The title of Nicole Krauss’s fourth novel comes from Dante’s “Inferno’’: “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
Deeply philosophical, “Forest Dark’’ opens with a mystery, and a missing person. Three months after leaving New York City for Israel, 68-year-old Jules Epstein has disappeared. His three children have gathered in the Tel Aviv Hilton, bewildered that “their father, so firm and decisive in life, had left them with a final act that was utterly ambiguous.”
Epstein is a figure straight out of Bellow or Roth, a titanic personality, “his aspirations . . . gargantuan,” his appetites enormous. He married wealth, built an impressive career as an attorney, lived and moved and had his being in the contentious arena of argument. But overcome by “an irresistible longing for lightness” after his parents’ death, his divorce, and retirement, he begins to divest himself of possessions. He begins to read mystical texts, is overwhelmed by an “obscure book by a dead Israeli poet,” and decides to go to Israel, “a place he’d returned to often over the years, drawn back by a tangle of allegiances.”
Also at the Hilton is Nicole, a 40ish novelist in a “failing marriage,” mother of two boys, and a victim of writer’s block. She is clearly a double for Krauss, who split with fellow literary wunderkind Jonathan Safran Foer a few years ago and who has taken seven years to produce this novel. Nicole was conceived at the Hilton, and it’s a place she’s visited often. Having “become haunted by it,” she wants to exploit its grip on her as a way of out of the crisis of faith she’s struggling with: “The things I’d allowed myself to believe in — the unassailability of love, the power of narrative, which could carry people through their lives together without divergence, the essential health of domestic life — I no longer believed in. I had lost my way.’’
“Forest Dark’’ unfolds in alternating perspectives (third-person for Epstein, first for Nicole); both characters have mysterious and compelling guides on their respective journeys. The charismatic Rabbi Menachem Klausner believes that Epstein is a descendant of King David and persuades him to invest in a biopic about the legendary Jewish hero. Former literature professor Eliezer Friedman asks Nicole for help with his plan to turn an unproduced play by Kafka into a film.
Israel is an especially congenial place for these two struggling souls. As Nicole puts it, that nation’s “openness and immediacy made me feel more alive and less alone; made me feel . . . that an authentic life was more possible.” For characters in search of a more flexible vision, this “openness” of perspective feels potentially capacious rather than disorienting.
But at the same time that Israel is freeing, it is constraining. Embraced by Israelis who admire her work, Nicole feels the oppressive force of expectation inhibiting her and further binding her writing — in part because of the “pressure to make one’s whole people proud.”
The tangled necessity of such doubleness is one of Krauss’s core themes and the key to her characters’ quests: how we are at once shaped and confined by the forms we require for life, be they stories, relationships, or places. Krauss enters deeply into the ideas of form and formlessness, and sometimes these excursions dead-end into arid regions of metaphysical inquiry.
But the austerity is largely met, or at least freshened, by a countervailing, vivifying impulse. As they are revisited by “bright sparks of childhood,” Nicole feels “the familiar laws [begin] . . . to shiver and bend a little.” Epstein, too, is “new again to everything . . . to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry.”
What is the source of this energy? To bend is perhaps not to be bound; to renew may be to see the old in a new light. Both Nicole and Epstein certainly want to believe in their own “potential for change, even transformation.” Yet such departures from the constraints of form are not simply the departures they appear to be. Kafka’s insect, Gregor Samsa, after all (as Krauss knows), is not annihilated but metamorphosed. Structure is necessary for life, also for reformed life. One of the gifts that it provides is a plan for organizing ourselves, sometimes against the very objects we have become, so we can spring forward with opposed concentration, as Nicole and Epstein begin to spring, and Krauss does too.
By Nicole Krauss
Harper, 290 pp., $27.99Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’