Kabbalists explain creation as the deliberate retreat of God to make space for the rest of us. “When it arose in God’s will to create the world, He first withdrew Himself and in the void that was left, He created the world,” explains Rabbi Menachem Klausner, the persistent, shambling resident theologian in Nicole Krauss’s protean new novel, Forest Dark. “This is why,” Klausner continues, “the rabbis tell us that a broken heart…has a vacancy, and the vacancy has the potential to be filled with the infinite.”
Brokenness and attempted repair animate Forest Dark. Krauss presents two stories that run parallel to each other in alternating chapters, never intersecting or overtly acknowledging the other. That the stories never ultimately merge is as much a philosophical as a narrative choice: Though we live among others and even derive meaning from them, Krauss suggests, all constructions of the self are, in the end, solitary.
Forest Dark’s first story concerns an aging New York lawyer, Jules Epstein, who is in the midst of an existential reckoning. Written in the third person, Epstein’s story serves as an anchor for the febrile, fantastical second account, narrated by a writer named Nicole who, like the Nicole who has written this book, is a successful middle-aged novelist who has been living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Both Epstein and Nicole have left New York for Tel Aviv, he ahead of her, and both have decamped to the massive beachfront redoubt of the Tel Aviv Hilton.
Epstein’s life “unspooled from [Tel Aviv],” the city of his birth, and he has been drawn back after the death of his parents. Nicole, whose domestic life is unraveling and whose work life is faltering, is there, ostensibly, in search of a story: She’s heard that someone fell to his death from a balcony at the hotel, a place where she’d spent summers as a child. It’s an odd story to chase, though the metaphor of the falling man makes a certain emotional sense. It also leaves the reader wondering: Was it Jules Epstein?
Epstein is a familiar type, a thick-skinned, tough-talking, combative, self-made, fabulously wealthy Jewish New Yorker. Belief is anathema to him—he’s a realist, with a realist’s fetish for the tangible, which often comes down to the things that he can buy. Which is why, when Epstein leaves his firm, divorces his wife, and starts divesting himself of all the things by which success is measured, people think he is ill, or depressed, or nuts. How else to explain his sudden lack of interest in money and the monuments to himself that he has built with it—the museum-quality art collection, the Bentley, the upscale real estate—to remind himself and others that he is important and real? And who is he to those around him if not a man of great means, a writer of checks in large denominations to philanthropies and family members? It is poignant and instructive to watch them want nothing more for Epstein than for him to stay the same.
Epstein meets Klausner, the Kabbalist rabbi, at a charity dinner in New York, and then again—by chance?—on the plane to Israel. Epstein assumes he’s just one in a long line of supplicants looking for a donation to a pet project, and he is not wrong. Klausner is organizing a reunion of the descendants of King David, one of whom, according to the rabbi, is Epstein himself. Epstein could make him disappear by opening his checkbook, but, uncharacteristically, he does not. Instead, he finds himself in a cramped car, traveling to Safed in the northern Galilee to celebrate the Sabbath with Klausner and his followers in a house near one occupied by Isaac Luria, one of the most influential mystical thinkers of the 16th century. When Epstein asks the rabbi why he named the place Gilgul—“it sticks in the throat a little, if you ask me”—Klausner tells him it’s because the name he really wanted, (“Livnot U’Lehibanot—to build and be built”) was already taken by the Hasidic meditation retreat, funded by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach, down the street.
Krauss is having fun here, as she often does with Epstein. Whatever else is changing in him, his sense of irony remains intact. “What was it with religious Jews and their plastic bags,” he muses, driving through Safed. “Why did these people who had been wandering for thousands of years not invest in more reliable luggage?”
Gilgul, which means “cycle” or “wheel” in Hebrew, has another meaning altogether in Kabbalah: the transmigration of the soul to a higher spiritual plane. Whether Epstein is capable of such a journey, or even interested in one, is questionable: He’s come to Israel to find a suitable memorial for his parents, and he does, eventually, commissioning the creation of a massive forest.
Yet his parents, Sol and Edie, were two people “who went perpendicular to everything and parallel to nothing, who couldn’t let be and had something to say about everything,” and through whom Epstein learned “that he could be ruthless.” In Israel, however, the fight has gone out of him, and he’s surprised to find that without it, there is little inside him. But absence, vacancy—as Klausner, paraphrasing Luria, has instructed him—is the precondition for creation. Strip away artifice, and there is the soul.
And what of Forest Dark’s other main character, who may or may not be the real and famous Nicole Krauss, the National Book Award nominee, divorced now from the equally famous Jonathan Safran Foer, himself the author, recently, of a novel about a failed marriage? All characters, even real ones, Krauss seems to be saying, are the products of self-invention. But she is playing with us too, relaying conversations with actual (Googleable) people, providing photographs of actual (Googleable) buildings, and including bits of her actual (also Googleable) history. Yet this is hardly an exercise in creative nonfiction. Though facts are stitched into the fabric of the narrative, they exist to unsettle the reader, not to ground the story. If anything, they give it an otherworldly feeling, where it’s often impossible to know if the events that seem made up might actually be true, too.
Nicole has recently become obsessed with the “multiverse,” the idea that there are a multitude of worlds, an infinite number of them, each with its own physical laws:
[I]n a multiverse, the concepts of known and unknown are rendered useless, for everything is equally known and unknown.… Since Descartes, knowledge has been empowered to a nearly unimaginable degree. But in the end it didn’t lead to the mastery and possession of nature he imagined, only to the illusion of its mastery and possession.… The more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where once we lived in wonder, and understood it to be a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of being and the world.
Conventions—like marriage, like narrative structures, like the very idea of a universe—bind. Multiverse cosmology appeals to Nicole because it allows for anything and everything, eliminating the categories of rational and irrational and nonrational and offering, instead, access to dimensions of consciousness otherwise denied. She’s experienced the multiverse herself: once in her youth, and then—surprisingly, and with great clarity—as an adult, coming through the door of her house and knowing, with certainty, that she “was in the house already. I was myself, I felt utterly normal in my own skin, and yet at the same time I also had the sudden sense that I was no longer confined to my body.” As readers of Forest Dark, we inhabit the multiverse too: There is Nicole the writer, and Nicole the narrator, and no border between them.
Krauss’s disquisitions on metaphysics, cosmology, and etymology, which can be challenging to read, are central to Nicole’s story. Here is a woman who has been married for 10 years, who is the mother of two children, and whose life, bounded by those two realities, no longer makes sense. She is having trouble sleeping. She is having trouble writing. And writing itself has begun to feel like a contrivance—safe, in its way, but forsaken. “More and more,” Nicole observes,
it had felt to me that in the things I wrote, the degree of artifice was greater than the degree of truth, that the cost of administering a form to what was essentially formless was akin to the cost of breaking the spirit of an animal that is too dangerous to otherwise live with.… The more I wrote, the more suspect the good sense and studied beauty achieved by the mechanisms of narrative seemed to me.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Forest Dark doesn’t follow a standard narrative path. Near the end, Krauss asks: “At what moment does one fall out of a marriage?” Her answer—“I think I left mine by falling out of time…having given up any attachment to sequence”—describes the design of the novel itself.
Nicole’s story in particular is nonlinear and disorienting, as facts are superimposed on fiction and as fiction challenges credulity. Having traveled to the Tel Aviv Hilton in search of a story that no one can
corroborate—a story that may or may not have happened—she ends up in the company of an elderly man named Eliezer Friedman, who may or may not have worked for the Mossad. Friedman is eager to meet Nicole—like many in Israel, he knows her work—and when he does, he tells her a story that may or may not be true: that Franz Kafka did not die in Vienna of consumption at the age of 40, as everyone believes; nor was he buried in a grave in Prague next to the father he despised. Instead, says Friedman, those stories were fictions that allowed the writer to emigrate to Palestine under an assumed name, take up residence first on a kibbutz and later in a cottage on the edge of the desert, and live out his days as an unassuming and unrecognized gardener. Meanwhile, Friedman adds, Kafka’s unpublished work has been moldering away in an apartment
in Tel Aviv.
Friedman’s unlikely tale is tied to an indisputable fact: the protracted lawsuit between the State of Israel and Eva Hoffe over Kafka’s papers. Hoffe had inherited them from her mother, Esther Hoffe, who, as Max Brod’s personal secretary, had inherited them from Brod, who, as Kafka’s close friend, had been instructed to burn them, unread, upon the writer’s death. Brod, who emigrated to Palestine in 1939, failed to abide by those instructions, instead shepherding much, but not all, of Kafka’s work into print. Esther Hoffe, likewise, may or may not have abided by Brod’s instructions, selling the original manuscript of The Trial for about $2 million and then leaving the rest of the papers to Eva and her sister. It was around then that the Israeli government intervened, arguing that Kafka’s papers were national treasures that deserved to reside in the national archives—and not in the suboptimal conditions of Eva’s small Tel Aviv apartment. (In an interview with Haaretz earlier this year, she did call it “a kennel.”)
To add further veracity to Friedman’s story, Krauss has included a grainy photo of Hoffe’s Spinoza Street apartment building. The windows are gated and wrapped in wire mesh, “the sort used to cage small animals.” And, she goes on, “the bay of windows, meant to allow for a kind of open sunroom, was grotesquely imprisoned by the rusted bars and filthy cage, patched or reinforced at the corners by the energetic attentiveness borne of paranoia.” Friedman has driven over there and left Nicole in the car while he goes inside. When he comes out, he’s got a beat-up suitcase that may or may not contain Kafka’s papers, as well as a proposal for Nicole: to complete one of Kafka’s unfinished manuscripts, a play that Friedman would like to turn into a film.
It’s an audacious request on top of a crazy—but plausible?—revisionist history, and she does not reject it out of hand. Instead, her fevered, dissociative response—which takes place over days, deep in the Judaean Desert and possibly in Kafka’s abandoned cottage—effects a metamorphosis of consciousness rather than form. Nicole (the character) doesn’t turn into a large insect, but she does emerge as Nicole (the writer) not only with a story to tell, but with a way to subvert the telling—and so to create this work of imagination and revelation and reparation.