Everything is Illuminated

September 16, 2007

I don’t read many books anymore. Correction – I don’t finish books very often. I am constantly reading. I have bookmarks stuck in half a dozen books scattered around my house and my office. But finishing is always hard. There just isn’t enough time in the day, and I’m not disciplined enough to stay with one book to see it through.

Confession: I take pride in reading books slowly and I don’t view it as perverse. I like ideas to sit with me, have a chance to sink in.

You know how, when it rains too hard, most of the rain washes into the street? I think something like that happens to people who read books fast and hard. What do they remember?

I like the fact that I only read a few pages a day and that each time I open the book I have to “backread” to figure out what’s going on before I can “readforward.” (You might be guessing about now that I mostly read non-fiction. You’re right.)

I did manage to finish a couple of books this past summer. I don’t remember most of their names. There weren’t that many and they were all good, but summer seems like a long time ago.

The one book that I read completely on my own (not reading aloud with the family) and more or less went straight through without long interruptions was Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I bought the book shortly after I had seen the movie about a year ago. I don’t remember much positive about the movie except the voice of Sasha, the young Ukrainian guide who narrates the movie. His mangling of the English language was so captivating, so “premium,” that I wanted to read the book just to spend more time in his presence. He was a comedy act and a symphony of sound rolled into one. Who could resist?

To my delight, Sasha starts speaking on page one. Confident of pleasures to come, I tucked the book sideways on my bookshelf (the glow-in-the-dark cover guaranteeing that it wouldn’t get lost among Lao Tzu, Alan Watts, Jared Diamond, and histories of the British Empire) and ignored it until this past summer. Finally, with no classes to teach, no schedule to keep, it was time to begin.

The book is a triumph for the author, but that’s his problem. I loved it. That’s what really matters.

Sasha is a marvel – his way of speaking, his point of view, and his poignant confessions. His role in this tragicomedy is to be a modern-day Zorba the Greek. Like Zorba, he is chained to a product of the modern world, an intellectual, a world traveler, a writer (of course), and ultimately, someone far less substantial than himself.

Also like Zorba, he finds himself drawn to this alien intruder partly because of the alien’s incomprehensibility. Surely this is yet another revelation of the Great World that he so desperately wants to grasp with both hands?

But life has changed in the 100+ years separating Zorba and Sasha. Zorba grew up without being enslaved by the Internet and a global pop culture industry. Sasha lives completely at its mercy and the global economy has made his yearnings simultaneously more intense and more superficial. In fairness to Sasha, though, he comes to us as the young caterpillar, not the older butterfly of Zorba. Let’s check in with Sasha in another forty or fifty years and see what he has become.

But be warned, Sasha’s story is barely (maybe not even) half of this book. The other half is an account of shtetl life, the story of J.S. Foer’s ancestors, in the words of the American author. This half of the book is nothing like Sasha’s, but the two halves are stirred together like yin and yang, alternately retreating and advancing, goading and dominating. Foer’s half of the story is untainted by dialect, but it is loaded with quirks of another sort.

An aside: I started reading Sholom Aleichem before my Bar Mitzvah. My love for shtetl literature has stuck with me through countless pages of Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.Y. Agnon, and beyond. I would have called myself a “traditionalist” had I realized that there was a “tradition” to defend, yet I am (almost) completely won over by Foer’s re-working of the shtetl literature tradition. He starts with the usual village, the Rabbi, and poor Jews plying their trades and living off a diet that features more gossip than nutritious food. And then – boom – this picture explodes, and we are tossed into a world where religious practice is bizarre (the pious pull themselves up to the ceiling on rope-pulleys so that they can get closer to God when they pray) and intense sexual longing is on every tongue and finger tip

OK, purists may be disgusted, but an updating of the shtetl story was long overdue. Modern klezmer music has long adopted electronic instruments, jazz, and anything else that was handy. It was time for literature to catch up. A living thing cannot live off of yesterdays, it must be able to thrive on the material and energy provided by its current surroundings. I would rather see shtetl literature as alive than as a museum piece.

The ongoing sexual escapades of Foer’s ancestors eventually make for some tedious reading, but the ending is ultimately redeeming in a truly Zorba-esque sense: passion may be powerful, it can even be explicit, but love remains the even more powerful mystery.


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