In Nicole Krauss's 2017 novel Forest Dark, an Israeli scholar asks a Jewish-American writer, "'You think your writing belongs to you?'" The writer, whose name is Nicole, responds, "'Who else?'" and the professor shoots back, "'To the Jews.'" This scene springs from Krauss's own life. Like the fictional Nicole, Krauss struggles often against readers' desire for her to speak not for herself, but — somehow — for her entire religion.
The Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev, a longtime friend of Krauss's, faces perhaps an even more difficult challenge abroad. Her work has been translated into 21 languages, and she tells me, whenever she encounters readers from outside Israel, they ask her to explain her infinitely complex country. "I've gotten used to so many symbolic interpretations of my work," she told me. "Every fighting couple becomes a manifestation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
But Israel has fighting couples like any other country, and Shalev is committed to representing ordinary Israeli lives. Her most recent novel, Pain, translated by Sondra Silverston, shuns broad interpretations. The protagonist, Iris, survives a suicide bombing, but Shalev refuses to politicize this trauma. Iris's injuries lead only to self-discovery, not to political allegory or to blame. Shalev refuses to make Iris's story symbolic, much as Krauss, in Forest Dark, refuses to write a novel that belongs "[to] the Jews.
In September, I interviewed Krauss and Shalev over email about Pain, Forest Dark, and the difficulties of defying readers' expectations about representations of Israel and Jewishness. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, is below.
Both Pain and Forest Dark take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as explicit backdrop — mentioned often, but not made central. Was that a political choice, an artistic one, or both?
Zeruya Shalev: It was an artistic choice to structure Pain on the tension between the private and the political. While we think about politics as something that penetrates individual lives, in Pain the political narrative is woven into the family dynamics. Iris survives a suicide bombing, which a clear political scenario, but it becomes personal to Iris's family. Even under extreme national circumstances, Iris, her husband, and her children blame themselves rather than the suicide bomber, the prime minister or the Palestinians for what happened to Iris. Politics gets subsumed into the family dynamic and becomes an almost private event, like a birth or a wedding.
Nicole Krauss: Israel is the setting of a large part of Forest Dark, and just as it is impossible not to acknowledge the sea in Tel Aviv, it would be impossible to write about a country without acknowledging that which places the most powerful pressure on its psyche. I don't think of this as either a political or artistic choice; it's simply what the subject demanded in order to write about it authentically. All novels are, in their way, an act of resistance, since they insist on the importance and uniqueness of the individual life, and refuse to give in to the mass generalities on which governments and economies depend. If this book is political, it's only in that way.
In Forest Dark, an elderly scholar named Eliezer Friedman tells the character Nicole that both her writing and Kafka's writing belong to the Jews as a whole. Have you encountered that pressure? What about pressure to represent Israel?
ZS: I think the idea that the writing of one Jew belongs to all Jews has more impact on Jewish writers in the diaspora than in Israel. For Israeli writers, Jewishness might be less meaningful than being Israeli, or might get replaced by Israeli-ness. So I haven't encountered this pressure at home, but abroad, I've been asked so many times: Why don't you write about Israeli politics? About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It seems that wherever you go, your country follows you like a shadow.
NK: Yes! That [conversation between Nicole and Eliezer], which is blackly funny in the book, wouldn't be if it weren't so accurate. I admit that I insist on having it both ways: As a writer, I feel lucky to have been born into a tradition — cultural, intellectual, emotional, artistic — as rich as Jewishness, and at the same time I refuse to be beholden to it, or to have to represent it in any way. There is little that matters more to me than my freedom and independence, artistic and otherwise. But I accept that once a book is put out into the world, it will be read, interpreted, and used by its readers as they see fit. I can agree or disagree, but by then the book is no longer mine; it's been given away to anyone else who cares to read it and invest themselves in it. And I do feel very grateful that my Jewish readers seem to care and feel attached to my books.
Both Iris and Nicole's husbands are devoted to knowledge and intellectual mastery. They make "a holiness out of knowing." How do you, as writers, work against that impulse and push yourselves into the unknown?
ZS: For me, knowing play a small role in the writing process. Writing is all about discovery. It is my own journey into the unknown, no less than my characters' journey. Knowing and creating are almost opposite for me. In order to create, I must leave ample space for the unknown. It turns the writing process into an adventure. When I started Pain, I knew I wanted to create a dramatic encounter between Iris and the love of her youth. But other than that, I had no idea how it would develop. I learn the plot through getting to know my characters as I write them.
NK: Years of writing novels in an instinctive, improvisatory way — without a plan, let alone a destination — taught me something about the value of sustaining uncertainty. Of asking questions, rather than pursuing answers. About the discoveries, epiphanies, and surprises one arrives at in this way, and the wonder that follows. After a while, it begins to move from a practice in one's writing and reading to a practice in one's own life, I think.
Both novels wrestle with old stories — in fact, Pain ends with Iris saying, "'It's an old story.'" How do you create new from old?
ZS: Creating new from old is to a large extent the story of our lives. We are born anew into an "old" narrative, as humans and as writers. In Pain, I tried to examine the mythological power of old stories on new experiences. Iris's new reading of her own old story gives it – as well as her future – a new meaning.
NK: Everything is an old story, even what we think of as the "self" is just a narrative that our parents began telling when we were born, of which we take up authorship. One of the questions in Forest Dark is to what degree we are willing to break or alter that narrative when it grows too constraining, to expand it to give ourselves greater authenticity and freedom.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.