‘Ayeka” is a question between heaven and earth and back: “Where are you?” God asks Adam in Genesis. As the title of the first chapter in Nicole Krauss’ inventive and elegant new novel, it signals the depth of searching and questioning about to take place.
In two parallel narratives, two adrift characters in “Forest Dark” (HarperCollins) make their way from New York to Israel, drawn there by some magnetic, maybe mystical force, and end up at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Both the retired lawyer who just divorced his wife and the acclaimed novelist with writer’s bloc and a sinking marriage are the kind of Americans comfortable in Israel. Separately, their wanderings take them through city and wilderness. Each is sidetracked — the lawyer by a charismatic American rabbi and the novelist by a retired professor of English with a possible Mossad past.
“Forest Dark” is a tale of metamorphosis for these characters, and for Krauss it is a literary adventure in a different kind of storytelling, with elements of the surreal. As she probes her characters’ inner lives — the lawyer Jules Epstein in the third person, and the novelist, named Nicole, in the first — she muses on subjects that have long engaged her, including literature, perception, time, loss, knowledge, Jewish memory, human connection and the unlived lives we might have led. She also tells a story of Israel and America.
I’ve had the pleasure of a conversation with Krauss spanning more than 15 years and four of her books. We first met in 2002 when “Man Walks Into a Room” was published, and we have met over coffee on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn, on subsequent publications of “The History of Love,” “The Great House” and, last week, this latest book, her first since 2010. For many years, she was feted as a young talent, named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007 and selected as one of The New Yorker’s “Twenty Under Forty” list in 2010. Now, at 43, her voice in fiction is still original: She crafts beautiful sentences, challenges form and ideas, creates characters alive to possibility and she’s funny. In her pages, Judaism and Israel matter.
About Israel, she says, “My writing has been going there for a while as I’ve been going there for a while. It doesn’t let up; my attraction to the place as a person and writer deepens over time. I go there four or five times a year,” she says. “Israel is one place in my family’s geography that has been consistent for 80 years. In fact, she has photographs that her grandfather took there going back to the 1930s. Her parents met in Israel. She grew up in Old Westbury, L.I., with frequent visits to both sets of grandparents in Israel. Her brother now lives there, and her sister has an apartment in Tel Aviv. Like her character Nicole, her own marriage faltered (she and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer split up in 2014), and she now has a boyfriend in Israel. Her sons are 9 and 11.
Asked if she feels pulled to live there, Krauss says, “As a writer, absolutely. In a sense, the most interesting Jewish stories are happening there now.” She adds, “I can’t walk out of my sister’s apartment without running into a fantastic story.
“People tell me I look Israeli. I understand what they are saying. Sometimes I feel more myself there. I feel in a deeper sense more at ease.”
But she admits that she’s glad to come home to the relative serenity of Brooklyn, “a place where I can think and write with clarity. There’s a kind of quiet here that’s hard to find there.”
This season, several distinguished novelists have new books looking to Israel, including Nathan Englander (“Dinner at the Center of the Earth”), Joshua Cohen (“Moving Kings”), Dalia Rosenfeld (“The Worlds We Think We Know”) and Ruby Namdar (“The Ruined House”).
“Sometimes I feel more myself there.” Krauss says of Israel. “I feel in a deeper sense more at ease.”
For Krauss, Tel Aviv seemed the natural setting to send her characters seeking transformation, as it’s a place where reinvention and creating something new is possible. She got reacquainted with the city in the late ’90s, “rediscovering the city while it was rediscovering itself.”
In Tel Aviv on Friday afternoons, she writes, even the most secular loved to talk about a special atmosphere, “when the streets emptied and the world drifted toward a quietness, lifted out of the river of time, so that it might be laid back down in it deliberately, ritually, all over again.”
In “Forest Dark,” the 68-year-old Epstein has given away much of his wealth and possessions; he was a man who “constantly overspilled himself. It all came pouring out: the passion, the anger, the enthusiasm, the contempt for people and the love for all mankind.” He grew up on Long Island, the son of parents who moved from Europe to Palestine and New York, and lived in a screaming match in the many languages they spoke. Jules, too, lived in argument, “and he needed it to know he was alive.” On the eve of his parents first yahrtzeit, he travels to Israel, in part to come up with some way to honor their memory. He decides to plant a forest of pine trees.
Feeling tired of being himself, he gives in to a Shabbat invitation by a rabbi who runs a mystical institution in Safed called Gilgul — the word means transformation. He stays in a small room there, with a desk and wardrobe “empty but for the smell of other centuries.”
When Krauss sets out to write a novel, she’s not at all sure how things will turn out. “I feel it’s important to say that creation is a mysterious act, more like some opening toward the unknown, without knowing the answers in advance.”
At 43, Krauss’ voice in fiction is still original: She crafts beautiful sentences, challenges form and ideas, creates characters alive to possibility and she’s funny. In her pages, Judaism and Israel matter.
She is drawn to landscapes of the natural world; here to the sea, mountains, desert and forest. In doing research about where Epstein — who “arrived fully formed as a person” — would wander, she set out for the Judean and Negev deserts with a friend (whose stunning desert photos are the book’s end pages). They spent a night in Bedouin-like tents near Arad, and the Jewish innkeeper regaled them with stories of his 27 reincarnations. When she couldn’t sleep afterwards, she took out her computer and was struck with an idea about Kafka, Prague, escape and other possible lives that she pursues in the Nicole narrative.
The fictional Nicole, who sometimes wonders whether she is dreaming her life, is led to a new chapter of Kafka’s story, and the author Krauss plays with literary history. She explains that for her, Kafka always mattered. Once she read “Metamorphosis” and other works, she felt he “opened paths to being. I just feel gratitude, as a writer. A picture postcard of him accompanied me to every graduate school door. I never ceased trying to understand him, how he looks out at the infinite and does it over and over again.”
Krauss says that in Yiddish, the title of “Metamorphosis” is translated as “Gilgul.” In kabbalistic language, gilgul refers to the transmigration of souls, the concept of reincarnation. In Hebrew the word means cycle or wheel. In fact, she wanted to call this novel “Gilgul,” but her publisher was discouraging.
“Our language needs this word about the transmigration of the soul,” she argued, and insisted that soon it would be incorporated into language. Then she found the Dante quote that ultimately inspired the title (“It hit me like an arrow,” she says, and quotes at the end of the novel: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark, /For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”).
Soon after, she heard that “gilgul” was mentioned on the television series “Fargo.”
“You see,” she says. “It was waiting at the door of the culture.”
Krauss has studied mysticism on her own, audited classes at JTS and for the last two years has been studying text regularly with a group led by JTS librarian David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud.
The author (along with her character) loves to dance and often takes classes in gaga, the movement language developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. In dance, she says, “you can go to more expansive places beyond language, about pure feeling, not bound to literal feeling. Dance is a good complement to my lifelong search in writing for freedom.
“For me, dancing gaga parallels a seven-year conscious effort to find pleasure in the work, to insist on pleasure in the work,” she says.
Throughout the novel, there’s a sense of turning to something new, searching for completeness, new ways both through the wonders of the forest and back out.
In the desert, even though exhausted, Nicole feels “close to the fullness that one sometimes senses is there beneath the surface of everything, invisible, as Kafka once wrote, far away, but not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf, and which, if we call it by the right name, might come.”