Jonathan Safron Foer says he was never particularly interested in family history, and did not give much thought to his Jewishness. Then he went to the Ukraine with an old photograph, and found himself writing a book steeped in Jewish culture.
“ One of the great things about writing is that you get a chance to see who you are. I wrote so many things that I did not know I cared about before I wrote the book – like being Jewish, like family history – then, you look at the evidence and it is like – I am not who I thought I was. I think we are often wrong about who we are. One of the nice things about writing is you get to look at your unguarded self”
Everything is Illuminated is Safron Foer's first novel. It is a spectacular debut – exhilarating, linguistically brilliant, ambitiously constructed and very moving.
Split roughly into two interwoven stories, the book simultaneously relates the fictitious history of the village of Trachimbrod, where Foer’s grandfather was raised and which was subsequently destroyed by the Nazis. This is told in a magical realist style. Alongside it, runs the fictitious version of a trip Foer took to the Ukraine while in college. The latter section is narrated not by Foer but by Alex, a (fictional) Ukrainian who's garbled English is used to great effect in the telling of the story.
The books origin lies in the author's family history. Safron Foer's grandparents escaped the Holocaust in Ukraine. An old photograph survives, which according to family folklore is of his grandfather and the woman who saved him from the Nazis. Safron Foer travelled to Ukraine at the age of 22, bringing the picture with him. He says his own trip bears no resemblance to the story told in the book, except for the starting point. So what did inspire him to write this particular story?
“ I could have written any number of stories – the story itself is not nearly as important as the way the story is told. I wrote this because it had to do with what was going on in my life; I was 22, on the verge of adulthood and independence. I was thinking a lot about who I was going to become, which I guess always begs the question – where did I come from?”
The way Safron Foer chooses to tell the story is unusual and complex. The book is carefully constructed, and purposely confuses the reader from the start. I am surprised to find that when asked further about the tension between form and content, Safron Foer insists it is really all about telling the story, and that writing it was an instinctive process:
“I wrote it as simply as I could. The way it is written is to facilitate the telling of the story. One of the things that are important to me in writing is to create as full a life experience as possible. In the interest of creating a whole experience I wanted different voices; voices from the past, from the present, something that was pretty and something that was ugly “
Despite this seeming quest for balance, he says he did not set out with a particular structure in mind – “I never really know what I am doing when I start. I just pursue what feels right; try to write what feels right. It is a very intuitive process really“
It is hard to reconcile this insistence on simplicity and intuition with his initial response and with the use of a combination of magical realism and garbled English. Why did he choose magical realism? The writer Tim Parks once described magical realists as disappointed socialists – moving “into this world where the creative and imaginative powers of the people are celebrated .. and where your plot can work out more positively because you’re no longer obeying the dictates of realism, and realism is now presented as some kind of monster that prevents the world from being the way it should be. ” I put the quote to Foer – does he think Parks has a point?
“I don't know – I think perhaps that for most writers just the act of trying to write is born out of that idea. I was certainly not conscious of anything like that when I wrote; the process of writing was really intuitive. It is amazing how many things I was not conscious of, which when you look back you can wonder about. But I really just pursued what felt right, wrote what felt right.”