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Nicole Krauss and her precursors

Discussed in this essay:

Forest Dark, by Nicole Krauss. HarperCollins. 304 pages. $27.99.

In 1939, fifteen years after his death, Franz Kafka finally found his way to Palestine. An ambivalent Zionist for much of his life, he had been thinking about making aliyah since at least 1912, when he discussed it with Felice Bauer at their first meeting. (Bauer would become his fiancée but not his wife; Kafka was even more ambivalent about marriage than he was about Zionism.) On the evening of that encounter, which took place at the home of their mutual friend Max Brod, he was carrying the latest issue of Palästina, a German-language Zionist monthly. Writing to Bauer in Berlin afterward, he reminded her that she had promised to one day accompany him to the Jewish homeland.

Photograph © Rafal Krela

They never made the journey; her bourgeois family didn’t approve, and after a five-year involvement, during which they were rarely in the same country, they separated. But Kafka could not stop thinking about it. From Prague, he followed the Zionist press and attended meetings of the World Zionist Congress. In 1918, he wrote “Workers Without Possessions,” a sketch for a “socialist plan” that envisions life in a kibbutz as “the most frugal existence” possible, with subsistence wages and a diet of bread, water, and dates. (Being Kafka, a man known for his eccentric and self-flagellating tendencies, he probably did not see this as a drawback.) A few years later, already seriously ill with tuberculosis, he began taking Hebrew lessons twice a week from a Jerusalem native studying in Prague. “He still dreamed of Palestine,” she told an interviewer many years later. Hugo Bergmann, a friend who made the journey in 1918, suggested that Kafka join him in Jerusalem, but the writer worried he was not strong enough for the trip. Nevertheless, in 1923, he and Dora Diamant, the new lover with whom he spent the last months of his life, spoke to friends about emigration. Perhaps they would open a little restaurant in Tel Aviv — Diamant would do the cooking, Kafka would wait tables.

It didn’t happen. Kafka died in Prague in 1924, at the age of forty, having published only a small portion of his writing, fiction so stark and disorienting it would ultimately require its own adjective. Most of the great works that would establish him as “the Dante of the twentieth century” (W. H. Auden) were discovered largely unfinished among the many manuscripts, letters, diaries, and other papers he bequeathed to Brod with the instruction that everything be burned. To his eternal credit, Brod disregarded his friend’s wishes, editing and, in some cases, completing the works and publishing much, but not all, of what was in his possession. As Hitler’s armies approached Prague, Brod fled to Palestine, carrying Kafka’s papers in a suitcase. The journey that the founding father of contemporary Jewish literature dreamed of making in his life could be completed only in his afterlife.

Though Kafka died “too soon for the Holocaust,” as Philip Roth once wrote, generations of readers have seen him nonetheless as a kind of Ur-victim. This may be because the major theme of his fiction is entrapment: within an authoritarian state, within the body, within one’s own mind. But it may also be because his life presents an excruciating paradox. We feel instinctively that he ought to have lived longer — to have had more time to complete his works, to see them published, to enjoy the recognition that was rightfully his, rather than to suffer his cruel fate: dying virtually unknown after toiling away at an insurance agency for most of his life. Yet we know too that had he lived much longer, he likely would have been swept up, along with many of his Jewish friends and neighbors, in the tsunami that engulfed Europe.

But what if Kafka’s story had ended differently? What if he had, after all, turned his dream of settling in Palestine into reality — what if he had escaped from his cage? This is the premise of Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s strange and beguiling new novel, a mystery that operates on grounds simultaneously literary and existential.

The book opens in present-day New York City, with the sudden disappearance of Jules Epstein, a wealthy businessman who has begun behaving oddly. In his late sixties, he has decided to slough off his earthly trappings: his art collection, his jewelry, his long marriage. He mortgages his Fifth Avenue apartment and plans a trip to Israel. The day before leaving, he attends a dinner with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, at the Plaza Hotel. He is seated next to a charismatic rabbi who insists that his name proves he is a descendant of King David. Epstein tries to brush him off and makes for the exit, but at the coat check, he is disconcerted to learn that his coat is gone — taken, perhaps accidentally, by a member of the Palestinian entourage. Walking home across Central Park wearing the Palestinian’s coat, he is attacked. The mugger draws a knife across his chest. “What’s in there?” he asks. “Where?” Epstein gasps. “On the inside!” the mugger says. “Nothing,” Epstein replies quietly.

Soon the perspective switches abruptly. This is a signature move for Krauss, whose two most recent novels are also narrated by alternating, interweaving voices that tell stories whose connections are withheld till the last possible moment. Appropriately (or inevitably) for a novel inspired by Kafka, the next strand here is voiced by a narrator who mirrors the author. Her name is Nicole, she is a writer and the mother of two sons, and her marriage is disintegrating. (Krauss’s divorce from the writer Jonathan Safran Foer made tabloid headlines in 2014 and was recently in the media spotlight again with the publication of Foer’s latest novel, Here I Am, which also chronicles a divorce.) As the title’s allusion to Dante suggests, Nicole is going through a midlife crisis, stuck in her own personal hell:

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. I had lost my way.

She and her husband are alienated from each other, connected only by their love of their children.

We have heard this story before, but here it takes a different turn. So estranged does Nicole feel from her life that upon coming home one day she has the uncanny sense that she — or at least, her physical body — is somehow already there. After hearing a radio program about the concept of the multiverse, she takes it a step further, wondering if there could be other universes that exist alongside ours, which she imagines as something like infinite branches extending from a single stem:

What if life, which appears to take place down countless long hallways, in waiting rooms and foreign cities, on terraces, in hospitals and gardens, rented rooms and crowded trains, in truth occurs in only one place, a single location from which one dreams of those other places? . . . What if it isn’t we who move through space, but space that moves through us, spun on the loom of our minds?

It is a question worthy of Kafka, but the answer is uniquely Krauss’s. If she is dreaming her life from somewhere, Nicole decides, it must be from the Tel Aviv Hilton, a singularly ugly but otherwise ordinary hotel that was a touchstone of her childhood vacations and to which she now feels compelled to return. There she meets an elderly man named Eliezer Friedman, who has designs on her she can’t initially fathom. As they stroll through the city, he points to the barred window of a shabby apartment building and asks whether she remembers the story of how Brod fled Prague with Kafka’s papers. She tries to dismiss him: “I’ve read my fill of Kafka porn.” But he knows how to seduce her. The contents of Brod’s suitcase — hundreds of pages written by Kafka — are “moldering in the most heinous conditions less than three meters from where you’re standing now,” he tells her. Among them is the fragment of a play that he is adapting for the screen. Would she like to be the one to complete it?

In fact, Friedman has been seeking not only a writer worthy of Kafka’s legacy but also a confidant for a secret. Everything Nicole thinks she knows about the end of Kafka’s life, he says, is wrong. “All his life, he’d dreamed of escape, yet he remained unable to bring himself to so much as move out of his parents’ apartment.” The only way he could do so was to stage his own death. Brod smuggled him onto a ship bound for Haifa. The tuberculosis that had made him an invalid in Europe receded in the Mediterranean air. Meanwhile, back in Prague, Brod became the creator and guardian of his legend, controlling (with Kafka’s help) the dissemination of his material and writing his biography. The writer lived out his remaining years as a gardener on a kibbutz, revising and sometimes adding to the works that Brod published.

Krauss marshals facts from Kafka’s biography — his long-standing interest in Zionism, his Hebrew lessons, a failed plan to immigrate in 1923 — to brilliantly unspool this alternate history. It helps that Kafka’s life story is full of holes: As Friedman notes with only some hyperbole, “Nearly everything — everything — known about Kafka can be traced back to Brod!” But what’s so fascinating about Krauss’s vision is not its plausibility but the fantasy it spins. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope — but not for us,” Kafka once told Brod. Perhaps there was hope for that great nihilist after all.

The themes of doubling and entrapment in this novel may be reminiscent of Kafka, but the scenario itself calls to mind the work of a more recent forefather: Philip Roth. His entire body of work, but especially the Nathan Zuckerman novels, plays with similar questions of Jewish history, identity, and obligation. In The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman is a promising young writer who has become the target of opprobrium — including comparisons to Goebbels — after publishing a story that contains negative depictions of Jewish characters. (The obvious analogue is Roth’s own debut, Goodbye, Columbus, with its hilariously acerbic portrayal of the nouveau riche Patimkin family.) Zuckerman makes a pilgrimage to the home of E. I. Lonoff, his literary idol, where he meets a beautiful young woman with a charmingly unplaceable accent. What if she is Anne Frank, he imagines, miraculously saved from the gas chamber and living in secret in the United States? Carrying the fantasy to its inevitable conclusion, he pictures bringing her home as his bride. “Oh, how I have misunderstood my son,” his father would say. “How mistaken I have been!”

Krauss published her first novel in 2002, more than forty years after Goodbye, Columbus appeared. But — like most Jewish writers of her generation, many of whom also had relatives who perished in the Holocaust — she has nonetheless been preoccupied with the question of her responsibility to the larger community of Jews, as well as to Jewish history, particularly as it relates to the Holocaust. One of the main characters in The History of Love (2005), her second novel, is a survivor named Leo Gursky, an eccentric old man who is the anonymous author of a book memorializing his own great love. The book — which, naturally, shares its title with Krauss’s — plays a crucial role in the life of Alma, a teenage girl whose father gave her mother the book as a courtship present; her very name comes from the book’s heroine. After her father’s death, Alma seeks out the author, said to be a refugee from Kraków who settled in Chile after the war.

Though much of The History of Love is charmingly written, its sentimental ending falls flat. (Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Laura Miller called the novel “equal parts Italo Calvino and corn syrup.”) This quality, however, likely endeared it to book groups around the world: a bestseller, it was translated into thirty-five languages. In Forest Dark, Nicole encounters a woman who thrusts at her a baby named after one of her characters; the name isn’t mentioned, but we are surely meant to think it is Alma.

With her third novel, Great House (2010), Krauss managed to magnify her gifts while largely excising the flaws that marred her previous work. Here she offered another multigenerational saga of family secrets, but one told with greater complexity and genuine pathos. The novel revolves around a desk, “an enormous, foreboding thing” that we first encounter in the apartment of Nadia, a middle-aged novelist. (This section was first published as a short story in the June 2007 issue of this magazine.) In her twenties, after a breakup, she found herself without furniture; a friend connected her with Daniel Varsky, a young poet who wanted to store his, including the desk, during a trip to his native Chile. They shared a long night of conversation and a kiss before his departure. But Daniel’s postcards stop coming, and she eventually learns that he was killed. In segments that flash both forward and back, the desk’s other owners appear: a German refugee, another novelist with a secret, a pair of siblings whose father is an antiques dealer specializing in locating furniture stolen by the Nazis. Where The History of Love is whimsical to the point of silliness, Great House is weighty without being ponderous; each of its narrators speaks with a distinct but utterly believable voice, and their stories are strange and poignant enough to feel real.

Yet Krauss’s previous work always seemed not quite of this world. This changes with Forest Dark, which manages to be both metaphysical and emphatically realistic, especially the sections narrated by Nicole. In addition to sprinkling in an assortment of verifiable figures, such as the journalist Matti Friedman and the choreographer Ohad Naharin — both of whom, according to Google, seem to be friends of Krauss’s — they tell the story of her estranged marriage and her life as a mother. (In comparison, Epstein’s more picaresque plot, in which he attends a mystical Shabbat retreat, plants a forest of trees as a memorial to his parents, and becomes an extra in a film about King David, feels a bit flighty.) Speaking to her family over Skype, Nicole unthinkingly tells her children a sad story and sees their faces darken.

Ho-ho! I exclaimed, not yet sure quite how I would rescue them from this little snafu, this puddle of sadness that God forbid they should drown in because they’d never been given the chance to learn to swim. We had made such a huge production out of their happiness, my husband and I, had gone to such lengths to fortify their lives against sadness, that they had learned to fear it the way their grandparents had feared the Nazis. . . . Often I found myself contemplating how much personal growth they could achieve in a few weeks of running for their lives through a Polish forest.

This style of parenting is pervasive in liberal circles, observable everywhere from suburban playgrounds to the op-ed pages of the New York Times. The cliché of the helicopter parent can be tiresome, but Krauss treats it here with humor and intelligence.

Something different happens, though, when Nicole recalls an extreme case of separation anxiety suffered by her older son. At three, he had such a difficult time adjusting to preschool that she and her husband were called in to meet with the school psychologist. “When he cries, the psychologist informed us, it’s not the normal crying of a child. . . . It seems existential.” Nicole argues in her own defense: “You should see him at home, I told her. A child brimming with joy!” But afterward, even though her son’s behavior eventually improves, the comment continues to trouble her.

This story sounded both so true and so familiar that I immediately began scouring the internet again, certain I had read it in a profile of either Krauss or Foer. I did find it, but not where I expected. A nearly identical story appears in Great House, where it is told by a troubled father who has never understood his son. Here, too, a kindergarten teacher tells the boy’s parents that his crying is “something existential.” The psychologist comes to visit them at home and grills them about their marriage. The father recalls the scene in a monologue addressed to his son:

It was all I could take. I grabbed the wooden Pinocchio marionette down off the shelf and shouted for you. You came inside, lumbering up the steps with dirt on your knees, and stood watching while I made the Pinocchio dance and sing then trip and fall on his face. Every time I made him collapse, you howled with laughter. Enough, your mother said. . . . But I kept going, making you laugh so hard that you wet your pants.

What are we to make of the repetition of this story? My instinct was that the version in Forest Dark is the “true” one, or at least that it is closer to something that actually happened. The “proof” is its metamorphosis into fiction in Great House, in which it transforms from a dark yet poignant tale of contemporary parenthood into a warning sign of an unstable parent who cannot distinguish his child’s needs from his own. But the story’s repetition is no guarantee of its reality. Krauss must have dropped it into the new novel intentionally — it seems impossible she would not notice that she had repeated herself — to create precisely the impression that one version is chronicle, the other fiction.

It has become conventional for writers to suggest identification with their narrators while at the same time coyly denying it. Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, and Rachel Cusk have all recently used this trope. The effect is like looking into a warped mirror: The reflection is easily perceived, the distortion less so. The technique can veer dangerously close to solipsism. Look at me, these writers seem to be saying, this is my life, or at least I want you to perceive it as such. Krauss, however, uses it self-consciously as an echo of Kafka, emphasizing her doppelgänger’s own entrapment in an existentially bewildering predicament. Look at me, she says: I could be you.

Midway through the novel, Nicole recalls a friend’s story of visiting the cemetery where Kafka is buried to say kaddish at his grave. No sooner had he done so than he discovered behind it an identical tombstone. He stood, bewildered, until a film crew arrived: They had made a replica of Kafka’s grave to use for a movie. “I’d said kaddish to the replica,” the friend realized.

The revisionist history Krauss provides for Kafka in Forest Dark works as both a homage and another doubling: a replica of the replica, as it were, a reflection with distortions. And the insertion of herself into his story — if only to rewrite it — is an assertion of lineage as significant as the rabbi’s claim of Epstein’s Davidic ancestry. One is biblical, the other literary, but to a writer like Krauss, the second is surely more significant. It is a bold move, and one that does not always feel earned. But as a contemporary Jewish writer, she is right to assert her claim to his legacy.

Modern secular Jewish life in America can feel something like saying kaddish to a replica gravestone. What we think of as authenticity was left behind in the Old World. Here our synagogues are sanitized and suburban, our ceremonies and rituals performed by rote. We repeat the lines of prayers we learned in childhood without inhabiting the words, emotionally or intellectually. Consciously or subconsciously, we feel the lack of what is missing, but we’re not sure where to look for it.

A blessing that is a staple of Jewish liturgy praises “God, who restores life to the dead.” It’s not meant to be taken literally: We are supposed to say it, for instance, when meeting a friend we haven’t seen in a long time. But in the search for metaphorical reanimation, we turn more often to literature than to prayer. The night that Epstein loses his coat, he has in his pocket a book his daughter gave him for his birthday. It is a collection of spiritual musings — “the testament of a man alone facing God” — written by a twenty-seven-year-old Israeli poet born in Poland. (There is no such book, at least not so far as I know.) What, Epstein wonders, might his own life have been if he had sought the spiritual realm with the same intensity with which he pursued his worldly ambitions?

The imaginary book — a staple of Borges, Nabokov, Umberto Eco, A. S. Byatt — tends to play the pawn in a postmodern literary game, acting as a wrinkle in the fictional universe in which metafictional complications can be sneakily hidden. But Jewish writers seem especially drawn to the device, and not necessarily for the same reasons. The Ghost Writer gives us fictional books not only by Nathan Zuckerman but also by Lonoff. Saul Bellow’s Charlie Citrine is the author of a fictional screenplay. In The Messiah of Stockholm, Cynthia Ozick imagines the discovery of a lost masterpiece by Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish short-story writer from Drohobycz who was murdered by the Nazis. And it is clearly important to Krauss, who has now used it at least twice.

Part of the reason for this enduring fascination must be, simply, that so much has been lost. For every wartime testimony unearthed in a milk can, thousands of others were destroyed. The Nazis’ looting of art is well known, but they also looted literature. And in doing so they effectively created holes in Jewish literary history. Even the suitcase Brod brought to Palestine in the fateful year of 1939, stuffed full of Kafka’s papers, bears Nazi fingerprints.

The imaginary manuscript is, of course, always a masterpiece. It has to be, because it is a symbol of that other life — the one we left behind, which we simultaneously fear and hope might be more authentic than the one we are living now. What Forest Dark shows — with its bold reimagining of Kafka’s life, as well as its intimations that Nicole’s life might be something other than what she thinks it is — is that the distinction between authentic and inauthentic might not be as important as we believe. It’s a perfectly Kafkaesque vision, almost uncanny enough to be sublime.

is the author of, most recently, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Liveright). Her essay “Trial and Error” appeared in the November 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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