In Nicole Krauss’ latest novel, “Forest Dark,” a Jewish writer named Nicole, in the throes of writer’s block and a desiccating marriage, engages in a longish disquisition on the meaning of “home.” She has left the bourgeois comforts of her home in a trendy part of Brooklyn to camp out in the Tel Aviv Hilton, a hotel she and her family stayed in during childhood visits to her grandparents in Israel.
“Why had I really come to Tel Aviv?” the character Nicole ponders. “I’d been inhabiting the hotel psychically for so many months that now its real, physical manifestation was jarring; and yet, at the same time, the place was — and could only be — profoundly familiar. Freud called this confluence of sensations the Unheimlich … I began to read about the etymology of the German word, which derives from Heim, ‘home,’ so that heimlich means ‘familiar, native, or belonging to home.’ ”
Freud, Nicole goes on, “described the unheimlich as the opposite of Heimlich: as the result of an encounter with the new and unfamiliar, which causes a feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing ‘where one is.’ ”
Nicole is not the only character in flight. In a parallel narrative, Jules Epstein, a fabulously wealthy and successful attorney approaching 70, gives up his high-profile, opulent life in Manhattan for a spiritual journey in Israel.
This notion of the Jew in constant physical flux — running to, or away from, something — is, of course, familiar to the Jewish experience … and the Jewish reader. Textual accounts of the Jew, contemporary, as well as ancient and religious, are replete with tales of expulsion, exile, estrangement and enslavement and their aftermath.
Nor is the theme unfamiliar to Krauss herself, who has tackled it in her earlier works, most notably in her 2005 novel, “The History of Love,” which focuses on a Holocaust survivor and his lost love. “History,” nominated for a number of literary awards, received the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, which Krauss’ now ex-husband, literary giant Jonathan Safran Foer, earned several years earlier for “Everything Is Illuminated.”
Krauss’ preoccupation with journeys made in the search for an emotional, spiritual and physical home is born of personal history. “I grew up in a family whose original sense of home was elsewhere,” Krauss, 42, said during a recent phone interview in advance of her national book tour, which has scheduled engagements at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on Sept. 25 and Book Passage in Corte Madera and the JCC of San Francisco on Sept. 26.
Krauss’ grandparents were born in several corners of the European diaspora — Germany, Ukraine, Hungary and Belarus — while her mother grew up in Great Britain and her father traveled during his early years between the United States and Israel.
Although Krauss herself was reared in an affluent, heavily Jewish suburb of New York, on Long Island’s North Shore, she said that she never found that experience particularly grounding. “I never really had a sense of being an American,” she said. “There was an abstract sense of home, which created nostalgia for other places.”
What all of this engendered, Krauss said, was the notion that Jews “are a people who are taught that our identities are portable.”
It was a notion that was constantly reinforced by Krauss’ family, with whom she traveled frequently, to Israel to visit her maternal grandparents and to other places across the globe. And wherever they went, Krauss said, “we would always go to the Jewish quarter.”
While her family was “neither secular nor religious,” Krauss said, “there was an urgency of [Jewish] preservation” in the wake of the Holocaust and a “fear of losing” one’s Jewish identity.
“From the books on the shelves, to the art on the wall, to family friends,” Krauss said, her childhood home was infused with a sense of Jewishness.
Krauss and her family attended a local Conservative synagogue, where she had a bat mitzvah, but much of her Jewish learning, she said, occurred in her early adulthood, when “it was something I sought out on my own.”
“I don’t know if I learned a darn thing in Hebrew school,” she mused.
She credits her undergraduate education at Stanford University, where she studied poetry, for serving as an intellectual catalyst. “I loved the whole landscape,” she said of the university, and for setting her on an academic and professional path that took her to England. Awarded a Marshall Scholarship, she studied at the University of Oxford and earned a master’s degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
Along the way, she read voraciously. Her favorite Jewish writers, according to a 2010 New Yorker interview, include Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bruno Schulz, Yehuda Amichai, Franz Kafka, David Grossman and Yoram Kaniuk.
Returning to the U.S., she published her first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room,” at 28. Her third novel, “Great House,” which also addresses fallout from the Holocaust, was released seven years ago to wide critical acclaim, garnering her a 2010 National Book Award nomination.
These days, Krauss divides her time between Brooklyn, where she shares co-parenting responsibilities with Safran Foer for their children, and Israel, which she visits four or five times a year. She has an Israeli boyfriend and a brother who made aliyah some years ago.
Though she is loath to describe home other than her children and her books, she does acknowledge an affinity for Israel. “I instinctively understand things about the people there,” she said.