On the cover of Forest Dark, there is a quote from Philip Roth: “A brilliant novel. I am full of admiration.”
I’m totally happy to let Roth and others who feel that way go with it. I’m sure Forest Dark is brilliant. I enjoyed bits and pieces. I found some of it a slog—a beautifully and poetically described slog. There is no doubt that author Nicole Krauss has a way with words. She does (softly) force readers towards empathy and understanding in a beautiful way.
The issue, I think, boils down to this. I have no interest in Kafka, or anything Kafka related, except the coffee shop on Main St. and even that is hit or miss, depending on the coffee barista and the bean being used at the time. Because Kafka features heavily in the storyline about a writer who goes to Tel Aviv after pondering the mysteries of the universe and feeling as though she has already arrived in places where she has not yet arrived, I tended to tune out. I like the parts about the dog though. Those bits are closer to the end. The end is not tidy.
I have a limited interest in lengthy metaphors and anything without an immediately visible cause and effect, which I will accept is a personal limitation. Also, I’m entirely sick of reading about the dissolution of marriages, which is not Krauss’s fault either. I’m beginning to wonder if in fact world will end if someone describes a happy marriage in a novel or short story.
I do love Krauss’s descriptions of Tel Aviv and the surrounding spaces. “Epstein could see the hill of Jaffa in whose belly thousands of years lay collapsed and dreaming, returned to the womb,” Krauss writes. There are other phrases as delicate and beautiful sprinkled through the novel.
Jules Epstein is the focus of the second plotline. He has ditched all his belongings, liquidated his assets and left for Tel Aviv with the foggy idea he will do something momentus for his parents, who have recently died. He’s not quite sure what. He’s also being harangued by a religious leader who wants some funding for a project. Epstein doesn’t seem well. He is well and unwell.
Every now and then, while reading the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival books, I find connections between things that seem like they have nothing in common. These slivers are a gift—a bit of common ground that tenuously ties humanity together.
“The things I’d allowed myself to believe in—the unassailability of love, the power of narrative, which could carry people through their lives together without divergence, the essential health of domestic life—I no longer believed in,” the writer fleeing to Tel Aviv says.
And here is the moment where I considered the non-fiction work How to Fall in Love with Anyone, whose author claims our narratives about love are entirely useless and harmful. The addiction to narrative, failing or not, pops up again and again in Forest Dark. These two books, while not at all similar, contain a shared point of view about the stories we tell and why we tell them. It’s magical.
Nicole Krauss was at Event 34 (Nicole Krauss in Conversation with Mark Medley) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.