At Paul Rothe & Son, a delicatessen on Marylebone Lane moored in the 1950s, Jonathan Safran Foer admires the shelves lined with chutneys, jams and sauces. It reminds him of a certain kind of New York neighbourhood, the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, where there are still family-run stores that have clung on for generations, crammed with odds and ends and eccentric delicacies.
This is Foer territory: family lore, cultural tradition, an abiding affection for the offbeat. His latest work is a testament to all these things, a new version of the Haggadah, the story of the flight of the Jews from Egypt that is read during the annual Passover meal. He wanted to make his own Haggadah because he loves the story, its drama and characters, and he appreciates how the Seder, the ceremonial Passover feast, prises open philosophical discussion from its first question: why is this night different from all other nights?
“The Seder has always struck me as something that has so much potential,” he says, sitting in a booth and drinking a dandelion beer he has chosen for its novelty. “Not because it’s a set of laws that God hands down that you follow, but because of the way it inspires human questioning.”
Foer’s hyperactive career – he is still only 35 – is characterised by questioning. His work is driven by restless curiosity. At Princeton, where he was an undergraduate, his mentor Joyce Carol Oates once wrote to him pinpointing the vital quality he possessed that would enable his writing: “energy”.
In the past ten years, he has skipped from novel to memoir to art book to sacred text, unfettered by genre and helpfully liberated by the huge commercial success of his two novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
But the Haggadah is a new kind of departure. When he was a child growing up in Washington, DC with his parents and two brothers, the elder Franklin (a former editor of the New Republic) and the younger Joshua (another author), his family used a version distributed by the coffee company Maxwell House. “You laugh?” he laughs. “There are 14 million of them in print! It’s not a small thing. Probably the majority of American Jews use Maxwell House. And it’s not the worst Haggadah in the world either.” His grandparents had a home-made version cobbled together from photocopies. He becomes animated as he recalls these childhood documents, their textures and irregularities. Nothing in Jewish family life holds as much collective memory as the Haggadah, battered and scarred by annual use, handed down through layers of
relations. “I don’t think there’s any book which is as much a thing as this book is,” Foer says, looking at his own version, which is lying on the table between us. “How many books are read in one sitting? How many books are read at the dinner table? How many books are read while you’re having a real-time conversation about the book itself? How many books are so stained with food?” (He had hoped to make a wipe-clean Haggadah but it proved prohibitively expensive.)
Foer’s edition is based on a translation by his fellow novelist and friend Nathan Englander, and has commentaries by academics and the children’s author Lemony Snicket (to keep kids entertained through the slower parts). It is a handsome book, decorated with illustrations and designed to provoke debate through the accompanying mini-essays. Foer presumes his family, which now includes his wife, the novelist Nicole Krauss, and their two young sons, will use it at their next Seder. “It would be very embarrassing if it isn’t,” he says.
By creating the new Haggadah, he was “just making a thing that I really want to exist”, as with all his other books. It’s the physicality that interests him, and unsurprisingly he has shown little interest so far in digital publishing. “I don’t have any great desire for an ebook to exist. I don’t mind that they do exist . . . but when I sit down to make something I try to make the physical thing that’s in my head. So these just happen to be the forms that they took, but it’s no kind of statement about printed matter, or the indispensability of printed matter.”
The denial of higher purpose is typical of the way Foer speaks about his work: a little dismissive, resisting a journalist’s urge to theorise. He wonders why the material objects wouldn’t matter to everyone. “Why would you like books to look good instead of not? Because people like things that look good.” He is right but he is also oversimplifying. Foer is particularly – uncommonly – sensitive to the look and feel of things, to the fine tuning of aesthetics.
His interest in the beauty of objects emerged with his first publication, an anthology called A Convergence of Birds, inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell. Foer assembled the book while still at Princeton, soliciting contributions from Oates, Siri Hustvedt, Rick Moody and others. Interleaved with the stories and poems are images of Cornell’s work: wooden boxes of collected items that resemble the detritus of a dream – parrots and playing cards, corks and keys, fragments of maps and pictures cut out from magazines. They are alive with idiosyncrasy, displaying the artist’s nostalgic love of disparate possessions worn with age and use, which is how you could describe Foer’s novels, riddled as they are with significant objects. (Everything Is Illuminated culminates in the discovery of a trove of documented and carefully filed memories from a village lost during the Holocaust; Extremely Loud, about a boy who lost his father on 9/11, revolves around a mysterious key and a chest of unread letters.)
His books are artful, too: Extremely Loud is Cornell-like, scattered with photos and ending with a reverse flipbook of a man falling from the twin towers. Then there is his die-cut version of one of his favourite books, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, which Foer partly erased to create his own story. The result is Tree of Codes (2010), a book that is closer to a sculpture than to a novel, each page a maze of holes cut out of the original text, as if to represent all the words of Schulz that were lost when he was killed by a Nazi officer in 1942. (Foer’s novels are similar acts of erasure; he discards as much as he keeps.)
Critics of his work, irritated by his tendency towards sentimentality and tricksiness (the photos, the flipbooks, the holes), will be relieved to hear that the novel he is working on now is “probably the most conservative thing I’ve ever done . . . just black text on white paper, and that’s it. It’s just a story.” His other current project, a sitcom for HBO about a Jewish family in Washington, DC – “believe it or not” – will also be welcomed by those who struggled through his anguished memoir of vegetarianism, Eating Animals (which can apparently claim the dubious victory of having convinced Natalie Portman to become a vegan activist).
The TV show, called All Talk and starring Ben Stiller, will be irreverent and bawdy, different from much of his work, he says, almost as a direct riposte to those who mock his earnestness. It will also have a rabbi as one of its central characters, though Foer is eager to clarify that this says nothing about his own faith. To that question, he has a stock response: “The way I always answer that is that I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.” God isn’t at the root of his sense of Jewishness, he says, nor does he think he needs to be.
To Foer, being a Jew means a set of values and the comfort of ritual, an opportunity to probe ideas about life and an organising of family time. Though he writes so much about Jewishness, he dismisses the idea that there is a defined American Jewish artistic sensibility. By contrast, the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, a friend of his, tells me how, as an outsider, he found that very sensibility to be so seductively irreverent, one so distinct from the Israeli style, that he longed to be a part of it and part of its clutch of writers – Foer, Englander and so on.
Foer offers his customary shrug: “I don’t feel any closer to Nathan than Etgar. Or, for that matter, Jonathan Franzen. I do know what people mean when they talk about certain tropes, and a certain model of Jewish-American humour, but it’s not something I feel aware of when I’m writing. I think it’s one of those things that, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Judaism manifests itself in his work, he concedes, through the prominence it gives to storytelling, “embedding values and laws and life lessons inside of stories . . . It’s a recognition that, in order [for you] to care about anything, in order to believe in anything, it has to be embedded in a narrative.” Does he seek to imbue his own stories with values and morals? “Yes,” he says, “although it’s much more subtle. I think there’s a moral value in storytelling, period. Being asked to imagine how someone else lives, expanding your empathy, your moral imagination. To have to confront the emotional lives of other people is always a good thing.”
Writing, he says, isn’t about craft but about expression – “I don’t just mean self-expression, but expressions of concerns or attitudes”. If the American writing culture has been criticised for being obsessed with craft and form (by Elif Batuman in these pages, among others), then Foer offers the counterpoint. Not that he sees it as such: “I don’t know. I don’t read much criticism.” He teaches a creative writing class at New York University and avoids discussion of craft altogether. Instead, he says, “We tend to have conversations about what kind of stories we’re telling . . . why would one do this? Is this a good thing to try? Who cares if you achieved it, if it’s not a good target to aim for in the first place?”
It’s somehow fitting that Foer should teach as he works: a series of questions, each one linking from the last, and that frantic curiosity, as ever, spurring him on.