by Joshua Loveday
The title of Nicole Krauss’s latest novel, FOREST DARK, as the author notes at the end of the book, comes from Dante:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
The story has two parallel plots that explore interconnected themes. One concerns the character Nicole’s efforts to find inspiration to write a novel. To say that the character of Nicole is midway in life’s journey and having a midlife crisis oversimplifies this complex novel and its interwoven themes. Krauss doesn’t leave much doubt that the character of Nicole in the book is her—or rather her version of herself that occupies a speculative reality. Krauss’s marriage to novelist Jonathan Safron Foer ended in 2014, and it is hard to wonder how much of this book was written with her failing marriage in mind.
The second plot involves Epstein, an elderly Jewish philanthropist in the process of giving away all his earthly possessions, the final act of which is to plant trees to create a forest in Israel for future generations to enjoy—his own forest dark. In the process, he meets a mystic rabbi, the founder of a religious community called Gilgul—a Hebrew word meaning “cycle” or “wheel” that describes the Kabbalistic concept of reincarnation or transformation. After almost drowning in the Mediterranean, mirroring a line from a book his daughter Maya had given him—“The soul is the sea that we swim in”—Epstein begins his own process of transformation, drowning in his soul and ultimately disappearing into the desert like one of the prophets of old.
After travelling to Israel on a pilgrimage of sorts to the Tel Aviv Hilton—a monolith on the shore of the Mediterranean that is so central to the protagonists’ identities that it almost becomes another of the novel’s characters—Nicole meets a retired scholar named Friedman, who may or may not exist. He claims Franz Kafka never died in Europe of tuberculosis in 1924 but retired to Israel in anonymity where he produced more works that were never published. Friedman implores Nicole to translate and publish Kafka’s lost works, eventually sending her to a shack in the desert that supposedly belonged to the Czech author. Krauss explores Kafka’s relationship with his Jewish identity, noting that “In Hebrew, the translation of The Metamorphosis is Ha Gilgul.” This metamorphosis mirrors both Epstein’s and Nicole’s transformations as the novel progresses.
Nicole as a first-person narrator is unreliable, and her entire plot line exists only in the imagination of another Nicole. Krauss writes: “. . . when I came through the door of the house I shared with my husband and our two children . . . I sensed that I was already there.” From this point on we read a story not grounded in reality. It is the author Krauss projecting herself into an alternate timeline within the novel where she explores reality as a result of the self-creation of one’s own personal narrative. She later extrapolates this concept to the state of Israel itself, noting a narrative is created by a mind warding off formlessness, a sense of something or someone (a person, a people) giving themselves a name, a mythos, a story so they can prove to themselves and the world that they exist. This mirrors the history of the Jewish people when they enshrined themselves in their biblical tales, giving themselves a form, a history that is no less real than the unwritten and forgotten history of other cultures, but remembered and passed on to the rest of humanity because it was written down.
Nowhere in the book is the alternate reality of Nicole as an unreliable narrator more obvious than at the end of the novel when she is in the hospital after leaving Kafka’s isolated refuge in the desert and remembering something that happened in the future: “With the orderly’s cool hand on my forehead, I recalled an afternoon the following winter when my lover arrived home and entered the bedroom carrying his bag.” The last line of the novel brings Nicole’s fanciful reality full circle, back to where she started: “And for a while I didn’t see myself either, sitting in a chair in the corner, already there.”
FOREST DARK is one of those novels that leaves one needing to read it again, if only to reconcile the complex yet interrelated themes that run through it, and the author’s note about the title’s reference to a Dante poem at the end of the book rather than the beginning spurred me to do just that. Krauss’s writing style is blunt, almost in-your-face, but her insights into the nature of human perception and motivation—or lack of—display a unique vision. I’m not going to say her work is Kafkaesque, as that word is so overused that its meaning can be misconstrued, but Krauss’s accomplishment might have pleased Kafka. I enjoyed this literary achievement—Krauss’s fourth novel and arguably her best—especially the second time I read it.