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NPR Arts & Life

In 'Forest Dark,' A Building In Israel Connects 2 Searching Souls


Novelist Nicole Krauss has always admired the writings of Franz Kafka. In her new book, "Forest Dark," she gives him a second life in Israel. Kafka is not the only character to get a shot at a new life. The novel tells a story of an older man and a younger woman, each going through a crisis that brings them to the same hotel in Tel Aviv. From there, they launch separate journeys in search of answers. NPR's Lynn Neary has more.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Nicole Krauss lives just minutes from Brooklyn's Prospect Park. On the day we met, the park was livelier than usual as people gathered to watch the eclipse.

NICOLE KRAUSS: Should we put our glasses on so we can see? We're going to the park now.

NEARY: Krauss comes to the park every day and says the meadow where we stop to watch is usually pretty empty.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mom, I just (unintelligible).

NEARY: Though it was crowded, it was not stirring with the same energy Krauss imagines there would be during a total eclipse.

KRAUSS: People who have experienced a total eclipse say that it does something really strange. There's a sense of, like, extreme connectivity between people and that something I guess spiritual overcomes a crowd.

NEARY: Krauss thinks that sense of awe is missing in many people's lives. As a writer, she feels more in touch with the mystery of the unknown.

KRAUSS: It kind of makes you attuned to beauty and to meaning and to something sort of, like, trembling under the surface of things.

NEARY: Krauss says in "Forest Dark," she wanted to evoke that sense of wonder and to question whether reality is more important than what we imagine.

KRAUSS: This is my street. I will take you upstairs where I work.

NEARY: Back at her home, Krauss leads me up to the study where she writes. It's a big, sunlit room with a massive desk at one end of it.

KRAUSS: Here we are.

NEARY: This is where the magic happens.

KRAUSS: (Laughter) Yes, it is - when it happens.

NEARY: "Forest Dark" began when Krauss was stuck trying to write a new book. Every day she came to her study, and gradually she developed an odd obsession.

KRAUSS: This is a postcard of the Hilton hotel in Tel Aviv.

NEARY: It really is a foreboding kind of structure, isn't it?

KRAUSS: It absolutely is. You look at it, and you think, why would anyone ever decide to check in there?

NEARY: Krauss couldn't get this massive concrete structure out of her head, and she knew she had to write about it.

KRAUSS: As a writer, there was something in me that wanted to turn this place into the opposite of the way that it looks. So instead of it being an absolute fixed, insistent monumental form, it instead in the book becomes a place that may be the center for the imagining of other lives, the other ways of being.

NEARY: The young woman in the novel is also a writer named Nicole. She lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with her two children, and her marriage is falling apart just as Krauss' did a few years ago. She, too, has writer's block, becomes obsessed with the hotel and heads to Israel in search of a story. As the book begins, it almost feels like a memoir. But then Nicole's adventures become more and more surreal. Exactly where, you ask yourself, does memoir end and fiction begin?

KRAUSS: This book invites you as a reader to question that. To what degree is Nicole the character in the book real? To what degree are our lives or our realities are fixed? And to what degree are they open to change? To what degree can we reinvent them?

NEARY: Nicole's adventures alternate with the story of Jules Epstein, a wealthy lawyer in his late-60s. Epstein has recently lost both his parents and ended his longtime marriage. He begins giving away his vast art collection and other material goods and heads to Israel where he wants to establish a memorial for his parents.

KRAUSS: In Epstein's case, I think it's more a question of a life lived for a long time among certainties. He's a man of absolute authority. He's always been right. He realizes at some point that perhaps he has failed to pay attention to some other realm of being. And maybe for lack of a better word, that would be the spiritual realm.

NEARY: Epstein and Nicole both stay at the Tel Aviv Hilton. Through a circuitous set of circumstances, both end up in the desert. They travel over the same physical and metaphysical ground, as Krauss describes it, but their paths never cross. Their stories never converge as one might expect in a novel. Krauss says that's because she is interested in finding new forms for the novel.

KRAUSS: When I tried to write a linear story, there are only so many things that I can do. So I found that when I write novels that have multiple narrative or lines or characters in them, they begin to be in kind of silent conversation with each other, and designs, patterns are formed between them that become the sense - the sense of the novel that the reader feels. And it's a way to get at a much more subtle, to me, a much more authentic sense of meaning than simply delivering the news.

NEARY: In "Forest Dark," Krauss not only plays with the form of the novel but also with our sense of reality, insisting that both should remain fluid and full of wonder. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.