For the longest time,” Nicole Krauss says about Forest Dark, her fourth novel, “I didn’t know how to end it.”
She looks relaxed, happy, as if she’s just returned from vacation, and is actually only days away from a trip to Israel, where she spends a few weeks every summer, and where most of Forest Dark (Harper, Sept.) is set. “I feel in Israel that you live constantly in the sense of the reality of life.”
It’s an enigmatic statement, with its implication that reality and life don’t always coalesce—but it makes perfect sense in the context of our conversation about her new work. Forest Dark is her most cerebral book yet; it tackles questions of faith and identity, as well as Freud and Kafka’s conception of unheimlich, a kind of anxiety inspired by the uncanny sensation of recognizing something you’ve never seen before. (Kafka is a major player in the novel.)
We’re at a cafe near her house in Park Slope, Brooklyn; Krauss arrived within a minute of our arranged time and will leave after exactly one hour has passed. It’s muggy, the temperature is in the 90s, and there is no air conditioning, but Krauss doesn’t seem to notice. As we talk she leans across the table. When she says something, she says it with her entire body, lifting her arms, using her hands to underscore a point, as if words can be touched, as if they take up physical space. “I actually couldn’t stomach the idea of writing a novel in the way that it had been written before. I just couldn’t. I wanted something fresh. And what I love about being a novelist is how endlessly elastic the form is. It really does beg to be invented every time you write it,” Krauss says.
She talks about the period of time between books, and the significant pressure that naturally follows a writer who has reached her level of critical and commercial success—her books have been translated into more than 35 languages, her novel Great House (Norton, 2010) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and she’s been named one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 and a Granta Best Young American Novelist. The History of Love (Norton, 2005), her second novel, is an international bestseller with a fan base so passionate that Krauss has met people who have named their daughters after Alma, one of the novel’s central characters. (“It helps that Alma is a pretty name,” Krauss jokes.) “I think that the burden of maintaining an audience that you’ve been lucky enough to develop is problematic. And if you’re writing to maintain that audience, in some way you’re writing to please. And the moment you do that, you’ve lost your freedom.”
Freedom is a central theme in Forest Dark—artistic freedom, freedom from domestic routine, freedom even from the limits of perception. “Before I wrote The History of Love I was in a similar kind of period, and I think pressure almost had to build up in order for there to be enough urgency that writing then became what it has always been for me, which is this kind of escape or liberation into change. A different way of thinking, or seeing.”
Forest Dark is a braided narrative, alternating chapters between two very different characters. The story opens with Jules Epstein (“I was always interested in looking at him slightly from the outside,” Krauss says), a wealthy New York lawyer. After the death of his parents, Jules begins giving his fortune away in bits and pieces before disappearing to Israel in search of something deeper than himself. Then we switch to a narrator, Nicole, a Brooklyn novelist suffering from writer’s block, a disintegrating marriage, and a sense of alienation from her daily life with her two young children. She, too, goes to Israel—to the Tel Aviv Hilton, a hotel she’s visited every year since birth—in search of a story. Both Jules and Nicole encounter characters who will lead them on journeys of metamorphosis. In Nicole’s case, this transformation is inspired by a master of the subject, Kafka himself, whose story, Forest Dark implies, defies history. If this sounds complicated, it both is and isn’t—the prose is clear and propulsive, and the deeper questions come upon the reader suddenly, like getting swept up in an uncontrollable current.
Krauss is not coy about the novel’s parallels to her life. “In terms of this obsession with writing about the Tel Aviv Hilton, that really did happen to me.” Like her character Nicole, Krauss grew up going to the hotel. As she wrote Forest Dark, she began to channel memories, letting go of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. There’s a vivid scene early in the novel in which Nicole is watching TV and thinks she sees herself in the studio audience; later, Nicole and her brother are playing a game in the Hilton pool when she seemingly conjures a ruby earring. Both are situations that Krauss herself experienced. “But that’s not why I think it’s interesting. There’s something in me that’s really exhausted by the laws of reality that we’re asked to accept and how thin they are. So much of writing this book is trying to provoke questions about the ways in which we wholesale agree to believe in a certain reality.” At every turn, the novel challenges the reader to consider multiple possibilities existing simultaneously, so that the narrative structure, even as it contains Jules and Nicole’s stories, feels limitless. It’s liberating to read, just as, according to Krauss, it was liberating to write.
As Nicole travels to Tel Aviv in search of her story, and eventually deep into the Israeli desert, seeking answers to the mystery of Kafka’s life and death, she begins to dismantle the trappings not only of her former life, but of her very self. Krauss hopes that the story is radical for women. “This book is about what it is to arrive at a certain point in your life. You’re still young, and you’re a mother, and you’re a wife. No matter how intelligent you are, and no matter how many books you’ve read about other choices, you find yourself in a place where you are absolutely limited by these roles. A break is needed—like into formlessness for a minute before you are going to have to assume another form. And once you know how to break it, you break it.” I ask her if there are ways of being awake to that kind of transformation, and how essential it is to making art.
“Traveling helps,” she says, movement in general. “I know it sounds silly, but just moving, something like dancing, I find is a really, really important thing for me. We’re just so used to limiting ourselves to a certain position or perspective.”
In the middle of the book, Nicole describes a dance class held in an old yellow school in Tel Aviv with window frames painted sky blue. The teacher encourages the students to feel small collapses inside as they move, collapses that are invisible on the outside. Krauss was in such a classes when she found the ending for Forest Dark. “When you move it shakes up thought,” Krauss says. “Your access to things changes. And there was this moment in class where I was suddenly able to paint just that last bit, like it was already there.”
Julie Buntin is the director of writing programs at Catapult and the author of the novel Marlena (Holt, Apr. 2017).