Even before she left Brooklyn, N.Y., Nicole Krauss, author of four novels, heard good things about Pittsburgh. Krauss said that as she was leaving, a friend asked her where she was going. When she answered, “Pittsburgh,” the friend responded that she had a “fantasy of moving there” since it was supposed to be such a great place to live.
Krauss did not have time to look around the city in her packed schedule, which was planned by the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures program, but added , “I hope I have time to come back,” as she liked what she saw.
Krauss is on a multicity book tour for her newest novel, “Forest Dark,” which recently garnered a featured review in The New York Times. In Pittsburgh, she spoke at the Carnegie Library in Oakland to an attentive audience of about 150 on Sept. 19. At the event, Krauss read two passages from her book and took questions from host Josh Raulerson of WESA and from audience members. She signed books for a long line of interested patrons at the conclusion of the program.
Among a new generation of American Jewish novelists, Krauss is not unique in using Israel as the setting for her literary explorations. In a recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books, journalist Matti Friedman (also named as a character in the novel) discusses Krauss’ book along with three recent others set in Israel by Nathan Englander, Joshua Cohen and Jonathan Safran Foer (Krauss’ ex-husband). Krauss said about Friedman’s notion that all these writers have entered the “gravitational pull” of Israel: “I think he is right in the sense that Israel was for a long time a Diasporic idea … as a projector on itself of its own longings,” but “at some point in the last few decades, that has ceased to be the case. Israel hijacked the narrative with its own extraordinary literature and production of culture.”
Krauss added that she feels “emotional pull as much as gravitational pull” toward Israel. Israel for Krauss personally represents another possibility, the life she could have lived had her family gone to Israel in her childhood years and not to America. Both sets of her grandparents lived in Israel.
In response to how a book set in Israel has been received, Krauss stated that although it depends on the place, “surprisingly,” most audiences respond “in an interested and open fashion and not in a politically judgmental fashion.” She added that the conversation focused “on the idea of Israel, why these characters go to Israel, and why this is a crucial place — a place that has so many thousands of years of history that keep reverberating now.”
Though Kafka, a character in “Forest Dark” experiences an alternate version of history that has him moving to what was then Palestine and living his days out there instead of dying in Prague in 1924, Israel was not touched upon in the conversation or the questions at the Carnegie Library. Raulerson summarized the book and asked Krauss about what it means to be lost about the interpenetrating alternate realities she creates in the book, about whether Kafka could have lived out his days in Israel. During the question-and-answer period, Krauss was asked about Bruno Schulz and Kafka, whether her characters take over and function on their own in her writing, whether reading fiction is disorienting and why she chose to give one of the characters her own name Nicole.
Krauss discussed the beginning of her writing career as a poet with Joseph Brodsky as her mentor and her turn to writing fiction because she found greater freedom in reinventing a self there. She recounted for the audience how on her trips to visit her grandparents in Israel she would walk past the apartment on Spinoza Street belonging to the inheritor of the manuscripts, the daughter of the secretary and lover of Kafka’s literary executor Max Brod. Krauss would wonder whether Kafka was really there in the unpublished and unknown manuscripts and thought of “what remains of Kafka” as well as whether the writer was “imprisoned” in the apartment. She spoke of her fascination with “shadow lives” — those possibilities that are unlived for people who are finite and how, like her character, she is “here on stage” while a part of her is elsewhere.
For Krauss, a novel is “searching vehicle” that provides an opportunity to “ask questions not necessarily receive answers,” though for those Pittsburgh literary groupies in the audience, the author’s talk itself provided its own kind of search even if the answers were not final. pjc
Beth Kissileff is a Pittsburgh-area freelance writer and journalist.