NICOLE KRAUSS’ TALES FROM THE TEL AVIV HILTON IN ‘FOREST DARK’
‘Forest Dark’ is an intellectual workout of a novel
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