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Micah Reader in May 2018 by Brenda Levenson
Published in 2017, Nicole Krauss’ book Forest Dark reads like a memoir rather than a novel. A minority of one reader found the book interesting and brilliant, the writing beautiful, “pretentious” said another! As most of us noted, the story is often confusing on account of the number of characters that appear in it, as well of dreamlike pages that add to the challenge of figuring what is real and what is not. The many differences of opinion provoked one of the most interesting discussions that belied the initial negative response to Forest Dark, a title that was taken from Dante, we were told.
At first sight, escape seems to be the main topic of the book, but it is in fact a rich novel that touches upon philosophy, religion and psychoanalysis. Israel being the narrator’s second country, it is where she chooses to escape from a marriage which is failing, two young children and their psychological demands, and finally from her prolonged writer’s block. The entrance on the scene of Jules Epstein brings a note of confusion to the story. A successful lawyer in Manhattan recently divorced from his wife, he decides to escape from his life of privilege, leaving a luxury apartment in Manhattan and valuable possessions to travel to Israel as well, choosing a dilapidated tenement to call home. There he becomes involved with an American rabbi by the name of Klausner whose daughter wants to direct a film on the allegedly Davidic ancestry of Epstein. Enters Kafka who dreamed of escaping his domineering father and the family home, but never did, nor in life, nor in his books in which his characters are encircled by walls that they are unable to breach. His last wish to his friend and biographer Max Brod to destroy all his manuscripts might be seen as an urge to remain in his self-imposed cage.
One of our readers saw Jules Epstein and the narrator as ‘running in two parallels…. Both of whom end up in Israel where they are taken on a journey by Rabbi Klausner.” “Life is episodic,” noted our leader. To lines that seem somewhat incomprehensible, one person applied the word “Kafkaesque,” brief and to the point. Krauss invokes frequently the Bible, “lech lecha” God says to Abraham, “you shall go” and the characters do. The binding of Abraham leads us to the binding the narrator feels as the mother of a demanding child. Few people are left from the pages of the book, Spinoza and his view of God (“a human invention”), Descartes whose axiom she dismisses (“I think therefore I am”). Her reference to Freud led the two psychologists in our group into a fascinating exchange about dreams, what they mean and how to analyze them. Too bad there were no sofas in the room.
The different viewpoints expressed may or may not have modified our readers’ opinion of the book, but for many the discussion clarified much that relied on obscure statements.