‘For­est Dark’ is an in­tel­lec­tual work­out of a novel

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Forum - By Michael Ma­gras Michael Ma­gras is a mem­ber of the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle. His work has ap­peared in the Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bune, Hous­ton Chronicle, San Fran­cisco Chronicle and Philadel­phia In­quirer.

In a pas­sage on the art of writ­ing, Ni­cole, the 39-year-old author who is one of two pro­tag­o­nists in “For­est Dark,” Ni­cole Krauss’ in­tel­lec­tual work­out of a novel, states, “Nar­ra­tive can­not sus­tain form­less­ness any more than light can sus­tain dark­ness.” Which is an­other way of say­ing that each per­son’s life is a quest for mean­ing, and that mean­ing­can of­ten be elu­sive.

That’s the com­mon pur­suit that bonds the pro­tag­o­nists, both of them Jewish, from New York, and with ties to Tel Aviv, in the al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters of this book. One story fo­cuses on Jules Ep­stein, a wealthy 68-year-old di­vorcee, a pas­sion­ate man who “wasn’t large, only un­con­tain­able… To know him was ei­ther to be crushed by him or madly in­flated.”

From an early age, he knew that his main goal was to be­come rich. But his per­spec­tive has since changed, first after his par­ents died, then after his daugh­ter, Maya, “Ep­stein’s youngest and most in­tel­li­gent child,” gave him a book by an Is­raeli poet. The po­ems showed Ep­stein that he had been blinded by am­bi­tion. What would life have been like “if he had ap­plied him­self with the same in­ten­sity to the spir­i­tual realm?”

At the start of the novel, Ep­stein has dis­ap­peared. Over the course of his story, we learn that he has sold most of his pos­ses­sions and re­turned to Tel Aviv, in part to find a place to make a do­na­tion in his par­ents’ name.

On the flight to Tel Aviv — co­in­ci­dences fur­ther the plot in each pro­tag­o­nist’s story — he sees a rabbi he knows, Me­nachem Klaus­ner. Klaus­ner is on the or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee of a re­union for the de­scen­dants of King David. He sus­pects that Ep­stein is also a de­scen­dant and tries to con­vince him to fi­nance the film he is shoot­ing about King David’s life.

Ep­stein stays at the Tel Aviv Hil­ton, a ho­tel that has sig­nif­i­cance for him, as it does for Ni­cole, who was con­ceived there. She and Ep­stein never in­ter­act. Ni­cole can’t get her new novel started; in one of the book’s many poignant phrases, she writes that she has “lost faith in my in­stinct to give things shape at all.” And her mar­riage to the father of hertwo sons is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

Help ar­rives from an un­ex­pected source: A man named Eliezer Fried­man, a re­tired lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor who may have been a Mos­sad agent, in­vites Ni­cole to Tel Aviv, where he asks her to re­write a script based on pre­vi­ously un­known pa­pers by Kafka. But even more in­trigu­ing is Fried­man’s con­tention that Kafka didn’t die in Aus­tria in 1924, but in­stead moved after his “funeral” to Pales­tine, where he died in 1956.

“For­est Dark” oc­ca­sion­ally veers into un­nec­es­sary di­gres­sions, such as when Ni­cole re­mem­bers a friend who vis­its the ceme­tery where Kafka is buried. And Ms. Krauss pro­vides a lot of de­tail about Kafka’s ex­po­sure to thinkers like Martin Bu­ber and the read­ing of Ha­sidic folk tales. Nov­els aren’t re­quired to travel a straight nar­ra­tive path, but in­tel­lec­tual de­tours are more com­pelling when they en­hance a story. In “For­est Dark,” the asides feel ex­pos­i­tory.

Yet the novel mov­ingly il­lus­trates the chal­lenge of com­ing to terms with the dis­parate threads of one’s life and the need to be­long. When she re­turns to the Hil­ton after many years’ ab­sence, Ni­cole ex­pe­ri­ences what Freud called un­heim­lich, a term de­scribed as “the name for every­thing that ought to have re­mained … hid­den and se­cret, and has be­come vis­i­ble.” One can’t pre­vent buried sources of anx­i­ety from resur­fac­ing, but with any luck, as this wise novel sug­gests, the abil­ity to give them form might ame­lio­rate the pain.

“FOR­EST DARK” By Ni­cole Krauss, above Harper $27.99

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