In 'Forest Dark,' Nicole Krauss Looks at Israel and Sees Nothing

The author’s latest novel, which describes two American Jews’ elusive search for a spiritual home in the Holy Land, is laden with stereotypes

Nicole Krauss at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, August 27, 2017.
Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

In recent years our literary republic has been pondering what happened to the “chronicler of the House of Israel.” Where has he gone? Why does no one want the job anymore? Have all those postmodern readers simply grown tired of this figure, or are writers no longer keen to take up the mantle?

Who will be the next Amos Oz? And why is there no woman who can claim the title? (Though no one seems to be asking this question.)

Well, along comes Nicole Krauss, who is also a part of the House of Israel, an American Jew. She seems to be interested in the position, and her 2017 novel “Forest Dark” amounts to her job application.

But I’m skeptical that the chronicler of the House of Israel could sit in a 16th-floor suite at the Tel Aviv Hilton with a fruit basket sent up to her by the hotel manager, or ride in a taxi with a driver who has a gold tooth and listens to Mizrahi music, or be admitted to a hospital where an Arab with a mop and stethoscope takes better care of her than all the doctors and nurses.

Really, Ms. Krauss, a janitor with a stethoscope? Is that how much you see us as a third-world country? Is that the degree you view us from an Orientalist’s perspective? Krauss can’t be the chronicler of the House of Israel because she can barely look into her own house. Instead, she wanders around in a daze, a spoiled child who isn’t rebellious or brave enough.

In late 2016 the Israeli headlines blared with a quote from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said at a nighttime meeting with the evacuees from the Amona outpost that he knew what it meant to lose a home: “After the 1999 elections, without any warning, my family and I were driven out of the [prime minister’s residence], just thrown on the street. We had to go to the Sheraton Plaza.”

This is what was buzzing in my head like an irksome fly the whole time I was reading “Forest Dark.” She writes about home, about home falling apart, and about searching for a new home, but this search is by people who are forced to live in the Sheraton Plaza, or, in her case, the Tel Aviv Hilton.

It could have been comic, it could have been a parody, it could have been decadent, it could have been a tale about crumbling luxury, about rot and its beauty, about the beautiful moment right before death – but that’s not the book she wrote.

The Hilton Tel Aviv Hotel
Assaf Evron

Besides Netanyahu, Philip Roth, one of the greatest writers alive today, was also sitting on my shoulder. A blurb from him appears on the book’s cover: “A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration.”

I wondered what Portnoy wasn’t complaining about, though I know that for Americans, providing blurbs is a popular pastime. Gary Shteyngart once wrote a satirical column in The New Yorker about swearing off blurb-writing – maybe because he realized that while friendship is important, human civilization could still use some good taste every now and then.

In her novel, Krauss presents us with two protagonists, both engrossed in a quest. Despite the differences in age, gender and profession, they’re remarkably similar. One is Jules Epstein, a 68-year-old wealthy attorney in that New York Jewish way (Fifth Avenue condo, art collection, marriage to an heiress, meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres and Itzhak Perlman). Epstein loses his zest for life and starts to part with his possessions. At this point, I’m thinking that perhaps Krauss is actually aiming for self-parody, as in the scene where Epstein gives away his Patek Philippe watch.

Kafkaesque and then some

It made me think of Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.” Coupland nails it in describing this generation with lines like “Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother´s BMW,” lines that combine casual name-dropping with false intellectualism. The Jewish version could easily be something like “you forgot your Kafka in my sister’s BMW.” But we’ll get to Kafka in a moment. Krauss, it seems to me, isn’t joking at all. She’s rigid and takes herself seriously. She doesn’t strike me as the kidding type.

So Epstein – who supposedly descends from the House of David (or so Rabbi Menachem Klausner, founder of Gilgul, a program that brings Americans to Safed to study mysticism, tells him) – donates his art collection to museums (aside from the Henry Moore sculpture he gives to his doctor, who admired it during a house call). He also buys artificial hips for his longtime butler’s wife and makes all kinds of overgenerous gestures – all because of a book he read by a Polish-born Israeli poet who was born two years after Epstein and died at 36. Suddenly he wonders, “What might his life have been if he had applied himself with the same intensity to the spiritual realm?”

The answer to this question may lie in the parallel protagonist who does apply herself intensely in the spiritual realm, intensely in the style of American Ivy League universities, that is. (Spoiler alert: His life would have looked the same). She’s a 39-year-old American writer living in New York with her aloof husband and their two children. The sections involving the writer, whose name is Nicole, are written in the first-person singular, yet Krauss insists in interviews I’ve read that the character has nothing to do with her and that anyone who associates the two is being hypocritical. Such is the press and such are writers – plenty deep and a bit afraid.

The writer in the book describes the feeling she’s had since childhood of being in two places at once. She’s a lonely woman with a failing marriage (or, as the Americans say, “We’ve lost faith in our marriage”) and now she can’t write or sleep either. Like Epstein, she realizes that her search must take her to Israel. (“In that moment I knew unequivocally that if I was dreaming my life from anywhere, it was the Tel Aviv Hilton.”)

Cover of Nicole Krauss's 'Forest Dark'
Courtesy Harper

In Israel, she launches into a spiritual quest that begins with a visit to her old friend, choreographer Ohad Naharin. She takes a dance lesson, in Naharin’s Gaga method one presumes, and wonders what David’s dance before God would have looked like. (“Dance constantly disappears, Ohad often says.”) She’s the classic Gen X-er, mixing name-dropping with pseudo-intellectual musings.

She explains that her mother conceived her there, at the Hilton, after the Yom Kippur War in a room on the 16th floor. And ever since, the family has come back every year for summer vacations. So now we have both these characters, Epstein and the writer Nicole, separately embarking on a spiritual quest that begins at the Tel Aviv Hilton. What can possibly come of this?

There really may be no good way for Israelis to judge a book like this one. Maybe some people will derive narcissistic pleasure from it – “Hey, it’s us!,” they’ll tell themselves. For me, it was a chance to find that it’s impossible to see anything from the 16th floor of the Hilton, though I admit it was kind of amusing to be the object of Krauss’ Orientalist gaze.

The writer will leave her husband and children and ride to the Hilton with the family’s regular taxi driver. She will meet Prof. Eliezer Friedman, who has a grand scheme in mind – he wants the esteemed American writer to devote herself to becoming Kafka’s literary heir. No kidding.

The professor has information that says Kafka did not die in Prague in 1924 and wasn’t buried there, but was secretly transported to British Palestine, lived there under the name Anshel Peleg as a gardener on a kibbutz, then in Tel Aviv, and then in the desert, and died peacefully in 1956. The professor explains to Nicole that Palestine was the only place that was “as unreal as literature,” and so it suited Kafka, who never actually lived anywhere and felt that he only truly existed in the unreality of literature.

This is a bit of Yiddishkeit, an old-fashioned view of Kafka, the schmaltzy tale of Kafka the unhappy clerk who only wanted to write but had to spend his days pushing paper. But Kafka wasn’t actually a lowly and miserable clerk but rather a senior manager. And some scholars even describe him as an arch-bureaucrat who was in love with the bureaucratic machine – not a lost soul in search of a home, either physical or metaphysical.

From Agnon to Bamba

But this is the main theme of “Forest Dark”: the search for a home and the attempt of these two American Jews to find it in Israel. Israel ultimately disappoints them because it’s a place where people just go about living instead of worshipping God or Kafka. In this sense, Krauss has written a rather poignant book about the longing of Jews around the world to think they still have a more spiritual home waiting for them down the line, a place that will be their refuge from the fleshpots of their native societies.

Franz Kafka in Prague's Old Town Square, 1920-21.
Sovfoto, UIG via Getty Images

I remember my father talking about such Jews with derision. He couldn’t understand how, after Hitler, they could stay put somewhere else instead of making aliyah. But time has passed and we’ve changed. The fleshpot is here.

We’ve stopped looking at them like that, or looking at them at all. We’ve stopped wanting to be a chosen people, or to be unlike all the other nations. We like cigars and champagne like everybody else. If you prick us, do we not bleed?

But for rich American intellectual Jews, that’s not what we’re supposed to be. Krauss tosses in a whole bunch of references: the writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the publisher Salman Schocken, Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, the Bamba peanut-flavored snack – the list goes on. She knows there’s no answer here, enough even to mock Americans’ disappointment with Israelis: “They’re so stubborn and intractable, so stubbornly immune to logic, so damn rude, and it turns out most of them don’t care for anything Jewish.”

There are two lovely passages in the novel that fill me with hope that Krauss will one day shed the image she guards so zealously – an image necessary for ceremonies and honor, but one that has no place in literature. In these two excerpts, I find honesty and abandon.

In one, near the end, Krauss writes about love: “I don’t believe I have ever known real love that does not come with violence, and at that moment, lying under the desert sky, I knew that I would never again trust any love that doesn’t.” In the other, her lover ties her to the bed with black ropes, and a feeling of calm washes over her – maybe because now she can suddenly stop being “the writer.”