Book review: Nicole Krauss Forest Dark

David Herman isn't impressed by a very literary novel


Nicole Krauss exploded on to the American literary scene in her late 20s with her first novel, Man Walks into a Room. Three years later came The History of Love, an international best-seller, and five years after that, Great House.

Then all went a little quiet. A few short stories and essays and lots of headlines as her marriage with fellow-novelist Jonathan Safran Foer broke up. No novel in seven years. Now comes Forest Dark. The title is from the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark…” And, indeed, the novel’s two central characters are both lost in the middle of their lives.

Epstein is huge and rich, a creature of appetites, Jewish American but strangely adrift, unmoored. In the past two years, he has lost both parents, has brought “his long, mostly stable marriage to an end” and has retired from his law firm. He has started to give away his worldly possessions and then, suddenly, he disappears. After living in Tel Aviv for three months, he vanishes.

Nicole, the other major character, is also going through some kind of mid-life crisis. “I had lost my way,” she says. She is around 40, a successful writer and seeks refuge from her “failing marriage”. She bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. She leaves New York for Israel where she meets the enigmatic Eliezer Friedman, formerly involved in Israeli intelligence and now a professor of literature obsessed with Kafka, especially a strange theory he has about how Kafka ended up in Palestine. Friedman wants to meet Nicole, the famous Jewish American writer, and get her to write about Kafka.

Mostly set in Tel Aviv, Forest Dark curiously gives only occasional glimpses of Israeli politics and everyday life. More worryingly, none of the characters really clicks. Epstein feels like a middle-aged melancholic from Bellow but has none of the appeal of Krauss’s greatest characters, Leo Gursky or Alma in The History of Love. Of Nicole, we know her marriage is failing but we don’t really know why. She’s a very successful writer but we don’t know what kinds of books she writes. Her husband and children are blanks.

And coming from the writer of the joyous opening of The History of Love, with its bodily functions and rage against old age, the writing in Forest Dark appears, by comparison, curiously inert and lacking in humour.

The best parts of the novel involve the third central character — Kafka. Or rather Dante and Kafka. Krauss, like Roth, invents an after-life for Kafka. Roth’s Kafka settles in America, the Kafka in Forest Dark leaves Prague for pre-war Palestine.

Forest Dark is a very literary novel. Yet, despite the occasional missing body, a stolen painting and a suitcase full of manuscripts, it has surprisingly few exciting or engaging moments.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

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