Nicole Krauss, author of Great House, Man Walks Into a Room, and The History of Love, has a new novel out this month, and it's been getting wonderful reviews all over, from The New York Times to O magazine. Forest Dark is a remarkable, brilliant book that asks big questions about the nature of time and identity. The Amazon Book Review interviewed Nicole Krauss on video at Book Expo in New York in June. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Amazon Book Review: Can you tell us a little about your title, "Forest Dark"?
Nicole Krauss: The title comes from the opening lines of Dante's Inferno. They’re about finding yourself, midway through your life, lost, in a dark forest. "Forest Dark" is Longfellow’s original translation. For me, that phrase summons a lot of things. One of them is the sense that the forest is a place of mystery, but it’s also a place of discovery. There’s another reference, earlier in the book, to Descartes, and to his writings about the idea of finding a straight path through the forest. And the narrator, Nicole, says at some point, "I’ve always hated that. Whenever I read that line, I’ve always thought how much I want to get lost in that forest." The inviting and slightly threatening allure of a dark forest was on my mind throughout.
You gave one of the protagonists of "Forest Dark" your own name. What's the significance?
This is the first time I’ve written a character who has my name, but for me writing has always had a sense of extending and amplifying and enlarging the self. It's not so much self-expression as self-creation. So when I’ve written other characters in previous books, like an old man named Leo Gersky [in The History of Love], he feels no less like me than the Nicole in this book. It’s just that the facts of her life are closer to mine in a sense but the feeling is no less or more my own in both of those characters.
Have you changed as a writer over the course of four novels?
Everything is always changing. That’s what’s so exciting to me about being a writer. I really think of writing as a very powerful form of freedom. And I know that to be the case, because I always begin my books with the sense of being somehow constrained or trapped, and the writing becomes a process of breaking out of that into something new. So the form of the novels I’ve written is forever changing, and that interests me a lot, the flexibility of the novel, the way it invites us to reinvent it every time we try to write one.
And I’ve changed. I think, if freedom is important to you as a writer, what is that freedom? Freedom has something to do with living other lives. It also has something to do with the potential for change, and I think this book is very much about that. At its heart, it is about the idea of transformation, or metamorphosis, in some sense, of leaving behind what is old and breaking old forms and somehow arriving at something new and unexpected.
Would you say that "Forest Dark" contains elements of magical realism?
I think that the book invites the reader to question her ideas about reality and the ways in which reality seems to be inflexible. I certainly thought about magic and mystery, but I didn’t think about the ways that we put those two ideas together -- that realism must contain a bit of magic and magic must contain a bit of realism. I think I was just asking myself, and asking the reader, to consider the fact that perhaps we’ve made too much of a religion out of knowledge, out of the need to be certain. And that perhaps there is something that we long for in facing the unknown, and opening ourselves to it.
The novel does seem to suggest the existence of alternate realities, doesn't it?
The laws of physics tell us things about our world that we don’t perceive. In the most simplistic way, we can know that things we see as solid are not, they’re made of atoms. All of us have seen those amazing photos of a ball hitting a bat in which those two objects for a moment combine, before they are sent off on their separate paths.
So we know that in order to survive as humans our perceptions bend reality in a way that suits us. And just that knowledge alone should be enough to tell us that actually that reality is much more flexible, much more open than we think.
A character in the book opens her particular story by remembering how her first memory is of seeing herself, as a child, on television. This launches into a story of coming home one day, as an adult now, and feeling absolutely certain that she is already there. It begins a conversation about what it is to be both here and there, to somehow occupy two planes of existence, which I think is something that scientists who tell us about the multiverse tell us is not entirely impossible -- that what we think of as reality might work that way. The book is trying to crack open some of our stiffened ideas about that.
Your other protagonist, Jules Epstein, gives away some very precious artwork. He holds onto a painting of the Annunciation. Why does he choose to keep that?
He’s very successful, wealthy, and he starts to just give things away -- a Bonnard, a Degas -- and the last painting he is left with is this Annunciation. And you know I had a particular Annunciation painting in mind, which I had been looking at for many many years. There is something so beautiful and touching about it. Something about the way Mary is kneeling before the angel Gabriel -- she has almost this child’s face, and yet you see this sense of this exalted destiny, that everyone else knows she is going to have, except maybe her.
But the Annunciation is a moment that’s on the cusp of something. It’s on the cusp of something enormous that’s going to happen, that will change everything forever, in a sense, in the world, but also, simply, in her own life. She will never again be just Mary. I think there is something about the trembling sense of that moment that’s always drawn me. There are so many beautiful Annunciation paintings that have been made, but this was one from Piero della Francesca.
You began your writing life as a poet, and studied with Joseph Brodsky. Does that medium still call to you?
I met Joseph Brodsky when I had just turned 18. I had just arrived at Stanford, and he was there as a visiting poet. I think in many ways, meeting him changed the course of my life, in large part because he injected into it an intense seriousness, the seriousness of what it could be to be a writer, and how large that could be. He used to say that if what defines us from other species is language, then literature being the pinnacle of language is really the goal, and poetry being the pinnacle of literature is the goal of the species.
He took it very, very seriously. And I think that was exciting for me. I often think with some regret that he died in 1996, before I became anything, certainly before I wrote a novel. I often wonder what he would think of my becoming a lowly prose writer. But I think it would be OK with him.
A lot of what I learned from years of trying to write poems has fed into the work. I think it’s still there. You know, it’s below the sentences. I always think of poetry having this intensely held power of feeling. Right? Because a poem is often so small, so slight on the page, and it has to hold so much feeling. So there’s a sense of attention and strain. So maybe I’m thinking of that, that sense of emotional energy that every sentence needs to have for me to want to keep it.
How do you balance family life and writing?
I have two boys, they are 8 and 11 now. They're getting older. There’s a bit more time now. I keep looking in shock at the publicity material for this book. The sentence that stops me is, “It’s her first book in seven years.” I think, "But, I’ve been so busy! I’ve been doing so much! Really, this book came quickly, I think." But of course, there’s just a lot of life to live and I feel absolutely certain that that enriches the books.
I remember many, many years ago, before I become a novelist, reading an article by a woman novelist who was calculating how may novels she had missed writing for each child. And I think the mathematics of that is terrible and untrue. There is something about how emotionally demanding motherhood is, how much feeling we pour into it, how much we are forced to stretch and grow, that I think only makes one a sharper writer and just generally more alive, and to be alive is, you know, the thing that you need most. You need your energy most as a writer.