Monthly Archives: September 2017

“Forest Dark: A Novel,” by Nicole Krauss

Harper. 304 pages. Hardcover $27.99

This ambitious meditation on spiritual transcendence and self-reflection hits all the right notes.

Only a handful of books that come out each year immediately signal “masterpiece.” Nicole Krauss’ Forest Dark, a brilliant effort that defines the human condition in an original way, is one of them. It is transformational, and it is about transformation. If not deeply religious (though perhaps it is), it is religiously profound.

The narrative unfolds in alternating chapters with two protagonists. One is a successful, fortyish writer whose path seems blocked. The other, nearing 70, is a successful lawyer and investor who discovers that his life’s patterns have been shaken up in a liberating way.

The transformations the characters undergo, whether sought after or suddenly realized, are described with staggering acumen and accuracy. Each conversion defines and redefines one of the central characters. The chapters that focus on the novelist — let’s call her Nicole — are told in the first person. Those given over to Jules Epstein (most often referred to as “Epstein”) are told in the third person, though the narrator has lavish access to the man’s thoughts and feelings.

Epstein’s life changes are extreme. Soon after his parents die, he ends his marriage, leaves his partnership in a law firm, and frees himself from the intimidating personality and identity he had built. He seems released into an alternate self. He smiles more, reads books on mysticism, and enters a new zone of experience characterized by a sense of lightness. He no longer believes in assurances. He wishes to be open.

His children worry about him.

Nicole comes to realize that her life has been overly structured. She is the result of confining and defining forces, including meeting other people’s expectations. She speculates about how space and time affect people’s identities and destinies. She notices her lack of drive to plan things, and she takes this suspension of will — as Epstein has taken his changes — as a kind of freedom.

A good part of the novel is played out in Israel, particularly Tel Aviv, which holds promises and challenges for both characters. It has long been part of their individual lives. The Tel Aviv Hilton looms large in Nicole’s psyche. Her ostensible reason for staying there is to base a novel on the hotel. However, while she knows that readers expect fictional characters to have reasons for what they do, she wonders if the actions of humans are truly rooted in such reasons.

Nicole is penetratingly occupied with such philosophizing. The author has the astounding ability to make her characters’ streams of interrogation and postulation as vivid and engrossing as powerful descriptions of places and actions. Her contemplations have the solidity and luster of polished stone.

Each character’s journey involves a sidekick, a kind of spiritual tour guide who often seems half-real. Epstein’s guide is Rabbi Menachem Klausner, who is in charge of researching the Davidic line, an enterprise in which the Epstein name plays a significant role. Or is he a charlatan? It’s hard to be sure. Klausner will open new vistas for Epstein by taking him to the renowned sacred city of Safed, a center for Jewish spiritualism.

Eliezer Friedman, a former literature professor, plays a role in Nicole’s journey that has similar ambiguities. He’s part mentor, part confessor, part spiritual seducer. Friedman has a strange destiny in mind for Nicole: finishing an unknown work by Franz Kafka. This goal allows the Nicole sections of the book to open up into an exploration of Kafka’s peculiar life and career. In these segments, as well, the mystique of King David, particularly his age-old role as a transcendent literary figure, haunts the narrative.

Tour-guide Friedman, rather than returning Nicole to her quarters at the Hilton, becomes — a bit forcefully — her guide to an Israel with which she is not familiar. His speech is hypnotic, somewhat like that of Rabbi Klausner, who magically flew from New York to Tel Aviv on the same plane as Epstein.

Of course, like Nicole, Epstein is staying at the Tel Aviv Hilton. . . .

To read the entire review, click here: Forest Dark: A Novel | Washington Independent Review of Books

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Silents were golden in St. Augustine for two dazzling decades

Silent Films in St. Augustine, by Thomas Graham. University Press of Florida. 198 pages. Hardcover $24.95.

This totally engaging, compact treatment of early U. S. film history is packed with a lot of information and a lot of fun. Before Hollywood was crowned the movie capital, St. Augustine was right up there. Over 120 movies were filmed in whole or part in St. Augustine, revealing the talents of major producers, directors, and actors. The fledging silent film industry made St. Augustine sizzle in the winter, when film makers and performers escaped the unpleasant New York weather to enjoy themselves in a town that seemed to have been created to provide the kind of scenic beauty cameramen feasted on. 

Though the span of St. Augustine’s life as a home to the film industry ran from 1906-1926, its heyday was much briefer. Mr. Graham can survey the first 11 years in a single chapter. The core years were 1912-1919, last few years of this period undermined by World War I.  There was at least one good year with many productions in the early 1920’s, but the fade had begun. New York film industry investors were moving west, as was the talent pool for movie making.

While it lasted, the comings and goings of the film people brought a great deal of excitement to St. Augustine’s residents and visitors. Most of the films needed “extras” for crowd scenes and brief walk-on parts. Even more fun than having the camera look your way would be the follow-up thrill of seeing yourself and your fellow townspeople on the screen when the move was shown. St. Augustinians got a kick from their brush with fame.

Graham

And the brush with fame included being in the company of notable performers and other celebrity movie folks. You might get to open a door, in real life or screen life, for Ethel Barrymore, or Norma Talmadge. You might have to avoid staring too hard at that iconic vamp, Theda Bara. You may have laughed at Oliver Hardy, either on-screen or in person.

You could mix with, or at least hear gossip about, the heads of studios or their senior staffers. People who could write stories, design costumes, or turn St. Augustine into almost anyplace you could imagine. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the September 6, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly as well as the September 7  Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Silent Films in St. Augustine

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