Week one: John Mullan on the author as character

Describe the construction of Everything Is Illuminated and you risk making the novel sound like an exercise in narrative ingenuity fit only for the seminar room. It is split into three strands. In one, Alex, a linguistically inept translator, describes his journey across Ukraine with an American called Jonathan Safran Foer to find the shtetl of Trachimbrod, where, half a century earlier, Jonathan’s grandfather escaped a Nazi massacre. In the second, episodes in the lives of the Jews of Trachimbrod since the 18th century are imagined in a novel that Jonathan is writing. In the third, Alex writes letters to Jonathan, who has now returned to America, commenting on the portions of this novel that he has been receiving, and asking for advice about the writing of his own account.

It is, literally speaking, the author-as-character who holds this all together. Though he never directly addresses the reader, he alone is there in every section. Yet he is the opposite of a godlike figure of narrative authority. “It is a mammoth honour for me to write for a writer,” says Alex in his first letter, “especially when he is an American writer, like Ernest Hemingway or you.” Crucial to the comic effect of these letters is the fact that we do not have Foer’s letters to Alex, in which, we infer, he has gravely dispensed advice. In Alex’s replies, you can hear the soi-disant wisdom of the tyro novelist. “I also attempted to be not obvious, or unduly subtle, as you demonstrated”.

So it may be a nerve to feature yourself as a character in your first novel, but the effect is disarmingly self-mocking. Just as well, for readers are by now well used to the device. Ever since some readers of Martin Amis’s Money were irritated by the meetings between the magnificently grotesque narrator John Self and a writer called Martin Amis, there have been protests against its use by literary novelists. It is what clever writers do. Milan Kundera became a character in his own Book of Laughter and Forgetting, employed to write an astrological column under a fictional name for a magazine, after having been banned from publishing by the communist government (this being a fictionalised version of the author’s own experience). A writer called “Paul Auster” appeared in Paul Auster’s City of Glass, which also mentions a detective called “Paul Auster”. In Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, not only is one “Philip Roth” a character, but he has to contend with an imposter calling himself “Philip Roth”, who is broadcasting to the people of Jerusalem the disadvantages of the Zionist ideal.

The argument that it is mere tricksiness has been made harder to mount by the recent appearance of a character called John Coetzee in JM Coetzee’s novel Summertime, where fiction brilliantly becomes self-examination by imagined acquaintances. In Safran Foer’s novel, as in Coetzee’s, the author is made comically self-serious. Safran Foer has just published a book advocating vegetarianism, but in the novel he is a character trying hopelessly to explain the voluntary prohibition to two Ukrainian carnivores. “‘He says he does not eat sausage.’ ‘In truth?’ ‘That is what he says.’ ‘But sausage . . .’ ‘I know.'” Foer has fun making his fictionalised self try to impose his proper liberal values on the uncomprehending Alex. “I apologise for the last line, about how you are a very spoiled Jew,” he writes. He will delete “very”.

Becoming a character condemns the author to indignity. Terrified of dogs, “the hero” (as Alex calls him) finds that Alex’s grandfather’s flatulent dog, Sammy Davis Junior, Junior, has conceived an undisguised passion for him. “‘She is trying to make sex to you. This is a good sign. It signifies that she will not bite.’ ‘Help!’ he said.”

So what sounds like postmodern trickery – the narrative is being composed and edited even as we read it – is but the low comedy of a “hero” striving to keep his dignity. Alex solemnly assures him that he has altered his description of the dog’s “fondness” for him. “I modified the scene so that the two of you appear more as friends and less as lovers or nemesises.” And Jonathan’s imaginative fiction about the lost village of Trachimbrod appears fanciful to Alex, who is often puzzled by its unconvincing details. “Are you being a humorous writer here, or an uninformed one?”

Finally, the device has a serious logic. When, at the heart of the novel, we hear from the sole surviving witness, via Alex, what actually happened to the Jews of Trachimbrod in 1942, “the hero” has asked to hear no more – “so it was at this point I ceased translating”. The author is not up to confronting the truth that he has so earnestly professed to be seeking.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.

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