What Does Nicole Krauss Want To Say With Her New Novel?
This past spring, the author Nicole Krauss went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibit of prints by the 17th-century Dutch artist Hercules Segers.
A trail of blood led down the hallway to the exhibit. When Krauss emerged from the gallery, that trail was still there, a record of some violence that had occurred in the ordinarily pristine setting.
The scene might have been written by Krauss, who has a penchant for examining the intrusion of the strange and surreal upon the everyday. Given that she also has a penchant for centering her novels on unlikely objects — one of the main characters in her 2010 novel “Great House” was a desk — it’s possible, and even likely, that she would choose the trail of blood to be her protagonist.
Krauss, 42, told me that story (the speculation about protagonists is my own) in April, after participating in a panel about Jewish history and memory at Bard College.
It was a cool day, with half-open daffodils dotting the secluded campus. Krauss, whose new novel “Forest Dark” arrives in bookstores on September 12, wore dark jeans, a lacy black top and an oversized cream-colored jacket that looked as if it had been crafted from the fur of a Muppet.
In person, the author exhibits a certain reserve, a quality that may surprise those who know her best for her marriage to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, which ended in 2014. An item in New York magazine reporting their divorce referred to them as “the literary Jay-Z and Beyoncé;” this was misleading in several ways. First, as we all know Beyoncé’s name comes before Jay-Z’s. Second, Krauss, at least, never courted celebrity. (Krauss’s high-school English teacher Bernie Kaplan, with whom she is still close, memorably told me that Foer “pushes his ego out there a whole lot.”) And third, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z were independently famous before becoming a pair, Krauss and Foer met on the ascent. During their marriage her career was often, unfortunately, read in the context of his.
The duo published their sophomore novels, dedicated in part to each other, within a two-month span, starting with Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” When The New York Times subsequently reviewed Krauss’s “The History of Love” it situated the book as obviously connected to “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” to which it bore several narrative similarities. By the end of the first paragraph, the Times critic, Laura Miller, had positioned Krauss as a student of Foer. Krauss, she wrote, had “written almost entirely under the influence of powerful literary fathers,” a “pantheon” to which she had added her husband.
The remark might have stung. But 12 years after publishing “The History of Love,” Krauss has undergone a revolution in the way she understands her life and work as a writer, woman and Jew, one in which she’s embraced a new set of influences and recognized the biases of her old one.
“A lot of the writers I felt like I was learning from and was interested in, as a young writer, were men, not because I thought what they were doing was better, but because they had a certain kind of natural authority to their voice,” she told me at Brooklyn’s since-shuttered Cafe Dada. “I felt that this was going to be a kind of battle that had to be won, to be a strong and powerful and authoritative voice as a woman.”
A few years ago, after the publication of her third novel, “Great House,” Krauss became drawn to the work of women authors, among them Clarice Lispector and Rachel Cusk.
“What I was responding to in those was something very strong, which is this deep sense that you find in really intelligent women’s writing of resistance,” she said, “this deep thoughtfulness that seems to come of some knowledge that you are not given forever to say the things that you want to say.”
So: What does Nicole Krauss want to say?
She wants to speak about wonder and the ways in which humans willingly and needlessly constrain themselves; “the radical and mind-bending quality” of Jewish philosophy, and the fundamental flaws of religion; the soul’s capacity for loneliness and for astonishing connection.
In her first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room” (2002), a man disappears, first into the desert and then into his own mind. In “The History of Love,” identities are forced into dissolution by those who possess them and by their enemies and friends. In “Great House,” a strange, ornate desk, moving through history, drags along with it bits of the minds, souls, wills, loves and hopes of its various owners.
“Forest Dark” marks an evolution of that theme, highlighted by its relationship to “Man Walks Into a Room.”
The relationship between the books comes through in their details: Both send characters to wander in the desert; both feature protagonists who remember once seeing themselves on television as children, yet know they had never been in the studio where the show they were watching was filmed; and both involve a great army advancing on a goal it doesn’t entirely understand.
Crucially, both books also turn on the experiences of characters who, emerging from intense crises of self, develop new understandings of the capabilities of their own minds and the world in which they live.
Yet where “Man Walks Into a Room” relied on science fiction to produce that understanding, “Forest Dark” is a projection of Krauss’s own insistent idea that the human life contains potentials that most humans rarely access. The complex intersection of autobiography and fiction leaves one thing clear for her: Where she once conceived of the infinite as sinister, she sees it now as an object of both beauty and hope.
Bernie Kaplan, he of the less-than-veiled remarks about Foer, met Krauss when she was a freshman in high school on Long Island. An English teacher, he was directing a student production of “Romeo and Juliet” in which he cast her as the doomed heroine.
“Nicole was the perfect Juliet,” he recalled. “She had, clearly, a rebellious heart.”
As a teenager she wrote poetry rather than prose. Attending college at Stanford, she developed a close intellectual bond with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Kaplan, speaking to me from his office, reached for a poem Krauss wrote in college that he had pinned to the wall.
Called “Da Vinci Thinks of Leaving,” it tracks the titular artist’s imagination of ways to escape a gathering. Its last stanza expresses a fascination with the just-out-of-reach that, for readers of Krauss’s novels, might feel familiar:
“Silence is scarce but snow muffles the night, clearing a space / to address the dead. Lonely, he can just / make out the white noise which, could he invent the wireless, / would send back their breathless reply.”
Krauss left poetry behind; when I asked if she still writes any, she answered, firmly, “No.” Upon graduating from Stanford with both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English, she obtained a second Master’s degree in English from Oxford and one in art history from London’s Courtauld Institute, came back to the United States, and decided to write a novel.
“I had found that for years my poetry was getting more and more constricted,” she said. “Some kind of fear or self-consciousness had grown into the work, and the poems just got really, really tight and small.”
“Man Walks Into a Room,” which Krauss wrote over the course of a year, was published when she was 27.
While working on “The History of Love,” Krauss sent Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, an early draft of the novel’s first section. “I thought it was wonderful,” Treisman wrote me in an email, “funny, poignant, vigilant in its observations, and an incredible performance of empathy — for Nicole, who wasn’t yet 30, to imagine herself so vividly and authentically into the mind and body of this lonely Eastern European octogenarian émigré and Holocaust survivor.”
In 2007, Krauss was named one of the best young American novelists in the literary magazine Granta; in 2010 The New Yorker included her on its 20 Under 40 list. That same year she published “Great House,” which she dedicated to her two sons. It was as markedly different from its immediate predecessor as that book had been from Krauss’s first.
“There was an all-encompassing lushness to ‘The History of Love,’ whereas ‘Great House’ was more austere and elegant,” Treisman wrote.
Throughout those years, Krauss occupied a public spotlight often focused on her marriage, but also, occasionally, on a certain perception of her that was not entirely separate from Kaplan’s observation that she was an ideal Juliet. A New York magazine profile that appeared after the release of “The History of Love” framed her as the subject of a fairy tale of modern privilege, citing “the isolated splendor of her Bauhaus childhood home on a Long Island hilltop” and her “precocious and suspended career as a poet.” (At the time, Krauss didn’t appear to discourage that interpretation, commenting, “I felt like I really did have the last real American childhood.”)
I asked Krauss if that kind of attention had impacted the way she wrote. Our conversation had often returned to the difficulties of being a woman writer, one of which, she noted, was the potential to be fetishized: “There’s been so many reviews of my work that led with those outer descriptions of what I look like.”
“In some ways, maybe, it makes me freer, because I see it’s irrelevant,” she said. “Maybe if it doesn’t happen, you live in fear of it happening, or you live in desire of it happening.”
“I feel like we all have some ambivalence, as writers, about our articulateness, because in the end we have the last word, and having the last word when other people around you don’t is an unnerving position to be in. Still we want to avoid it sometimes, so we don’t write about things. And increasingly I feel that it’s okay to touch things.”
“Forest Dark” touches a number of subjects that might be considered standard for Krauss in newly intimate ways. It does so in a form that feels like a culmination of her previous efforts, which have tended, despite the diversity of their styles, toward telling a complete story by delineating the absences within it.
This novel tells two stories, which intersect only once.
Jules Epstein, a wealthy, extravagant, aging Manhattan lawyer, has his understanding of life reoriented by a book of poetry. Giving away the bulk of his wealth, he heads to Israel to conclude his turn to the personal and spiritual, searching for a way to commemorate his deceased parents.
Also headed to Israel is Nicole, a semiautobiographical version of Krauss who hopes to shake off an obsession with the Tel Aviv Hilton that has paralyzed her writing. Once she’s there, an older relative connects her with an English professor and possible former Mossad agent who proposes she embark on an unorthodox literary project.
Those who are inclined to read Nicole the character as Nicole the author will find plenty of fodder, not least in Krauss’s own discussion of the book. “I wrote about exactly what’s happened to me, which was that I was obsessed with writing this novel about the Hilton for a long time,” she said. Yet as the book progresses more into the realm of the improbable, its timelines taking unusual bents, Krauss forces her readers to consider less comfortable interpretations.
“I feel like a lot of times as a writer you’re calling into existence mysterious things,” Krauss said. “You’re giving the reader a chance, or yourself a chance, to just look at the uncertainty and live with that.”
Of all her books, “Forest Dark” is the most insistently obscure. At a May event at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, Krauss’s friend Matti Friedman — the prize-winning author of “The Aleppo Codex,” who has a brief cameo in “Forest Dark,” — expressed sly pleasure that he caught the moment where Epstein and Nicole’s stories meet. Yet Krauss later told me he’d missed another reference in the book, which I then congratulated myself for having spotted.
“What matters for the reader is that she feels that she’s in the hands of someone she can absolutely trust, who has thought out every detail,” Krauss said. “It doesn’t matter if she gets every last thing, just that you know the world is really, really complete.”
That attitude toward fiction, rare in a literary world that frequently rewards an almost brutal realism, is one she’s long held. “If you look back at the pattern of my career,” she said, “this thing about breaking forms is somehow very integral to me as a person, as a writer.”
Yet precisely because “Forest Dark” shows comfort with an idea of life that will be, for many, profoundly unfamiliar, what Krauss has written almost appears to be the truest form of realism she could produce.
“We allow ourselves to think that this is our one and only life,” she said.” We sit inside of it and think this could only happen one way. And then we step back and remember there’s so many variations on this life. I guess I’m trying to create in the reader a sense of that awe or wonder.”
The idea that reality doesn’t necessarily align with our perceptions of it is key to Krauss’s novelistic interweaving of autobiography and fiction.
“There’s no other medium that allows a person experiencing it to actually be directly inside somebody’s life and mind, as if it were their own,” she said. Friedman, in an email, noted that to him, Krauss is unique in “her strange ability to inhabit other minds,” a quality that Treisman and Kaplan had also highlighted.
For Krauss, those other lives and minds are her own. Eighty-something Leo Gursky of “The History of Love,” she said, “is a facet of me.”
“I can’t fit him in any other form but this,” she added. “Writing has always been a way to have larger, longer arms than one has in life, and larger lungs and body and reach.”
So while “Forest Dark” is in its details more clearly autobiographical than her previous works, it is also more intimately autobiographical in terms of its form. Nicole Krauss strives to break down the limits of what a single person can be. “Forest Dark” does a similar thing for the purportedly realistic novel.
“To commit to a form for a while is obviously productive and clarifying and necessary,” she wrote to me in an email. “The trouble begins when the form becomes fixed and takes on an inflexibility that is limiting, when it becomes an end rather than a part of a process, forcing one to work in service of maintaining it at the cost of exploration and growth.”
That thought shows a possible connection between the type of mind that is drawn to things without borders — time, memory, the ability of Jews to sustain an argument — and the type of mind that gains ands projects the sense of resistance that Krauss so admires in Cusk and Lispector.
In Krauss’s work, that idea surely has room to grow. She’s only just started attempting to write in the voice of a woman, having put male characters at the center of her work for much of her career. (“I think I was right to suspect that authority is not as easy to come by as a woman writer than as a man, and that a woman has to go much farther out of her way to prove herself,” she wrote me.) Given that the narrative of women through history has mirrored that which so preoccupies Krauss — that of a gradual dissolution of boundaries — that choice may move her into a territory of new possibility.
Yet what she has already accomplished can inspire an unusual hope. As a child I was terrified of endless time and endless space, and while the anxieties that occupy my everyday are now more prosaic and private, in moments when the infinite peeks through the close weave of habit I still feel fear.
In the ideas with which she has grown increasingly bold, Krauss poses a compelling argument for the void — whatever, to any one person, the void might be — as friendly. For a vulnerable mind, that’s a thing of deep power. It’s a form of resistance to be open to the strangeness of things. Resistance, as well, to ask others to join in.
“Forest Dark” concludes, appropriately, with the homecoming of Nicole the character; this takes a fittingly mysterious turn. The book’s final words are followed by an author’s note from Krauss, explaining its title.
It takes its name from a Longfellow translation of Dante, Krauss writes, quoting the stanza: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
So Krauss finds herself, reaching for a sense of imminent but elusive clarity within the dark.
“Slowly something starts to emerge out of that chaos,” she said. “And it’s a kind of design.”