Granta’s online editor Luke Neima in conversation with Nicole Krauss on the genesis of her new book, Forest Dark, her love for Kafka and the reality of ‘the self’.

 

Luke Neima:

To start with, can you tell me about the genesis of this book? Where did it come from, what inspired it?

 

Nicole Krauss:

There was no singular genesis. I remember having the feeling that I wanted to write a book that somehow evoked thousands of years of history, and at the same time the longing to break free of it. Along with that, I knew that I wanted in some way to address the waning of wonder or awe in our time, and their replacement by an obsession with factual and rational knowledge. What do we give up when we turn our backs on the unknown, in our anxious hurrying toward the comfort and stability of certainty? Why do we see not-knowing and formlessness as a temporary, less useful station on the way toward the known, rather than an authentic and even valuable state of being?

 

Neima:

The book blends elements of straightforward literary realism with flashes of what appears to be reality – one of the protagonists is a Brooklyn-based author named Nicole. Can you tell me about the relationship between truth and fiction in this book? Is there an element of auto-fiction to your writing?

 

Krauss:

Other questions Forest Dark provokes, I hope, are concerned with our ideas about what ‘reality’ is. From where do we derive our certainty about what is ‘real’ and what is not? To take a simple example, physics tells us that what we perceive to be solid is not; our sense of it being so exists because it is serves us better to see a rock as solid and inert, and our senses have evolved in service of our survival. And what about the self? What is ‘real’ and what isn’t, and do such questions even apply, really, to something that is entirely a construction, from beginning to end? Obviously, I am not the only one to be concerned with this: it seems to be the most urgent question literature is asking itself in an era when the self is so often equated with a personal work of art, projected round the clock from multiple platforms on the Internet.

 

Neima:

Nicole is very aware of the intense reception her work has had on its audience in Israel. In your writing, are you aware of the different responses your work will evoke in Israel and America?

 

Krauss:

I am, yes. The books have been published in thirty-five languages, and naturally there is a difference in how different countries and cultures take to the work. Some of that depends on the translation, but much of it also depends on whether those readers feel that, even across culture and language, something that matters to them, of their own lives, is being addressed. But for me, only in America and Israel can questions or claims of representation and a kind of familial pride – along with the expectations that follow – come into play. America is sometimes too big to care very much about any individual writer labouring under its roof, and sometimes to care very much about writers at all. But Israel is small, and to some degree feels that everything a Jewish writer does is its business. Especially one that turns her eye toward it, and knows it intimately.

 

Neima:

The book also includes a counterfactual account of Kafka’s life – his death, we are told, was faked. He secretly moved to Palestine, where he continued writing. What drew you to writing about Kafka?

 

Krauss:

 I’ve been reading Kafka since I was a teenager, and even before I read him, when I was very young, I had the sense of him being somehow family. That strange affinity that goes beyond reason has only deepened with reading and the passing of years. I simply love him, the way one loves an uncle who opened a path for being in the family that otherwise would not have been possible.

At some point, early on in the writing, he entered the book. Just sort of slipped in, without my knowing why. Or rather his archives entered it, stored in a ground floor apartment building on Spinoza Street in Tel Aviv. Occasionally I had stood in front of it, wondering about what was inside. It was an instinct to have Friedman – who is either former Mossad or former professor of literature at Tel Aviv University, or possible neither – lead Nicole there. Months later I was out in the Judaean desert. I was sleeping the night in a Bedouin style tent, ostensibly doing research, though mostly trying to figure out what happened to Epstein. By the kerosene heater, I opened my computer. And then it suddenly hit me, that of course, that was it: Kafka had come here. Here to the desert, to what was then Palestine. All of the evidence turned up afterwards, in the months of scouring his letters and diaries. By which I mean, the evidence that Palestine was his only hope and means of escape and transformation, and that maybe, just maybe, he took it.

 

Neima:

An element of this narrative in the book is the recent court case over Kafka’s papers, which have finally been granted to the National Library of Israel. Have you seen the papers? Was this story part of the inspiration for your work?

 

Krauss:

The Supreme Court in Israel heard the case, and handed down the final decision, only after I’d finished writing Forest Dark. Its eight-year-long history was, of course, on my mind as I wrote. Reading about the struggle over who ‘owns’ Kafka, which raised yet again the question of how ‘Jewish’ a writer he was, often exhausted me. He belonged to no one, and though the decision has been handed down, and the National Library are at this very moment going through the papers (yes, I have been in close touch with the archivist as he undertakes that work), he still belongs to no one. He goes on eluding us, while at the same time opening our view a little wider onto infinity.

 

Neima:

Can you tell me about why you decided to write about King David, who is a crucial figure in the Epstein side of the story?

 

Krauss:

I had thought plenty about Moses (no choice, a lifetime of Seders), and plenty about Abraham, but I hadn’t spent very much time thinking about David, and, spending time in Jerusalem the summer after I finished Great House, I began to. Was there a more complicated hero in the Bible than David? The boy shepherd who slung a stone at the head of Goliath, of whom the women used to say, Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands, and who gets more pages in the Bible than even Moses? David who manipulated the love of Saul, of Jonathan, of Michal, of Bathsheba, of everyone who ever came close to him? A cut-throat warrior, a murderer, an ambitious politician hungry for power, willing to do whatever it took to become king.

The real, historical David, certainly existed: In 1993, an inscription was found at Tel Dan in the north of Israel, which dates from the ninth century BC, and refers to the ‘The House of David’. But all we know about him was that he was probably a tribal warlord, an outsider not from Israel but Judah, a non-Israelite territory, and that he must have been wily, cunning and brutal, And yet when it came time, some two hundred years after his death, to write the story of the first King of a united Israel that spanned from Dan in the north to the Negev desert in the south, and the founder of sacred Jerusalem, the authors of Samuel and Chronicles had to legitimize the Davidic dynasty, and build the case for a man chosen by God to lead the Jews, supported at every step by divine will. And as if this were not enough, in order that he should not remain a cold and calculating brute, that he should be given softness, intelligence and depth, the redactors later attributed to him Tehillim, the Psalms. To let him rest from what he had been, they ascribed to him the most beautiful, plaintive poetry ever written. Had him – at the end of his days, I like to think – stumble into the discovery of what was most radical in himself, which was grace. The result is the David we know, the flawed but moving national hero, a model for all subsequent kings in Western civilization, and the founder of a city as relevant to us now as it was 3000 years ago to him. I found myself thinking about why we chose this particular character as our hero, and how the image of him has been refracted through time, in all of the Davids that have since been born and named after him, or at least measured in light of him. The ancient stories we tell, as beautiful as they may be, also serve to shape our conventions about who we think we are or should be, and in passing those stories down to our children, we consciously or unconsciously press those conventions and standards onto them as well, cancelling out other ways they might see themselves or the world. Nicole, in Forest Dark, is, at best, ambivalent about that, as am I. Because they are conventions that limit us, and have done us much harm, too, along the way.

 

Neima:

The book is largely set in Israel, during a brief winter war. Can you tell me about how that background of violence fits into the book?

 

Krauss:

It’s impossible to write about Israel without writing about violence. It is also impossible to write about love and intimacy without writing about violence. I happened to be in Israel during the summer of 2014, when it was once again at war with Gaza. The experience of being impossibly close to terrible violence, and also being shielded from it, while feeling the echo of it in those sonic booms from the missile detonators overhead, struck me deeply. But even more than that, the way that two countries, just like two individuals, can live side by side, and refuse to allow each other’s realities in, because they are afraid of what it will mean, and how it will change them. And so they accept only those aspects of ‘reality’ that confirm their beliefs about themselves, which guard their sense of stability and coherence.

 

Neima:

Finally at one point in the book, a retired literature professor tells Nicole, ‘For writers there’s no way out of the language you’re born into.’ In your experience, is this true?

 

Krauss:

The flip side of that thought says: language is the best means of escape that I know. Every great writer used language to escape the limitations of his or her circumstances. Some of them even used it to escape the finality of death. They are no longer alive, and yet we go on reading them, and they keep coming through.

 


 

 

Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark is available now from Bloomsbury.

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