Nicole Krauss | 'I could express things that I simply couldn't in my own skin, in my own life'

Nicole Krauss | 'I could express things that I simply couldn't in my own skin, in my own life'

Back in 2005, the second novel from a young, unknown American writer was published in the UK. It didn’t take very long for the word of mouth to spread on both sides of the Atlantic, and soon The History of Love was an international bestseller, with rights sold in 25 territories and a place on the 2006 Orange Prize shortlist. A year later, Nicole Krauss was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. Her third novel, 2010’s Great House, picked up another Orange Prize nomination, and it was also a finalist for the National Book Award in the US.

Krauss’ fourth novel, Forest Dark, is a super-lead for Bloomsbury in August. A story of transformation and self-realisation, it opens with a mysterious disappearance. Jules Epstein, a very wealthy 68-year-old former lawyer from New York, is missing from the run-down apartment he was renting in Tel Aviv; the last sign of him was his monogrammed briefcase found abandoned in the Israeli desert. The novel then traces the months before Epstein’s disappearance. We learn that, while still in New York, his life had been undergoing something of a transformation. His parents died, he divorced his wife after 35 years of marriage, retired from his law firm and had started giving away his large fortune, much to the consternation of his family and close friends. Epstein then left for Israel, first stop the Tel Aviv Hilton, ostensibly to find a suitable way to commemorate his parents in the wake of their deaths.

The following chapter introduces a new voice, a narrator who reveals that she is a young, well-known novelist from Brooklyn who is suffering from writer’s block. She is a mother to two young boys and is stuck in a failing marriage. She leaves her family behind in New York to check in to the Tel Aviv Hilton hoping that the familiar surroundings (she stayed there often as a child) will cure her writer’s block. Her name is Nicole. Given the similarities to the author (who lives in Brooklyn, has two boys, and a few years ago divorced novelist Jonathan Safran Foer), I ask Krauss if the Nicole of the novel is in fact her, or her alter ego?

I poured so much that is real and true about myself and my life into Nicole, but at some point it became literature, which is something different than simply history

“Hmmm,” she says, over the phone from her agent’s office in Manhattan. “I know that is going to be the main question that I’m going to be asked for the life of this book. I hesitate to even try to answer it to myself, because I think with everything I have ever written, I have poured myself into it.” She remembers being asked, when The History of Love came out, if she had modelled the character of Leo Gursky on a grandfather. “I tried to explain that, ‘No, he’s really me, actually.’ The only way I could write about those things was projecting them into the character of this old, isolated, charming but difficult man. I could express things that I simply couldn’t in my own skin, in my own life,” she says.

“I think that is what one is always doing as a writer. Not just self-expression, but something bigger than that, which is self-invention. In that process of self-invention you are expanding a portion of yourself. I poured so much that is real and true about myself and my life into Nicole, but at some point it became literature, which is something different than simply history.”

She adds, “Writers are kind of like mockingbirds, in that they take what is interesting and shiny and useful from their own lives and they weave it into this tapestry that they’re making. I wove an awful lot of my life into this book, but on both sides - no less on Epstein’s side than on Nicole’s.”

Forest Dark began after the publication of Great House in 2010 with Krauss’ customary search for something “urgent enough and important enough for me to want to spin a whole book around it”. It is always a long search, she says, which involves “trying different stories and voices”. Eventually she found her starting point, the idea of a man who disappears in the desert in Israel. “Very quickly, this larger than life - or too large for death - character bloomed and I had Epstein. But I had no idea why he had disappeared and what had led up to that and what had happened to him. And I wanted to know... That’s always a sign to me, not just a sense that the character or voice feels alive to me, but that there’s something that is deeply mysterious and unknown that I want to understand.”

The stories of Epstein and Nicole unfold in alternate chapters. Both have come to Israel in search of something, but Epstein is sidetracked by a voluble and persistent rabbi named Menacham Klausner, and Nicole is tracked down by an elderly man who claims to be a professor of literature and who has a strange theory about Kafka. While the lives of Epstein and Nicole run in parallel, “forever going over the same geographical and metaphysical ground”, they never actually meet. Although, without giving anything away, the actions of one will have a profound, even life-saving effect on the other.

Krauss has said that she never plans her novels. She has spoken in the past of never knowing where the story is going until it gets there. “Getting completely lost, coming unstrung and unbound, arriving at unknown and unexpected places is, for me, a critical part of writing.” But I wonder if she, at some level, knew she wanted to write a book about transformation? She says she understood in an emotional sense, but only vaguely in an intellectual sense, “that the book wanted to turn itself toward the idea of wonder.”

Krauss says: “For me, of course it’s a book about transformation, but it’s a book that is also trying to provoke us to question our assumptions about reality, a reality whose perceived laws and limitations we organise our lives according to. Physics tells us that reality is not what we always perceive it to be, and though science and spirituality are not usually on the same side, in this case I believe they are, because our spiritual sense also tells us that the world is more mysterious and infinite than our rational selves allow.”

Forest Dark, which had the working title of “Last Wonder”, “asks why we have turned away from wonder, from awe in the face of the unknown, and why we have instead made a religion out of factual, rational knowledge. It asks what the costs have been of that turning away, a loss that most of us accept in childhood, at the age of nine or 10. In that sense, the book also questions the conventions we are taught from a young age, and all too easily accept and agree to live by. Conventions of how to be and the roles we should assume: wife, husband, mother, and so on. And for me that includes the conventions we accept as writers and artists regarding form. I began Forest Dark with a strong, irresistible desire to break all the forms that had been binding me, both in my life and my work. I was looking for a way, as Nicole puts in the book, to sustain formlessness, which is equally difficult in art as in life.”

Photo © Goni Riskin