Seekers in the Holy Land in ‘Forest Dark’
Toward the beginning of Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark, the author describes three black-and-white photographs of the Tel Aviv Hilton. It’s “not just any hotel,” Krauss writes, but “a massive concrete rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv coast, built in the Brutalist style.” Given how closely hotels are tied to trips and journeys, it’s apt.
This towering Hilton looms large in Forest Dark, a signifier of transformation. In this novel, metamorphosis dances across the pages, with nods to Jewish literary lions and masters of magical realism Sholem Asch, Bruno Schulz and I.L. Peretz. Here, we see Krauss giving shape to the Jewish literary canon of the future.
The fictional Nicole, a successful Brooklyn-based novelist like her creator of the same name, is stuck, the story she is working on refusing to unfold, her marriage faltering. “The trouble in my work and my life came down to the same thing,” she muses. “I had become distrustful of all the possible shapes that I might give things.” In a haze of insomnia, she stuffs a suitcase and, by morning, is on an El Al flight, leaving behind her husband and sons, convinced the Tel Aviv Hilton—packed with personal memories—will give her what she needs to write again.
Once in Israel, Nicole stops trying to harness her life, opening herself up to unlikely and unusual experiences. By the book’s second part, she’s embedded in the desert, alone with a dog and an improbable literary task involving a Kafka manuscript and a historical twist.
In alternating chapters, we encounter Forest Dark’s second protagonist, Julius Epstein, a 60-something American attorney who is overtaken by a driving need to leave a mark in his parents’ memory—in Israel. When he arrives in the country, he has already begun a process of transformation, giving away an outsized fortune, his belongings, his job, leaving his wife and even his way of being in the world: Julius “wasn’t large, only uncontainable…the passion, the anger, the enthusiasm, the contempt for people and the love for all mankind.” For Nicole and Julius, facts and truth are distinct, as each—with parallel journeys that don’t overlap—looks to deeper truths hiding in “the accordion folds of facts.”
The Hebrew name of Chapter One comes from Genesis 3:9, Ayeka, “Where are you?” God’s question is not geographical, it is about a state of being defined by uncertainty.
One way to think about Genesis is as a “meditation on Creation as a set of choices and a reflection on the consequences,” Krauss writes. Here, each protagonist makes transformative choices, responding to a towering man from history: Franz Kafka, for Nicole; King David, for Julius.
Readers waiting for the two paths to intersect may be disappointed, left to wonder if Nicole has conjured Julius Epstein. The contours of his story echo hers—a Jewish American in Israel escaping material bonds, forging deep connections to the past by creating a new reality.
A pulsing intelligence courses through Forest Dark. Big ideas drive the plot forward: Is receiving the infinite only possible after loss? What does transmigration of the soul entail? What does Davidic descent mean in our modern world? Must Jewish writers accept obligations?
Dark humor and mysticism abound in Krauss’s modern Israel, enlivened by Kabbalistic rabbis, possible ex-Mossad agents, nonprofit professionals, nods to gilgul and Gogol—and even the secret life of Kafka, the kibbutznik. These pages give readers a chance to reflect on how and where we draw lines—or connect dots—between truth and fact, fiction and life.
Erica Brody is a writer, editor and strategist as well as associate director of internal communications at Hadassah.