Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss, Bloomsbury Publishing, 304 pp, £12.50, ISBN: 978-1408871782
In the May 1973 edition of American Review, Philip Roth published an experimental essay/short story entitled “Looking at Kafka”. At the time, he was teaching an immersive class in Franz Kafka’s fiction at the University of Pennsylvania, and he had recently returned from a pilgrimage to Prague, the first of several fateful visits. “I wanted to see Kafka’s city,” he later wrote, “and accidentally I found something more important.” Those visits led to friendship with many dissident Czech writers, including Milan Kundera and Václav Havel, and to Roth’s general editorship of Writers from the Other Europe, a hugely influential Penguin series that introduced a generation of English-language readers to important fiction from behind the Iron Curtain.
“Looking at Kafka” is, among other things, an alternative history in which Kafka survives not just the tuberculosis that killed him in 1924, but also the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of his three sisters. In Roth’s reverie, he escapes to the US, where, in 1942, he is teaching in a slightly run-down Hebrew school in Newark, New Jersey. Among his students is a nine-year-old “Philip Roth”, who, when he discovers that his teacher passes a lonely life in a rooming house, decides to save him (“If not me, who?”). So he arranges for his parents to invite Dr Kafka for dinner, which leads to a stilted romance between the reserved émigré and the boy’s Aunt Rhoda, and an extended series of fantasies that end with Kafka’s quiet death (his novels unpublished), and “Philip” becoming a writer maddeningly stymied, à la Kafka in real life, by the stinging criticisms of his father and the smothering love of his family.
Vintage Roth in retrospect, though quite a departure for him at the time. Written when he was forty – the age of Kafka at his death – this fantasy signals a transformational period in his career, when he began enriching his fiction with devices and motifs inspired by writers from a part of the world completely different from his native America but to which he felt a strong cultural link. From this point, his novels often had a marked metafictional bent and were usually narrated by one of a number of alter egos, most notably Nathan Zuckerman, the voice of The Counterlife and American Pastoral. His experimentation with narrative modes played with the theme of authorship and found innovative ways of examining his literary heritage. As James Wood says, Roth showed us “that postmodern artifice and American realism are not incompatible, but actually feed each other”.
But Roth’s interest in Eastern European literature helped more than his technique. It also added perspective to his understanding of his ethnic heritage. Though Roth has gone out of his way over the years to claim an American identity, to say bluntly that he is not a Jewish writer but a writer who is a Jew, he has nevertheless been the American writer of his generation most vigorously engaged with the complicated notion of how one’s Jewishness relates to the enterprise of fiction. To some extent, that distinction was thrust upon him. For at least the first decade of his career, from the publication in 1959 of his story “Defender of the Faith” to his 1969 succès de scandale Portnoy’s Complaint (“just the book that anti-Semites have been waiting for”, Gershom Scholem trumpeted in his Haaretz review), Roth was denounced by rabbis and vilified in certain quarters of the establishment for presenting the lives of his Jewish characters as he saw them, blemishes and all. In defending himself, Roth wrote often and eloquently about his writing life and his ethnicity, the way they have intertwined, the contradictions they have generated. As Adam Gopnik puts it, for Roth, “alienation from the Jewish tribe is the cost of the cosmopolitan education that Jewish values promote”.
But it was his mid-life fiction that made the most convincing case for the triumph of art over polemic. In the dense forest of Communist Europe, with its Ashkenazi history and ghosts of the Holocaust, its deft and oblique storytelling crafted in the shadow of multiple tyrannies, and its dissident writers’ unshakeable belief that literature is a human activity that matters, matters deeply – in this world Roth found inspiration that fed a fertile vein of novels published in the late seventies and early eighties, fictions celebrated not just for their postmodern technique but also for the counterpoint of their weighty motifs: Israel and Jewish life, aging and mortality, the magic of narrative and the frequent Kafkaesque sense of being on the threshold of something truly important, something perhaps glorious, which always remains just out of reach. These stories delight, they confound, they mesmerise. And as we are beginning to see, they have had a significant influence on contemporary American fiction.
The influence is particularly evident among the latest wave of North American Jewish novelists and short story writers. Born after 1970, come of age in a post-Communist world, deeply engaged by their heritage yet aware of the dangers of its pull, these young writers continue to carry the torch of postmodernism and innovation passed to them by Roth, Cynthia Ozick and many others, while exploring to an even greater extent than their predecessors, perhaps because they have grown up in a period of profound globalisation, what it means to be a Jewish artist in an internationalised world: the social and geographic reach of the Diaspora, their tradition’s roots in Europe and the Middle East, the challenges of telling twenty-first-century stories influenced by a culture and religion many millennia old. Some of them, including David Bezmozgis and Gary Shteyngart, emigrated from the former Soviet Union after the walls came down. Others, such as Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, have spent significant time in Israel. Most of them set at least parts of their narratives in Eastern Europe or Israel. Formally, they are as comfortable with fable as they are with realism. They know Kafka and Babel and Singer. They know Roth.
Krauss is, for me, the most interesting talent of this recent surge. In her early forties and in the midst of her own mid-life reassessment, she has made her mark with fiction, especially The History of Love, published in 2005, that is technically daring, emotionally vibrant, and unafraid of the largest subjects. She is fresh and individual but knows from where she comes. Her most recent book, Forest Dark, has Roth’s influence all over it. But she has taken Roth’s obsessions and methods and crafted a unique work that moves in a new and compelling direction, challenging us with its boldness and reminding us that the form of the novel is only limited by the imagination of its creators.
Forest Dark alternates between two distinct stories: the first, a third-person account of the wilful disappearance of an aging, prominent, and wealthy lawyer, Jules Epstein; the second, a first-person narrative of a successful novelist (named “Nicole”) who is uncertain about her marriage, her role as a mother, and the practice of her craft. Both characters are emotionally and philosophically adrift, and baffled by their successes. Both escape from New York to Israel to reconnect with a familial past. Both meet strangers who lead them on a surprising journey-within-a-journey. And yet at no point within the novel do the two narratives intersect, except thematically.
Epstein’s existential crisis is a familiar tale of the onset of old age and its accompanying sense of the diminishing worth of the material. Roth has brought us a few such pieces of his own, starting with, yes, “Epstein”, an early story from Goodbye Columbus. Krauss’s Epstein is as convincing a creation, with a full backstory, a complicated present and a quest for a future that includes shedding his riches, foregoing his considerable business and political influence and honouring his dead parents, Holocaust survivors, with a memorial in Israel. Having begun the process of giving away his money and possessions (to the consternation of his family and his lawyers), he flees to the Tel Aviv Hilton, spends time with an odd religious sect, moves to a shabby apartment, gets involved with a bizarre film about King David, and arranges the tribute to his parents – a forest of four hundred thousand trees planted on a barren mountainside in the Negev Desert.
“Nicole’s” story is more complex. Reading at times like a memoir, it is an intensely personal exploration of the narrator’s domestic situation and her doubts about her work. How much of it mirrors Krauss’s own life? Is Nicole the author of Epstein’s story as well as her own? Those questions are clearly beside the point. The auto-fiction form is an exercise in self-invention meant to stimulate the reader’s imagination, allow metafictional insights and create a new narrative structure for Krauss’s scrutiny of her life and work. Lonely, professionally blocked, Nicole also travels to Tel Aviv (where, she tells us, she had been conceived in the wake of the Yom Kippur war), and also books into the Hilton, a location where she had spent childhood holidays every year and which she vaguely believes will provide inspiration for her next novel and for answers to questions she can’t quite articulate. She is second-guessing her life choices and at the same time re-examining her craft as a writer, which she now believes has become, like her marriage, a “form of binding”, a version of happiness that has turned into constraint:
The more I wrote, the more suspect the good sense and studied beauty achieved by the mechanisms of narrative seemed to me. I didn’t want to give them up – didn’t want to live without their consolation. I wanted to employ them in a form that could contain the formless, so that it might be held close, as meaning is held close, and grappled with.
The pressure of having to write a new novel, but wanting and needing to move away from the conventional mechanisms of narrative, is intensified by another Rothian theme: the unique challenge of being a Jewish writer. Much of this intensity lies beneath the surface, but the book also poses it explicitly when Nicole, at the behest of a family friend, meets Eliezer Friedman, a retired professor who has something very important he wants to discuss with her. “I’ve read your novels,” Friedman says to Nicole as they meet for the first time at a cafe near the hotel. “You’re adding to the Jewish story. For this we’re very proud of you.” He is speaking on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, and his compliment touches a nerve. Nicole muses:
The need to make one’s parents proud is deforming enough; the pressure to make one’s whole people proud is something else again … I wanted to write what I wanted to write, however much it offended, bored, challenged, or disappointed people, and disliked the part of myself that wished to please.
But for a Jewish writer it is not so simple:
In Sweden or Japan they didn’t care much about what I wrote, but in Israel I was stopped in the street. On my last trip, an elderly woman in a sun hat secured with a strap under her chubby chin had cornered me at the supermarket. Gripping my wrist between her meaty fingers, she’d backed me into the dairy section to tell me that reading my books was, for her, as good as spitting on Hitler’s grave (never mind that he doesn’t have one), and that she would read every page I wrote until she herself was in the ground.
Friedman’s words spark other memories: a mother tearfully tells Nicole that she has named her baby after a character in one of her books. At Yad Vashem the director presents her with photocopied papers concerning her murdered great-grandparents, along with a bag from the museum gift shop that she insists Nicole open immediately. It holds a blank notebook commemorating the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Could the message be any clearer if the endpapers had been printed with piles of dead children’s shoes? Back home in New York, I tossed the notebook in the trash.
The caustic language and intense sentiment are a reaction to the force of cultural expectation, expectation understandable given the history of the Jews but which a writer of fiction – committed to the dictates of an art that must remain independent of politics – cannot abide. So for Nicole coming to Israel is double-edged. As she feels the pull of her heritage, so she must push back, harshly, against those who would co-opt her for their own reasons, thus making her search for “a form that could contain the formless” that much more difficult.
But of course she finds that form – it is the book we are reading, a twinned narrative, a double helix of design and story in which her search and the book itself become aspects of the meaning she, both “Nicole” and Nicole, are grappling with. It is a technically audacious pursuit, brilliantly realised. And as Krauss crafts this fiction, which blurs the lines between author and narrator and attempts to capture the non-narrative qualities of what we tend to call “real life”, it quickly becomes clear that, in much the same way as it has been for Roth, her narrative probing is inspired and deepened by a fascination with Kafka.
Kafka enters the novel via the mysterious Friedman. In a series of meetings, the professor slowly reveals the important subject he wants to discuss with Nicole, the proposal he wishes to make. This slowness allows him, across several scenes, to talk to her about the place of the writer in Jewish history, and her own place within that history. “When the Jews began to compose the central texts on which their identity would be founded,” he tells her, “they were … consciously defining themselves – inventing themselves – as no one had before.” Carefully, methodically, Friedman builds on the themes that have been bubbling beneath Nicole’s discontent: identity, self-invention, the writer’s responsibility to herself and to the culture. Eventually he leads her to Spinoza Street, where he stops before a grey apartment building and changes the subject with a line on which the whole book pivots: “I know from your books that Kafka is of interest to you.” He points at a basement window and tells her that they are standing less than three metres from a suitcase full of Kafka’s unpublished writing – novels, stories, letters, drawings, and notes.
There is such a building. There is even a photograph of it in the novel (as there are photos of the Hilton and of the desert, as if this is a travel book). And there is such a suitcase, smuggled out of Prague in 1939 by Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod. When Kafka died in 1924 he was little known beyond the readers of a few literary journals, and he had published just a handful of stories. He had completed numerous other stories and three novels (America, The Trial, and The Castle) but on his deathbed instructed Brod to burn all this work unread. Brod ignored the request and, between 1925 and 1935, published the novels and the collected stories. Few decisions have had such impact on literary history. As for what was not published, when Brod fled to Palestine he took with him as many of Kafka’s manuscripts and papers as he could stuff in a suitcase – that suitcase.
Brod died in 1968 and his personal secretary, Esther Hoffe, assumed stewardship of the papers. When she died in 2007, a legal battle began between her daughters, Eva and Ruth, and the National Library of Israel, which claimed that the papers were the property of the state. A lot was at stake. Esther had sold the original handwritten manuscript of The Trial to a German archive in 1988 for more than a million sterling, so national feelings on the subject were sensitive, especially as Brod had stipulated in his will that Esther should “make efforts” for the papers to be accessible to the public and to “be transferred for guardianship to the library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem or to the Tel Aviv Municipal Library or to another public archive in Israel”.
The grey apartment building on Spinoza Street is Eva Hoffe’s actual home. Krauss had often passed it and wondered about that mouldering suitcase. But after laying this real-life groundwork, she adds a fictional twist: Friedman has seen the suitcase’s contents, including an unfinished play that Kafka wrote near the end of his life. It will make a great film, he says. But it needs someone to finish it. At their next meeting he explicitly suggests that Nicole is the right person to complete the screenplay. She demurs. “The sense of transgression would be intolerable. My own work makes me anxious enough as is.” Friedman replies: “You think your writing belongs to you?” “Who else?” she says. “To the Jews.” She laughs, remembering Kafka’s famous line: What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.
Krauss then ratchets up the drama with another Rothian kink. Friedman tells Nicole another secret: Kafka did not die in Vienna but faked his own death, moved to Palestine under the pseudonym Anshel Peleg, and lived out his life as a gardener on a desert kibbutz, where he died in 1956. His novels were not posthumous but published in conspiracy with Brod.
So Nicole is not Nicole and Kafka is not Kafka. It is enough to wear the poor reader down. But the metafictional back and forth and accompanying narrative stage business are there precisely to examine Nicole’s struggle with her Jewish heritage and her fate as a writer, and the obsession with Kafka and his alternative history shape this examination. He occupies her thoughts and dreams. She hallucinates his presence and imagines his concerns and deliberations. She re-reads critical passages from his stories and letters, quoting long passages for the reader. And she begins to interpret her own malaise in the light of, to use Roth’s words, Kafka’s refutation of “every easy, touching, humanish daydream of salvation and justice and fulfillment with densely imagined counterdreams that mock all solutions and escapes”.
That evening, unable to sleep in her hotel bed, Nicole is overcome by a wave of nostalgia so acute it feels physical. It is a familiar feeling:
The longing for something I felt divided from, which was neither a time nor a place but something formless and unnamed, had been with me since I was a child. Though now I want to say that the division I felt was, in a sense, within me: the division of being both here and not here, but rather there.
The sense of loss and the need for transformation – they have been with Nicole, and the reader, from the beginning of the novel. But Kafka’s presence opens a window. A window that looks into a dense mist perhaps, but a window nevertheless. His lesson is that transformation will come in a form that cannot be fully understood and thus can never truly satisfy. She reads from the first page of his Parables and Paradoxes:
Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life, which is the only life we have. When the sage says, ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place, which we could do anyhow if the labor were worth it; he means some fabulous yonder, something unknown to us, something too that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.
Nicole ponders how frustration was for Kafka “a whole dimension of existence”. She remembers how, in The Trial, a man spends a lifetime waiting for admittance through an open doorway that is intended for him alone, though he is never allowed to cross the threshold. And she relates this exquisite study in frustration to the history of the Jews, the path through the desert taken by Moses, by the early Jewish pioneers, and by the founders of Israel. If there is anything like enlightenment, Nicole seems to be learning, it lies in the gap between seeking and being denied. Like the novel she is looking to write, the meaning of the forms we pursue must be found in their persistent formlessness.
No one ever inhabited the threshold more thoroughly than Kafka. On the threshold of happiness; of the beyond; of Canaan; of the door open only to us. On the threshold of escape, of transformation. Of an enormous and final understanding. No one ever made so much art of it. And yet if Kafka is never sinister or nihilistic, it’s because to even reach the threshold requires a susceptibility to hope and vivid yearning. There is a door. There’s a way up or over. It’s just that one almost certainly won’t manage to reach it, or recognize it, or pass through it in this life.
Just as Krauss’s alternative Kafka retreated to the desert for a quiet, anonymous period of contemplation, so does Nicole end up at a house in the desert, dropped off by the army, as Friedman has arranged, carrying Kafka’s suitcase and accompanied by Friedman’s dog. The house is minimally furnished with a narrow bed, a black stove and a worktable with a typewriter. This is where Friedman intends for her to complete Kafka’s play. And after she has examined the place and its environs, she sits at the table and lays her fingers on the typewriter keys – and it hits her: “This was Kafka’s house … the house where he’d lived alone at the end of his life – lived and died for the second time, under the minimal conditions he yearned for, confined at last to only that which was unquestionably within himself.”
Nicole and Kafka have shifted beyond their actuality and merged as fictional entities. Here in the desert, guided by the master’s spirit, Nicole escapes from Dante’s forest dark by learning that she must develop a sense of looking at the world “without needing to make [it] subordinate to order”. She feels close to the fullness that lies beneath the surface of everything, but which she knows must remain invisible. And she reaffirms that Friedman and others are wrong for claiming that her writing belongs not to herself but to the Jews:
Literature could never be employed by Zionism, since Zionism is predicated on an end – of the Diaspora, of the past, of the Jewish problem – whereas literature resides in the sphere of the endless, and those who write have no hope of an end.
Nicole has reached the threshold and can now return home. The formlessness she seeks is within her grasp. And her conclusions loop like a Möbius strip back into the shape of the novel itself. We are with Nicole in the desert and with her in the texture of the narrative. We are with Krauss as she plays with our literary expectations. And such is the intellectual force of her auto-fictional display that Epstein’s story comes to feel almost like a distraction. Not that it isn’t powerful in itself – or that a convincing case can’t be made for its contrapuntal purpose in the novel – but in the end I felt that Nicole’s thread should have formed the whole of the book. The personal purpose of the story almost demands it. “The self is more or less an invention from beginning to end,” Krauss has recently said in interview, defending the novel’s method. “What is more unreal, what is more a creation than the self? Why do we have such a heavy investment in knowing what is true and what isn’t true about people’s lives? Why is it even valid to make a distinction between autobiography, auto-fiction and fiction itself?”
Well, addressing those questions is another endeavour. For now, let’s say that Krauss is a worthy heir to Roth. No doubt he agrees, as he provided an admiring blurb for Forest Dark’s front cover (“A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration.”). It will be interesting to see how she builds on this mid-life assessment of her purpose, and whether she can, as Roth did with American Pastoral and Sabbath’s Theater, absorb her experimentation and use her talent to move beyond confession and self-invention and into the realm of fictional masterpieces that take on not just the self but the world.
Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His most recent novel is A Lonely Note (Little Island, 2016).