Everything is Illuminated (especially in France)

My dearest readers,

I’m back from La Douce France (and boy, it was douce). The French sun was a very welcome change from the grey and rainy Belgian weather and I wish I didn’t have to leave this little paradise behind (damn you, Thesis – aka thatwhatshallnotbenamed). During this short trip (which we made for a wonderful wedding) I had the time to finish Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and I’m sad I did because it was a beautiful book (I’m definitely gonna re-read this one)!

Jonathan Safran Foer, I love you! (and yes you’re overhyped, and yes you use weird words, and yes you’re style is crazy, but I still love you)

Two years ago I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I loved it so when I saw his debut Everything is Illuminated and his non-fiction work Eating Animals for a nickel-and-dime in the Fnac I didn’t hesitate for a minute and ran to the pay desk and bought these babies.

I can understand why some people think of Foer as a poseur who just uses big words and other trickeries to impress his readers because he DOES use a lot of difficult words and employs an experimental style which isn’t always as clear, but hey novels don’t always have to be easy breezy and straightforward right? Besides, he does have something to say and his novels are – at least in my opinion – never too tough to work through. On the contrary, I find them extremely entertaining (although some people also think that’s a negative quality in books, sigh). Everything is Illuminated is not just some empty wordpile. His plot and his style are both extremely appealing to me: a modernist/magical realist novel about the dark World War II past, impossible loves, family secrets and funny Jews (I mean: best combo ever right?). The way he switches between narrators and the time and place of the story is a bit confusing at first, but once the story has absorbed you, you (the reader) switch just as easily as the Foer does.

So what’s it about?

A young American Jew (who is also called Jonathan Safran Foer) visits Ukraine because he wants to find Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. His travelpartners are the Ukrainian boy Alex, Alex’s grandfather and their deranged seeing-eye bitch Sammy Davis Junior Junior. Together they embark on a journey to Trachimbrod, where this Augustine should be living. This plotline (the roadtrip plotline) could be considered to be the most straightforward one. It alternates with letters from Alex to Jonathan which he has written after their quest and from which we learn that they are both in the middle of writing a novel. Another story arc shows passages of the novel the Foer-character is writing and is set in a different time. These passages are much more magical-realistic than the other plotlines.

Little by little we get to know more about both Alex’s and Jonathan’s family histories (full of secrets, love and drama). I love the mix of humoristic, magical realistic and philosophic passages in this novel. Foer just a pretentious Jew who uses dramatic, worldshocking events (like 9/11 in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the Holocaust in Everything is Illuminated) to sell his books? I don’t think so! He may use them as a starting point, but these events are never the main subject, merely the background of humans interacting.

Now go and read this novel! (I’ll borrow it to you if you don’t want to spend money, but after you’ve read it, I’m sure you’ll want to possess it!)

As a teaser, some lovely quotes (Feel free to think “Yes, this is EXACTLY how I feel about this or that, the way he describes this or that is so true. I had this feeling A LOT):

“I will describe my eyes and then begin the story. My eyes are blue and resplendent. Now I will begin the story.”

“This is love, she thought, isn’t it? When you notice someone’s absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence?”

– So true, sadly. We should appreciate our loved ones more when they’re present instead of missing them when they’re absent –

“Do you think I’m wonderful?  she asked him one day as they leaned against the trunk of a petrified maple.  No, he said.  Why?  Because so many girls are wonderful.  I imagine hundreds of men have called their loves wonderful today, and it’s only noon.  You couldn’t be something that hundreds of others are.”

– haha, men and their weird ideas about compliments… –

The more you love someone, he came to think, the harder it is to tell them. It surprised him that strangers didn’t stop each other on the street to say I love you.

“The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer.”

– True, true, true –

“You are the only one who has understood even a whisper of me, and I will tell you that I am the only person who has understood even a whisper of you.”

SADNESS OF THE INTELLECT: Sadness of being misunderstood [sic]; Humor sadness; Sadness of love wit[hou]t release; Sadne[ss of be]ing smart; Sadness of not knowing enough words to [express what you mean]; Sadness of having options; Sadness of wanting sadness; Sadness of confusion; Sadness of domes[tic]ated birds, Sadness of fini[shi]ng a book; Sadness of remembering; Sadness of forgetting; Anxiety sadness…”

“…there are only some many times you can utter “It does not hurt” before it begins to hurt even more than the hurt.”

“From space, astronauts can see people making love as a tiny speck of light. Not light, exactly, but a glow that could be confused for light – a coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness to the astronaut’s eyes. In about one and a half centuries – after the lovers who made the glow will have long since been laid permanently on their backs – the metropolitan cities will be seen from space. They will glow all year. Smaller cities will also be seen, but with great difficulty. Towns will be virtually impossible to spot. Individual couples invisible.”

– How awesome would this be? –

“But I do not do these things because we are family. I do them because they are common decencies. That is an idiom that the hero taught me. I do them because I am not a big fucking asshole. That is another idiom that the hero taught me.”

– O Alex, you’re such a wonderful character. More people should try not to be big fucking assholes (aka Schmucks), like ALL THE TIME  –

“Once you hear something, you can never return to the time before you heard it.”

“When he pulled her out to feed her or just hold her, her body was tattooed with the newsprint . . . Sometimes he would rock her to sleep in his arms, and read her left to right, and know everything he needed to know about the world. If it wasn’t written on her, it wasn’t important to him.”

2 thoughts on “Everything is Illuminated (especially in France)

  1. Ik bevind mij net in la douce France en ik kan je meedelen dat het hier nog steeds zeer douce is. Zijn boek had ik bijna meegegritst, maar ik had er al een stuk of tien in mijn valies en vond dat wel voldoende. Het eerste werk dat ik van hem las, extreem luid en ongelooflijk voorbij (ik prefereer de Engelse titel, maar die ga ik hier nu even niet neerzetten omwille van de mogelijke schrijffouten die ik dan ga maken), was werkelijk adembenemend en ik denk dat everything is illuminated na de andere tien het eerstvolgende boek zal aijn dat ik ga lezen 🙂

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