Fans of author Nicole Krauss have probably missed her. She’s been writing steadily since the release of her National Book Award finalist Great House in 2010—including her story for The New Yorker “Zusya on the Roof”—but Forest Dark is her first novel in seven years.
The book follows two central characters, lawyer Jules Epstein and novelist Nicole, as they’re drawn into journeys of self-discovery that also involve King David, Franz Kafka and the Tel Aviv Hilton. Forest Dark plays with ideas of metafiction and narratology, all while investigating the stories we tell ourselves—and why.
In preparation for an upcoming Houston appearance Monday, Sept. 18, alongside author Nathan Englander, Houstonia caught up with Krauss to talk about her new book.
Forest Dark follows two characters—one of whom seems much closer to your own experience than the other, since she’s a novelist named Nicole. Was Nicole or Epstein more difficult to write?
I felt that both characters allowed me different things. Epstein is written in the third person, and Nicole in the first person. It was also just a pleasure just to have both of those possibilities: first person, which allows for absolute intimacy, and third person, which allows for humor that comes from observing something slightly from the outside, while also being allowed to dip in and out and move into the interiority of other characters. Just to set scenes in different ways, to reveal ideas in different ways, narrate in different ways—I really loved having both of those realms to work in and both of those particular freedoms. I didn’t want to choose one or the other, and I was just happy in both.
With those two different points of view, it’s a good way to give yourself a break, too, I assume: to switch to the other point of view.
There’s this funny thing about writing a novel, and I think this is true for all creation, and, in fact, there’s a little bit about this in the book. When you write a novel, from the first sentence or the first choice of characters, you’re already committed to a way of being, a stylistic approach, a tone. You’ve already, in essence, gone from infinity to a finite set of choices. With each word and sentence you write, with each turn that the narrative takes, those choices are limited, even though your meaning has deepened. And there’s something as a writer—or the writer that I am—that rebels against that, that wants, of course, to preserve all possibilities, preserve absolute freedom. It goes against the grain of what a novel needs to do. It needs to create a whole by creating an order and inscribing itself in a finite set of circumstances. So I think sometimes it’s the tension of both of those things. I feel there’s something in that. And so I am both trying to preserve the widest breadth of my freedom while knowing that I live and work in a finite world.
King David looms large over Epstein. What do you feel like you learned from interrogating the history and the myths of this figure?
The story of David is so interesting. When you asked about what I learned, of course, all of these things I wanted to say came to me slowly. And thinking about this book, I just had an instinct of Epstein, in some way, being a reverberation of David. I couldn’t articulate at the beginning why. But the more I read about David and thought about David, the more interested I was in David occupying the first moment in the biblical stories where a real man and a real reality actually existed. Nobody would mistake Moses or Abraham as flesh-and-blood men—they represent things. But then David comes along, and he’s so flawed.
In the Jewish story of him, he’s a brilliant warrior, he’s absolutely magnetic, but he was also really brutal and cutthroat and manipulative, and he betrayed the love of everyone who ever loved him. And yet, at the end, after all of that, we ascribe to him—supposedly—the most beautiful poetry ever written, like the Psalms. He has grace at the end. I just found increasingly it was a way of thinking about a character like Epstein who is larger than life, as David apparently was, and who goes from a state of constant argument and battle to turning toward grace.
But I also thought it was interesting to plant in Epstein’s heart the seed of belief that he might’ve come down from David. It’s something he scoffs at in the beginning, but something in him absorbs and turns toward it and he begins to see himself that way. He has that moment where he comes upon his beloved in the bath and is just absolutely moved. And that was also a way for me to think about and talk about all the ways in which these narrative stories and all narrative stories that are handed down to us—whether they’re from the Bible, or Greek myths, or fairy tales—they give us these archetypes of character and being that we keep reading and keep being moved by and keep inscribing ourselves and our children in. But they are conventions. In what ways are we constraining ourselves and the possibilities of being when we keep telling the same story or character over and over again?
Friedman tells Nicole at one point that, “in the end, it isn’t up to the writer to decide how his or her work will be used.” I found that particularly interesting, especially because it’s directed at Nicole, who is a writer. Is that an idea you agree with?
It is. I think that fundamentally, at its core, art is a gift. Once it is given away, once a book is published, once a painting leaves the studio, once an album is put out into the world, it then belongs no longer to its maker, but to culture, and to people, and to individuals who will absorb it in ways that matter to them and be changed by it in ways that they need. And perhaps the maker or the artist will sometimes feel that there are mistakes in that, or that they’re being misunderstood, and that’s bound to happen. But I don’t think he or she should ever imagine that she has a choice in the destiny of that art once it’s let go of.
In the book, Nicole becomes fascinated with the idea of the multiverse. For you, the real-life Nicole, what would you be doing in a different universe if you weren’t a writer?
(Laughs.) I would be a dancer. But now I guess I might be too old to be a professional dancer. I think that sort of ends for a lot of people in their mid-30s. But I think some professional dancers go on dancing all their lives. I would’ve liked to do that.
Finally, you’re speaking in Houston after a natural disaster. How do you think literature can help people during troubled times?
Literature has this ability to pull the veil back for us and give us this view into infinity. And it somehow does it again and again. And not just in poetry, but in novels, in essays. We so often feel the burden of the ways in which we are confined, constrained and burdened in our very finite lives and are troubled by them. But in literature, you can go along with a sentence written by W.B. Yeats, or Kafka, or the poet Rilke, or whoever you turn to. And you can just be delivered: by the end of the sentence, you are delivered onto this precipice, and you can see this glimpse into infinity. And it is so deep and so restorative, and consoling. I think that’s why we keep returning to it. National disaster or just private emergency—we need consolation.
Nathan Englander/Nicole Krauss, Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series. Tickets $5. Stude Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main St. More information at inprinthouston.org.