Foer, Jonathan Safran: *1977

Everything Is Illuminated
Transcript of Interview
Hans Fischer    Welcome to SwissEduc. My name is Hans Fischer and my guest is Jonathan Safran Foer. Welcome, Jonathan.
Jonathan Safran Foer    Thank you.
HF    "Everything Is Illuminated" - what made you use this title?
JSF    The fact that you ask the question is what made me use the title, to be honest. I've never liked titles that are descriptions of the book's content. I just don't find that interesting. You know ... there is many opportunities in books to communicate with the reader. And I think too often writers only take the opportunity of using the words between the covers. But you know the design of the cover is a way to communicate with the reader. The title of course is a way to communicate with the reader. Having some sensitivity to the ways the words look on the pages is another way. So I try to take them all seriously. With Everything Is Illuminated I think it's the kind of title you can continue to wonder about. And that's my goal with everything I write. It's not to have somebody love it, it's to have someone to continue to wonder about it.
HF    The book is written by Jonathan Safran Foer and one of the main characters is Jonathan Safran Foer. How closely are these two Jonathans connected?
JSF    That's a question that has had different answers at different periods of time. When I finished the book I think we were somewhat similar. We certainly have a lot of biography in common. I had made a trip to the Ukraine just like the character in the book. I was looking, just as the character in the book was, for a woman who might or might not have saved my grandfather during the war. But the Jonathan in the book has stopped growing and stopped changing. He is exactly the same person he was in 2002 when the book came out. And now in 2005 I'm quite different. I've had a lot of different life experiences; I've grown up a lot; I've read a lot of books, met a lot of people and all of these things have taken me away from my person.
HF    There is a strange scene the way Brod and the Kolker live together. The Kolker with the saw blade in his head dividing his brain. How should we understand this scene?
JSF    I would never tell a reader how to understand something because to me again the most interesting thing is when a reader wonders about something. Uncertainty is the point of literature not certainty. What I can say there's a lot of things that seem to be divided in two in the book. The book itself is divided in two. The chapters that Alex narrates and the chapters that are Jonathan's history of the village. There seems to be a division between past and present. The village of Trachimbord was split into two, into a Jewish half and a human half, I think it was called. So I think these are all symbolic of these double lives. You know of the characters. But particularly the character of Jonathan's experience
HF    Often when you characters seem to be in love they tell their partners, "I don't love you." What's the matter with love and your characters?
JSF    I think my characters have the problem that everybody in the real world has, which is they find it difficult to say what they want to say, to say what they mean to say. The most explicit example is Alex, who is a translator who literally cannot find the words for what he wants to say. But in a sense he is no different from anybody else in the book. There are characters who have to write letters because they can't say things in person. There are characters who communicate on opposite sides of a wall. Characters like Jonathan and his grandmother who really can't communicate much at all. So I think "I love you" is an example of something that we think of as being maybe the most important, the most precious kind of communication, and then it's not an exception to this decease that all of the characters suffer. Which is probably the decease that makes people write books in the first place. Or it is for me, you know the desire to try to say the things that I can't quite say in real life.
HF    What are the Wisps of Ardisht, these smokers? Are they your invention or did they exist?
JSF    No, they are my invention. In fact almost everything in the history sections of the book is really purely invented. In fact the only fact that I wrote about that came from any research was the very first sentence of the history part where I say, "It was on such a day when the wagon went into the river." So there is a place Trachimbrod in the world or there was. It doesn't exist anymore, but it did exist before the war. And in fact, at least the folklore has it, that it was named after a man Trachim, whose wagon flipped and he sank and died in the Brod River. So every moment after that is really a moment that I invented.
HF    Toward the end of the novel it seems that only negative aspects are clear. Augustine is not found, Grandfather commits suicide, and Alex knows he will never go to the US. Is your novel despite all the humor and its title a tragedy?
JSF    That's not how I think of it. I think of it as a novel about people who cannot have what they want. And in a lot of cases can't even have what they need, but who continue to try. You know despite Alex's difficulty with communicating he continues to try to communicate. Despite the fact that his grandfather has committed suicide, his father has left the family, he tries to move forward, he tries to fill in the void in his family. Jonathan is a character who found nothing that he was looking for, but has found in its place I think a kind of peace, you know because of the journal he left behind. He was looking for a woman and instead what he found was something about himself. So I don't find it's a depressing novel, it's not a happy ending, and the book is not a comedy. I think it exists like life exists you know somewhere in between comedy and tragedy.
HF    Jonathan, thank you very much.
JSF    You're welcome.

This interview took place in Zurich, Switzerland, on September 20, 2005.