is a very identifiably personal way.

You know the broad strokes of my life: I’m a writer, I have two children, and I was in a marriage that didn’t fit and was going to end. So let’s take those basic facts and begin to tell a story. The things that happen to Nicole in the book stretch your perception of what’s possible in reality. In some ways you have to know you’re in the realm of fiction, but you know you have the bare bones of what you know about this Nicole. But you watch this expand and grow and watch the difficulty,  exhilaration, and the hunger for that.

Things are not wrapped up neatly at the end of “Forest Dark.” Readers are left with a lack of clarity.

I wouldn’t say it’s about a lack of clarity. Clarity is important to me. It’s about a lack of maybe certainty, or leaping to certainty when we can’t know for sure. All my books, but this one more alertly, are about the necessity and advantage of being able to sustain uncertainty, of being able to exist in contradictions and study them and absorb them. It’s about living with enigmas and things that are mysteries to us, rather than rejecting them wholesale and just trying to replace them with a certainty that is easier and more convenient. Certainty can be a kind of blindness. It often is.

Nicole Krauss signs books at ‘Forest Dark’ Hebrew edition launch event, Jerusalem, November 28, 2017 (Ido Peretz)

Some reviewers have been oblivious to any connection between the parallel narratives in the novel. 

It so surprises me, because [the two narratives] are true parts of a whole. They are connected on every single page. The subterranean connections between them are endless, and they reflect back and forth off each other infinitely. Neither story is complete without the other.

I guess its because we live in a culture that puts such an emphasis on the topmost level of plot. But to me as a writer, how a character moves through time and space is only the topmost level. What is really happening is happening underneath. And the only way I can give you that is by reverberating these two stories off of each other. A lot of what we think of as the magic of literature is that it works over a long period of time after we’ve read the book. It takes time to sift down into us.

What prompted you to imagine a fictional alternative ending to Franz Kafka’s life? 

What interests me in taking Kafka and giving him a life different than the one he had historically was this feeling that the story we have been given about Kafka was written by Max Brod. It was a narrative about this martyr who couldn’t find a way to escape all of the things that were imprisoning him in this world — his overbearing father, his work at the insurance company instead of having time for his writing, his physical fragility. But actually to read Kafka is to understand that he fundamentally escaped,  because nearly 100 years later were are still reading him and trying to understand him. And in a more literal way, his writing is about a kind of sublime escape.

In fiction you want to give a new story, a story that might be more authentic than history or reality allows for. I wanted to tell a story of Kafka’s escape. The same Kafka — but to look at him as though he escaped in life as I think he has on the page.

Franz Kafka in 1906 (photo credit: public domain)
Franz Kafka in 1906 (public domain)

How do you feel about others creating narratives about you, often labeling you as a “Jewish-American writer?”

I don’t really mind very much what the prevailing narrative out there is about me, because I am a writer and I have the last word. It’s a lot to have the last word. I’m ambivalent about it in some ways. I know that in the end my books have the last word about who I am, and all the subtlety there that refuses to be pigeonholed. “Jewish,” “American” — what am I? It’s hard to say. Whatever the passing idea in any given newspaper article or profile, it’s okay with me because it doesn’t affect how I work.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed