The eagerly anticipated new novel by one of America’s literary heavyweights, Forest Dark (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is a philosophical meditation on transformation in all its forms. It follows the ageing Epstein and the unhappily married Nicole as both are inextricably pulled towards Israel and the Tel Aviv Hilton. As they leave their mundane previous existence behind, an act of metamorphosis awaits them both.
Why is Forest Dark an appropriate title for your fourth novel?
The title is taken from Longfellow’s translation of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
In this context, the phrase evokes much that I feel is at the heart of the book: namely, questioning our prioritising of rational, factual knowledge over wonder before the unknown; of certainty over uncertainty; of form over formlessness; of knowing the way rather than losing our way. It isn’t an accident that Dante becomes lost in a forest. For centuries they have been the imagined location of mystery, wonder, magic and also lawlessness and danger. The forest stands in opposition to the rational, ordered city built by man, and depending on the sort of person one is, either it is feared and avoided, or it lures us in.
At one point in the book, the character of Nicole writes about how, since Descartes, knowledge has been empowered to a nearly unimaginable degree. And yet it didn’t lead to the mastery and possession of nature he imagined, only to the illusion of its mastery and possession. “In the end, we have made ourselves ill with knowledge,” she writes. “I frankly hate Descartes, and have never understood why his axiom should be trusted to be an unshakeable 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” – and that, in a metaphorical sense, is what both characters in the book end up doing. There is also a literal forest in the book, one that gets planted in the desert, but better to leave that for the reader to discover.
Both characters in the novel travel to Israel to rediscover a part of themselves that has been lost. Why does Israel exert such a pull on your fiction?
In addressing the longing most of us have to live other lives, Forest Dark describes the uncanny sensation of being in two places at once, both here and there. Israel has always been the “there” to the majority of Jews “here”: it represents the other life we could have lived. For this reason – and because it’s a country touched in every way by the surreal – it made sense to send my searching characters there.
Kafka similarly features prominently in the novel, with Nicole caught up in a major revelation about Kafka’s life. Why do you find Kafka compelling?
I’ve been reading Kafka since I was a teenager, and even before I read him, when I was very young, I had the sense of him being somehow family. That strange affinity that goes beyond reason has only deepened with reading and the passing of years. I simply love him, the way one loves an uncle who opened a path for being in the family that otherwise would not have been possible.
At some point early on in the writing he entered the book – just sort of slipped in, without my knowing why. Or rather his archives entered it, stored in a ground floor apartment building on Spinoza Street in Tel Aviv. Occasionally I had stood in front of it, wondering about what was inside. It was an instinct to have Friedman – who is either former Mossad or former professor of literature at Tel Aviv University, or possibly neither – lead Nicole there. Months later I was out in the Judaean desert. I was sleeping the night in a Bedouin-style tent, ostensibly doing research, though mostly trying to figure out what happened to Epstein. By the kerosene heater, I opened my computer. And then it suddenly hit me that, of course, that was it: Kafka had come here. Here to the desert, to what was then Palestine. All of the evidence turned up afterwards, in the months of scouring his letters and diaries. By which I mean the evidence that Palestine was his only hope and means of escape and transformation, and that maybe, just maybe, he took it.
Your character Nicole appears to share a number of similarities with yourself, and you write from a first person perspective. To what extent is the novel influenced and shaped by your own experiences?
I think all writing contains a strong element of autofiction, even when the characters or the narrative appears to be far from the writer’s biography. The male characters I’ve written are no less a representation of who I am than the character in Forest Dark who bears my name. I feel they are all reflections of my own experiences – what else could they be, no matter how fully imagined they are? – just through different lenses. One of the concerns of Forest Dark has to do with our ideas about what “reality” is. From where do we derive our certainty about what is “real” and what is not? To take a simple example, physics tells us that what we perceive to be solid is not; our sense of it being so exists because it serves us better to see a rock as solid and inert, and our senses have evolved in service of our survival. And what about the self? What is “real” and what isn’t, and do such questions even apply, really, to something that is entirely a construction, from beginning to end?
Nicole talks in the book about the longing to play to her readership and resents the part of herself that wants to do this. How hard is it for you to resist this desire?
I wonder if that phrasing isn’t putting it too simply? Nicole describes the desire to please – beginning with her parents when she was young, then her people, the Jews, who want to claim her as a writer, and finally her readers. The expectation that one will aim to please is something deeply socialised into girls especially, and from a young age – to please, or, at the very least, not to overly assert oneself in a way that might bother or disturb. Maybe the burden of this is made more obvious when you are a public figure about whose work and life people have many conflicting opinions. It isn’t that I have a problem with pleasing people. It’s just that I have little patience for it when it comes at the cost of being frank, open and authentic. And I am less and less bothered, as time passes, with displeasing people who feel the books I write are not for them. That seems to me very fair.
Nicole also muses on being unable to trust any love that does not involve violence. What does this tell us about the nature of love?
I think it’s impossible to write about love and intimacy without writing about violence. Two individuals, just like two countries, can live side by side and refuse to allow each other’s realities in, because they are afraid of what it will mean and how it will change them. And so they accept only those aspects of “reality” that confirm their beliefs about themselves, which guard their sense of stability and coherence. But part of falling in love is accepting another person’s reality, and trying to accommodate it into your own. And that doesn’t happen without some violence, without some difficult self-reckoning, and breaking of the old, and refashioning of one’s sense of oneself and the world. If passion always has an element of violence to it (even if it is only the threat of violence), I think that’s the reason.
You wrote a piece in New Republic in 2011 that lamented the decline of bookshops. Do you still see their demise as inevitable? Could you choose a favourite bookshop?
I don’t see it as inevitable, not at all. We’ve seen independent bookshops begin to thrive again in the last years, proving that their business model (experts/great readers hand selling books, and offering a physical location where readers can browse a curated collection of great books) is invaluable to us. We’ve also seen that the physical book, with all of its unique pleasures, has not fallen out of use; on the contrary, in 2016 the sale of physical books in the US rose by 3.3 per cent over the previous year, continuing the growth it’s experienced for three years straight. It is wonderful to see new independent bookstores opening and old ones on solid ground again. And also to see how different formats can live well together and how – so long as we continue to support independent bookstores – they can broaden readers’ choices without limiting them.
As for a favourite bookshop, I am partial to my local shop, Community Bookstore in Park Slope [Brooklyn]. And I deeply love The Strand [on Broadway]. The other day my children bought some books there and discovered my name on the bag, among many other writers. Sheepishly, I admit that I was filled with giddy pride.