heim — home. yes, the place one has always been, however hidden from one’s awareness, could only be called that, couldn’t it? and yet, in another way, doesn’t home only become home if one goes away from it, since it’s only with distance, only in the return, that we are able to recognize it as the place that shelters our true self? (71)
forest dark (harpers, forthcoming 2017) feels like a departure from nicole krauss’ previous work, but, then, when i think about her previous work, i think each of her novels also feels like a departure from the one that came before it. like, great house (norton, 2010) follows four narrators — and there’s a fifth character in the mix, a desk that’s made its rounds from person to person, life to life. the history of love (norton, 2005) is this beautiful, heartrending story that bounces primarily between two characters — alma and bruno, one a child, the other a writer and wwii survivor — and that was a departure from man walks into a room (doubleday, 2002), still my favorite of krauss’ books, a straightforward novel about a man who wakes up in the desert one day, his memory wiped by a tumor in his brain.
i don’t know that i loved forest dark in the ways i loved man walks into a room or was entranced by the history of love. (great house, for me, was unfortunately largely forgettable.) i read forest dark in an afternoon and an evening, though, barreling my way through in on a hot, steaming labor day, not stopping until i’d completed it, and i read most of it on the floor, draped over a folded futon and hiding under a fan with the windows open as wide as they’d go and the blinds pulled up to let in as much of a breeze as possible.
the carpet (i hate carpet, but my parents’ house has carpet in the bedrooms) felt sticky and damp from the humidity, and i paused once to take a nap because heat saps me of energy and i’d spent the early afternoon writing, a second time to take a break and read more orange is the new black recaps (i’m still debating whether or not to continue with the show or call it quits), a third time to eat a slice of cold pizza and a banana and a peanut butter jelly sandwich and a glass of milk.
i finished it at night, sweating in bed at eleven p.m, the pillows and blanket shoved away from me, and, when i was done, i dropped the book back onto the floor, onto the scarf i’d laid on the carpet earlier to protect my elbows from the roughness, and tried to go to sleep.
i hate/despise/loathe summer, always have, likely always will.
in forest dark, krauss alternates chapters between two characters, two perspectives — the third-person of jules epstein, a sixty-something retired lawyer who’s spent the last few years giving all his stuff away, and the first-person of nicole, an author from brooklyn in a failing marriage — and they both travel to israel, epstein to donate $2 million in memory of his deceased parents, nicole to work on her new novel, which is supposed to be about the tel aviv hilton.
there’s a lot of philosophizing in forest dark, a lot of talking about writing and religion and things that lie more in the realm of the conceptual, and you couldn’t say that much really happens action-wise in the novel. both epstein and nicole are going through changes in their lives. both of them go to israel, stay at the tel aviv hilton. both have encounters with eccentric men, epstein with a rabbi who seeks epstein out, claiming that epstein is a descendant of david, nicole with a man who claims to have worked for mossad, who is a retired professor at tel aviv university who shares nicole’s love for and fascination with kafka.
(kafka, i suppose, is the third character in forest dark. the novel explores an alternate theory that kafka faked his death and lived on a kibbutz as a gardener until his peaceful, actual death.)
i admit that i was pretty whatever to the epstein chapters — they were good, well-written, but neither were they all that interesting to me — but i loved the chapters we spent with nicole. it’s public knowledge that krauss herself divorced her husband (the novelist jonathan safran foer) a few years ago, that they have two sons together, and she doesn’t try to create clear differences between herself and the nicole in the novel. in the novel, nicole is an author; she’s written several novels about jewishness; she has readers who approach her to tell her how boring her most recent novel was (great house) or how they loved one of her novels so much, they named their infant after a character (“alma” in the history of love). krauss herself spent a lot of time at the tel aviv hilton throughout her life. there’s a lot that is blurred in that boundary between the personal and the written, much of which, i dare say, has been blurred intentionally.
that’s not why i loved the nicole chapters, though; i’m not that interested in the personal or in trying to parse what is “autobiographical” and what is not — nicole spends a fair amount of time thinking about writing, about narratives, and there was a lot i loved about that because, sometimes, i spend a fair amount of time thinking about writing and about narratives.
there were some things i identified with, too, like this bit on dance versus writing:
more and more it seems to me that dancing is where my true happiness lies, and that when i write, what i am really trying to do is dance, and because it is impossible, because dancing is free of language, i am never satisfied with writing. to write is, in a sense, to seek to understand, and so it is always something that happens after the fact, is always a process of sifting through the past, and the results of this, if one is lucky, are permanent marks on a page. but to dance is to make oneself available (for pleasure, for one explosion, for stillness); it only ever takes place in the present — the moment after it happens, dance has already vanished. dance constantly disappears, ohad often says. the abstract connections is provokes in its audience, of emotion with form, and the excitement from one’s world of feelings and imagination — of this derives from its vanishing. […] but writing, whose goal it is to achieve a timeless meaning, has to tell itself a lie about time; in essence, it has to believe in some form of immutability, which is why we judge the greatest works of literature to be those that have withstood the test of hundreds, even thousands, of years. and this lie that we tell ourselves when we write makes me more and more uneasy. (136-7)
for me, it isn’t dance but music, and i think maybe that’s why i’m obsessed with the rhythm of language. it’s what i love so much about ian mcewan and what i loved so much about the history of love, the lyricality and beauty of mcewan and krauss’ prose because music is the thing that’s been with me my whole life, the thing i once wanted to pursue, the thing that has kept me here. it’s been my lifeline in so many ways, standing in for something much bigger than itself, filling the spaces left vacant by dead hope and empty futures.
music is that ephemeral thing somehow holds the center of my life.
and i loved, too, the idea of the lie we tell ourselves about writing as standing up against time, and it reminded me of what jonathan franzen said when someone asked at a reading if he thought about how his writing would exist fifty years down the road. he replied that he doesn’t think about that; he writes in the present, for the present; and i thought, hey, what awesome freedom is that, not to fuss about legacy or futures you might not be around for, but to exist in the here and now, to try to serve and respond to the here and now.
as someone who has spent the greater majority of her life waiting for that one day — one day, i’ll be skinny, and, one day, my life will begin — i understand the futility of thinking about, planning for, writing toward that one day. in the end, it doesn’t matter whether work is rendered a “classic” because it’s still around hundreds, thousands of years down the road; it’s about whether or not work resonates with people today, as they exist today, whether or not work meets people’s needs as they are today.
then again, maybe that’s a perspective that’s easier for me to take because i’m generally not concerned with forever. i don’t worry about what will happen after i’m gone. i don’t want to live forever, and i don’t care about being remembered forever. i don’t give two shits about immortality because, to me, it’s already incredible and incredulous enough that i’m even here today — and, besides, what does a hypothetical future matter if our present is falling apart?
i ask myself frequently these days who i write for. it’s not that i worry about or concern myself with any notion of an audience; i don’t sit and think about who’s reading me and why; and, over the years, i’ve learned not to fret over personal reactions to my writing. much like i have writers whom i love and to whom i respond positively and viscerally, and much like i have writers whose work i don’t enjoy, whose writing style i don’t prefer, i know i am not the writer for everyone. i know that there will be people out there who intensely dislike and disagree with the things i write, and i’ve learned not to worry about how people feel about me, simply to make sure not to give them the power to control or affect how i feel about myself and my work.
(you can’t control how people feel about you. you can control how they let you feel about yourself. don’t just hand over that power.)
however, i do ask myself who i’m trying to address with my writing, not with any kind of specificity but in broad strokes. who is my ideal “audience”? who are the people i’m trying to speak to, to reach? who is the reader i have in mind?
because, as someone who does want to write professionally, i don’t consider my writing to be a solely (or even primarily) personal endeavor. i write things to be read, and i write them hoping that they will be read by a wide group of people, not just people i know, to whom i hand-deliver my work.
and, so, in that sense, i do think about who i’m writing for, and i’ve been thinking about it a lot in regards to this series of daily posts i have planned for national suicide prevention week. i’ve been thinking about it a lot in regards to my book, and i’ve mentioned it before here, how my thinking has changed, how i’ve moved from wanting to help the non-suicidal and non-depressed understand the suicidal person, to learn to see the suicidal person as human, into wanting to speak to those who are suicidal and depressed, who often feel so alone and isolated because ours is still a stigma-ridden, shame-based, guilt-producing culture.
and i think that that’s the perspective i’m taking with this upcoming series of posts, the first of which will be published on september 10, tentatively at 3 pm EST. (the time may be later; it may be earlier; that remains to be seen.) it’s not to say that it isn’t important, valuable work, trying to reach those who are fortunately unfamiliar with these darknesses and this kind of pain, but it’s not the work for me, at least not now. the more i’ve been talking about my own depression, my own anxiety disorder, my own history with suicidal thinking, the more i find that it’s increasingly frustrating trying to talk to people who don’t understand — it’s so isolating, so reinforcing of that sense of us vs. them, no matter how deeply i do appreciate people’s effort at least to try to understand, to be kind, to be supportive.
because, in many ways, ultimately, i write for comfort. i write to scratch the itches in my brain. i write the stories i want to read, the stories i wish were out there for someone like me, and i think that that’s what it means when people say to write for yourself first. because one of the things i’ve learned over the last year or so is that i am not that unique a person. my lonelinesses, my wants, my fears, my insecurities, my sadnesses — these are not things that are unique to me. the things i want are fundamentally simple and basic; i want someone to love who loves me back, who wants me back; and i want to be able to do work i don’t hate that means something, contributes something in some way or to some degree. i want to be able to be independent. i want to know that i’m okay.
and, so, when i write for myself, i’m not writing for some special individual who’s too precious for the world. i’m writing for the lonely child in me who’s bursting with want, who’s looking to connect with others like her because she knows that they exist. i’m writing for the lonely children out there who are looking for these same connections, these same assurances that they aren’t alone, their lives mean something — and none of this was meant to read like a mission statement, but, sometimes, i think it needs to be said.
and i’ll never be the type of person who writes a straight-up book review, but this is what i look for in books — a mirror, not the kind that shows you who you are on the surface but forces you to look, to look deep, and to look in the places of yourself you don’t want to see. and the thing is that these kinds of mirrors can be found anywhere; it’s not about non-fiction or memoirs or stories inspired by true events or fiction that’s intentionally telling stories about the world. there is no “right” or “wrong” book, only openness and self-reflection and the willingness to look yourself in the eye and not look away.
and this is what i loved so much about forest dark, that krauss gives us a story that is very personal, that blurs the lines between public and private, that asks questions of the stories we tell, whether to ourselves or to the world — and, in turn, she’s written a book that asks you to engage, to think, instead of reading blindly, and to ask what it is we tell ourselves so we don’t have to be cognizant of what we’re losing.
the naked bulb sputtered on and off behind his inflamed lids when he tried to sleep. he couldn’t sleep. had he accidentally given sleep away, along with everything else? (14)
i frankly hate descartes, and have never understood why his axiom should be trusted as an unshakable foundation for anything. the more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest, where once we lived in wonder, and understood it to be a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of being and the world. now we have little choice but to live in the arid fields of reason, and as for the unknown, which once lay glittering at the farthest edge of our gaze, channeling our fear but also our hope and longing, we can only regard it with aversion. (47)
“we like to think of ourselves as the inventors of monotheism, which spread like wildfire and influenced thousands of years of history. but we didn’t invent the idea of a single god; we only wrote a story of our struggle to remain true to him and in doing so we invented ourselves. we gave ourselves a past and inscribed ourselves into the future.” (friedman, 81)
“this is why the rabbis tell us that a broken heart is more full than one that is content: because a broken heart has a vacancy, and the vacancy has the potential to be filled with the infinite.” (klausner, 107)
narrative may be unable to sustain formlessness, but life also has little chance, given that it is processed by the mind whose function it is to produce coherence at any cost. to produce, in other words, a credible story. (122)
“you think your writing belongs to you?” he asked softly. (125)
narrative may be unable to sustain formlessness, but life also has little chance — is that what i wrote? what i should have written is “human life.” because nature creates form but it also destroys it, and it’s the balance between the two that suffuses nature with such peace. but if the strength of the human mind is its ability to create form out of the formless, and map meaning onto the world through the structures of language, its weakness lies in its reluctance or refusal to demolish it. we are attached to form and fear the formless: are taught to fear it from our earliest beginning. (138)
writing about other lives can, for a while, obscure the fact that the plans one has made for one’s own have insulated one from the unknown rather than drawn one closer to it. (168)
and yet, purely on the level of strategy, he continued, there’s genius in it; as much genius as in the story of refusing a dying kafka’s last will to take everything he’d left behind and burn it all unread. when the world slowly woke to brod’s kafka, he proved irresistible. and though the legend may have been brod’s own handiwork, in the decades that followed, it was expanded and embroidered upon by the border of kafkologists who took up where brod left off, gleefully churning out more kafka mythology without ever once questioning its source. (192)