Book Review | Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

Kafka at the Hilton
September, 08 2017
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Forest Dark
by Nicole Krauss
2017, 304 pp, $27.99

In three of her novels thus far, Nicole Krauss inhabits multiple points of view, exploring the almost mystical ways in which lives that seem separate can intertwine. Krauss made a name for herself with The History of Love (2005), in which Leo, Alma and Bird—a Holocaust survivor, an American teen and the teen’s perhaps delusional brother—develop connections that delight readers who yearn to believe in destiny. Great House (2010) continued this exploration in a more complex form, braiding four narrators’ story lines as they touch on the history of a desk rumored to have belonged to two poets, the real-world Federico García Lorca and a fictional, disappeared Chilean writer named Daniel Varsky.  Although some readers like to know exactly what happens at a story’s end, Krauss writes for those who want to co-create a world with her. By the ends of her novels, a reader has ideas about how these characters’ lives intersect, but the author hasn’t spelled it out.

Her new book, Forest Dark, also interlaces plot lines, this time just two; a third, more speculative story line emerges late in the novel. The first protagonist is Jules Epstein, a retired New York lawyer, who, after a lifetime of scrabbling his way to success, decides “to take out a $2 million line of credit on his Fifth Avenue apartment, and to go on a trip to Israel,” for spiritual reasons and to find a fitting place to make a donation in his parents’ memory. The other protagonist, like the one who begins narrating Great House, is a woman writer. In Forest Dark, she is named Nicole, and bears other biographical similarities to the author (internationally successful writer living in Brooklyn, two children, failing marriage). Nicole is having trouble starting her new novel, which she believes has a connection with the Tel Aviv Hilton. This is how she and Epstein both find themselves at the hotel, though their stories diverge from there, echoing each other without crossing.

Borrowing the method of W. G. Sebald, Krauss includes photographs of the Hilton, perhaps to lend a documentary quality to the text. She describes the hotel as “a massive concrete rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv coast, built in the Brutalist style. The long sides of the rectangle are lined with terraces, fourteen rows down and twenty-three across. On the south side the grid is unbroken, but on the north side it’s interrupted two-thirds of the way across by a giant concrete column that appears to have been wedged in as an afterthought to make certain the building could pass muster with even the most extreme Brutalists.” When, a few pages later, Nicole decides “to write a novel about the Hilton, or modeled on the Hilton, or even razing the Hilton to the ground,” the tantalizing idea emerges that the hotel might provide a structural conceit or organizing principle. Although Forest Dark is neither tessellated like the Hilton’s façade nor Brutalist like its overall design, Krauss’s intimation that it is the book Nicole eventually writes is pleasingly metafictional.

We learn at Forest Dark’s beginning that Epstein has recently disappeared from a meager apartment he’d rented in Tel Aviv. (Unlike his fancy Fifth Avenue digs, “[t]he paint was peeling, and the shower let down directly above the toilet.”) The novel carries him to the brink of that disappearance, a journey that takes him, like many Jewish pilgrims before him, to Shabbat with a rabbi in Safed, as well as to meet with organizations such as the Israeli Philharmonic and the Jewish National Fund as he seeks the right place to make his memorial donation. Epstein’s story develops following the rabbi’s assertion that people named Epstein have “lineage that can be traced back to the dynastic line of David.” Epstein, in other words, is at home in the land of Israel and has nobility within him, even though he was born to a humble background.

Nicole’s story also takes unlikely turns. When she arrives in Tel Aviv, she meets Eliezer Friedman, a retired lit professor with an urgent project to discuss. Friedman tells Nicole that a significant body of Franz Kafka’s work is hidden in Tel Aviv and that he wants her to finish an incomplete Kafka manuscript for posterity. However fantastic the trove of manuscripts may sound, it’s based on fact: In 2016, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered a family to hand over a collection of unpublished Kafka manuscripts to the National Library of Israel.

Stranger still, Friedman explains that Kafka faked his death in 1924, secretly moved to Palestine, and “passed away peacefully in his sleep on an October night in 1956, known only, if he was known at all, as the gardener, Anshel Peleg.” Though Friedman’s tale strains Nicole’s credulity, she spends a long time imagining the details of Kafka’s supposed second life. The novel’s strange climax develops from her feverish investment in dreaming up this story.

A chief danger of writing in alternating points of view is that readers might prefer one to the other. Here, Epstein is the better-drawn character: Contemplating his mortality and his legacy, he reads as nuanced and sympathetic while remaining pleasantly unlikable. (As a film crew member hisses at him not to interrupt a shot by walking to his apartment building, he calls out, “I live here.”) Nicole is more problematic. She is blind to her own privilege (“I love to dance, but by the time I came to understand that I ought to have tried to become a dancer instead of a writer, it was too late,” she says, seemingly unaware that while making a good living as a writer is rare, doing so as a dancer is even rarer) and weary of her fame (she gets irritated and impatient when a random “woman in a headscarf” stops to show her “a tiny red-faced infant,” named after one of her characters). Although some readers may cheer her on her journey of self-discovery, more may find her a navel-gazer blinkered by her own ennui. The novel asks readers to feel for Nicole’s plight when she finds herself alone, ill and isolated, but those weary of her self-seriousness may withhold their sympathy.

Yet Forest Dark’s ambition mostly lifts it above its characters’ flaws. In imagining an alternative life for Kafka as it tells Epstein’s and Nicole’s stories, the novel questions the ideas of literary and Jewish legacy. Like a Brutalist hotel, it might not conform to standard conventions of beauty, but it still commands attention.

Emily Barton’s third novel, The Book of Esther, is newly out in paperback.

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