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Jonathan Safran Foer
Washington DC 1977 • American writer




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(The following article appeared in The Guardian on 21 May 2005)

Jonathan Safran Foer was eight, almost nine, on August 12 1985, when his child world was blown apart. It had been, he says, 'a very, very happy childhood. A united family, middle-class urban/suburban. I was close to my two brothers; nobody I knew had died. Just normal people.' His mother, Esther, drove her middle son to Murch elementary school in northwest Washington that day, though she has no recollection of this now. 'She is convinced she didn't drive,' says Foer. There he joined 13 other kids, including his best friend Stewart Ugelow, for a two-week summer camp. 'Stewart and I were like twins, always together. We even looked alike.'

On arrival, the children were organised into small groups. In his group were Stewart, a boy named Dedrick Howell and a girl, Puja Malholtra. 'We were an interesting cross-section of the city. One black, one Indian and two Jewish white kids.' It was day one of camp and the planned astronomy class had been cancelled - the teacher had called in ill - and was to be replaced with a chemistry class in which they would make sparklers. Potassium perchlorate, sulphur, charcoal, iron powder, aluminium powder were provided.
Foer was returning from the bathroom when the explosion happened at his table. 'Very, very loud, very powerful.' He was thrown back through the door he had just entered. In deep shock, his hands burned, he saw Stewart, 'sitting on the ground and really destroyed physically ... all the skin on his face peeling off.' He saw 'kids on fire' and Dedrick 'howling like an animal.' And he saw himself reflected in their injuries. 'That's when it occurred to me that I didn't know how injured I was.' He repeatedly asked Stewart, 'Do I look as terrible as you?' It was, he says, 'the worst thing I've ever seen in my life.'

The four injured children were taken to hospital. Foer and Puja were the lucky ones - their burns were not severe and they were released after two nights. Stewart and Dedrick took the full force of the blast and, with second- and third-degree burns over between 20% and 30% of their bodies, had to undergo reconstructive surgery and skin grafts lasting over a year. Both were permanently disfigured, though, Foer says, 'You could look at Stew now and not feel your skin crawl. He happened to be looking out the window, so one side is burned worse than the other. Today, no hairs grow on one side.' It was two years before Stewart could return to school. 'While he was in hospital, we visited every day. And I think if something had lasting effect, it was not so much the explosion, it was visiting Stew. A burns unit is the single scariest place for a kid because everything shows.'

Three years later, the city of Washington settled a civil suit filed by the Howell family, awarding $11m - 'the biggest settlement the city had ever paid,' says Foer. The Ugelows settled out of court for a smaller, undisclosed sum.

Several worlds exploded on that day, each with different consequences. Stewart coped. 'He has gone on to become a happy, successful person.' Dedrick did not. 'I have heard that he is still in bad shape. His parents divorced. He was a gifted pianist. Now, I don't know if he can use his hands.' He doesn't know what became of Puja. Foer had a nervous breakdown that lasted almost three years. 'Three suspended years. I missed a lot of school. I had a hard time being away from my parents: I'd get upset if they went out.' He has memories of himself, 'that little kid - I always think of him as that kid', soiling his pants or, locked in the lavatory, crying on his own. Barely aware of how his parents responded to his fragile state. 'I guess I thought they didn't know.'

Then, aged 12, he snapped out of it - 'overnight', he says. "I realised I had to become a functioning person again, even if it meant becoming a different person.' To this day, he says, this is his solution to experiences of fear or terror: 'I dissociate myself.' He creates in his imagination someone who can cope with the situation in hand. For example, he says, now, as a writer, when asked to give readings, 'I have serious stage fright. I do it but it's not Jonathan being brave; it's Jonathan becoming someone else.'

Having reassembled his world, Foer carried on 'normally' - going to school and then college. It took almost 20 years before he was able to talk about the explosion; indeed, he has only begun to talk about it in recent weeks. 'It is as if a huge weight has been lifted.' There were reasons for this silence - 'I think my parents didn't want me to talk or to think about it. They didn't want me to feel survivor's guilt.' And there was little occasion to speak about it, 'except if I saw Stewart', which he didn't very often. 'We were never at the same school again.' It was only much later, once he began to write and then read what he had written, that he realised, 'I wasn't writing about what I thought I was writing about.'

When Foer's first novel, the highly inventive Everything is Illuminated, was published to acclaim in 2002, most who met him were a bit baffled by the discrepancy between the 25-year-old young man - modest, ingenuous, charming, someone to whom apparently nothing had ever happened - and the explosive material his book dealt with: the Holocaust, war, anxiety, lost histories and the uses of silence. It seemed as if the book came from nowhere. Stylistically unusual, assembled from a number of different voices, it tells the story of writer Jonathan Safran Foer's (JSF) quest to find the woman who may have helped his Ukrainian grandfather escape death at the hands of the Nazis. He sets off from America for Ukraine, where he hires a translator, Alex, roughly his age, and a chauffeur, Alex's grandfather, who claims to be blind. A stinking dog, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, makes up the quartet. The book is narrated by Alex, with passages of JSF's fictional book about his 18th-century ancestors interspersed. Much of it is so hysterically funny, due largely to Alex's English, which he has learned from a thesaurus ('All of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name,' he informs us in the opening line), that the reader does not see until late that it is hurtling towards disaster.

The book ends with the suicide of the grandfather, whose 'real' death, we realise, occurred many years before when he betrayed his best friend, a Jew, to the Nazis. But the book also has Augustine, a woman who lost everything in the same massacre - entire family, all her friends - and who has devoted her life to remembrance, literally digging up the small treasures buried by those doomed to die, and preserving them in boxes. For her, memory is a way of keeping love alive, and herself alive. How are we to endure the unendurable, the book asks. And why can some apparently endure it, and others not?

Twenty years of silence and then an explosion of talk. What unlocked it? Time, certainly. And love. In 2001, Foer fell in love with the writer Nicole Krauss, now his wife. Falling in love, he has said, 'increased my ability to feel.' And, of course, writing unlocked it. All writing, he believes now, is autobiographical. 'Has to be. There is nowhere for it to come from but from the author. Every character, every event - even if the book is set in Japan in 1400BC - is autobiographical.' And though you don't write to learn about yourself, 'that is what happens. When you read something you have written, you have to confront some of the lies you have been telling yourself.' So writing becomes an experiment, a kind of laboratory in which you discover your own identity.

Before he wrote his first book, he would not have suspected that he was interested in genealogy or indeed Judaism. 'I never thought about those things, I never went to synagogue. Now, I guess I'd have to say I was wrong and that clearly these are important to me.' Only when he finished the book was he able to look at it and realise his true subject: 'I was writing about the way those events [the explosion] affected me.' This is not true to the same extent, he says, of his second and latest book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This book, told through the eyes and very unusual mind of Oskar, a traumatised nine-year-old boy post-September 11, he thinks more universal, 'but in that first book I was writing about myself.'

If he is right about this, then the person I meet should be something like his books. And he is remarkably like them. Endearing, honest, thoughtful, passionate, an inveterate collector of miscellany - both his novels bring together people who belong to each other but have somehow become dispersed. He works in a rented room of the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in the pretty Prospect Park area, a vast mansion built in 17th-century Dutch revivalist style that he seems to have to himself. 'Do you find it spooky?' he asks almost hopefully as we climb the many stairs to the attic. Here he has shelves of small velvet boxes, which he opens to reveal shells, jewels, objects he has picked up in flea markets. He describes the boxes as 'letters' -'I'll send them when they are ready.' Not surprisingly, he greatly admires Joseph Cornell, an artist who could not paint, draw or sculpt, and who achieved little fame in his lifetime but whose glass-fronted shadow boxes are now museum pieces. Cornell was a renowned loner who, except for a short spell in boarding school, never left the five boroughs of New York. He never went out after dark, but could be seen roaming by day, as if looking for something or somebody. Oskar may be a kind of homage to Cornell.

Foer is good-looking in that fresh, preppy way and has beautiful hands. For someone who wears his anxiety on his sleeve - 'I like things that wear themselves on their sleeve, where you see the staples, the tape, the glue' - he is not at all a fidget. He can sit completely still for long periods. He is fastidious and quite eccentric. He arrives for every appointment 20 minutes early - 'I can't help it' - and estimates that he loses about a week a year through doing this. His dog, George, a female, he named after the writer George Plimpton, whom he met only once and who died the week that he found the dog in a cemetery. 'You can not know someone and then suddenly their absence makes an impact.' And names really matter, he says. On the way from his office to a coffee house, he points out the home
of his friend, the writer Paul Auster; when I ask him if he lives close by, he replies, 'I can see into his sitting room from my sitting room.' We are actually standing outside his home.

When told he needed a photograph for the jacket of his first book, he scoured Manhattan looking for the right photo booth, and then, having found it, spent $2,000 trying to get the right picture - '$2,000 is a bit of an exaggeration.' But you get the idea.

His writing began with a picture - a photograph his mother showed him of the woman who was supposed to have saved his grandfather from the Nazis during the war. He can no longer remember when he first saw it. Perhaps it was some time after the explosion: it's something a mother might do for her young traumatised son, show him a photo that would tell him a story of survival. Something terrible had happened on that day, June 18 1941, but some good had come from it. She, Esther, had come from it, and, by extension, Jonathan.

The family history tells that his grandfather was married with a baby daughter when the Nazi tanks arrived in their Ukrainian village of Trachimbrod, leaving 2,400 dead the next day and the village destroyed. His grandfather, Lewis Safran, somehow escaped, but not his wife and child. 'He met his second wife, my grandmother, in a Polish camp for displaced persons after the war and then they went to America. He died in 1954.' Foer's grandmother was left with two children.

His two novels have this in common: a lost child who has no name. The name of the baby daughter, his mother's half-sister, was never passed on, he says. 'The fact of this child, its not having a name, means it can't be put to rest. Even dead people keep their name.' And there is a grandfather who keeps his silence.

Foer was 19, in his sophomore year studying philosophy at Princeton. It was summer, he had no plans and, though not a fidget, he tends to get restless. (It was this restlessness, 'boredom', that made him go to the bathroom on that terrible day.) He found himself remembering the photograph his mother had shown him, and he came up with the idea that he would go back to Ukraine in search of this woman. He would visit Trachimbrod, the shtetl destroyed by the Nazis. Probably he wouldn't find her, but the journey, the search, would form the basis for a non-fiction book. He needed, he estimated, $5,000: for nine weeks in Prague, plus a three-day trip to Ukraine, plus a translator. Princeton, 'famous for producing billionaires', would come up with someone, some old alumnus, who would finance the trip. And so it was that Joe Gatto, a partner at Goldman Sachs, who had left Princeton in 1968, became a kind of proxy author of a brilliant experimental novel. 'Make it work for $3,000,' Gatto told him, "and I'll pay." And so Foer did.

In fact, the three-day trip bore no relation to the book he would later write, though there was a translator and he was called Alex. Foer and Alex spent their time in a 'crummy hotel', drinking tea in strangers' homes, and they never found the woman. 'I knew it wouldn't work when we went to look. I had no expectation of that.' Trachimbrod had ceased to exist. There was nothing there, no trace. It was, he says, 'as if nothing had ever happened.' And this was a kind of creative release. When he writes, he doesn't write towards a specific expectation, a unified idea. He follows his instinct. 'People always ask what a book is about, as if it has to be about something. I don't want to write books that lend themselves to that sort of description. My books are more a kind of breaking-down.'

He wrote Everything Is Illuminated while working as a receptionist in a PR firm and ghost-writing a book about prostate cancer. 'They said, "Can you help?" and I said, "Certainly, for $7,500.'"' His own book was rejected 'by everyone' before being taken up by the agent Nicole Aragi. 'I remember Nicole saying, "This book will either do quite well or will do nothing at all." And I said to her, "Well, it's done nothing so far, so what is there to lose?"' When it was auctioned in America, he received a $500,000 advance.

That was in 2001, which was a momentous year for Foer. He heard his first book was to be published, he met the woman who, in 2004, became his wife, and between these two events he began work on his second novel. This, his new book, was originally about a famous man whose sudden disappearance turns his life into an artefact. A museum is raised in his name, dedicated to his memory (a bit like the Anne Frank museum). Then suddenly he reappears.

Some friends of Foer's lent him an apartment in the tiny fishing village of Cadaques, just north of Barcelona, where he was supposed to get down to writing. But, come the end of August, he found himself restless, wanting to cut his stay short. He didn't feel well, he was homesick. He flew back, happy to find himself in the opening days of September, 'the 8th, 9th', staying with friends in Manhattan. 'It was good to be home,' he says. 'And then this happened.'

He watched on television, 'just soaked up information.' At 9.03 am, when the second plane hit the south tower, he heard, live, with the rest of the world, the newscaster screaming. 'That was the scariest moment. The person whose job it is to be the voice of reason has just lost reason.' At this moment the old order broke apart. 'At an emotional level, you realise something awful has happened. At another level, it was hard to understand what was going on.' Just going downtown made him feel 'anxious, insecure.' He found himself 'scared of encountering that much grief.' He stopped thinking about it for a long time, and then, just as inexplicably, began thinking about it again. 'I have felt it more strongly as time has passed.'

Gradually he realised that his book was changing. It wasn't about an adult man any more but about a child. It was no longer set in the dead world of a museum but in the fecund mind of a would-be creator - a nine-year-old obsessed with skyscrapers. He showed an early draft of the book to his six-years-younger brother Joshua, who said, 'It's obvious what you want to write about. Do it. Write about what you are thinking about.' Which is, Foer says, 'the best advice I have ever been given.' He took him to mean September 11, though it could equally well have been the chemistry explosion Joshua was referring to.

It didn't matter. In the end, it amounted to the same thing. He wrote a book, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, about a boy, Oskar Schell, whose father has been killed in the twin towers, his body never recovered. One year on, Oskar is in the midst of an emotional collapse, unable to communicate with his bereaved mother and close only to his grandmother who lives in an apartment opposite. He becomes a kind of urban wanderer, an emotional scavenger, roaming New York, grateful for any human warmth he can find. At night he lies in his bed dreaming up countless ways to protect people: 'What about incredibly long ambulances that connect every building to a hospital?' Armed only with a mysterious key hidden among his dead father's possessions in an envelope marked 'Black', he sets out to find the lock that the key will open. He has a 'plan' to hunt down everyone in the city whose name is Black. He discovers different sorts of human catastrophe from his own; he re-peoples the city with benign creatures of his own imagining. Everything, everyone, in the book, is fragmented by trauma, and held together by trauma. As if trauma has become what we have in common.

As in his first book, Foer parallels contemporary events with events of the near past. Oskar's grandfather and grandmother, it emerges, have both escaped the Allies' saturation bombing of Dresden on February 13 1945 - 700,000 phosphorus bombs dropped on a mainly civilian populace of 1.2m. One bomb for every two people. 'What I wanted,' Foer says, 'was to examine a really specific situation. A nine-year-old whose dad is killed in 9/11 and what specifically that is like. And look at Dresden. Think about what these events have in common and why one is right and one is wrong. Or both are wrong. Or both are right. I didn't want to get into who is good and who evil, or whether one is an act of terror and one an act of war. But what the results look like. And it looks so unlike what we think it looks like.'

Actually, we can have some idea, if we are prepared to look. It looks like 'what hell looked like', one of the pilots from bomber command wrote of Dresden. It looks like people throwing themselves from the top of a burning building rather than be melted by flame. 'I just felt it is important to stare at certain things right now,' Foer says, and you can do this in fiction perhaps more successfully, more truthfully, than you can in life. 'In America right now, we use words like "smart" to talk about bombs. American rhetoric is grounded in ideas of capital-G Good, capital-E Evil, and it's very clear who is on which side. But in a book you can do just the opposite. You can use all lower-case words.' In a book, where every character is a transposition of the self, you don't have to take sides. In a book, when a world is blown apart, you can, like Oskar, reinvent it so that the falling man's fall is reversed and he ends back on his feet. In a book, you can confront the two faces of grief. 'I do not know how to live,' the grandfather in Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close writes to his wife. 'I don't know either but I am trying,' she replies.

Just recently, Foer has begun researching an essay about the explosion. It is still in 'fragments', but is slowly coming together. He has started contacting everyone involved: Stewart, Puja, the teachers. He can't believe the discrepancies in their memories: 'I distinctly remember the worst moment, the only time I cried, was when I was in hospital and Puja's parents arrived before mine. But when I asked her, she remembers my parents coming first. The central emotional event, and one of us has it completely wrong.' He was very struck by something Stewart said to him. 'Is there a reason that it happened? Did I become the person I am because of it? Should I be grateful?' Dedrick he has not contacted. 'And I won't. It scares me too much to be that close to something that awful.' It is very, very hard to talk about grief, he says. And the evidence for this, he tells me, is that for three years, between the ages of nine and 12, he tried, 'with this much success.' And he holds up his thumb and forefinger to indicate a hair's breadth.
bookweb  
ON JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER'S BOOKSHELF

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Laurence Sterne, 1759-1767
Part novel, part digression, this gloriously disordered narrative interweaves the birth and life of the unfortunate 'hero' Tristram Shandy, the eccentric philosophy of his father Walter, the amours and military obsessions of Uncle Toby, and a host of other characters.

A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy
Laurence Sterne, 1768
'I have laid a plan for something new, quite out of the beaten track'. The result, A Sentimental Journey is as far from the conventional travel book as Tristram Shandy is from other novels.

The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, 1953
Fictional autobiography of a rumbustious adventurer and poker-player who sets off from his native Chicago in the spirit of a latter-day Columbus to rediscover the world - and more - especially, 20th century America.

Slaughterhouse 5
Kurt Vonnegut, 1969
Billy Pilgrim, a very young infantry scout, is captured in the Battle of the Bulge and quartered in a Dresden slaughterhouse where he and other prisoners are employed in the production of a vitamin supplement for pregnant women.

Midnight's Children
Salman Rushdie, 1981
Born at the midnight of India's independence, Saleem is 'handcuffed to history' by the coincidence. He is one of 1001 children born that midnight, each of them endowed with an extraordinary talent.

The Tin Drum
Günter Grass, 1959
"Danzig Trilogy": I
A scathing dissection of the years from 1925-1955 through the eyes of Oskar, the dwarf whose manic beating on the toy of his childhood fantastically counterpoints the horrors of Germany and Poland under the Nazis.

Operation Shylock
Philip Roth, 1993
A novel in which Philip Roth confronts his double, an imposter whose self-appointed task is to lead the Jews not into, but out of Israel, and back to Europe.

The Stories of Bernard Malamud
Bernard Malamud, 1983
Many of the characters in these short stories are Jewish, but through the author's gentle exploration of their predicaments, he illuminates a region that is common to everyone.

BOOKS BY JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
2005
Nine-year-old Oskar careens from Central Park to Coney Island searching for a lock to fit the mysterious key left by his now deceased father.
WHAT TO READ AFTER EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

OTHER '9/11'- NOVELS
Windows on the World
Frédéric Beigbeder, 2003
A daring, moving fictional account of the last moments of a father and his two sons atop the World Trade Center on September 11.

Specimen Days
Michael Cunningham, 2005
Three linked visionary narratives about the relationship between man and machine.

The Good Life
Jay McInerney, 2006
Jay McInerney revisits ten years on some of the characters that populated Brightness Falls, whose lives have been transformed by 9/11.

THE 5 BOROUGHS
Title
Author, 0000
We're looking for works of fiction (and literary non-fiction) in which Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island play a prominent role... Suggestions welcome! Send your thoughts to boro@the-ledge.com

TOLD BY A BOY
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon, 2003
A fantastically unusual detective story written from the perspective of an autistic boy.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1884-1885
The story of Huck and his companion Jim, a runaway slave, as they travel down the Mississippi to escape from slavery and 'sivilization'.

YOUNG. AMERICAN. AND JEWISH.
Eve's Apple
Jonathan Rosen, 1997
A journey into the heart of Ruth Simon, a young woman struggling to overcome the eating disorder that nearly killed her in her teenage years and still haunts her in adulthood. The story is told through the eyes and voice of her lover, Joseph.

Man Walks Into a Room
Nicole Krauss, 2002
Samson Greene, a young and popular professor at Columbia, is found wandering in the Nevada desert. When his wife, Anna, comes to bring him home, she finds a man who remembers nothing, not even his own name. The removal of a small brain tumor saves his life, but his memories beyond the age of twelve are permanently lost.


Kaaterskill Falls
Allegra Goodman, 1998
Allegra Goodman's first novel intertwines the stories of three Orthodox Jewish families, each of whom is tugged between religious tradition and the secular world.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
Nathan Englander, 1999
A collection of stories that are centered around the Orthodox Jewish community and span the Jewish experience from the Holocaust and Stalin's Russia to modern-day New York and Jerusalem.

Everything is Illuminated
2002
A young, Jewish American writer's search for his family's European roots.
A Convergence of Birds
2001
Anthology of fiction and poetry inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer.
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