Nicole Krauss's New Novel: If Kafka Met Dante in an Israeli Desert

Two New York Jews adrift in Israel seek answers through Kafka, kabbalah and the Tel Aviv Hilton in Krauss's eagerly awaited new novel, 'Forest Dark.'

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Author Nicole Krauss
Author Nicole KraussCredit: Goni Riskin

“Forest Dark,” by Nicole Krauss, Harper, 304 pp., $27.99

If Kafka met Dante in a dark forest in the Judean desert, what would that look like?

Of course, forests don’t really belong in the desert, unless you’re an aging Jewish-American donor looking to honor his late parents’ memory. In that case, you would definitely want to plant a forest in Israel—a big one, just as Jules Epstein, one of the protagonists, seeks to in “Forest Dark,” the latest novel by Nicole Krauss.

The other main character in the book appears to be Krauss herself. In narratives paralleling and playing on each other, a novelist named Nicole and Epstein inhabit the Israeli-Palestinian landscape in a way none of her novels have to date, and they experience a kind of Kafkasque metamorphosis—the very idea of which, we learn, may be perceived differently in the Jewish imagination than by the rest of the planet. In Hebrew and Yiddish, Kafka’s seminal work “The Metamorphosis” is called “HaGilgul,” pulling deep threads from the kabbalistic idea of gilgul neshamot—a sort of recycling of souls. Yes, there is reincarnation in Jewish mystical thought, and an air of reincarnated literary karma wafting between the pages of the book.

It makes sense that a blurb from Philip Roth is on the cover: In “Operation Shylock,” that major Jewish American novelist appeared as himself in his own fiction. Coincidentally, Jonathan Safran Foer, to whom Krauss was married until not long ago, also used that technique in his debut book, “Everything Is Illuminated.” Krauss’s 2014 divorce from Foer, a schism that for the Jewish literati was as momentous as say, the Protestant Reformation, is like a ghost character in “Forest Dark,” reading in parts like a defense of dissolving a marriage in which two people have drifted apart, or perhaps were never so incredibly close to begin with.

The other ghost character in the novel is Kafka. Here Krauss constructs an allohistory, that entertaining literary game of creating alternative outcomes to past events (also very Rothian, à la “The Plot Against America”). Nicole “learns” through a peculiar and loquacious Tel Aviv University literature professor, Eliezer Friedman, that Kafka didn’t die in Austria in 1924, but furtively immigrated to Palestine, taking up a new identity as “simply a thin, ailing Jew from Prague, convalescing in the warm climate of his new country.” After a year in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, where he feared being spotted, Kafka requested a transfer to a kibbutz in the north, close to the Sea of Galilee. There he dwelled for another 15 years, living in happy obscurity as a gardener named Anshel Peleg, until the murder of Kafka’s beloved sister Ottla at Auschwitz again sent him wandering, to Tel Aviv, and finally, out to the desert with a backpack full of books and a jeep provided by Salman Schocken, the publisher who served as the sole patron of S.Y. Agnon (as well as the owner of this newspaper).

While all of that might sound too airy-fairy and fabulous to be serious, Krauss stretches out her narrative muscles so gracefully that, at times, we begin to wonder if this little-known conspiracy might actually be true. After all, if we can be propelled to read onward after learning that Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he had been transformed into a gigantic insect in his bed, why can’t we believe that Nicole Krauss awoke one morning to find herself divorced, knocking around Tel Aviv, and soon to be in possession of a collection of Kafka’s notebooks and other unfinished works, thanks to Friedman, who somehow has obtained them—perhaps even stolen them? What if she, too, is deposited by an army jeep in some lonely little house in the desert—the very place where Kafka wrote his final words—and finds herself duly deserted by the Powers That Be, left in an absurdist limbo like Kafka on trial?

It’s as if Kafka’s life has merged with hers and has the potential of being re-lived, re-read, re-worked. Friedman throws out suggestions that Nicole might be able to discover his intentions from his journals and finish his unfinished works. What could be more Kafkaesque than a request to complete Kafka’s thoughts? And Friedman, who, we are told might also be a former Mossad agent, works her over with a perfect Israeli combination of protekzia—let’s call that friends in high places—and Jewish guilt. For Friedman, there’s nothing particularly unethical about finishing the works of Kafka because after all, his writing—and Nicole’s—doesn’t belong the authors.

“You think your writing belongs to you?” he asked softly.

“Who else?”

“To the Jews.”

I broke into laughter. But Friedman had already turned away and begun to comb through his bulging pockets one by one. The hands, their papery backs blotchy with sunspots, patted and pressed, worked open the Velcro closures. It was an ordeal that could go on all day: He was as thickly packed as a suicide bomber.

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

Unspoken conversations

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s worth noting here, appears at first blush like the background noise of the novel. It comes as a rattle of Qassam rockets being knocked out of the sky over Tel Aviv, or the author’s sudden rush into a stairwell for shelter during a siren, the result of another mini-war with Gaza. But Israel’s moral and political quandaries are never directly addressed, and we never hear Krauss opine on them in any conspicuous way.

Yet there is a kind of karmic payback—or at least disruption—at root in the novel, involving Epstein, a wealthy man who, upon reaching his 60s and burying his parents, has decided to leave his wife of decades and donate most of his material wealth. He takes up residence in a schlocky Tel Aviv apartment to see the sea, to search for some semblance of homeland, and to pay tribute to his late parents by planting a staggeringly large forest with the JNF. But he is disappearing on many levels, and embedded in the disappearance is a dispossession that itself seems to be a commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian predicament.

At the start of the book, a Palestinian in the entourage of President Mahmoud Abbas makes off with Epstein’s expensive cashmere coat, in the pockets of which were his wallet and cell phone. He can’t show pictures of his children and grandchildren to his new rabbi friend—who is as much of a mysterious nudnik to him as Friedman is to Nicole—because “all the thousands of photographs had gone with the Palestinian.” The man with his beloved coat, the one possession with which he seemingly does not wish to part, by now “must have arrived home to Ramallah or Nablus and hung it in the closet, to the surprise of his wife.”

The leitmotif of the lost coat—was it taken by this “Palestinian” by accident or on purpose?—seems symbolic of the dispossession and displacement that is unspoken in the Jewish narrative, because most of us find it too difficult to face. These unspoken, unheld conversations are the bane of our existence on a macro level, Krauss seems to argue. They are also what destroy marriages. “The words we wanted to use, we weren’t allowed to use—the rigidity that comes of fear prevented them—and the words we could use were, to me, irrelevant,” she writes of the character Nicole’s dissolving marriage.

Epstein is denuded, in a metaphorical sense, multiple times. His Muslim doorman back in New York, who is supposed to be guarding one of his most valuable possessions, loses it. It’s a painting of the Annunciation, and Epstein has decided to sell it to help fund a movie-in-the-making about King David, ditching the forest idea. The absurdity of it all is not happenstance. Rather, it seems to be what could only be described as a delicately drawn reincarnation novel, where there is some kind of experience, a corrective one or just comeuppance, that addresses some hurt or unfinished business. In the later part of the book, Nicole is deposited in the desert and falls dangerously ill. In the hospital, it’s an Arab orderly with a mop who notices her death-throes fever as she’s languishing in a hallway and, we learn, gets medical attention, saving her life.

Hilton Tel Aviv.Credit: Assaf Evron

A borderless, burgeoning world of hybrid writing

We accept not knowing where the blurred line between fact and fiction lies in portions of the novel, in part because Krauss is Krauss and has, at this point in her career, license to do as she pleases. Others among us may only accept it grudgingly, because Krauss is skipping back and forth between fiction and nonfiction without a care for distinguishing for the reader what did and did not happen. Old-fashioned adherents to genre may find this frustrating. But in a borderless, burgeoning world of hybrid writing, this is not only acceptable, but admirable. It reads at times as if we’re both watching the movie and the “making of” version of the film where we got to see how it all came together. This is perhaps the brilliance of the book: The fact that we’re not sure what happened is tolerable, because an original, highly referential work of cross-genre writing was created in the process.    

On that note, two final references are worthy of mention. Nicole continually imagines herself stepping in and out of time, as if watching herself from elsewhere, in a reference to Freud and his theory of the uncanny. But the real translation of the original German, Das Unheimliche, refers to the feeling of being at home or this case, un-home.You think something is familiar, but then realize it most definitely isn’t. In this literary journey, Nicole returns to the Tel Aviv Hilton, which she has visited every year since birth, in some kind of unscratchable itch for home, to satisfy that longing to have some semblance of home in the homeland, particularly at a time when her sense of home has disappeared beneath her feet. The author’s connection with this massive luxury hotel on the water’s edge of the Zionist experiment is redolent with yearning to keep a toehold in something more rooted, something less ephemeral than a famous marriage or a successful book tour, something authentic and indigenous, something not constantly tainted by the victimhood of life in the Diaspora.

Even through the dark energy of “Forest Dark,” there is a self-deprecating humor about Americans and Israelis, about her mission and Epstein’s, who seems almost a caricature of himself, the wealthy American Jew looking to plant more trees in Eretz Yisrael. He gets lost in the forest, as does Krauss, who took her title from Dante’s “Inferno”:

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ilene Prusher is a multi-genre writer and journalist. She is the author of the novel “Baghdad Fixer” and teaches multimedia journalism at Florida Atlantic University.