Right until the moment our interview ends, and Nicole Krauss melts with a hug and a kind word into a wonderful dissolvable sweetness, she is hard, formidable, icy. Not bitchy or brash, or any other pejorative descriptor of female inaccessibility, but poised and controlled, intellectually precise and unyielding, pushing right up to the edge of defensive.
Most of my tentative explorations of her latest work were met with a “No,” and a correction. And she has reason to fiercely guard the interpretation of her work. “Women writers have to prove their seriousness and authority and young men are often granted that authority on credit. They only have to disprove it,” she says. This is something Nicole Krauss says she’s acted on, subconsciously, since she wrote her debut novel Man Walks Into A Room at the age of twenty-five. Since then she’s proved it and proved it; through the poetic beauty of The History of Love, the National Book Award nominated Great House, and now with her uncompromising new novel Forest Dark.
This is undoubtedly a book with authority. It is philosophical, complex and challenging -- for me, a little too much of all these things –– but it is certainly impressive. Divided into two strands, half the chapters follow Jules Epstein, a wealthy Jewish New Yorker who sheds his possessions and heads to Tel Aviv, then disappears into the desert, and the other half follow a New York novelist, called Nicole, who travels to the same Tel Aviv hotel to escape her failing marriage and shake free from her writer’s block, before she, herself, has a life-changing experience in the desert.
“Women writers have to prove their seriousness and authority and young men are often granted that authority on credit. They only have to disprove it."
Nicole Krauss seems most at ease talking about the point these characters came to life for her. “Some moment that happens in the early writing where I feel the mortal breath has been blown into the character,” she says. “For Jules I had the idea of his vanishing from the beginning, and then in trying to account for that, or describe this person, this massive person, who had disappeared in this ambiguous way I remember I wrote “Death was too small for him, not even a real possibility.” I just felt his largeness and his certainty, in contrast to the uncertainty of what happened to him.
“And then for the other part –– the Nicole section –– that was more about chronicling something that was happening to me, which was really this feeling of being stuck in this rut.” She found the core of that character contemplating the Tel Aviv Hilton, with the realisation that, “not the fact that it’s a concrete massive structure, but that fact that this concrete massive structure, actually, for this character, was a kind of portal to other worlds. That she found in it not imposition, or not confinement, but actually flexibility, and this way through to a more otherworldly, maybe more magical, existence.”
The author suffering writer’s block is not the only place Nicole Krauss appears to be chronicling her own experience. Many of the things that happen to the Nicole in the book have happened to her, and much of the character’s situation in life mirrors that of the real Nicole. But however much it’s grounded in reality, more of the book challenges our idea of what reality even is.
Krauss says she wanted to provoke questions. “Why is it that we allow ourselves to be so concerned with the ‘real’ and prize it and value it over the imagined, or the invented? Because we absolutely and fundamentally know that what we think of as reality is not objective. Whether it’s on the scientific level of saying, well this is not actually a world of solid things, this is a collection of atoms and empty space, but we need to perceive all these things around us as solid because it benefits our survival. Or whether you think about all of the collective fictions we’ve agreed to believe in, like that the paper in your wallet is actually valuable. It’s a total fiction.
“And looking at the self; quite often all of us feel hemmed in by the story of our lives, the story of our relationship, or the story of who we are in front of our parents –– like you are like this, and your brother is like this –– without admitting to ourselves that that’s a narrative, that’s a construct. But at least we can say we are more captain over that narrative than we like to admit.”
“I'm certainly not interested in continuing to please, or be likeable.”
As to the narrative the fictional character Nicole wants to set out, she is frank and uncompromising, “I wanted to write what I wanted to write, however much it offended, bored, challenged or disappointed people.” The character feels the weight of Jewish storytelling on her shoulders, and in one memorable scene she encounters a fan who thrusts a “myopic” baby on her, on her way to the toilet. It’s bold that Krauss would put so many echoes of herself in the character, and then allow her to be antagonistic. “I think those passages in the book are comedic,” Krauss tells me, “and that should be taken into account. It’s not like the Nicole character is saying ‘I hate my readers.’ She’s sort of joking about their expectations...and yes, I’m aware of those, but I feel quite strongly that I wouldn’t allow that to shadow me in my writing. I’m certainly not interested in continuing to please, or be likeable in that sense.”
‘Likeability’ is something we keep coming back to. Krauss was impressed by a recent interview with author Katie Roiphe, who said Janet Malcolm’s books inspired her, as “She’s not afraid of being unlikable.” And we discussed how female characters are branded “unlikeable” if they pursue their own ends over those of others. As Krauss said, “When a woman character does that it’s considered selfish, while when a male character pursues their own needs that would just be human life.
“I have had a conscious awareness of that from the beginning of my career as a writer. I think for a long time it made me feel that in order to have the full range of humanity in my characters, I would be better off to chose male characters. Because if you want to write about a character who is big, and imposing and an authority and intelligent and difficult and violent and tender and loving and unpredictable and rebellious, you can’t fit all of those things into a female voice without that character failing to inspire empathy. And the moment a character fails to inspire empathy, it can become problematic.”
Fifteen years since her debut, Nicole Krauss is confident that her complex female characters can inspire empathy. And she, as a female author, no longer has anything left to prove. “I feel I don't have to go on proving my authority. I’m free, but I really had to fight for that, and that's a shame.”
Forest Dark, published 24th August 2017, Bloomsbury Publishing