Delving deep into the forests within the self

Forest Dark is the fourth novel by Nicole Krauss (above).
Forest Dark is the fourth novel by Nicole Krauss (above).PHOTO: GONI RISKIN



By Nicole Krauss/ Bloomsbury/Paperback/291 pages/ $25.96/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars

As Italian poet Dante Alighieri begins his epic poem Inferno, the narrator loses himself in a dark wood, selva oscura, that he can escape only by entering hell.

This "dark wood" forms the title and theme of American writer Nicole Krauss' fourth novel, which meanders into those dense, unknown forests within the self.

She returns to form after a seven-year hiatus with this liquid, existential novel, which, though slender in breadth, is heavy with philosophising and contemplation of the Jewish condition.

Forest Dark is the fourth novel by Nicole Krauss. PHOTO: BLOOMSBURY

The novel is made up of two separate threads, which alternate chapters. One follows millionaire lawyer Jules Epstein - 68, freshly divorced and engaged in breakneck philanthropy to divest himself of his worldly possessions - who has vanished in Tel Aviv.

The other, a female novelist, has also returned to Tel Aviv to escape a failing marriage and writer's block. Called Nicole, she bears a strong resemblance to Krauss, who, in 2014, divorced fellow writer Jonathan Safran Foer, with whom she has two sons.

Nicole - who like Epstein is Jewish - installs herself in the Hilton hotel, where she was conceived nigh on 40 years ago and now hopes some fertile idea may likewise seed itself.

She is not going to run into Epstein - that would be too immaculate a twist for Krauss, who prefers to have her characters wander loose along the disparate forest paths of their minds.

Epstein falls under the spell of an enigmatic rabbi and becomes caught up in a project to revive the legacy of King David.

Nicole encounters an old literature professor professing to be a former Mossad agent, who leads her on a journey to recover the lost papers of German writer Franz Kafka.

There are echoes here of Krauss' second novel The History Of Love (2005): a lonely old man, the search for a lost manuscript and the quest for transcendence.

Forest Dark, however, is deeper, darker, more intractable. Krauss is given to philosophising at length and can lose track of her narrative - most notably in one of the writer's chapters, which devolves into a long essay about Kafka that would sit better in an academic treatise.

But when not descending into pedantic exposition, she displays a knack for prose of a cut-glass beauty.

This manifests most in the Epstein chapters, as the boundaries between the character and the world around him grow more diffuse.

Epstein's existential crisis is described as beginning a month after his mother's death, when one afternoon, he feels his head filling with light, "as a glass is filled, from the bottom to the brim".

Later, he goes out walking at dusk, losing himself among the narrow streets until "turning a corner and coming upon the sea all over again, he was unskinned".

Krauss has a real gift for turning words into doors through which to grasp at transcendence and these little epiphanies are worth the dips into the didactic.

•If you liked this, read: The History Of Love by the same author (Penguin, 2015, $19.21, Books Kinokuniya), in which an elderly locksmith, who once wrote a novel about a girl in his Polish village whom he loved, crosses paths with a 14-year-old girl from Brooklyn who shares the name of his lost love.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2017, with the headline 'Delving deep into the forests within the self'. Subscribe