Much has been written about the precocity and talent of Jonathan Safran Foer, whose debut novel Everything is Illuminated (2002) commanded a $500,000 advance and was released when its author was barely 25. Originating in a creative writing thesis written under the guidance of Joyce Carol Oates when he was an undergraduate at Princeton, it tells the story of one Jonathan Safran Foer, a young American Jew in search of the Ukrainian woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.
Hailed by The Times as a ‘work of genius’ after which ‘things will never be the same’, it won the Guardian First Book award and was – unfortunately, disastrously – made into a film starring Elijah Wood in 2005. The praise wasn’t universal, with the book also facing charges of preciousness and factual inaccuracy.
His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), is narrated by a 9-year-old boy who has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks. Ending in a flipbook showing a figure falling from the Twin Towers – or ascending, depending how one decides to flip the pages – it also divided opinion. Salman Rushdie called it ‘ambitious, pyrotechnic, riddling, and above all … extremely moving’; influential New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani described it as ‘cloying’. ‘While it contains moments of shattering emotion and stunning virtuosity that attest to Mr Foer’s myriad gifts as a writer,’ she added, ‘the novel as a whole feels simultaneously contrived and improvisatory, schematic and haphazard.’ Meanwhile, the film adaptation, released earlier this year, was ‘almost universally reviled’, according to the Guardian’s Xan Brooks, but made the author himself cry.
This is the way it has been for Safran Foer ever since his extremely successful and unnervingly mature debut: he is the only contemporary writer, with perhaps the current exception of Jonathan Franzen, to command such extreme reactions from the reading public. Foer-bashing, imaginatively and appropriately dubbed ‘Schadenfoer’ by the Guardian, threatened to spiral out of control in 2008 when the likes of Gawker took it out on the author’s lifestyle. Married to fellow author Nicole Krauss, Safran Foer is a practicing vegetarian living in Brooklyn’s pricey Park Slope neighbourhood. His agent, Nicole Aragi, claims the jealous frenzy had her ‘ripping [her] hair out’.
Since then, Safran Foer has penned two further books and the frenzy has died down somewhat. He released Eating Animals in 2009, a thoroughly researched work of non-fiction on the meat industry, focusing on the various dangers of the factory farm and the inhumane treatment of farmed animals. In 2011, Tree of Codes, a cut up of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, was published by British indie press Visual Editions, thus cementing the author’s reputation as an experimental writer with a penchant for, well, the visual.
On the occasion of the release of The Haggadah, a new translation of the religious Judaic text edited by JSF, we met in the (extremely loud) bar of his London hotel off the Strand, a stone’s throw from (or incredibly close to) Penguin HQ.