BOOK REVIEW: FOREST DARK by Nicole Krauss — May 2021

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Nicole Krauss is the author of four novels: Man Walks into a Room (2002), The History of Love (2005), Great House (2010), and most recently, Forest Dark (2017). In 2020 she published a book of short stories entitled To Be a Man. I read The History of Love when it appeared and thought the writing superb, but became impatient with the convolutions of its plot. In reading reviews of Krauss’s work I discovered that I also, apparently, had read Great House but had forgotten completely about it. A few weeks ago, by chance, I ran across Forest Dark in Andes’ new art gallery, Hawk and Hive, and devoured it in a day or two. The book dazzled me.

It has two alternating narrative lines that run parallel to each other. One concerns Jules Epstein, a man in his sixties, newly divorced and retired from a hugely successful legal career, who is in the process of divesting himself of worldly goods acquired over a lifetime of money-making. He gives away his fabulous art collection and is now down to his last two million dollars. He plans to donate it in his parents’ honor to a suitable Israeli charity, which brings him to the Tel Aviv Hilton where the second narrative line begins. It concerns a young female writer, referred to as “Nicole,” who, overcome by a desire to get away from her current life—she hasn’t been able to write—impulsively throws some things into a suitcase and books a flight to Tel Aviv. In effect both characters propel themselves into a wild blue yonder, not knowing where they’re going or how it will turn out.

All of Krauss’s works have sold well and have received enthusiastic reviews, several have received prizes and awards, but none has been met with such an outpouring of praise as Forest Dark. Critics applaud its experimental form and its postmodern playing with the boundary between reality and fiction, but these things are not what make it great.

Forest Dark, according to the critics, is the first novel in which Krauss writes about herself directly, and this, I think, is the key to its power and depth. In the character of the young writer the author thinks through issues central to her own life, having to do not only with marriage and children—both in the novel and in life Nicole leaves her husband–-but about what it means to be true to one’s self, what being open to change entails, and what the relationship is between personal authenticity and worldly accomplishment. Epstein deals with these issues through divorce, divestment, his search for a way to memorialize his parents, and finally through his relationship with an Israeli rabbi who leads a small mystical sect. Nicole, likewise, leaves her family, returns to a place that has been calling to her for a while, and becomes intellectually involved with a literature professor who wants her to write the true history of Kafka’s later life. (Krauss is a Kafka devotee). The professor claims to possess documents proving that Franz Kafka did not die in Czechoslovakia but lived out a long life working in obscurity as a gardener in Israel. Their relationship leads to a physical and spiritual ordeal that pushes Nicole to the limits of her strength.

The trajectory for both characters moves from material success and the recognition of their accomplishments to what faithfulness to their deepest desires and values demands, an adventure requiring grave risks. For neither of them is there a guarantee of happiness or security. But the journey is exhilarating. The high stakes subject lends Krauss’s prose tremendous strength and candor; you feel her putting herself on the line while drawing on the greatest resources of her craft.  It’s like watching an athlete perform at the height of her prowess: breathtaking. I’ll conclude with one of the passages that had this effect on me. The narrator has just come to an important realization. Speaking in the first person as “Nicole,” she sees that

     . . . for most of my life I had been emulating the thoughts and actions of other people. That so much that I had done or said had been a mirror of what was done or said around me. And that if I continued in this manner, whatever glimmers of brilliant life still burned in me would soon go out. When I was very young it had been otherwise, but I could hardly recall that time, it was buried so far below. I was only certain that a period had existed in which I looked at the things of the world without needing to make them subordinate to order. I simply saw, with whatever originality I was born with, the whole of   things, without needing to give them a human translation. I would never again be able to see like that, I knew that, and yet, it seemed to me that I’d failed to fulfill the promise of  that vision I once had, before I began to slowly learn to look at everything the way others looked, and to copy the things they said and did, and to shape my life after theirs, as if no other range of being had occurred to me.

In Forest Dark the author fulfills the promise of her childhood vision by telling the story of two people who are attempting to be true to theirs.~