Life & Culture

Nicole Krauss - 'It's limiting to describe myself as a Jewish writer'

The award-winning novelist tells Anne Joseph why both she and Franz Kafka haunt the pages of her latest book


Nicole Krauss’s latest novel, Forest Dark, tells the story of two unconnected characters in search of personal transformation. Jules Epstein, 68, is a recently divorced New York lawyer set on freeing himself of his wealth and responsibilities. Nicole, a well-known novelist is troubled by writer’s block and a failing marriage. Both end up in Tel Aviv, embarking on a metaphysical journey of self-realisation and change.

The protagonists inhabit two different worlds: Israel and the US. It is Israel that enables change to take place for them. Why?

On a superficial level, anyone who’s been to Israel knows that there’s almost a surreality to the place. There’s a rawness in a kind of daily existence that I think that anybody from the diaspora feels. As a writer, I’m always fascinated by that — the way you step out your door and the unexpected happens to you.

On a deeper level, Israel is a place that has been, perhaps for some time, at the peak of self-invention. It’s a culture and society that has found its own creative powers in the last decades and you just feel it. It‘s a society that is inventing itself moment by moment, especially in Tel Aviv. So it made sense to have these characters that are beginning to gain access to that possibility [in Israel], the possibility that one has the power to alter oneself or invent aspects of oneself.

What is your connection to Israel?

Well, it’s very old. In my family, it’s a central place.

My grandparents met and married there in the ’30s, came to America and then went back again. My father grew up in Tel Aviv. My maternal grandparents were European but always wanted to make aliyah and lived the last 25 years of their lives in Jerusalem. My brother lives in Israel with his family.

As a child, I first went to Tel Aviv — to the Hilton, like Nicole in the book — and then later to Jerusalem. So, there’s a childhood relationship there as well as my own relationship with it as I have got older. Also, the man I’ve been with for some years is Israeli so I visit there around five times a year. I am constantly immersed in its culture.

I am obviously not Israeli and yet the place is deeply intimate to me. I almost feel that its relationship with me is deeply intimate, too. I feel known and appreciated there. I can look at it from the outside and, as we know, what goes on there is an exhilarating experience but I’m also lucky to be able to retreat from it, to the relative serenity of America, whose existence is becoming less and less serene!

Why give your female protagonist your name — it invites an inevitable curiosity.

It is inevitable and usually it’s the first question I’m asked! But I think it should, I hope, deliberately be provoking that question. One of the questions with which the book concerns itself is, what is reality and what isn’t and why are we so concerned with it. [Yet reality is constantly undermined by] for example memory, which is a creative, selective act. On another level, there’s the perspective of science, of “true reality”. We know that what we see in front of us is not solid — the table and chair are not solid — just a collection of atoms in an empty space; it’s a distortion of some form of reality and yet we continue to prioritise it above any other version.

When you read the book and ask “how real is Nicole?” I don’t mean to be coy, it’s asking you to wonder about that and why it matters to you.

The more satisfying answer is that all the things that you think are real are probably real; let’s put it that way. The things that become surreal you don’t have to wonder if they’re real or not. But one place where most people know it becomes fiction is the story of Kafka [in the book] although lots of people have told me that when they finished reading it they Googled him.

In a sense, Kafka is the novel’s third protagonist. How did he come to have such a central role?

He’s always been extremely important to me although I didn’t make any plans to make him a kind of protagonist. I’ve always been fascinated by he fact that Kafka’s papers were sitting there in Eva Hoffe’s apartment on Spinoza St, in Tel Aviv. I used to go by the house and just look! The image is striking but also provoked its own questions like why do I care so much and why does my imagination go to [this place]? Who cares who this stuff belongs to, about the originals? I just found the whole thing interesting.

[In December 2016 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Eva Hoffe had to transfer Kafka’s papers to Israel’s National Library. Her mother had been personal secretary to Max Brod, Kafka’s friend. Brod preserved Kafka’s work despite his request that Brod burn them after his death.]

What is the significance of Gilgul in the book?

The Kabbalistic concept of Gilgul means reincarnation, also transformation. In Hebrew, it comes from the idea of a cycle or a wheel — the transmigration of the soul going round.

I knew about Kafka’s translation of The Metamorphosis into Hebrew and Yiddish as Der Gilgul and thought it was interesting that the Jewish reading of that story related about the soul. In the English translation we think about it as obviously physical but the Jewish reading of it is more or equally metaphysical. It made sense that the rabbi’s school Epstein visits is called Gilgul.

At some point, I wanted to call the novel The Gilgul but my American publisher argued me into the ground with that, saying you can’t call an American novel by a Hebrew word.

Would you describe yourself as a Jewish writer?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a Jewish writer because any description ends up feeling limiting. But, obviously, there’s no getting around the fact that Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish texts are rich material for me as a writer and deeply important to me to engage with. I feel lucky to have that. I think in my generation it’s much easier than it was for, say, Roth, where there was just fury whenever he departed from the party line of how Jews wanted to present themselves in America. I haven’t found that to be the case. It surprises and delights me that there’s a welcome response to my work.

Despite the long comedic line in Forest Dark about the ownership aspect of Jewish readership, I don’t feel overly burdened by it because I’ve never cared all that much. My freedom and independence as a writer has always been of upmost importance to me and I would protect it over anything.


‘Forest Dark’ is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)


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