Nicole Krauss: end of a marriage is ‘terrifying but the freefall is exhilarating’
The bestselling writer on autobiography, being part of a literary power couple with Jonathan Safran Foer, and what happens when it all falls apart
Nicole Krauss. Photograph: Getty Images
Asking a fiction writer about autobiographical elements in their work can be a little tiresome for all concerned. The fact that the question is so often asked speaks to some sort of yearning for reality, but the response is typically a denial, formed around evasive ideas of the inherent fiction of memory, the falsity of imposing a narrative on life, the idea that everybody who writes about herself creates a character, creates a lie.
In her new novel, Forest Dark, international bestselling author Nicole Krauss has moved into the territory of auto-fiction. Her main character is a Jewish New York writer called Nicole, a mother of two sons in the midst of a marital breakdown reminiscent of Krauss’s own well-documented split with novelist Jonathan Safran Foer in 2014. Perhaps an all-consuming life experience leaves less room for fiction.
It has been seven years since Krauss’s last novel, Great House. She likes to wait “for something that feels alive enough that I want to spend years with it”. In 2015, she reportedly received an advance of $4 million for this book and her upcoming short story collection.
Forest Dark tells the story of the parallel lives of Nicole, who has reached an impasse in both her work and her marriage, and Jules Epstein, an old New York lawyer, contemplating his life’s legacy. Both leave New York for Tel Aviv in search of sublime transformation, by way of Kafka, Freud and Jewish theology.
Krauss had been writing into dead ends when she realised she was obsessed with the idea of setting a book in the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv where she spent time as a child. There is a picture in the book of the magnificent Brutalist hotel teetering on the coastline. The physical architecture imposed itself on her. “I know it sounds absurd, but I think it was about this sense of wanting to find an escape out of even the most imposing of forms.”
The book’s title comes from Dante, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” At 43, Krauss was “suddenly questioning the known forms of my life, that I had really chosen very conventional forms, the form of marriage, motherhood and even in the sense being a professional American writer in New York. Rather than making my life more substantial . . . they were limiting in some sense. I was outgrowing them and didn’t know where to turn because when you’ve chosen those forms you’ve chosen them for eternity.”
In one passage, her character reflects on her marriage. “The helpfulness of our shared love for the children had reached a kind of apex, and then began to decline until it was no longer helpful to our relationship at all, because it only shone a light on how alone each of us was, and, compared to our children, how unloved.”
She admits that going through a radical change like the end of a marriage is “quite terrifying. The brain needs to create a solid, coherent world to survive and we do it at any cost, even when it’s at the cost of our wellbeing.” But the freefall also was “exhilarating . . . a chance to become something else”.
Her character’s willingness to go to extremes in terms of experience “is in keeping with my own appetite for life. I can’t imagine a life that didn’t involve difficulty and extremes. Motherhood is an emotional extreme, and the extreme of leaving a marriage. We never go towards those extremes for the pain, but because you understand that the pain is part of a process of being altered that leads to something richer, deeper.”
In writing something of her own life, I wonder if she feels similarly to author Rachel Cusk, that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts”.
“I think [Cusk] would probably argue that what she describes as autobiography is also fiction. When you’re a fiction writer and your job every day is to sit and imagine other lives, you are expanding your reality. When you come back thinking about yourself either on the page, or in your life, you still have that sense of how expansive it is.”
She admits that she is now writing “closer to what you perceive as my reality but you’re also aware as a reader that I am going away from it”, referring here to the magical realism that suffuses the latter part of the book. “The question is why do we value what we think of as real so deeply when everything we know about science and the world tells us that what we perceive as reality, isn’t.”
Perhaps readers want to know if someone is writing their own truth? “I’m trying to ask the real questions that come out of real experience. I absolutely went to the Hilton and found that earring and all of those things that happen to me, but what does it matter?”
Women and resistance
Krauss sees women writers pushing against traditional literary forms, because they innately understand “resistance to those things which want to hem them in”.
Some little girls run by as we chat.
“We’re taught to have a feminine grace and no matter how tomboyish we are something of that seeps into our being. We find subtle forms of opposition. It may be more native to women to refuse conventional forms that are handed down to us. They’re not large enough.”
Having once said that a certain shyness made her write from the perspective of older men in previous novels, now she says it had more to do “with issues of authority”.
“When you are a young writer coming into the world, to write in a voice that hews closer to your own, ie a young woman’s, is to put yourself in a position, because of the world we live in, where you don’t have as much authority as if you were to choose a male voice. What is likable in a woman is much more narrow than what is considered likable in a man.”
Krauss says that these days, “likability matters less to me”.
Similarly, as a younger woman she had expressed a desire to not be thought of as a “Jewish fiction writer”. Now, “I value deeply the fact that my material is rich and is culturally Jewish”. There is a joke in the book about Nicole’s writing belonging to the Jewish people, but Krauss considers a writer “an independent being. You don’t want to write with a responsibility of representation.”
We discuss the rise of identity politics and its possible impact on literature.
“This tribalism that feels that some sort of failure of multiculturalism . . . I think there’s something deeply human in that. It’s not so long ago that we lived in a much smaller world where our world was our local tribe. We’re still experimenting with what we need in terms of comfort and formation of our identity.”
“In politics, we’re instructed to fear the other,” she says. “I think literature teaches us to be less afraid of the reality of ‘the other’, to feel what it is to be him or her so vividly that it seeps back into our own being.”
The book’s setting, Israel, is a place of “soulfulness and meaning” for Krauss but the novel does not avoid the political truths. There’s sympathy for Palestinians watching the same horizon, unable to go anywhere. “It’s so continuous with my experience of my time in Israel of just trying to understand those existences that are so in conflict with each other. To me it comes down to this idea, this fear of and hardened idea of the other. It’s very easy to react violently against something which you’ve decided is totally foreign from you and yet you know what it is.”
She compares it to “people who are in long relationships where they live together and they increasingly have decided what the other is . . .”
I mention that profiles of Krauss tend to allude to her “comfortable childhood” growing up in a “Bauhaus masterpiece on Long Island”. I try to ask Krauss a question about whether the conversation about privilege and white privilege in the US is something she ever thinks about while writing.
“I don’t think the story of growing up poor and African American in the inner city is my story to tell. It’s not my experience, so I can’t tell the story.”
She sits back in her chair. I stumble a bit, trying to rearrange the question. She seems put out that I’ve mentioned her upbringing.
“I feel I’ve said so little of my childhood in interviews, I’ve said so little about my personal life. Even what little journalists know about they make much of, even my marriage. I never spoke about my family, ever. I’ve been aware of so many of the ruts that journalism about me and my work get in . . .”
“I don’t really want to get into it now, and give you the rut,” she says, with a smile.
She mentions a pleasing in-depth review in Harper’s magazine. “I’m so used to profiles harping on superficial aspects of my life so I’ve found that this time around, maybe that’s to do with arriving at a certain point in life, it’s become less relevant. It’s often a long road to that, even when you’re lucky when you’re young.”
Krauss is now spoken about in the same breath as Philip Roth, whose blurb graces her book’s cover. She sees this as “irrelevant to the doing of the work”. All the same, she is a literary heavyweight.
Does she still share her character’s anxiety over her work? For a long time, yes. “When you become a professional in such an amplified way, when you’re reviewed and read all over the world, what follows, naturally, is a self-consciousness and an anxiety.”
She spent years “searching for pleasure again in the work”, to allow herself freedom and playfulness. “So this book, it really felt exhilarating to write. I felt the joy of that.”
- Forest Dark is published by Bloomsbury