Foer, Jonathan Safran
Jonathan Safran Foer
Born 1977, in Washington, DC. Education: Attended Princeton University. Religion: Jewish.
Home— Queens, NY. Agent— Nicole Aragi, 245 Eighth Ave., Box 134, New York, NY 10011.
Writer. Worked as receptionist at a public relations firm, morgue assistant, jewelry salesman, farm sitter, and ghostwriter.
Zoetrope fiction prize, 2000; Guardian Prize for a first book and National Jewish Book Award, both 2002, both for Everything is Illuminated; Saroyan Prize, 2003.
Everything Is Illuminated (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
(Author of introduction) Bernard Malamud, The Fixer, Vintage (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Paris Review, New Yorker, and Conjunctions.
A second novel.
Jonathan Safran Foer won wide acclaim for his novel Everything Is Illuminated, which is based on his journey back to Ukraine in 1997 in an effort to investigate his family history, especially of his late maternal grandfather. The grandfather had escaped the Holocaust with the help of a woman in his Ukrainian hometown, the small Jewish village, or shtetl, of Trachimbrod, but the family knew nothing beyond that. Foer's novel won him the Guardian Prize and the National Jewish Book Award.
Foer was born and raised in Washington, D. C., and attended Princeton University, where a class with famed novelist Joyce Carol Oates made him think about a writing career. "She was the first person ever to make me think I should try to write in any sort of serious way," Foer told Robert Birnbaum at the Identity Theory Web Site. "And my life really changed after that." With Oates's encouragement, Foer focused his attention on writing, winning several college prizes along the way. After college, he began submitting stories to such magazines as Paris Review and Conjunctions, won the Zoetrope magazine short fiction prize in 2000, and edited a collection of poems and stories written by various writers about the surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell.
A Real Search Becomes Fiction
Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was the subject of eager anticipation after an excerpt was published in the New Yorker in 2001. Foer had visited Ukraine in 1997, trying to track down a woman who had apparently helped his grandfather to escape the Holocaust during World War II. But who she was, and how she saved him, were questions the family could not answer. Foer's visit illuminated him no further—for one thing, the only trace of the family village of Trachimbrod was a memorial plaque, since everyone had been shipped off to concentration camps. So Foer began writing a fictional version of his search, interwoven with an imagined history of the town from its founding in 1791 to its destruction in World War II.
In the novel, the protagonist bears the author's name and is the same age, twenty, that Foer was when he went to Ukraine. The fictional Jonathan Safran Foer joins forces with an entrepreneurial young Ukrainian translator, Alex Perchov, a gentile whose family travel business caters to Jews seeking their roots. Accompanying them in their week-long search are Alex's curmudgeonly grandfather and the grandfather's none-too-bright seeing-eye dog, which, although female, is named after Sammy Davis, Jr., with an extra "Jr." The novel takes the form of correspondence between Alex and Jonathan after Jonathan returns to the United States. Alex sends letters filled with reflections on Jonathan's visit, written in "thesaurus-bludgeoned English," as Los Angeles Times reporter Lynell George put it. In reply, Jonathan sends excerpts from his novel in progress, a fictionalized chronicle of his ancestral village, which Time reviewer Lev Grossman called "a lyrical, fairy-tale creation, a Yiddish idyll of the Fiddler on the Roof variety, inhabited by randy, gossipy villagers," including Jonathan's grandfather, a man of remarkable sexual prowess.
"The two voices come at the plot from both ends at once," Grossman explained, later adding, "The two stories collide when the searchers stumble on Trachimbrod's last surviving inhabitant, who tells the horrifying secret of how the dreamy little village met its end in the nightmare of World War II." The novel's mix of comedy and tragedy drew comment from several reviewers. "The author offers sympathy and irony without shrinking from their contrasts," observed Molly McQuade in Chicago's Tribune Books. "Although the novel seeks to resurrect the memory of a community of Jews massacred by the Germans, Foer doesn't shy away from applying warm mockery to the wiles of their forebears, so spiritually fractious that they had to split into two righteous bodies, the Upright Synagogue and the Slouching Synagogue."
Alex's mangling of the English language provides much humor as well. "Alex's vocabulary mistakes, turned by Mr. Foer into a source of great delight, are easily understood," reported Janet Maslin in theNew York Times. "When he picks the wrong synonym for 'hard,' he winds up with phrases like 'amid a rock and a rigid place' and 'an American in Ukraine is so flaccid to recognize.'" Alex's distinctive voice, however, is more than comic relief, according to some critics. McQuade remarked, "Alex's words embody, syllable by syllable and clause by clause, the character's struggle to learn his place in the future and Jonathan's place in the past. They graze the reader with a furious, greedy, uncompromising impurity that is sheer inspiration."
Maslin concluded that Everything Is Illuminated "is a complex, ambitious undertaking, especially as its characters and events begin to run together in keeping with the author's ultimate plan. Mr. Foer works hard on these effects, and sometimes you will, too. But the payoff is extraordinary: a fearless, acrobatic, ultimately haunting effort to combine inspired mischief with a grasp of the unthinkable." Washington Post Book World critic Marie Arana thought Foer had lived up to the high expectations created by the New Yorker excerpt. "Rarely does a writer as young as Jonathan Foer display such virtuosity and wisdom," she commented. "His prose is clever, challenging, willfully constructed to make you read it again and again. His novel is madly complex, at times confusing, overlapping, unforgiving. But read it, and you'll feel altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new."
Everything Is Illuminated was a critical and financial success. Foer was paid half a million dollars for the hardcover rights to his book, nearly a million dollars for the paperback rights, and has sold the film rights to actor Liev Schreiber. But he has not yet moved out of his apartment in Queens, NY. Aside from a scheduled book tour, he has also been shy about talking much to the media. "I'm not the most social person in the world," Foer told David Bowman in Book. "On a typical day, I go to the public library." He is currently working on his next novel.
"There are a lot of things that I am interested in," Foer explained to Birnbaum. "Writing is one of them. I think it's maybe one of the bigger ones, but I am not even sure. I am really interested in giving it my all. That sounds like a naive, simple thing to say, but I am very afraid of time passing without my being aware of it and without my somehow recording myself or feeling as if I did what I could do. Writing right now seems like the best way of recording myself."
If you enjoy the works of Jonathan Safran Foer
you might want to check out the following books:
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, 2003.
Yann Martel, Life of Pi, 2002.
Ian McEwan, Atonement, 2003.
Richard Russo, Empire Falls, 2002.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Book, January-February, 2002, Elaine Szewczyk, "Jonathan Safran Foer," p. 37; January-February, 2003, David Bowman, "The New Recluse: Jonathan Safran Foer," p. 37.
Christian Century, November 6, 2002, Gordon Houser, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 44.
Independent (London, England), April 21, 2002, Sarah Bernard, "The Natural Surrealist," pp. 12, 14.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 2002, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2002, Lynell George, "A Light Is Shined on the Edges of Truth," p. 1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 2002, Mark Rozzo, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 14.
New York Times, April 22, 2002, Janet Maslin, "Searching for Grandfather and a Mysterious Shtetl," p. E6; April 24, 2002, Joyce Wadler, "Seeking Grandfather's Savior, and Life's Purpose," p. B2.
Observer (London, England), June 2, 2002, Clark Collis, "Foer Play," p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, February 4, 2002, review of Everything Is Illuminated, p. 48; August 4, 2003, "Saroyan Prize Goes to Foer," p. 14.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 2001, Peter Donahue, review of A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell, p. 167.
Time, April 29, 2002, Lev Grossman, "Laughter in the Dark," p. 73.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 19, 2002, Molly McQuade, "Novel's Joint Narrative Creates an Enchanting World," p. 4.
Washington Post Book World, April 21, 2002, Marie Arana, "Dream Time," p. 5.
Identity Theory Web Site,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (May 26, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, interview with Jonathan Safran Foer.
Jewish Week,http://www.thejewishweek.com/ (December 20, 2001), Susan Josephs, "The New New Thing."
Jonathan Safran Foer Home Page,http://www.jonathansafranfoer.com/ (April 7, 2004).
New York Magazine,http://www.nymag.com/ (April 15, 2002), Sarah Bernard, "A Fan's Notes."*