[Published on Meanjin.com.au, October 11 2011]
Only 25 when he won the Guardian First Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award for his debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer remains a divisive figure in the literary world.
The stylistic flourishes for which his writing has been both acclaimed and derided — his experimentation with form, his combination of modernist interiority and postmodern metafiction, and his playfulness with typography — teeter on the edge of too-cleverness. But whether you love it or hate it, there is a heart to Safran Foer’s work that is difficult to deny.
It was fitting that Michael Williams began last week’s conversation at Storey Hall by asking Safran Foer about his grandmother — a figure who seems to be the wellspring of the empathy that pervades his writing. Safran Foer discussed the way she has influenced his life and his work, often in ways he hasn’t realised until after the work is completed.
In Everything is Illuminated, Safran Foer tells the story of his search for the woman who saved his grandfather during the war; later, however, he realised that the novel was, in many ways, in fact the story of his grandmother’s life. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is also as much the tale of Oskar’s Grandmother as it is about our nine-year-old protagonist.
But it is in Eating Animals, Safran Foer’s recent work of non-fiction, that her influence most directly comes to the fore. Safran Foer prefaces his ethical conundrum through his relationship with his grandmother, examining the ways that food is so inherently linked to family, to ritual, to storytelling and to history.
It is an early vignette about his grandmother on the run during the war that perhaps best conveys this woman’s character. When she was starving and offered pork by a farmer, she refused to eat it. Why, Safran Foer asks incredulously, because it wasn’t kosher? Because, she says, ‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save’.
Safran Foer told the lovely story of finally confessing to his grandmother that he had written Everything Is Illuminated, something he had obscured until the eve of an excerpt being published in the New Yorker. Terrified to hear her response, he spoke of finally receiving a phonecall. “’I want you to know I read your story in the magazine,’ and I’m thinking, ‘The magazine? It’s the New Yorker!’ She said, ‘I thought it was very nice… [But] it’s not how I would have chosen to write it’”.
It was then, Safran Foer said, he realised something fundamental about literature — “how subjective it is and how dependent on perspective it is, and how that perspective is itself not necessarily dependent on the circumstances of your life”.
This notion of subjectivity seems to be essential to Safran Foer’s craft, and gives much insight into his idiosyncratic style. According to Safran Foer, there are two kinds of writers — those that read a lot as children and have produced a story that they’re proud of by the time their eight years old; and then those, like him, who did not. He admitted that for a long time, he was hesitant to even call himself a writer — that to declare “I’m a writer” was like was saying, “I’m a lover”.
“But you live in as a writer in Brooklyn with your writer wife and are the envy of writers the world over?” said Williams with mock disbelief. “For me, writing is the vehicle and not the destination,” Safran Foer replied. “Imagine you are somebody who loves travel. You love to see foreign countries and experience foreign cuisines and learn bits of foreign languages and pick up foreign chachkas wherever you go. You wouldn’t say that you were a great lover of aeroplanes. You’d say that aeroplanes facilitate the thing that you love. And if you were to find a better vehicle, you would take that.
“I guess I never mistake the means and the ends, and the ends for me are the kind of emotional experience or a kind of access to thoughts and feelings that I can’t get anywhere else”. This says much about Safran Foer’s experimentation with form, suggesting not necessarily a fascination with the conventions of writing but almost a disregard for them, a desire to manipulate them for his own ends.
His response when asked about his lightbulb moment — the moment he knew that writing was the vehicle he wanted to pilot — was therefore fitting. “I remember since I was a kid, feeling that there was something that I should be doing that I wasn’t doing; that if I could just figure out what it was I should be doing, I’d probably like it, and I would probably feel some relief,” he said. “Writing is not that thing, but it’s the best approximation of that thing that I’ve found… The truth is, and the secret of life, is that there isn’t such a thing. So we find approximations and we try to be content with them and we try to be grateful for them”.
Fitting, yes, but depressing also. It is a rare person who can concede that writing will just have to do, and then release an internationally acclaimed novel at 25. Or have Joyce Carol Oates play the role of their encouraging teacher. As a freshman at Princeton, Safran Foer took a writing class on a whim. One day he and Oates arrived to class early, and she professed to be a fan of his writing. “It’d never occurred to me that there was such a thing as my writing,” he said. “I didn’t realise they were summing to anything”. Oates later sent him a letter during semester break urging him on, telling him “you seem to have a strong talent, coupled with that most important of all writerly qualities — energy”.
It was then that Safran Foer began taking himself seriously as a writer, admitting that it was his impressionability rather than his passion that caused him to follow that path. “If a philosophy professor of mine had done the same thing, I doubt I’d be sitting here”. Safran Foer has been teaching himself now for five years, and it is this philosophy of writerly energy that he tries to bestow upon his students. “The way that I teach has to do with writing a lot. The difference between writers and non-writers is not that they’re better at writing. It’s that writers write. That’s the difference”.
Safran Foer’s reticence to call himself a writer also means he struggles to place himself within any generation or movement of new American novelists. “So much of writing for me is about exercising individualism. I feel repelled by the idea of being in any kind of community. It’s not like I wouldn’t be honoured… [but] being a writer to me is being an individual”.
It is perhaps this notion of the individual that gets most to the centre of Safran Foer’s creative process, and his literary project — he does not seek to address larger themes or questions, but his own subjectivity. Here he quoted W H Auden, who said, ‘I look at what I write so I can see what I think’.
“I think that there’s this conception that writers have a message to convey or a voice that they’ve found that they want to share or a moral, and that’s just not how it is for me,” explained Safran Foer. “I really face the blank paper with nothing. I don’t feel inspired. I don’t have great ideas. I just try to fill pages, and when I fill enough of them, I come into contact with my ideas… I’ve always found as a writer that it is impossible to not write about what I have strong thoughts and feelings about. I don’t always know what I have strong thoughts and feelings about. Sometimes it’s not till I’ve written it that I can see, but the writing always wants to gravitate towards that”.
He talked of how, when Everything Is Illuminated went into paperback production, he was offered the chance to revise. But although he had a copy of the novel that he’d filled with revisions, edits and new additions, he said no. “It’s foolish to ask a book to keep up with you. It would be like continually tailoring clothing that you wore when you were three for your entire life, instead of looking at pictures of yourself and saying, ‘Well, that’s who I was then’”.
It is Safran Foer’s ideas surrounding self definition, of what kind of person you want to be, that has most affected me as his reader — an idea that I would argue carries through all his work, exploring the ways in which the individual may forge their own identity amidst the constraints of family and history. His books ache with a sense of empathy, of a shared humanity that carries across generations.
But as Safran Foer emphasised, the person that he wants to be is not printed on the page in indelible ink. “The nice thing about books is there’s always the next book. The nice thing about life is there’s always tomorrow, and the identity that you just formed becomes replaced by another one”.
I, for one, cannot wait to see which guise he chooses next.
Full video of the conversation is available on the Wheeler Centre’s website.