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 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is illuminated

About the Author

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977. He studied at Princeton where he won the Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior Creative Writing thesis prizes. He has also worked as a morgue assistant, jewelry salesman, farm sitter and ghostwriter. Four years ago, he traveled to the Ukraine to research his grandfather's life. He was chosen as the Zoetrope: All Fiction Prize winner (2000) and his short stories have appeared in the Paris Review and Conjunctions. He is also the editor of The Convergence of Birds, an anthology of fiction and poetry inspired by Joseph Cornell's birdboxes, which was a Boston Globe bestseller and a Book Sense '76 selection. An excerpt of Everything is illuminated appeared in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue, eliciting a huge response and a flood of letters from admiring readers. Jonathan Foer grew up in Washington, DC and now lives in Queens. He is currently at work on his second novel, which takes place in a museum.

Critics / Reviews

Everything is illuminated is a funny, life-affirming novel about connection. In this book, everyone and everything - history, people, house pets, you name it - is gloriously, miraculously connected. The book has three interweaving strands: the author's search for a woman from a 50-year old photograph who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis; a novel within a novel set in the 1700s in the Ukrainian town where the author's ancestors lived; and the letters to the author from a Ukrainian translator who butchers English as gleefully as Hyman Kaplan. With each strand filled with unforgettable details - stars are described as "silver nails," and a dog is named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior - this book is, as its name implies, brilliant.
(Adrienne Miller in Esquire, April 2002)

More than one English language is at work in Jonathan Safran Foer's absolutely captivating book, Everything is illuminated. The jubilantly fractured English of Ukrainian narrator Alex, erstwhile guide, companion and correspondent named Jonathan Safran Foer, is but a part of that. This book's real riches (and they are many) lie in its astonishing range: of emotion, humor, horror, an awareness of past and present, and a presence that takes very certain words to say. Say them Jonathan Safran Foer does: daringly, dauntingly, and deeply.
(Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Co.)

The marvelously inventive Everything is illuminated documents the journey a twenty-year-old Safran Foer (also the name of the author) takes to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Magic realism and brutal fact come together to reveal an absurdist legend behind Jonathan's ancestral Polish shtetl, and the harrowing truths about the grandfather he never met. Foer offers a novel that is by turns laugh-out-loud hilarious, heart-wrenching, and downright brilliant.
(Bookforum)

It may be a pretentious title for a 24-year-old's first novel, but nearly everything about this remarkable book is illuminated. There are two plots here. The first is the story of Jonathan Safran Foer, who travels to the Ukraine hoping to find Augustine, the woman who helped save his grandmother from the Nazis. Jonathan; his Ukranian translator, Alexi (who narrates much of the novel in a hilarious broken English); Alexi's grandfather; and the family dog, Sammy Davis Junior Junior, all grow to love Augustine on their mad and hopeless search for her. The second story follows the history of one family in Trachimbrod, the shtetl for which Alexi and Jonathan are searching. Beginning in the eighteenth century with the miraculous appearance of a baby girl, Brod, the sad story of Trachimbrod culminates in the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine. Although there's plenty of lyrical acrobatics here, with exquisite magic realism intermingling with Alexi's uproarious narration, it's the emotional depth of the characters that stands out, from the 613 distinct varieties of sadness observed by young Brod to the remarkable transcontinental friendship of Alexi and Jonathan. Foer, the editor of A Convergence of Birds (2001), a collection of stories and poems inspired by Joseph Cornell's bird boxes, may be young, but he's no pretender.
(John Green, Booklist)

It's hard to get through the first chapters of Everything Is Illuminated. The problem is, you keep laughing out loud, losing your place, starting again, then stopping because you're tempted to call your friends and read them long sections of Jonathan Safran Foer's assured, hilarious prose.

Not since Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange has the English language been simultaneously mauled and energized with such brilliance and such brio. But if Burgess's hero was an enraged, disaffected English youth bottom-feeding off the detritus of Soviet culture, Foer's narrator is an actual Russian (or more accurately, a Ukrainian) who could hardly be more affable, more engaged or more enchanted by everything American, from Michael Jackson and "the greatest of all documentary movies, 'The Making of "Thriller," ' " to the career of the porn star John Holmes to the "many good schools for accounting," one of which Alex dreams of attending


Any attempt to explain the complex narrative strategy of Everything Is Illuminated makes it sound more complicated than it is. Actually, it's not difficult to follow, since the structure reveals itself slowly, in stages, and each one of these small revelations is a source of surprise and pleasure. Indeed, one of the book's attractions is its writer's unusually high degree of faith in the reader's intelligence. […] Foer has so much energy that he doesn't care if we get all the jokes, whether we know that he is paraphrasing Heinrich von Kleist or if we pause to follow the zany logic of a rabbi's bawdy sermon comparing the glass partition separating his male and female congregants to the division between heaven and hell.
In fact, he's got his sights on higher -- much higher -- things than mere laughs, on a whole series of themes so weighty that any one of them would be enough to give considerable heft to an ordinary novel. A partial list of the book's concerns includes: the importance of myths and names, the frailty of memory, the necessity of remembrance, the nature of love, the dangers of secrecy, the legacy of the Holocaust, the value of friendship, what it means to be loyal and good and to practice what Jonathan has taught Alex to call "common decencies." And I'm not even mentioning a whole host of subthemes, including the confusions and collisions between American and post-Soviet culture. Perhaps the most beautifully orchestrated comic set piece in the book involves the Russians' appalled response to "the hero's" vegetarianism -- and a dropped potato. (The New York Times April 14, 2002, Sunday)

It is an astonishing feat of writing: hilariously funny and deeply serious, a gripping narrative supported by an unorthodox structure. It acknowledges influences from Marquez to Singer to von Kleist; it is, at the same time, very much itself. It is an extraordinary book, in part because of the way it deals with a subject that has, so far, almost entirely confounded writers of fiction.
(The Times June 5, 2002)

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.
(The New York Times, April 22, 2002, Monday)

The Author about the Book

"I don't think there's a topic I address; and I certainly don't think it's the Holocaust," he says. "One of my favourite reviews began something like: 'Everything Is Illuminated pretends to be the story of a young man who goes back to his grandfather's village in search of his lost family history, but it's really about all these other things, like love or grief or the role of humour in life'. And that's how I feel about the book. Obviously the Holocaust is important, obviously it changes everything about the book and the way we have to look at it, but I'm more interested not in how humour pertains to the Holocaust but how humour pertains to life in general. And how things are sad, in general."

After his second year at university, Foer undertook a trip to Ukraine, just as "Jonathan Safran Foer" does in the book; but fact and fiction, he says, are otherwise utterly divergent. "There wasn't an Alex," he says. "There wasn't a grandfather, there wasn't a dog, there wasn't a woman I found who resembled the woman in the book -but I did go, and I just found -nothing. At all. It wasn't like a literary, interesting kind of nothing, an inspiring, or a beautiful nothing, it was really like: nothing. It's not like anything else I've ever experienced in my life. In a certain sense the book wasn't an act of creation so much as it was an act of replacement. I encountered a hole -and it was like the hole that I found was in myself, and one that I wanted to try to fill up."
(The Times, June 5, 2002)


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