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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Forest Dark
Forest Dark
A Novel
by Nicole Krauss

Hardcover (12 Sep 2017), 304 pages.
Publisher: Harper
ISBN-13: 9780062430991
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

Bursting with life and humor, Forest Dark is a profound, mesmerizing novel of metamorphosis and self-realization—of looking beyond all that is visible towards the infinite.

"A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration." —Philip Roth

"One of America's most important novelists" (New York Times), the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The History of Love, conjures an achingly beautiful and breathtakingly original novel about personal transformation that interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals—an older lawyer and a young novelist—whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert.

Jules Epstein, a man whose drive, avidity, and outsized personality have, for sixty-eight years, been a force to be reckoned with, is undergoing a metamorphosis. In the wake of his parents' deaths, his divorce from his wife of more than thirty years, and his retirement from the New York legal firm where he was a partner, he's felt an irresistible need to give away his possessions, alarming his children and perplexing the executor of his estate. With the last of his wealth, he travels to Israel, with a nebulous plan to do something to honor his parents. In Tel Aviv, he is sidetracked by a charismatic American rabbi planning a reunion for the descendants of King David who insists that Epstein is part of that storied dynastic line. He also meets the rabbi's beautiful daughter who convinces Epstein to become involved in her own project—a film about the life of David being shot in the desert—with life-changing consequences.

But Epstein isn't the only seeker embarking on a metaphysical journey that dissolves his sense of self, place, and history. Leaving her family in Brooklyn, a young, well-known novelist arrives at the Tel Aviv Hilton where she has stayed every year since birth. Troubled by writer's block and a failing marriage, she hopes that the hotel can unlock a dimension of reality—and her own perception of life—that has been closed off to her. But when she meets a retired literature professor who proposes a project she can't turn down, she's drawn into a mystery that alters her life in ways she could never have imagined.

The expulsion from Paradise is in its main significance eternal. Consequently the expulsion from Paradise is final, and life in this world irrevocable, but the eternal nature of the process makes it nevertheless possible that not only could we remain forever in Paradise, but that we are currently there in actual fact, no matter whether we know it here or not.
—Kafka

Ayeka

At the time of his disappearance, Epstein had been living in Tel Aviv for three months. No one had seen his apartment. His daughter Lucie had come to visit with her children, but Epstein installed them in the Hilton, where he met them for lavish breakfasts at which he only sipped tea. When Lucie asked to come over, he'd begged off, explaining that the place was small and modest, not fit for receiving guests. Still reeling from her parents' late divorce, she'd looked at him through narrow eyes—nothing about Epstein had previously been small or modest—but despite her suspicion she'd had to accept it, along with all the other changes that had come over her father. In the end, it was the police detectives who showed Lucie, Jonah, and Maya into their father's apartment, which turned out to be in a crumbling building near the ancient port of Jaffa. The paint was peeling, and the shower let down directly above the toilet. A cockroach strutted majestically across the stone floor. Only after the police detective stomped on it with his shoe did it occur to Maya, Epstein's youngest and most intelligent child, that it may have been the last to see her father. If Epstein had ever really lived there at all—the only things that suggested he had inhabited the place were some books warped by the humid air that came through an open window and a bottle of the Coumadin pills he'd taken since the discovery of an atrial fibrillation five years earlier. It could not have been called squalid, and yet the place had more in common with the slums of Calcutta than it did with the rooms in which his children had stayed with their father on the Amalfi coast and Cap d'Antibes. Though, like those other rooms, this one also had a view of the sea.

In those final months Epstein had become difficult to reach. No longer did his answers come hurtling back regardless of the time of day or night. If before he'd always had the last word, it was because he'd never not replied. But slowly, his messages had become more and more scarce. Time expanded between them because it had expanded in him: the twenty-four hours he'd once filled with everything under the sun was replaced by a scale of thousands of years. His family and friends became accustomed to his irregular silences, and so when he failed to answer anything at all during the first week of February, no one became instantly alarmed. In the end, it was Maya who woke in the night feeling a tremor along the invisible line that still connected her to her father, and asked his cousin to check on him. Moti, who had been the beneficiary of many thousands of dollars from Epstein, caressed the ass of the sleeping lover in his bed, then lit a cigarette and stuffed his bare feet into his shoes, for though it was the middle of the night, he was glad to have a reason to talk to Epstein about a new investment. But when Moti arrived at the Jaffa address scrawled on his palm, he rang Maya back. There must be a mistake, he told her, there was no way her father would live in such a dump. Maya phoned Epstein's lawyer, Schloss, the only one who still knew anything, but he confirmed that the address was correct. When Moti finally roused the young tenant on the second floor by holding down the buzzer with a stubby finger, she confirmed that Epstein had in fact been living above her for the last few months, but that it had been many days since she'd last seen him, or heard him, really, for she had gotten used to the sound of him pacing on her ceiling during the night. Though she couldn't know it as she stood sleepily at the door addressing the balding cousin of her upstairs neighbor, in the rapid escalation of events that followed, the young woman would become accustomed to the sound of many people coming and going above her head, tracing and retracing the footsteps of a man she hardly knew and yet had come to feel oddly close to.

Full Excerpt

From the book: Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss. Copyright © 2017 by Nicole Krauss. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Bursting with life and humor, Forest Dark is a profound, mesmerizing novel of metamorphosis and self-realization.

Print Article

In Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss presents parallel stories of two people who leave New York to stay in Israel, but never meet one another. First, we have Jules Epstein, a rich man who is in the process of divesting himself of his wealth, while at the same time looking for a project to memorialize his parents. Then we get the novelist Nicole (no, not the author herself, but a fictional version of her), who is trying to overcome writer's block for her book about the Tel Aviv Hilton, while at the same time trying to escape her life and less than happy marriage.

Both of these characters are motivated to find something allusive that may (or may not) solve their immediate problems. Krauss offers each of them a journey – to Israel – and then waylays them on their separate paths. In Jules' case, a chance meeting with the rabbi Menachem Klausner, (who insists that Jules is a direct descendant of King David), intercepts his search for the perfect way to spend his money. Nicole's work on her novel goes astray when she accepts a meeting with the retired literature professor (or possibly ex-Mossad officer, or both), Eliezer Friedman, who wants to enlist her in writing (what he believes is) the real final chapter to Franz Kafka's life story. This last bit is complicated, because Krauss combines the actual legal battle over Kafka's papers (see Beyond the Book), with fictional Friedman's wild theory that Kafka didn't die in 1924, but rather faked his death to move to Israel. The author uses the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel as a connection point between these two characters, since Nicole wants to focus her next novel there, and it is where Jules makes his home.

Krauss distinguishes these two narratives by using different points of view: Jules' story is told in third person, and Nicole's in first. This gives the reader a sense of a close personal attachment to Nicole, whose story mixes reality with bouts of delusion and metaphysical experiences, which may have otherwise detached the reader from her adventures. Jules' perspective offers a larger view of the story's events, enabling the reader to understand more about the other people involved in the novel and, at the same time, providing insights into things Jules isn't always aware of; things that happen around and to him. To put it in another way, we get the close-up shots of Nicole and the panoramic views of Jules, but both of these portraits allow us into the minds and thoughts of these two characters – Nicole's thoughts come to us with her personal prejudice, while Jules' come without bias. Furthermore, Krauss emphasizes this parallel with the character Nicole's reverse déjà vu experiences; she sees herself in places where she hasn't been before, as if she's living in two universes.

I found this dual point of view structure to be incredibly intriguing, and something that stuck with me long after I finished reading Forest Dark. My mind kept going back to sections of the novel that touched on philosophy and spiritualism, how we perceive (or misperceive) both our history and our present situations, and whether the future is already perceptible.

Of course, this sounds terribly heavy and intellectual, but I can assure you that the narrative here (with a few exceptions) is highly readable and understandable, and even lyrical and humorous at turns. Forest Dark is so forceful and gripping that I simply gobbled it up from start to finish. Of course, I am probably the perfect target audience for this novel: I am Jewish, know Israel intimately, and am not afraid of being challenged by what could be considered absurd or fantastic. But even for the wider reading public, this is a five-star read.

Reviewed by Davida Chazan

Kirkus Reviews
An ambitiously high-concept tale that mainly idles in a contemplative register.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Krauss's elegant, provocative, and mesmerizing novel is her best yet. Rich in profound insights and emotional resonance...Vivid, intelligent, and often humorous, this novel is a fascinating tour de force.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Wildly imaginative, darkly humorous and deeply personal, this novel seems to question the very nature of time and space. Krauss commands our attention, and serious readers will applaud.

Booklist
Starred Review. Entrancing and mysterious…Krauss reflects with singing emotion and sagacity on Jewish history; war; the ancient, plundered forests of the Middle East; and the paradoxes of being. A resounding look at the enigmas of the self and the persistence of the past.

Print Article

Kafka and the Court Case

Franz KafkaWhile reading Nicole Krauss' novel Forest Dark, it occurred to me that although most lovers of literature know the name Franz Kafka, many might not realize that Kafka's rise to fame came mostly posthumously. Furthermore, even fewer people may know much about the court battle over his papers that finally reached its conclusion in 2016.

Franz Kafka died in Prague in 1924, leaving his papers to his friend Max Brod with instructions to "burn them unread." Brod, however, couldn't bring himself to carry out Kafka's dying wish, and succeeded in smuggling them out of Europe in 1939, just before the Nazis' invasion of Czechoslovakia. Brod brought the papers with him to (what was then) Palestine, and began editing and translating them, publishing some of Kafka's best-known works internationally. After World War II, Brod sent some of the papers to Kafka's sole surviving family member, his niece, and these are now in Oxford, England. When Brod died in 1968, he left the remainder of his collection, along with his own diaries, in the care of his secretary, Esther Hoffe, who most people believe was Brod's lover. Brod apparently left vague instructions in his will regarding the preservation of these papers, which Esther decided to ignore (just as Brod had ignored Kafka's dying request to destroy them). When Esther died, she left her inherited trove to her daughters, Ruth Wiesler and Eva Hoffe.

Brod and KafkaEnter the National Library of Israel and their lawsuit. Their aim was to obtain the papers from Wiesler, and later after her death, from Hoffe, claiming that the documents saved from the Nazis rightfully belonged in their supervision, to properly archive, catalogue, translate and publish for all to see. However, due to the vague instructions in Brod's will, the possessors of these papers didn't want to give up their treasure. Reasons for their refusal included that they wanted the papers to go to the German National Archives, which Israel found a distasteful idea, since most of Kafka and Brod's family members died at the hands of the Nazis. Aside from their argument that Kafka was "Jewish but not a Zionist," Wiesler and Hoffe believed that these papers rightfully belonged to them, to dispose of as they pleased, and they made all sorts of claims, including making up a story about a break-in at their (famously cat-infested) Tel Aviv apartment where thieves stole them. Mostly, the Library worried that they would sell the papers off to the highest bidders. At one point, a court ordered Hoffe and her family to hand over the keys to the safety deposit boxes where they stored some of the papers, only to find that the keys didn't fit the boxes.

Most sources attest to the family putting out exorbitant amounts of money in their endless attempts to keep the papers to themselves, some of which probably came from the infamous 1988 auction of Kafka's original manuscript of "The Trial" to the German National Archive. As late as 2012, Hoffe's lawyers tried to stop the conclusion of the case against them by claiming that there was another will, written after the one used in the court case. By 2015, the Tel Aviv District court awarded the papers to the National Library of Israel, but once again, Hoffe appealed, this time to the Supreme Court.

Max Brod and Esther HoffeThe end to this ironically Kafkaesque battle came in August 2016, when the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the previous court decisions, and awarded all of the papers to the National Library of Israel. As of December 2016, all of the papers from the apartment in Tel-Aviv, and the many safety deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland, are in the hands of the National Library of Israel. What will they find? Perhaps another masterpiece, or maybe only the shards of the genius we already know. Who knows, they might even find evidence to prove the outlandish theory in Krauss' novel was true; that Kafka faked his death, moved to Israel, recovered from tuberculosis so that he alone could complete the works that Brod published, which brought his brilliance to the world.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka and Max Brod, courtesy of rhystranter.com
Max Brod and Esther Hoffe, from Eva Hoffe's family archives

By Davida Chazan

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