The American author talks about setting her new novel in Tel Aviv and why she brought Kafka into it
Nicole Krauss is an internationally bestselling author. Her novel, The History of Love, (2005) was shortlisted for the Orange, Médicis and Femina prizes and won France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. In 2007, she was selected as one of Granta’s best young American novelists, and in 2010 appeared on the New Yorker’s “Twenty Under Forty” list. Forest Dark, her new novel, consists of two parallel narratives. Jules Epstein is a wealthy man, divorced after 35 years of marriage, who sets off for the Tel Aviv Hilton in search of transformation. Nicole is a novelist, struggling with her new book; she leaves her husband and children behind in Brooklyn and heads for the same hotel. The book is a meditation on loss and transformation and an investigation of the mysteries of art and literature and family.
This is a book of metamorphoses. Both Epstein and Nicole go through radical changes in the course of this book. Their stories are separate, but then come together in a place of transformation…
I knew from very early on that they belonged together, though I’m not sure I understood why at the start. I suppose in some ways the characters that fascinate readers and writers both are the ones that are teetering on the edge of some sort of change: they’re malleable, they’re being altered. For Nicole, the struggle to find a new form for her writing was echoed in her need to find new forms for her life and I saw the reflection of that in Epstein, who comes to change much later in life, but with no less desire.
Epstein and Nicole end up in Israel. What is your relationship with that country?
Like Nicole in the book, I’ve been going there since I was a child. The country is deeply written into family history; ultimately, my maternal grandparents lived out the rest of their lives and died in Jerusalem [they were born in Germany and Ukraine and later emigrated to London]. And, like Nicole in the novel, we’d go to Tel Aviv, where my father grew up, and we would stay in the Hilton. So it was always the there to my here: someplace on to which we projected ourselves, we imagined ourselves. I think for all American Jews, Israel imposes itself on your imagination and I can look at both places a little from the inside and a lot from the outside, too. And I think that’s a little less common than what we often read in the papers.
In Britain, it’s easy to come across anti-Israeli sentiment that often veers into antisemitism. Is that something you’ve thought about in the context of this book?
How can one not think about that? One finds it in Britain, in Europe, in Scandinavia, and sometimes in the States. It’s unavoidable. It’s certainly something I’m aware of, though it’s not the context of this novel. This question of how much novels can or should reflect a political situation – I suppose I think it’s often irrelevant. Novels, by the nature of what they do, make us look intimately at individual lives, which politics does not allow for. This novel certainly reflects an idea that two countries, or two people who are situated side by side, are often terrified of allowing the reality of the other. That’s the same whether it’s two people who are trying to share a life together or the Israelis and the Palestinians. What would happen if we allowed our hardened sense of what is real to melt a little? What would happen if we allowed ourselves to be uncertain – about the other, about ourselves?
Kafka’s life and work play a central role in this book…
Again — I came to Kafka accidentally, without great plans. Largely because I was very much aware of the trial over Kafka’s papers – which went on for about eight years. [In August 2016, Israel’s supreme court ruled that Kafka’s manuscripts are the property of the National Library of Israel, after a long battle with the heirs of Esther Hoffe. Hoffe was the secretary of Kafka’s friend Max Brod, who preserved Kafka’s manuscripts after the author instructed Brod to burn them.] I used to pass the apartment on Spinoza Street in Tel Aviv, where Eva Hoffe was holding his papers; and I would just stand there in utter amazement, at the idea that those papers were just mouldering there.
Why did you give one of your central characters your name?
It was a natural decision. It felt authentic to me. In a sense, the self is more or less an invention from beginning to end. What is more unreal, what is more a creation than the self? Why do we have such a heavy investment in knowing what is true and what isn’t true about people’s lives? Why is it even valid to make a distinction between autobiography, auto-fiction and fiction itself? What fiction doesn’t contain a deep reflection of the author’s perspective and memory and sense of the world?
In the course of 16 years of writing novels, I feel like I’ve been on this steady progression toward being able to write a female voice that comes from a place of strength and intelligence, a voice that is unapologetic but also open to the reader’s empathy. So I think it’s this process of moving more and more comfortably to a place of writing naturally in a strong female voice, where I could be myself, and imagine and invent.
2017 has been a good year for books. What are you reading now?
I just read a couple of books by a really wonderful writer called Fleur Jaeggy, who writes in Italian. I’ve been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Reading that after I wrote this book, there were all these strange resonances. I was strangely engrossed by a book my editor in England sent, Al Alvarez’s Pondlife – there’s something about his complete immersion in his life and in swim after swim on Hampstead Heath; there’s the physical pain and the joy of the physical world that I found very touching. And I’ve loved Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, which I read recently and was deeply impressed by.
There’s always this strange shift that happens between the long years of making a book and the moment when it becomes a saleable object, so I’m loving being able to linger for a while in the world of literature, and other people’s books, and see that they survived that.
What engages you when you are not writing?
I do a lot of dancing, for one. Perhaps you remember the part about dancing in the book? For the last seven years, I’ve been taking classes in Tel Aviv and New York. The dance research technique/language that has engaged me most is gaga, developed by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. I love his work deeply. I began to dance at a time that I was looking to rediscover the role of pleasure in my own work, of playfulness and its balance with effort. And naturally, I find that the intense physicality is especially necessary after a day of sitting and thinking and writing.
Do you have any rituals around writing?
I live next to Prospect Park and I am forever popping up from my desk to walk or run there.
• Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss is published by Bloomsbury on 24 August (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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