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Review: Nicole Krauss's "Forest Dark"

I am ashamed to say I first learned about Nicole Krauss through her relationship to Jonathan Safran Foer. Critics couldn’t help but compare her writing to Foer’s during their ten-year marriage: her The History of Love and Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close both came out in the same year, dealt with Holocaust survivors, and involved a quest through New York City. Two summers ago, I read Foer’s latest book, Here I Am, and found it to be a lukewarm stab at answering too many questions at once. He tackled fatherhood, the end of a marriage (Foer and Krauss divorced in 2014), Jewish identity, and the state of Israel in a little under 600 pages. I wasn’t aware Krauss had written a new novel until I was asked to review it for JWA. I scolded myself for losing track of her career, and dove into Forest Dark with earnest.

Published in the summer of 2017, Forest Dark is as much a response to Krauss’s shifting identity as Here I Am was for Foer’s. I feel guilty for conflating their work, like the critics I once scorned, but the parallels in these two novels are too great to ignore. Overarchingly, Forest Dark is an exploration of what happens when the relationships, material objects, and geographic locations that have come to constitute an identity fall apart—both by choice, and circumstance. It is unfair to strictly characterize Forest Dark as Krauss’s “divorce novel,” but it is not entirely off base to wonder how much of her own life experiences informed her writing.

Krauss does not entirely discourage this speculation—the book is littered with real photographs of real places in Israel, which are both relevant to the plot and personally meaningful to Krauss. One of the two characters in the novel is named Nicole. Her character (whose chapters are written in the first person) is presented as a Brooklyn-based author facing severe writer’s block, a failing marriage, and a persistent sense of detachment from herself. In interviews, Krauss has dismissed comparisons between herself and her character as “hypocritical,” but this feels intellectually dishonest given the lengths the novel goes to to explore the nature of writing, the feasibility of objectivity in writing, and the concept of divided selves. Throughout the book, Krauss winks and nods at readers; she both is and isn’t the writer struggling in Forest Dark. Though it speaks to her talent that she is able to dive so deeply into the metaphysical in just a few hundred pages, it is tedious to read and digest.

The other character in Forest Dark is Jules Epstein, an aging New Yorker who has spent his life accumulating (possessions, achievements, etc.) in an attempt to ground himself as a person. At the beginning of the novel, he is struck by sudden, gripping desire to honor his recently deceased parents and figure out the meaning of his life as a Jewish person. He begins giving away his fortune before booking himself a one-way ticket to Israel. Jules’s storyline, which never intersects with Nicole’s (the book is divided into alternating chapters), takes him into the rugged mountains outside of Tel Aviv, where a kabbalah-espousing rabbi tries to convince him he is a direct descendant of King David. Though harebrained, his storyline is far more compelling than Nicole’s. Unfortunately, there is no real resolution (depending on how you read the final chapter) to his narrative.

Nicole is obsessed by the question of the divided self—that she exists in two places at once (spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise). Like Jules, she leaves New York for Tel Aviv, but it’s not the mountains she seeks. She arrives at the city’s Hilton Hotel, where she was conceived, in the hopes of jumpstarting her next novel and reconciling the dissociative state she has slipped into. There, she is approached by a mysterious friend of a friend claiming to be a professor at Tel Aviv University, who asks her to help him break into the apartment of the women currently in possession of Franz Kafka’s unpublished papers so that Nicole might finish one of his plays. In short, she is offered a chance to become Kafka’s literary heir. Although Nicole does not finish Kafka’s play, she is thrust onto a path of introspection that offers a chance to emerge (in the same way Gregor Samsa emerges in Kafka’s Metamorphosis) a more confident writer.

Kafka is, in essence, the third major character in this novel. If you are not an expert on Kafka (I fall into this category) you may struggle to parse which components of his biography are being exaggerated by Krauss. Forest Dark posits that Kafka did not die in Eastern Europe in 1924, but rather was smuggled into what is now Israeli territory under another name to live out his life in anonymity on a kibbutz. What complicates this alternative timeline is the real-life drama surrounding Kafka’s unfinished works and personal papers, which did make their way to Israel thanks to Kafka’s longtime friend and associate Max Blod. Blod handed the materials over to his secretary, who in turn left them to her children. In 2016, Israel’s High Court ruled that Kafka’s papers were of national importance and belonged in the care of the state, ending a protracted legal battle. None of this information had crossed my radar previously, and after struggling through an entire chapter of the book dedicated to the Kafka’s fictionalized backstory, I found myself frustrated and on Google, speed-reading through Kafka’s Wikipedia page. This broke the rhythm of my reading significantly.

Ultimately, Forest Dark suffers from trying to be too many things at once. It’s a meditation on writing, an examination of the expectations of Israel harbored by American Jews, and a Kafka-esque maze of introspection into the meaning of the self. Maya Sela, reviewing the book for Haaretz, writes that the main theme of Forest Dark is, “the search for a home and the attempt of these two American Jews to find it in Israel. Israel ultimately disappoints them because it’s a place where people just go about living instead of worshipping God or Kafka. In this sense, Krauss has written a rather poignant book about the longing of Jews around the world to think they still have a more spiritual home waiting for them down the line.”

I still have a deep admiration for Krauss’s writing, and felt more confused than disappointed by Forest Dark. In my opinion, she remains one of our greatest living Jewish writers, and if the contents of the novel had been split into two different books, both narratives would have grown immensely. Krauss is in a period of transition, and Forest Dark is, if nothing else, a glimpse into her creative process, all her selves accounted for.

Forest Dark is one of JWA's 2018-2019 Book Club picks.

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How to cite this page

Orlovsky-Schnitzler, Justine. "Review: Nicole Krauss's "Forest Dark"." 6 March 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/bookclub/review-nicole-krausss-forest-dark>.

Cover of Nicole Krauss' 2017 novel Forest Dark.

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