Krauss, Nicole. “Forest Dark: A Novel”, Harper, 2017.
At 68 years old, Jules Epstein is a man whose drive and outsized personality is to be reckoned with. Now he is going through changes. Both of his parents have died and he is dealing with the divorce from his wife after thirty years of marriage and his retirement from the legal firm where he was a partner. He feels the urge to unload his possessions and begins giving them away. Quite naturally this alarms his children. Using what is left of his wealth, he goes to Israel with the idea of doing something to honor his parents. In Tel Aviv, he meets an Rabbi Klausner, an American who is planning a reunion for the descendents of King David and who uses his charisma to convince Epstein that he is a member of that group. As if that is not enough, the rabbi’s daughter convinces Epstein to become involved in her own project—a film about the life of David being shot in the desert.
Epstein soon learns that he isn’t the only seeker on a metaphysical journey. An unnamed, young and well-known American novelist has left her family in Brooklyn, and comes to the Tel Aviv Hilton where she has stayed every year since birth. She is troubled by writer’s block and a failing marriage, she now hopes that the hotel can unlock a dimension of reality and her own perception of life that has been closed off to her. She meets a retired literature professor who proposes a project she can’t turn down and she becomes part of a mystery that totally alters her life.
We follow two different people in their quest for meaning. As the novel moves forward we get reflections on Israel, on American Jews and their response to the state of Israel and on philanthropy. I immediately sense the connection to the writings of Franz Kafka. In fact, Kafka makes an appearance here in which we learn that he did not die in Prague but made his way to a kibbutz where lived out his days in quiet and isolation. In the style of Kafka, as we read this novel we see that it becomes more and more detached from reality.
This is not what I would call an easy read. It demands complete attention to every word and sentence. I believe that what it does is examine nature and what it means to exist and move through life and the world as the person you are. There is no traditional narrative structure and we sense that the meanderings it takes us on are philosophical. The thoughts and choices that the characters make are what are important. It is as if we are voyeurs reading the minds of the characters and with no help from author Nicole Krauss, we are left on our own to do so. Personally that is what I love about this book.
Krauss writes wonderful descriptions and we feel Israel as we read about the country. The human characters are well drawn and mysterious at the same time. A third main character is the Tel Aviv Hilton and it looms over every page in the book and becomes a place of departure and redemption for the other characters.
Both Epstein and the authors have experienced success in their lives but they do not feel that they have. They both feel that the time has come to have new lives.
Their stories follow their own trajectories with the hotel as the only link between them. At the same time, both Epstein and the novelist are at similar points; they have unexpectedly left their lives behind and hope somehow to find purpose or renewal in Israel. The narrative is often interrupted and slowed down by extended meditations on esoteric questions of theology. The writer’s alternating between Epstein and the novelist, moors us to reality and we also see that the characters’ earth with Epstein’s and the encounters in Israel, often shed light on the tension of the American-Israeli relationship.
When the read is finished, we just question what has truly happened or we might draw our own conclusions. Either way, we have had quite an experience. I wonder if we read about alternative realities, choices we have made and opportunities that failed to be. We see various and different paths toward meaning and fulfillment that were not used and we are left to wonder why.