Jonathan Safran Foer: From Haggadah to Hineni

Jonathan Safran Foer explains why the "proliferation of responses" to his latest novel made him "really happy"


A female friend of Jonathan Safran Foer's who, he says, is married, Jewish, "and would probably describe herself as a Zionist", wrote to tell him that she had approached his latest novel, Here I Am, in a state of fear. He recalls her writing that "she was 'afraid this book was going to be a subtle and smart argument for divorce and an unsophisticated, kind of American-college-campus argument about Israel'. But, she went on, 'I was surprised to find that everything was treated with love. By the end of the book I felt the desire… to bring my husband closer to me and to think about the things to hold on to.'"
Another early reader expressed concern to Foer that the book might make people antisemitic, while yet another response, somewhat closer to home, astonished him. "My little brother read it and said, 'this book is probably going to make a lot of people want to make aliyah'. I said: 'Really?' Somebody else said: 'I bet you it's going to inspire a lot of divorce.'"

Divorce? Israel? For? Against? Here I Am clearly offers scope for debate, something that its author happily acknowledges.

Speaking against a background of unrelenting noise in a packed London café, Foer explains that this pre-publication "proliferation of responses" made him "really happy because there was no case that I was making. I was writing about the culture of the family and the culture of Judaism. How to balance personal needs inside of group needs."

The declaration that he was "making no case" is an important one. For the themes within the book's 500-plus pages - love, Zionism and Jewishness (in particular of the American kind contrasted with the Israeli kind), parentage, marriage and divorce - are presented with scrupulous objectivity and not weighted one way or another. And this includes the coincidences of identity between Foer and his main character, Jacob.

It is not always pertinent to observe or ask about a writer's fiction echoing his or her own life but, in the case of Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer himself admits that, "there is a very, very strong temptation to at least wonder about those overlaps. I guess I probably would, too, as a reader."

The fact is that Foer and his similarly gifted ex-wife Nicole Krauss, writer of, among other works, The History of Love, were the literary glamour couple of Brooklyn, turning out fictional masterpieces from their Park Slope grand residence, until they divorced a couple of years ago. And, while Jacob and his wife, Julia, are not writers - she is an architect and he is a screenwriter - theirs is a tale of the uncoupling of what seemed a perfect combination.

But, as in the work of any writer - or indeed any other kind of artist - to seek parallels with the author's life is a distraction from the experience of fully engaging with the work. And, in the case of Here I Am, not only are there very few specific replications of Foer's marriage in Jacob and Julia's relationship but he had conceived the story years before the split with Krauss.

As Foer explains, "a lot of this material originated not for a novel but for a TV show I was writing for HBO, which I decided in the end I didn't want to do. Writing about a divorce predated my own divorce.

"I did borrow quite a bit from my life for the book," concedes the father-of-two, "but most of the borrowing had to do with wondering about how to be a father and how children come into knowledge."

A more fundamental link between man and material in the case of Jonathan Safran Foer is the sense of Jewish identity that pervades his pages. His career took off when, in 2002 at the age of 25, he published Everything is Illuminated, a novel that revolved around an actual trip he had taken to see where his grandparents had lived in the place in Ukraine that was once the thriving shtetl of Trachimbrod, most of whose Jews were slaughtered in the Second World War.

After an initial bunch of rejections, the book was fought over by American publishers and made its young author wealthy.

Amid his subsequent literary endeavours, Foer was responsible, in 2012, along with fellow Jewish American writer Nathan Englander, for the production of The New American Haggadah, the most inspiring, intelligent and interesting of all modern versions of this venerable Judaic text.

With its engrossing and entertaining Passover commentary - spiritual, historical and philosophical - by such luminaries as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Jeffrey Goldberg and (for the kids) Lemony Snicket, it is designed to engage a comprehensive range of attentive Seder participants.

"Here I am" in Hebrew is Hineni, the response dramatically and poignantly uttered by Abraham in the Akedah, and sung on Rosh Hashanah. And matters Jewish are central to Jonathan Safran Foer's Hineni novel.

It opens with a prelude to the possible destruction of Israel (evoking a catastrophe unfolded later in the narrative), while Jacob and Julia are in discussion with a rabbi responding to an alleged, serious infraction by their eldest son, Sam, which has put his impending barmitzvah in jeopardy.

As the volume of another discussion - the one at the table next to ours in the café - increases, the unfazed Foer maintains his flawless objectivity.

"I'm not exactly sure what Jewish identity is," he says. "I don't know whether I'm interested in it as a subject for intellectual exploration or if it is just my material.

"It is the soil I was planted in and grew in. Being an American Jew; a Jew of more observance than many and less than many; having Israeli cousins; having American cousins who are more observant, American cousins who are completely ignorant of any kind of Jewish experience or literacy; being a parent and having to contemplate these questions from a position of responsibility, guilt or ambition as opposed to a passive recipient of Jewish experience; having a sense of humour that can probably be described as Jewish; having a sense of duty that can probably be described as affected by my Jewish upbringing, I think I applied an energy to it, but the book," he re-emphasises, "doesn't have any point to make."

On the other hand, we both laugh at his inclusion in Here I Am of one very out-proud-and-circumcised phrase about "the visual atrocity that is an intact penis". And he recalls that "my copy editor made a little note alongside this: 'I suppose,' he wrote, 'this is in the eye of the beholder.'"

Looking ahead to Jonathan Safran Foer's next book involves looking back to his childhood - to an incident that occurred when he was nine:

"I went to a summer programme at the school, a science class. We were in groups of four making sparklers. There was an explosion on my table. Two of the kids were burned - almost to death. I was very lucky. I spent a few days in hospital.

"I wrote an essay about that experience, published in the Washington Post. Two or three months later, I got an email from the sister of the teacher of that class, who was generally believed to have been culpable for what happened. He escaped the country.

"His sister's email read: 'Very much against my family's wishes, I am reaching out to you. You believe my brother got off scot-free. He didn't. If you'd like to know what happened to him, I will tell you.'

"This started an epistolary relationship that lasted a couple of years and, to the last email, I was never completely convinced that she was who she said she was.

"There was something very weird in her side of the correspondence. It became sexualised at a certain point; became mean. She said: 'My husband reminded me last night that you are a writer and that everything I have said to you is going to end up in a book. Please tell me that's not true.'

"I said: 'It's not my intention to write a book about this right now.'"

It may not have been then, but that is the story that he is intending to tell in his next book.

Meanwhile, there is still much to digest in Here I Am. As we suddenly realise that the neighbouring table in the café has become empty without our noticing, I remark on the power of silence evident in the novel, and of the contrast in candour between an individual's inner monologue and his or her external dialogue with others, even with intimate, loved ones.

This, he says, is what is "at the heart of the book - the withdrawals between people… two people with incredibly good intentions, who genuinely love each other, where no wrongdoing was committed; people who want to remain close, whose domestic life is always filling out and becoming closer. And then a wedge is driven between their two inner lives. Why does that happen?"

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, nor, says Foer, are there inevitable consequences to its happening: "People who allow themselves to get divorced are different to those who don't. For some people it's an option on the table, for others it isn't." 

'Here I Am' is published by Hamish Hamilton

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