‘I’m interested in serious things because that’s what I’ve always gone to literature for,’ Nicole Krauss has said. ‘You open a book by Knut Hamsun or W G Sebald or Thomas Bernhard and everything that doesn’t matter is gone in an instant and you’re in a world where everything matters, in the most critical way. I wanted to live there, I wanted to make a life there. And so I tried to become a writer.’
Krauss is indeed a highly serious writer and also a very brilliant one. Her second novel, The History of Love, was a bestseller, translated into thirty-five languages. It is among the finest books of the last fifty years, a wonderful and sometimes harrowing examination of the unlooked-for opportunities brought about by loss: the loss of someone beloved as well as the multiple losses of the Holocaust. This was followed by Great House, which had at its centre a vast writing desk and its various owners, each of whom took it in turn to narrate their stories. Here, too, the long shadow of the Holocaust and the diaspora darkened and complicated the lives of her characters.
History, belonging, reconciliation, the idea of home: these are the subjects to which Krauss returns. She has said that each of her four grandparents was uprooted by the Second World War and all came from places that were either destroyed or, thanks to the redrawing of borders, no longer exist. They went to Israel and America (and, in her maternal grandparents’ case, England, for a time). This sense of home as something perilous, unstable and insubstantial haunts everything Krauss writes.
Forest Dark takes its title from Dante’s famous lines: ‘In the middle of the journey of life, I found myself within a dark wood.’ The story alternates between two characters, both from New York, travelling in Israel. One strand, written in the third person, describes the course taken by Epstein, a clever, angry and extremely wealthy former lawyer. At the start we learn that he has disappeared, leaving only a briefcase. Over the course of the novel we discover that the death of both his parents has brought Epstein to a dark place: he has abdicated the responsibilities of his decades-long marriage, quit his job and is now looking for ways to rid himself of his considerable fortune. A deep spiritual unrest burdens him. When his path crosses that of a maverick rabbi, he follows the teacher to a house of retreat. Afterwards, instead of returning to his life in Manhattan, he rents a tiny flat overlooking the sea in Tel Aviv. Here he reads the psalms of David. Faith tempts him. In a dream he visits a huge dark forest and there, amid the trees, he finds a stone inscribed with his parents’ names. On awakening, he determines that this is what he must do with his money: plant a forest in Israel. An infatuation – whether with a young woman or with the story of King David – leads him into the desert.
The second strand of the novel is told in the first person and concerns a successful writer from Brooklyn (there are perhaps parallels with Krauss’s own life here). The writer has two sons and a threadbare marriage, as well as a malaise of spirit – and a case of writer’s block – that she hopes to resolve by travelling to Tel Aviv. Like Epstein, she finds herself drawn into the desert by a trickster figure, who may or may not have extraordinary news about what really happened to Franz Kafka. Alone in a tiny hut miles from anywhere, she develops a fever. Her solitude and illness act as a kind of emotional purge. She realises that her marriage cannot continue and that she must embark on a new life.
It will be evident that this is an ambitious book, in both its technique and its subject matter. The prose is flawless. The lure of belief and the possibility of an alternative life to the one we have constructed are excellent themes to explore. The idea of metamorphosis is well realised. The reimagining of ancient stories about temptation in the desert, dark nights of the soul and subsequent reawakening is nobly conceived and finely wrought. I would love to love this book. And yet.
It seems to me that Epstein’s story and that of the novelist are insufficiently different to hold our interest. Their many points of intersection – New York, the Hilton Hotel Tel Aviv – cloud rather than clarify the story, diminish rather than enlarge its scope. For a novel that so concerns itself with the suspension of disbelief, there are some challenging aspects. I seriously doubted that a woman of the novelist’s acuity would have been so credulous, so actually daft. Nor is the end of Epstein’s marriage easy to credit. A number of subplots and characters peter out unexplained. Forest Dark is accomplished, generous and unabashedly serious, but it falls short of greatness.