When, “midway upon the journey of our life/[He] found [himself] within a forest dark,” Dante Alighieri went epic, envisioning a descent into hell, a spiritual purgation and eventual transcendence. When the two central characters in Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss’s first novel in seven years suffer their own life crises, they head to Israel, search for meaning and for immanence, and wind up in the desert. Like the poem from which it borrows its title, Forest Dark is also epic, though in its own way: quiet, eerie, touchingly inchoate. It is an epic of loneliness, a testimony of and to longing that remains unfulfilled.
The novel is bifurcated, telling, in alternating chapters, the stories of Jules Epstein—not so long ago a high-powered and wealthy law firm partner, of late a retired philanthropist looking for the right cause—and Nicole, a successful novelist plagued by writer’s block and a silently failing marriage. (It is perhaps in poor taste, but impossibly tempting, to observe that Nicole’s situation evokes Krauss’s own, given her well-documented divorce from Jonathan Safran Foer, who published his post-divorce novel Here I Am last year. It also seems important to note that, whereas Foer dealt with his hurt feelings by imagining the destruction of Israel in his book, Krauss deals in altogether more human and humane troubles.)
Krauss’s great innovation is that the two strands never explicitly intersect, instead running parallel, provocatively echoing each other through places and objects and ideas without ever meeting. Both Jules and Nicole spend stretches of time at the Tel Aviv Hilton, the Brutalist “rectangle on stilts that dominates the Tel Aviv Coast.” (A series of increasing close-ups of the hotel appear early in the novel.) Nicole means to write a book about the hotel (or else set at the hotel or else inspired by the hotel), a place that holds “a kind of mystical aura” for her, the place from which she imagines she might be dreaming the entirety of her daily life. But the book refuses to be written, and so Nicole takes off from her Brooklyn home, leaves behind the husband who disappoints her and to whom she is a disappointment, leaves behind the two young sons who otherwise keep her tethered, in the hopes that, in Israel, at the Hilton, she will be able to focus and finally write. Jules, for his part, intends to use the Hilton as headquarters, a base from which to award the remains of his fortune (the $2 million left over after a giving spree that has alarmed his lawyer and alienated his son) to some worthy institution or another in honor of his parents’ memory.
Neither remains at the Hilton, attention caught by quixotic projects, presented by fateful encounters. For Jules, the thread begins back in New York, when, at an event for “some fifty people representing the American Jewish leadership” to confer—which is to say, have a three-course meal—with the president of the Palestinian Authority, he meets Rabbi Menachem Klausner. His last name, Klausner informs a reluctant-to-engage Epstein, marks him as one with lineage that can be traced back to the dynastic line of King David. Once in Israel, Jules reconnects with the rabbi, spending a night at Gilgul, Klausner’s retreat in Safed, the mystical desert center for Kabbalah studies. There he meets a beautiful woman, the rabbi’s daughter, Yael, who impresses him more than the rabbi’s disquisitions on the finite and the infinite. Yael, it turns out, is working on a film about the life of David, “the most complex, fully wrought, and fascinating character in the whole Bible.” (That Jules’s first view of Yael—she’s emerging from a bath—replicates David’s initial vision of Bathsheba is an effective coincidence.) And suddenly, Jules is “new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry.” Nicole, for her part, becomes involved with Eliezer Friedman, possibly a former Mossad agent, possibly a retired professor of literature, certainly a man who relates a nearly impossible-to-believe story about Franz Kafka. Friedman claims to have access to the works hoarded, in a cat-infested apartment, by Eva Hoffe, daughter of Max Brod’s lover Esther, inheritor of Brod’s estate, jealous possessor of a priceless trove of Kafka’s manuscripts. In the least outlandish of his proposals, Friedman suggests that Nicole prepare an ending to an unfinished Kafka play, which is scheduled to be made into a film.
How all of this turns out is not really the point. Krauss has always been a writer interested in the hidden, spiritual dimension of things, and her work concerns itself with the mystical, the metaphysical, the mysterious. The secret inner life of people, places, and objects preoccupies her far more than the directly observable. In her last novel, Great House, a writing desk served as a totem, imbuing the lives of the individuals who posses it at various moments with the possibility of grace and tempting them with damnation. In Forest Dark, she goes even more abstract, working less towards a climax than an epiphany. The novel starts out with a great deal of texture, with meticulously arranged details; it presents, initially, as a keenly observed and reported chronicle of two accomplished but unfulfilled lives. But as it progresses, and especially as it nears the end, it abandons any pretense of interest in connecting threads and cause-and-effect payoffs. This could be annoying, perhaps, but Krauss’s great, fearless gift is to work a motif until its essence reverberates throughout. Thinking about an improbable story Friedman relates, Nicole compares the tale to the conventional, accepted one and finds that “the one Friedman had drawn struck me as having the more beautiful shape—more complex, but also more subtle, and so closer to truth. In light of it, the familiar story now seemed clumsy, overblown, and steeped in cliché.” And so too of Forest Dark: it is beautiful and complex but subtle and so closer to truth. It is perhaps not particularly believable, but it is elegant and shimmering, a slant of light shining long enough to make us wonder.
Nicole Krauss is back with her first novel in seven years. Forest Dark “interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals — an older lawyer and a young novelist — whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert.” The cover of Krauss’s new offering sports cool blue waves (dunes?) and the now-ubiquitous yellow, centering a truly killer blurb from Philip Roth. Krauss was a National Book Award and Orange Prize finalist for Great House, and The History of Love won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature. Forest Dark will be published by HarperCollins on September 12.
Pity the novel. Once upon a time it was a big, baggy story told in chronological order by an omniscient narrator. Over time, it’s been marginalized, shunned, belittled, banned, and more recently, broken into pieces that vie with each other to make a cohesive whole. You could blame dwindling attention spans, pared down by digital toys. It’s ancient history that any TV viewer can either reorder or skip scenes at home. Now we spend a day streaming series that took years to air, let alone produce. The consequences of contemporary viewing preferences are the random jumbling of storyline, as well as time’s transposition and compression. Why wouldn’t novels follow suit?
When I first started thinking about this, I looked for parallels with how we share personal stories in our increasingly scarce private lives. Individual narratives are never linear, nor do we recount them to each another in a linear fashion. Small wonder that contemporary novels unfold out of order.
And yet, I’m sure there’s more. Michael David Lukas, reaching into the musical lexicon to examine novel developments, used the term “polyphonic” (referring to a chorus or multiplicity of voices) to make an intriguing argument: “Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze.”
Lukas cites Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Categorized as “novels,” these books are linked short stories with a common item or thread running through the chapters. In Great House, it’s a desk; in The Imperfectionists, it’s the characters’ association with an English language newspaper published in Rome. More recently, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has a character — Hattie — who serves as the common element. Lukas uses “polyphony” to describe novels that further increase structural complexity by inverting time and space. For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is populated with seemingly unrelated characters, geography, and time periods. Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul shares similarities. The action is set against historical events that are presented out of chronological order within diverse geographies and between seemingly unrelated protagonists.
Ted Gioia, a musician and writer, followed Lukas with an essay written in fragmented bits of text, probing why the novel is breaking up, accompanied by an ambitious 57-volume booklist.
Gioia places the fracturing novel in a broad cultural context that includes Thelonious Monk as the “jazzman of fragmentation” and Wittgenstein as its philosopher. Applauding the current fragmenters for successfully navigating literary complexity and traditional storytelling (aka plot), Gioia affirms that despite fission, novel craft is improving. Even if master short story writer Alice Munro were not the most recent Nobel laureate, every writer worth her salt knows that writing lean is far more difficult than producing the more leisurely, lazy, lengthy counterpart.
Except that novels are swelling again. Not only did last year’s Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries clock in at 848 pages, but several equally celebrated books boast equivalent heft, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
Why? Ted Gioia offers a theory. “All experimental approaches in the arts can perhaps be divided into two categories — experiments of disjunction or experiments of compression. Either things get pushed apart, or get squeezed together. Either an aesthetic of disintegration, or an aesthetic of wave-like flow.”
The Grand Experimenter, it turns out, was Ludwig van Beethoven. This musical colossus, completely deaf, his personal affairs in chaos, perennially behind in his finances, unwell and unloved, reworked the string quartet in ways that continue to bewilder and astonish. The six late quartets, for two violins, viola, and cello, were composed within two years of Beethoven’s death in 1827. They are called by their opus numbers: 127, 130, 131, 133, 132, 135 (don’t ask about numerical order). These pieces span the experimental pendulum’s trajectory. The composer not only fractured, he compressed and expanded as well.
Beethoven’s earlier quartets and those of his predecessors and successors as well, generally have four movements: a lively opening, a slow second movement, a “minuet and trio” movement beat in three (the order of the second and third are often reversed), and an authoritative final movement. Around structure, Beethoven went rogue with his late quartets. He took the traditional four-movement quartet, split it up, and then both condensed and augmented it. Opus 130 has six movements as opposed to the usual four; Opus 131 has seven that are played/performed without a break as one long movement; and Opus 132 has five. Opus 133, the Grosse Fugue, is a one-movement leviathan. It was meant to be the sixth and final movement to Opus 130, but was horrendously difficult and got an appalling reception. “I think, with Voltaire, ‘that a few gnat-stings cannot arrest a spirited horse in his course,’” Beethoven said of critics. However, he bowed to outside pressure and lopped off the Grosse Fugue, publishing it as a stand-alone composition. Then wrote a frothy new ending that was the last piece he completed.
Within these overarching structures, Beethoven took traditional form and forged new trails. For example, he quarried the unconventional from the garden-variety “minuet and trio” movement. All but two of the late quartets contain such a movement, beat in three according to the rules, and organized thematically just as Haydn or Mozart would have done. In these movements, however, Beethoven plays with rhythm by blurring the lines between measures. He foreshortens melodic line and accelerates tempo. In other words, most of these movements go at breakneck speed and/or the tune is too fractured to sing along.
Beethoven took another well-known form, the theme and variations movement, and stretched and deepened it in new ways. Opus 127’s second movement opens with an austere violin melody that sets the theme for the variations that follow. The movement is immense, vastly longer than the slow movements of string quartets that preceded it, including previous slow movements that Beethoven had written. Here the composer takes his time on a grand scale, luxuriating in the breadth and depth of his melodic creation.
The fugue, a melody introduced by one instrument that is subsequently taken up by another instrument, appears in many string quartet movements. (Think of a round, where the melody travels through various voices and is inverted and lengthened throughout the course of the piece.) Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, however, is in a class by itself. It is the longest of Beethoven’s late quartet movements. Talk about dense. With its abrupt, ruptured bursts of sound, the Grosse Fugue is virtually inaccessible on first hearing. Like the 20th-century music that was to follow, the Grosse Fugue is dissonant. There are long stretches where rhythm elbows out melody, relentless beats without much tune.
One hundred ninety years ago, Beethoven was covering the experimental spectrum, fragmenting and enlarging within the space of a few short years. His late quartets fluctuate between slower, lyrical movements and faster movements with short, chopped up melody, compacted rhythms, interrupted tempos, and challenging key signatures. He deployed the four instruments (voices) in novel ways, assembled new harmonies, smashed rhythmic convention, messed with dynamic (volume) markings, upended time signatures, and a whole lot else. Including inspiring countless artists; for example, T.S. Eliot and the Four Quartets.
Beethoven may have turned out to be the Grand Experimenter, but did he actually set out to experiment? Radical innovation may be the consequence, rather than the cause, of self-expression at this stratospheric level. Some combination of genius and drive spurred Beethoven’s compositional feats. To satisfy the demands of his genius, Beethoven tilled new musical ground.
His deafness must have played a central role. Beethoven’s ability to compose through the deafness does not speak to his musicality per se. Any well-trained composer can pick up a score and understand what’s on the page without playing it. Beethoven’s deafness speaks instead to something deeper. In his early 30s, 15 years before his death, Beethoven prepared a document for his brothers. Named for the place it was written, Beethoven’s “Heiligenstadt Testament” bears witness to the despair and isolation caused by his deafness, as reprinted in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven:
Though born with a fiery, active temperament…I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…How could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed…For me there can be no relaxation with my fellow-men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone like one who has been banished…
Despite being the most accomplished musician of his day, Beethoven became unable to perform his piano concertos because he could not hear the orchestra. He was thwarted from conducting his symphonies and from playing his chamber music. In short, at the apex of his musical powers, he was prevented from participating in the joy of his own creation, forced to plumb the music in silence.
Silence birthed late Beethoven — music of profound and unparalleled emotional range. What did Beethoven discover within the silence? Certainly he found the freedom to buck convention and strike out on his own. But within the silence, he accessed something more: the arduous, agonizing road to his own mortality. The late quartets contain movements of such introspection and depth that to partake in the composer’s grief becomes a sublime, transformative experience. This musical giant is frustrated and raging, tormented by illness and loneliness, wrestling with the divine. We hear him grappling to make his peace.
There isn’t a more majestic, reflective hymn than the fifth “Cavatina” movement to Opus 130. Beethoven himself said that nothing he had written so moved him; in fact “merely to revive it afterwards in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears,” according to Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Or the transcendent otherworldly opening of Opus 131. And Beethoven’s rare commentary to Opus 132’s third movement summons the divine directly, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” — “A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode.” The spare, deliberate simplicity of this movement is music of the spheres. The quartet’s final movement combines longing with agitated dissonance, delivering a sense of cosmic urgency.
In the last substantial work Beethoven finished — Opus 135 — the listener travels through sanctified territory, accompanying Beethoven to his death. Beethoven’s notes to Opus 135’s fourth movement, printed in the final manuscript above a nine-note tune, read: “’Der Schwer Gefasste Entschluss.’ Muss es sein? Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” — “‘The Difficult Decision.’ Must it be? It must be! It must be!”
Except that these words are not what they seem. A story that circulated during Beethoven’s time was that the tune came from a canon Beethoven had penned to capture a patron’s reaction to unwelcome news; Herr Dembscher had been told that to obtain a quartet manuscript for a party he wanted to host, he would have to pay 50 florins.
Perhaps these imponderables are meant to remain so; for example why the novel is shrinking or fracturing or expanding or twisting itself into something else. No matter. Writers pursuing their creative ends are apt to reinvent the medium for a long time.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres.
In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre — let’s call it the polyphonic novel — uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists.
Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century.
Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices.
Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.”
Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators — an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few — McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself.
But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.”
Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator.
It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.”
Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin).
While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape.
With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.
A big haul of new books this week. At the top of the list is Chad Harbach’s much anticipated debut, The Art of Fielding. Also new this week: the new Christopher Hitchens collection Arguably, Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness, Nuruddin Farah’s Crossbones, and Anna Solomon’s debut The Little Bride. Sebastian Barry’s Booker long-listed On Canaan’s Side is now available in the U.S. And Great House by Nicole Krauss is now out in paperback.