Language is another of the book's inspired inventions. Safron Foer uses it with superb creative skill, in a way that questions our assumptions about certainty, about ever knowing what happened in the past. Linguistic differences means the reader is always aware of the possibility that she – like Alex – misunderstands. What then about language, and especially the narrator's voice: Why did Safron Foer choose to write this way? What was the starting point for a creation like the Alex-narrator's voice?
“When I began writing it was just fun, you know, writing like that, it made me laugh. Then as I wrote it I realised that the way Alex speaks, he really is not good at communicating, not as good as he wants to be, but he tries: well, that is really why I write. Most people want to communicate but struggle to find the words. “
Despite Safron Foer's observations about wanting to communicate, talking to him feels a bit like reading Alex's garbled English for the first time – confusing. It is as if he wants to keep you guessing. The author has said about the title, Everything is illuminated, that it is about a mystery revealed – or not. Safron Foer spends two years editing a book yet when probed about elements in it, he says people make the “mistake of thinking that books have to mean something, if you look at a painting, they can just be what they are, books are more like that than most people give them credit for”. It is a book that asks many questions simultaneously, and I think that is the way the author would like it to be.
Given such an impressive debut, I expected to be talking to a young man who always wanted to be a writer. But Safron Foer insists he fell into writing by accident.
“A writer was the last thing I expected to be. What I did feel strongly was that that there was something out there I should be doing, that I was wasting my time and needed to find a way to truly fulfil my potential. When I started writing, this sense that I should be doing something else, something more important, lessened. It is a bit like someone who loves to travel, loves to visit foreign cities. He will not tell you he loves aeroplanes, yet he spends a lot of time in them. That is how I feel about writing: it is the aeroplane not the destination.”
He says he is hugely surprised by the book's popularity, but his CV suggests a focused young man who was destined for success. He comes from a family of achievers – his brothers are both successful political journalists. While studying philosophy at Princeton, he attended writing classes “recreationally” and won several prizes for his efforts. His thesis advisor was Joyce Carol Oates. Also while still at college, he edited an anthology inspired by the works of the artist Joseph Cornell entitled A Convergence of Birds. He went on a trip to the Ukraine, between 2nd and 3rd year, undertaken with the intention of writing a book about his experiences – albeit a very different one.
He says about his family background that writing the book made him look differently at his Jewish identity and made him acknowledge that although he is not observant, there is this connection. He is politically active – “not through my writing but through my life, I do get involved”. What does he feel about the actions of the Israeli government? Does he feel he needs to examine them?
“Yeah I do – I do feel personally responsible when they do something bad and I feel it when something bad happens to Israel. I am not that knowledgeable about it, lots of non-Jewish people know a
lot more about the situation than me, but the connection is there because of who I am. It is a very difficult relationship in my life. Like it or not, every Jewish person is associated with this terrible situation – I think no one, not even Sharon is proud of what is going on.”
It seems a surprisingly hesitant and neutral response. Does he really not feel the government has some direct responsibility for this “terrible situation”? Perhaps it is difficult for him to criticize anything Israel does? “No, not at all.”