Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Lost in the desert with Kafka

You probably know Nicole Krauss’ name already. The History of Love, published back in 2004, was a bestseller here in the UK as well as in her native US, thanks in part to its inclusion in the Richard & Judy book club selection. Lots of literary types tended to sneer at R&J but their choices were frequently far from unchallenging. They also did more than their bit to help keep British bookselling afloat. I remember being captivated by The History of Love, although not so much by Great House, which followed it six years later. Forest Dark falls somewhere in between for me. In it two very different New Yorkers are drawn to Tel Aviv, briefly staying in the city’s Hilton: one a retired lawyer who has taken to giving away his valuables; the other a middle-aged novelist, stuck both in her writing and her marriage, lured by the familiar setting of childhood holidays.

Rich and well-connected, Jules Epstein is a New York Jew born to impoverished parents in Tel Aviv. Throughout his childhood, Edith and Solomon sparred constantly but since their deaths, Epstein has become untethered, divorcing his wife of three decades and giving away bits and piece of his fortune. He takes himself off to Tel Aviv, ostensibly to find a way of commemorating his parents but perhaps there’s more to it than that. On the eve of his departure he meets a rabbi, shabby but confident, who hails him as a descendent of King David, an acquaintance that’s renewed the following day on the plane. Meanwhile, Nicole – we never learn her last name – is suffering insomnia, unhappy in her marriage and unable to write. She experiences an odd feeling of momentary dislocation and decides that she needs to visit the Tel Aviv Hilton with which she’s become obsessed. Her cousin wants her to meet an acquaintance who, it turns out, has his own obsession and a determination that Nicole will help him with it. These two very different characters find themselves led by unreliable guides, each with their own agenda: one will have her world clicked sharply into focus; the other – as we know from the start – will disappear.

Krauss alternates Epstein and Nicole’s narratives, the second of which is in the first person. Epstein’s story is comparatively straightforward while Nicole’s is more discursive, full of introspective musings and erudite explorations of literature and Judaism. That may sound a little off-putting but it’s a gripping piece of storytelling, elegantly written and leavened with a pleasingly dry humour. Epstein is a big character – ‘There was too much of him; he constantly overspilled himself’ – who shrinks as his world becomes less sure. All too easy to assume Nicole stands for Krauss, of course, although it seems a little facile in a book which is anything but that. There’s a great deal about literature in the novel – Friedman’s outlandish theories about Kafka’s life in the desert, brought to an end in 1956, prompt a disquisition on his work and the contents of the suitcase which his literary executor rescued and took to Israel. Religion clearly cannot be ignored in such a setting: Epstein’s down to earth dismissal of ‘the great woolly hat of belief’ which obscures the rational doesn’t prevent him becoming involved with the charismatic rabbi Klausner. Just one gripe: Krauss’ dual narrative structure builds an expectation that the Nicole and Epstein will meet at some point which is unfulfilled. That said, Forest Dark is absorbing, rich in ideas and beautifully expressed – far from an easy read but certainly rewarding one.

6 thoughts on “Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Lost in the desert with Kafka”

  1. Interesting review, Susan. I read something about this the other day which suggested the novel was based on the breakdown of Krauss’s marriage to Jonathan Safran Foer and that the character of Epstein is based on him. Having read neither, I’m not sure how true that is. It sounds an interesting read irrespective.

    1. I’ve read both and I’d say they each approach the breakup in very different ways. Foer’s is the more accessible but I think this one’s more interesting. I think you’d like it, Belinda. Lots to mull over.

  2. I’d heard something similar to Belinda about the possible connection between the breakdown of the Krauss’ marriage and the character’s situation in this book. It must be difficult to avoid making comparisons between the two once the point has been raised. Nevertheless, it does sound like a meaty, textured read – somewhat different from her earlier books in terms of structure.

  3. I really liked A History of Love & have The great House buried in the TBR somewhere. This does sound interesting & I’d rather read an ambitious book that doesn’t entirely suceed – as you mention with the dual narratives – than a formulaic wholly sucessful one.

    1. Seconded! I remember not getting on nearly so well with Great House as The History of Love – they’re very different books. Perhaps I was better prepared for Forest Dark as a result of that.

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