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Review: Nicole Krauss’s “Forest Dark”

Nicole Krauss’ spooky novel about Israel may not please her Israeli readers as much as her earlier ones. Nicole, one of the two main characters, an almost forty, recently divorced American writer (who narrates her own story in the first person) tells us that she’s so famous in Israel that parents name their children after her and her street recognition can result in awkward moments. In short, the Israelis love her. The other character, Jules Epstein, is also recently divorced and retired from a lucrative position as an attorney in New York City and has lost both of his parents. Both of these characters were born in Israel, though at obviously different times, have an obsession with the Tel Aviv Hilton, which also plays some importance in Forest Dark, Krauss’ fourth novel. It’s certain to be widely-read and much discussed (deservedly so) in part because she has already been pegged as a Jewish novelist at a time when the designation no longer carries the weight it did thirty or forty years ago.

After the recent upheavals of his personal life, Epstein has begun to lighten his load. He’s been getting rid of his possessions (his lawyer calls it “radical charity,”) including expensive artwork, and deciding what charities deserve his support. He decides on Israel as appropriate for a memorial for his parents. After three months at the Tel Aviv Hilton, he moves into a seedy flat—his last-known residence—and shortly thereafter disappears. There’s no corpse or any witnesses, not even an official report of his demise since no one knows what has happened. This is the end of the life of a generous man, who had always helped the people and those who worked for him. His lawyer warns him that he could live another thirty years and it might be prudent to keep more of his money instead of giving so much away.

Nicole’s fate is different, though not totally. She’s returned to Israel (where she visited many times with her parents as a child) because she has writers’ block, plus she’s also returned to the Tel Aviv Hilton. She meets a retired professor of literature, Eliezer Friedman, who brings up the subject of Franz Kafka’s manuscripts, locked in a legal dispute between the state of Israel and the daughter of Kafka’s literary executor. (This is all well-known information about Kafka’s supposed unpublished work; the legal case has been going on in the Israeli courts for decades.) Friedman tells her something that has not been publicized, namely that among the manuscripts is a play written by Kafka (unfinished, of course) that is being made into a movie and could she—the well-known American Jewish novelist—write the ending for it? Shades of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979), the first Nathan Zuckerman novel, that purports that Anne Frank did not die in the Holocaust but survived and lives anonymously in New York. No surprise then that on the cover of Forest Dark, there’s a blurb from Philip Roth that reads: “A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration.”

Now that I’ve let that out, let me say that both of Krauss’ main characters, returning to Israel, encounter people (including in Epstein’s case a Rabbi) who are more like harpies than religious or academic figures, out to take advantage of them in one way or another. In Epstein’s case, people want his money, since they know he’s a rich American and there’s always been a tradition of American Jews giving back to their cultural and historical heritage. What Krauss depicts is more unsettling than that, as she describes Israel’s attraction for American Jews:

“They come to Tel Aviv and find it so sexy, the sea and the strength, the nearness to violence and the hunger for life, even if Israelis are living in an existential crisis all the time, and sense their country is lost, at least they live in a world where everything still matters and is worth fighting for. Most of all, they fall in love with how they feel here. This is where they come from, they think as they duck through the tunnels under the Western Wall, slink through the tunnels dug by Bar Kochba, scale Masada, stand in Levantine sunlight, hike the Judean, camp in the Negev, come to the Kinneret, where the children that could have been their own grow up wild and barefoot and related to the past mostly through acts of discontinuity: It’s this that we didn’t know we missed.”

But there’s also the flip-side of this relationship:

“Israelis don’t have any manners…they have no respect for personal space, no respect for anything, and doesn’t anyone do anything in Tel Aviv aside from sit around talking and going to the beach? The city really is a shithole, isn’t it, everything that isn’t new is falling apart, the whole place smells of cat piss, there’s a sewage problem right under the window and no one can come for a week, and actually Israelis are impossible to deal with, so stubborn and intractable, so frustratingly immune to logic, so damn rude, and it turns out most of them don’t care for anything Jewish, their grandparents and parents ran as far away from it as they could, and the ones that do care, they’re over the top, those settlers, totally out of their minds, and frankly the whole country is a bunch of Arab-hating racists.”

Mixed—this feeling for Israel, for Tel Aviv—for certain, as is Forest Dark  itself. Most of the narration I’ve intentionally not mentioned because incidents for both Epstein and Nicole are spooky, as I said earlier, suspenseful, surprising. I can’t say that I agree with Philip Roth’s evaluation, and I’m somewhat put off by Nicole Krauss’ laundering her marriage and divorce to Jonathan Safran Foer (as he did also in his most recent novel, Here I Am). But Foer comes off as the more generous person and his levity is transformed in Dark Forest into something more unsettling, disturbing. Still, Forest Dark is a novel that should be read, will be read, though, as I said above, I don’t think it’s going to be adored by Israelis the way Krauss’ narrator Nicole describes her earlier work as having been received.

Nicole Krauss: Forest Dark
Harper, 290 pp., $27.99

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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