Jonathan Safran Foer on ‘Everything is Illuminated’

I love Everything is Illuminated.  Love, love love it.  I don’t care if Foer claims it’s not a book he would want to read anymore (pshaw, stop being writerly), I’m glad he wrote it.  Here’s most of an essay (it’s kinda long) he wrote about his experience writing the book for the Guardian.  For the rest, visit the original posting.

I did not intend to write Everything Is Illuminated. I didn’t intend anything – the book was the result of instincts rather than plans. But as I began to fill pages, I imagined that the result would take the form of a non-fictional chronicle of a trip that I made to Ukraine as a 20-year-old.

Armed with a photograph of the woman who, I was told, had saved my grandfather from the Nazis, I had embarked on a journey to Trachimbrod, the shtetl of my family’s origin. It’s a real place – or was one. And there really was a photograph of Augustine.

A young man named Alex did take me around, although we had absolutely no relationship whatsoever during the trip and did not correspond after. He was neither intentionally, nor unintentionally, funny. There was no Augustine. There were no boxes. There was no Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

The comedy of errors was really a tragedy of errors, and it lasted a mere three days. I found nothing but nothing, and in that nothing – a landscape of total absence – nothing was to be found. (There is such a thing as a rich nothing, of course. But this was no such nothing.) Because I didn’t tell my grandmother about the trip – she would never have let me go – I didn’t know what questions to ask, or who to ask, or the necessary names of people, places and things. The impoverished nothing was as much a result of me as of what I encountered. I returned to Prague, where I was spending the summer, and sat down to explain, on the page, what had happened.

But what had happened? This is always the problem. Was it this way, or that way? Did the wagon flip and sink, or didn’t it? Did Trachim B drown, or did he escape? It took me a week to finish the first sentence. In the remaining month, I wrote 280 pages. What made beginning so difficult, and the remainder so seemingly automatic, was imagination – the initial problem, and ultimate liberation, of imagining.

My mind wanted to wander, to invent, to use what I had seen as a canvas, rather than the paints. But, I wondered, is my family’s experience of the Holocaust exactly that which cannot and should not be imagined? What are one’s responsibilities to “the truth” of such a traumatic event, and what is “the truth”? Can historical accuracy be replaced with imaginative accuracy? Objectivity with the mind’s eye?

Everything Is Illuminated proposes the possibility of a “did and didn’t” duality, of things being one way and also the opposite way. Rather than aligning itself with either “how things were” or “how things could have been”, the novel measures the difference between the two, and by so doing attempts to reflect a kind of experiential (rather than historical or journalistic) truth. Novels don’t strive to get to the bottom of things, but to express what it’s like never to be able to. The climax of the book, for me, is not when the Nazis raid the shtetl but when the two braids of the novel – Jonathan’s fantastical history, and Alex’s more realistic travelogue — are forced to confront one another.

I finished the book 10 years ago, as a 23-year-old. Of course there are many things that I would change about the novel – there is not a paragraph in the copy that I read from that isn’t heavily marked – but at the various opportunities to edit the book, I’ve always decided not to.

I tried to follow my instincts, and did. The fact that my instincts have since changed is not an argument for the book changing but for writing another book.

I tried to write the book I would want to read, rather than the book I would want to write. And I did. Everything Is Illuminated is no longer the book I would want to read, and thank goodness for that.

Read more.


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