Culture


This article originally appears in the October 2017 issue of ELLE.

“There’s always something baffling about having aspects of your life told publicly, not by you, and in ways that are so far from the truth,” Nicole Krauss says, sitting at a table in the sunny back corner of a now-shuttered French Hungarian bistro in Brooklyn called Cafe Dada. “At some point, you can only laugh and drop your hands and just think of it as theater.”

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At age 43, Krauss is the author of three acclaimed novels—Man Walks Into a Room (2002), The History of Love (2005), and Great House (2010)—along with several short stories and the just-released, intimately personal novel, Forest Dark (Harper). She has also, over the past decade and change, found herself in a place writers rarely inhabit: the gossipy limelight.

I know that I have to ask her about the obvious similarities between her own recent life story and the book’s plot. Half of Forest Dark (her best novel, and her others were great, it should be said right now) is narrated by an unhappily married 39-year-old author and mother of two—who’s named Nicole, but only once does her name appear in the novel; the rest of the time, she’s “I”—and Krauss’s own divorce has been a subject of titillation in the likes of Gawker and the New York tabloids since 2014. Her ex-husband and the father of her two young sons is the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose best-selling debut, Everything Is Illuminated (published when he was 25), and subsequent perpetual success have nonetheless earned him widespread opprobrium, dubbed “Schadenfoer” by one wag. Krauss has barely talked about her marriage in the past, let alone its demise.

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She arrives wearing a simple sleeveless black dress, her nearly black hair loose and long. Her hands, which she uses expressively, are dotted with rings—one is set with a striking blue and pink fire opal. She also wears thin gold bracelets, a gold watch, a necklace, and dangling moonstone earrings, but the effect is less showy than quietly exuberant. Krauss herself is quietly exuberant, and her mood has seeped into the book. “I’ve never written about myself so directly,” she says. “The last four years were my largest study in freedom, with all its pains and fears and difficulties, but also all its huge exuberance and delight and pleasure.”

She usually is engaging in interviews, but today she is aglow. She’s found a new form for her fiction. She’s been taking a dance class called Gaga a few times a week, which emphasizes sensuality, pleasure, and strength; when I talk to its creator, the choreographer Ohad Naharin (whom Krauss met and befriended in Tel Aviv at one of his company’s performances), he calls her “groovy.” In many ways, Krauss is the best advertisement for divorce I have ever seen.

Part of her enduring literary appeal is that each new book feels just that—new—as though she’s breaking up with a former self. In Forest Dark, which takes its name from the opening lines of Longfellow’s translation 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”—Krauss’s form and content align. The novel opens with Jules Epstein, a wealthy ex-lawyer in his late sixties who has recently divorced his longtime wife. After a lifetime predicated upon his own self-assurance and the accumulation of wealth, Epstein is now bent on divesting himself of his millions. Next we meet the young Brooklyn novelist in an authorial and marital slump. “In our own ways, we had each come to understand that we had lost faith in our marriage,” she muses. “And yet we didn’t know how to act on this understanding, as one does not know how to act on the understanding, for example, that the afterlife does not exist.” In alternating chapters, both characters embark upon solo adventures that take them from their homes in New York to the Tel Aviv Hilton: Epstein searches for a cause to donate to in memory of his parents, while Nicole finds herself embroiled in a literary heist involving a mysterious family acquaintance named Eliezer Friedman and the secret, unpublished work of Franz Kafka. Fans of Krauss’s previous novels will likely search for the link between the two central characters; without giving anything away, the narratives share complementary themes, and the careful reader will be rewarded by a beautiful baton pass toward the novel’s end that reveals Epstein and Nicole’s connection.

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Forest Dark—a study in storytelling, in Jewishness and representation, in how we come to define ourselves—is, in many ways, characteristically Krauss. But it also delves into refreshing new territory, including a deft handling of truly mind-bending metaphysical concepts: a cosmic “multiverse” in which nearly anything is possible and a story line about Kafka that will have readers questioning their understanding of truth.

“There’s something that happens when you decide to very deliberately leave behind a form that you had assumed for many years, very religiously—marriage, being a wife. There is a certain sense of power that comes with it,” the author says. “Suddenly you remember that you have an extraordinary amount of control over who you are and how you live.” Since her separation from Foer, Krauss says, she’s been in a relationship with 32-year-old Israeli journalist and novelist Gon Ben Ari, whom she met during the Jerusalem Writers Festival in 2008. “It turned into a long-lasting friendship, as I spent a lot of time in New York for my work, and she in Israel for hers,” Ben Ari writes in an e-mail. “My appreciation of her writing just grew as I saw her take larger and larger risks with it.” Krauss says that Ben Ari has been one of her first readers for the last decade: “Daily, I have conversations with him that are, I don’t know”—she searches for the word—“an expansion.”

This is a very different Krauss from the one who, in 2005, responded to a journalist’s question about her husband’s success with “that subject I’m not talking about.” Could you blame her? Since their marriage in 2004, Krauss has published two best-selling novels and secured two massive book deals: two books each; one for six figures, the other for a rumored seven. Yet an inordinate amount of ink has been dedicated to the particulars of her marriage. When, in 2005, the couple published their second novels around a month apart and also purchased a 7,670-square-foot, six-bedroom limestone townhouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the New York Sun interviewed a slew of “unabashedly jealous” fellow Brooklyn writers, some of whom would go on to pen their own peevish hot takes and reviews: The editor of New York Press called Foer “so precious, over-the-top,” and Krauss “not much better.” Her novels were often picked over for signs of similarity to Foer’s. “Did Krauss learn to be cute from her husband,” wrote Entertainment Weekly in 2005, “both of whose books seem somewhat desperate to amuse?” When the couple listed their house for $14.5 million in 2013, New York magazine deemed them “the too-successful-to-stomach physical embodiment of literary Brooklyn.”

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Less than eight months later, the New York Post’s Page Six reported that Krauss and Foer had quietly separated around the time they put the house on the market. In 2016, a tabloid site launched a gossipy rumor that their divorce was precipitated by Foer’s unrequited love for Natalie Portman. Later that year, in a coy attempt to dispel the speculation, Foer profiled Portman for the New York Times style magazine, T, by way of a series of long e-mails about such subjects as the actress’s directorial debut and a game Foer invented for his children called “Wonder Line,” in which they must tell him five things that generate wonder if they wish to choose their after-dinner entertainment. By that time, he was dating Michelle Williams. His first novel in a decade, Here I Am (2016), is a nearly 600-page epic on the imagined fall of Israel juxtaposed with the collapse of the protagonist’s marriage after his wife discovers his sexts with a coworker. The book’s plot, Foer stated in multiple interviews, was not influenced by his own divorce.

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Krauss says that if she could have published her books with authorial anonymity, à la Elena Ferrante, she would have. But “when you live next to somebody who’s a public figure, you have a lot less choice about how your story is told.” She doesn’t use Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. And though she still lives in Brooklyn, she doesn’t consider herself part of its thriving literary scene (another reason, perhaps, for some public ire: There are few things more irritating than being judged not interesting). In Brooklyn, “I don’t feel particularly excited by or drawn to the social world around me,” she says. While her parents raised Krauss and her siblings—an older brother and a younger sister—primarily in a Bauhaus-style home on Long Island, her parents and grandparents hail from, variously, England, Israel, Germany, Ukraine, Belarus, and Hungary. Krauss’s maternal grandmother was an Orthodox Jew who escaped from a Polish transit camp on the last Kindertransport boat before World War II, and there are tragic Holocaust losses on both sides of Krauss’s family. There were frequent trips to visit relatives in Tel Aviv, and what Krauss calls an “urgency” to how her parents (who kept a kosher home but did not observe Shabbat) raised her and her siblings as Jews in America, “equally born of defensiveness as of attachment and pride.” She says they “never really taught us to have roots or a deep association with this place.”

Courtesy of publisher

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As an undergraduate at Stanford, Krauss studied poetry with Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky; she received a master’s in art history from Oxford while on a Marshall Scholarship. She wanted to be a poet, and in 2000 she published two poems (one was called “The Nostalgia of Descartes”) in the Paris Review. But poetic perfection became claustrophobic: “I just wanted to break something, and open it, and be messy,” she says. Man Walks Into a Room, which centers on a man with amnesia and which she wrote in a year at age 25, became that broken, open thing. That it earned praise from the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly alike proved emblematic of the kind of widespread appeal each of her books would engender—while intelligent, intellectual, and arguably highbrow, her woven-together, multiperspective style is also highly readable.

Major life changes catalyzed each of her following novels: The History of Love—a story about an old man named Leo Gursky who wrote a book about the woman he lost (though not to death) amid the horrors of WWII, and a young girl named Alma who was named after every female character in that book—was an experiment in widening perspective; Great House, written after the birth of her second son, “came out of this obsession with a fear of what gets passed on to children.” Each book, she says, “was so representative of a mood and a period and a problem. Something lodged in my chest that needed to be dissolved by addressing it over a long period of time.”

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Krauss has shaken off a long-held sense that the most commanding literary voice is a masculine one.

One of Krauss’s major preoccupations since beginning Forest Dark is a question of freedom, her understanding of which has shifted radically over the last four years. The moment she realized she could get a divorce, she says, was “the moment I understood that, given a choice between teaching my children two things—one, it’s important to stay bound to something you are committed to rather than hurt anyone else; two, giving them the example of what it is to live always toward your freedom and your happiness and your larger sense of self—there was no question. Obviously the latter. Obviously that’s what I wanted to show them.” That both central characters in Forest Dark are shedding a former life is no surprise.

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Personal freedom isn’t the only liberation she’s embracing. Krauss has also shaken off a long-held sense that the most commanding literary voice is a masculine one. A 2005 New York Times review of The History of Love somewhat snidely describes her as “one of fiction’s dutiful daughters,” citing her long list of male influences, which range from the aforementioned Kafka to Isaac Babel. Krauss acknowledges that her early reading diet was male-dominated and that, indeed, she often feels more comfortable writing from a male perspective. “Starting out as a young woman writer, it was abundantly evident to me that I would have to try extremely hard, much harder than my male counterparts, to gain authority in my writing,” she says. She wasn’t wrong. Her books, despite being critically acclaimed and liberally awarded, are still often described as “lovely.” (Books by important male authors, she notes, are “never called lovely. They’re called ‘strong’ and ‘brilliant.’”) When she was 27, at a magazine photo shoot for a review of Man Walks Into a Room, she had to fight a stylist who wanted her to wear a low-cut dress. After they’d finally settled on a white button-down, just before the photographer took his shot, the stylist leapt forward and unbuttoned the shirt. It’s hard to imagine Jonathan Franzen, or Krauss’s longtime friend Philip Roth (who calls Forest Dark “brilliant”), in a similar position. While it may have been subliminal, it’s unsurprising that her first book, Man Walks Into a Room, centers on the intellectual travails of a male Columbia professor, with whom the predominantly male arbiters of literary integrity would have easily identified. As the Times noted in that same History of Love review, “You don’t win the Nobel Prize for writing about the inner lives of 14-year-old girls.”

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It was only within the last five years that Krauss realized her tastes had shifted, that the books most impressive to her of late are by women. The novelist Rachel Cusk (Outline: A Novel), known for her own blending of autobiography with fiction, is a particular favorite. “We won’t name names,” Krauss says, “but there are so many male writers—and some are wonderful writers—who…take many hundreds of pages to say what they feel and think, because they’re naturally given that right. [Women writers] come from a position of having to grab it.” As the novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote in a 2012 piece for the Times on the separate, unwritten rules for literary fiction by men and women: “Does the marketplace subtly and paradoxically seem to whisper in some men’s ears, ‘Sure, buddy, run on as long as you like, just sit down and type out all your ideas about America’…?” Forest Dark, which clocks in at a satisfying but relatively slight 304 pages, demonstrates the merits of discipline.

Krauss, who describes herself as “not a five-year planner,” is happily unsure of what the future holds. She’d like to keep traveling, far and often. Right now, she’s working on a book of short stories. “Things are creeping in that I don’t let creep into my novels—or maybe it’s just a new place in my mind, I don’t know—but the last couple of stories have all been about young women,” she says. While Forest Dark’s Jules Epstein is a fantastically rich character, it’s Krauss’s fictionalized avatar who ends up in control of the narrative. She says, “It’s this opening of some new confidence, writing about women who are closer to me.”

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