Thoughts on Forest Dark
For George Steiner, criticism is a matter of ‘positionings (prises de position)’, of ‘arguable spaces’, of ‘angles’ and ‘geometries’. It concerns ‘posture’, ‘stance’, ‘distances and perspectives’ and requires one to take a ‘step back from the object’ and make ‘adjustments of focus and aperture’. Within this spatial schema, Steiner writes that, ‘the motion of [textual] criticism is one of “stepping back from” in exactly the sense in which one steps back from a painting on a wall in order to perceive it better [and] it is this activation of distance between critic and object that makes all serious criticism epistemological’. In essence, our approach is determined by our orientation (in every sense of the words approach and orientation).
Steiner’s notion of abstract positioning and epistemological motion is particularly relevant to Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark for two reasons: firstly, Forest Dark is itself saturated with spatial references from the overlaid topographies that exert their influence on the text, to the spiritual exploration of spatial determinism. Secondly, Forest Dark, to contain it in a sentence, is a novel that sprawls. To read it is to feel an accumulative sense of spillage and of exceeded boundaries.
Positioning in relation to this text is crucial but it requires more than Steiner’s prescriptive motion of ‘recessional steps’, which, as Steiner emphasises, offers angles that are categorically ‘partial’. Forest Dark requires a broader perspective. We must substitute Steiner’s ‘painting on a wall’ analogy for one that captures not only the text’s aqueous sprawl and all of its unfolding, but also the au courant shift in perspective from the lowly terrene to the augmented view of aerial footage and satellite imagery. We must approach Forest Dark’s diluvial movement from above; the way live newsfeeds capture the indomitable charge of flash floods and forest fires. From this — panoramic — vantage point we can begin to make sense of the novel’s sprawling passage.
Forest Dark opens with the disappearance of Jules Epstein. In his absence, his three adult children, Lucie, Jonah and Maya, are let into his dilapidated apartment ‘in a crumbling building near the ancient port of Jaffa’. Apparently, Epstein’s residence ‘had more in common with the slums of Calcutta than it did with the rooms in which his children had stayed with their father on the Amalfi coast’. Innocuous exposition until it is capped with the following: ‘Though, like those other rooms, this one also had a view of the sea’ — and thus, within the opening paragraph, we are thrust into contact with the three predominant themes in the novel: ancestral trauma, the ontological condition of absence, and the haunting, etheric presence of the sea.
To begin in absentia, examining Epstein’s empty apartment, puts us immediately in the realm of the metaphysical — especially when it is considered under the chapter title ‘Ayeka’ (which we later learn is Hebrew for ‘where are you?’ and corresponds to the first question posed in the Torah when God asks Adam, ‘where are you?’ even though God knew where Adam was physically). As Heidegger writes, ‘The question of the nothing puts us, the questioners, in question. It is a metaphysical question’. Ayeka is a metaphysical question, it isn’t concerned with Epstein’s phenomenality, it concerns the part of Epstein’s presence that is absent; the ontic Epstein, which is, paradoxically, the only thing present in his absence. This concept of presence in absence, however laboured, is explained in theological terms by Epstein’s Rabbi, Menachem Klausner, who introduces the term Tzimtzum:
Tzimtzum, Klausner had repeated, and explained the term that was central in Kabbalah. How does the infinite — the Ein Sof, the being without end, as God is called — create something finite within what is already infinite? And furthermore, how can we explain the paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence in the world? It was a sixteenth- century mystic, Isaac Luria, who articulated the answer in Safed five hundred years before: When it arose in God’s will to create the world, He first withdrew Himself, and in the void that was left, He created the world. Tzimtzum was the word Luria gave to this divine contraction, Klausner explained, which was the necessary precursor of creation. This primordial event was seen as ongoing, constantly echoed not just in the Torah but in our own lives.
The patrimonial link is clear (the father leaves and the son takes the position of the father), but the ‘absent father’ is just one among many examples of this ‘divine contraction’. The novel is littered with references to voided space, absences and emptiness. Even the question, ayeka, is subject to Tzimtzum, as Klausner later says to Epstein, ‘what is a question but a voided space? A space that seeks to be filled again with its portion of infinity?’. This fixation with space and the process of contraction and creation is taken to its extreme by the narrator who wonders whether ‘we’re the ones who have unwittingly been made subordinate to space’ — a comment that translates well to our own consideration of the book according to Steiner’s analogy.
A topographical corollary to this is the wadi (defined as a valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season) which is referred to four times in the novel, but, nonetheless, finds resonance throughout, particularly in reference to the narrator and her struggle to produce a narratological ‘form that could contain the formless’. The wadi, ‘where the rain from flash floods spilled down the barren slopes and came sluicing through in search of the shortest path to the sea, across the world, and through time’, is the paradigmatic example of form’s incompatibility with the formless; as even the wadi is ‘carved by thousands of years of water, thousands of years of wind’. Its boundaries are gradually transformed by the formless (water and wind); an action that recurs fractally within the novel from the level of lexical adumbrations (e.g. ‘overspilled’, ‘uncontainable’, ‘porous’, ‘permeable’) to the thematic overlap that, without adequate distance, seems disparate and contrived. From our panoramic view, however, the formless sprawl of the novel’s dual narrative and undulating focus seems almost structural. From above, we can find patterns in the formlessness and follow the flood water to where it all flows, toward where the wadi ends — toward the sea.
Forest Dark is full of figurative and literal allusions to the sea. Its presence, ranging from subtle to over-palpable, is constant. Even when Epstein is reading about ‘how the great empires of Assyria, Babylon, Carthage, and Persia were all destroyed by the floods’, he can feel as ‘the sea rolled its great dark waves against his windows’. The sea, in Forest Dark, acts as the subsuming metaphor. All other metaphors work through or toward it. It offers a succinct parallel to all the novel’s conceptual suppositions. For example, the idea of contained formlessness and presence in absence are all explored in the following passage:
One is always in the hold of the world, but one doesn’t physically feel its hold, doesn’t account for its effect. Cannot draw comfort from the hold of the world, which registers only as a neutral emptiness. But the sea one feels. And so surrounded, so steadily held, so gently rocked — so differently organized — one’s thoughts come in another form. Freed into the abstract. Touched by fluidity.
To read Forest Dark is to be ‘freed into the abstract’ and ‘touched by fluidity’; even its sentences are syntactically fluid, distributing numerous commas to compensate for their tentacular dexterity. Meanwhile, on the thematic level, manoeuvring through the torrent of material in this dense but relatively short book is challenging. In a single sentence, there are several streams of inquiry. A book could be written on the diasporic imagery alone — that is until you find yourself buffeted by the consequences of unheimlich’s etymology — or thrust beneath the surface into the anecdotal lore surrounding Kafka — where you inevitably drown pondering the significance of that chapter title, ‘Out in the Blue’.