Jonathan Safran Foer at Flagey – Read the World

“When I write I have only one intent: being authentic. Sounds simple enough but what does it mean? I don’t know, actually. All I know is that it’s very easy for any reader to tell when something’s inauthentic.”

Those were the words of American novelist Jonathan Safran-Foer on Sunday October 8th at Flagey. The event was organized by Passaporta House of Literature, and the writer was in Brussels to talk with radio news anchor Ruth Joos about his third novel, Here I am, translated into French as Me Voici by éditions de l’Olivier.

At the start of the conversation, Safran-Foer talked about the mysterious, often doubt-ridden process of writing a novel. He noted that in his career he had submitted three book proposals, out of which, no final book had been delivered.

“There’s sometimes a misconception about how novelists write stories. Some people believe we have an idea and then we just put it into words. Well, for me, I can tell you that when I start a book, I don’t have anything. For Here I am, I committed to a process, which was letting my mind wander wherever it wanted. I did not let myself be interrupted by questions like, Is this good, is this bad?”

Flagey’s stage was dimly lit. At a right angle from the interviewer, Safran-Foer sat in a low green chair, cross-legged, wearing white sneakers and a checkered shirt, which had been left untucked. His hair was tousled. In Here I am, the author deploys his powers of observation, his ability to create symbols that feel new to the reader. He’s toiled with the idea that certain objects in the world can be bigger on the inside than on the outside. A seashell for example, which despite its size, contains the sounds of the sea. A book, the intricate lives of its characters.

“One of the themes of this novel,” he said, “is the confusion between what’s big and what’s small. I believe in couples, in friendships, there are always these tiny misunderstandings that remain untold, unexplained. They’re not that important, we tell ourselves. But the feelings remain, they accumulate. And there can be consequences to that.”

The author talked about regret and memory, how those regrets can be easily retrieved or not, and he recounted his visit to a gallery in Milan where we saw one of Michelangelo’s Pietá, the last sculpture he is known to have produced. The sculpture includes a ‘hanging’ arm which, scholars believe, belongs to another figure the Italian artist at some point conceived carving but later changed his mind.

“The explanation is simple yet loaded with meaning,” Safran-Foer said. “It shows you the thought path the artist took, what he at one point or another considered, then discarded. I wanted this book to have all those little fingerprints that could show the reader, Ah, this is how he worked the text.”

As opposed to his previous two novels, which were written with strong first person narrators, this one uses a third person omniscient narrator which gave the author freedom to explore each of his characters. “A lot of people have told me, This how your voice sounds.”

He recalled being pleasantly surprised upon realizing that, while being on a radio show in Pennsylvania, the first person who called to say he’d felt identified with his book about a young Jewish-American traveling in Ukraine, was a sixty-five year old African American man.

“That’s the power of literature,” he said. “It reminds us that the stranger is not so strange. That underneath all those layers, we all share the same feelings and emotions.”

He wrapped up the evening by saying that he tries to make his characters with flaws and virtues, men and women, children and the elderly.

“Because my story,” he said, then nodded to the interviewer, “which I’m sure is your case too, is an unfortunate story. Sometimes it’s bright and fun, and full of joy. Sometimes it’s also awkward, and painful. And that’s what makes it real.”