July 18, 2016
The controversial emails of Jonathan Safran Foer and Natalie Portman
by Ian Dreiblatt
Sometimes, literary heavy-hitters and Hollywood big shots turn out to be friends. Take for example TS Eliot and Groucho Marx, two very smart people who could not have been more different, exchanging awkward letters for years before finally meeting for what seems to have been a fatiguingly overstarched dinner in London. Or language poet Charles Bernstein and the inimitable Jon Lovitz, widely rumored to be close pals. These pairings please us in part because, for all the incongruity they present, they also make a kind of sense, highlighting an area of overlap between the minds of discrete yet connected cultural producers.
It turns out that Jonathan Safran Foer, author of several well-received books and Chipotle marketing materials, and actress Natalie Portman are old friends as well. It is rumored, in fact, that they are more than friends, if “friends” are people who never get their signals crossed and end their marriages for one another unrequitedly. Whatever they mean to each other, the New York Times’ T Magazine made a splash yesterday by publishing a volley of emails the two exchanged last May. Here I Am, Foer’s third novel — and his first to be published in more than a decade — is forthcoming this fall, while A Tale of Love and Darkness, a film Portman stars in and makes her directorial debut with, having adapted it from Israeli author Amos Oz’s novel of the same name, is due out in a few weeks.
There are, as was speedily observed, several things strange about the correspondence and how it was published. For one thing, the entire feature is strewn with photos of Portman, clad in scanty but very expensive clothing (one photo shows her in a $405 swimsuit almost completely concealed beneath a $765 sweater), which surely has something to do with with the fact that the letters were published in the Times’ style magazine, but still feels, yeah, a little strange.
But more bewildering than the photos is the punishing banality of the exchange. At one point, Foer describes New York’s alternate-side parking regulations as though reporting back on humanity for colleagues on his native Uranus:
At 8:30 everyone double-parks, creating two lanes of parking on one side of the street. Once the street-cleaning Zamboni comes through, everyone moves his car back, but you have to stay in it until 10:00 — with the pretext of being able to move it if necessary, otherwise De Blasio’s willing executioner will slap you with a hefty ticket. I don’t know to what extent this is law, convention or a massive NPR conspiracy — literally half of my neighborhood sits around listening to the radio while watching the clock never tick.
There are uncomfortable moments when Portman offers, say, a cloyingly pat etymology of the word Hebrew, but in these letters it is Foer who clinches the Dingus Cup, offering some singularly uninspired turns of phrase (“angrier than Ed Asner from Up”), trying and failing to find the attitude in platitude (“The art that I feel most passionate about always conveys its creator’s passion”), reaching for profundity and generally coming up vacant.
To be fair, it is far short of evil to write one’s friend a goofy account of how garbage pick-up works, or to misstate the origins of the name for an ancient ethnicity. The letters are spirited and even cute. But publishing an exchange like this in the New York Times seems to badly mistake its relevance to a human species that has found itself put through a ringer of a year. After the revolution, we’ll all have the time to grow tweely captivated by the piquancies of New York’s parking regulations; for now, a lot of us are kind of busy.
Such has been the opinion of many. At Bookriot, Maddie Rodriguez posed a number of worthwhile questions about the exchange (“7. Is … this … what emails are?”). On Facebook, author Mikhail Iossel wrote that “Jonathan Safran Foer sounds like a fatuous, shallow, self-involved fool. Anyone who gets through the first one-third of this correspondence should be given a chocolate medal in golden cover, in a purple heart-shaped paper bag with a yellow ribbon.” At USA Today, Jaleesa Jones issued a caveat lector, suggesting that readers skip the full exchange and read instead the “6 lessons in pretension” to which she had distilled it. Writing for New York, Anna Silman noted that “these emails are certainly the kinds of intense midnight musings — lengthy, pretentious digressions on Jewish melancholy and the nature of freedom — that one might pen if one wanted to convince a very famous and beautiful actress to leave her husband for you.” At Jezebel, Joanna Rothkopf wrote that the exchange “reeks of two people who have been made very aware of their talent who are relishing the opportunity to luxuriate in the act of Letter Writing to One’s Artistic Equal For Once, and to do it on a national scale,” and then corresponded with her colleague Kelly Stout in homage (“Must be off! I melted some cheese on top of bread under the broiler (you must try it) and it set off the smoke detector.”)
The Jewish media may have been harshest of all. In Tablet, Rachel Shukert called the exchange “an unmitigated and horrifying delight—like reading the diary of someone you know, and realizing you know them so much better than you even thought you did.” Gabe Friedman of the Times of Israel called the letters “cringeworthy” in a piece whose declared goal was to “detail some of the exchange’s most annoying moments.” For The Forward, Neal Pollack uncovered another cache of letters, circulated between Portman, Foer, and himself — the whole thing is too good to excerpt, so just click here because you work hard all week and deserve this.
It is also worth saying that Tim Teeman wrote a perfectly unconvincing, utterly good-natured defense of the exchange for the Daily Beast, asserting that “it is heartening, with the modern twist of email rather than quill and guttering candle, to at least see an attempt to return to the art of letter-writing, of connection, and elaboration.” (Recommended pairings: fresh pie, a shoeshine, the novels of Jonathan Safran Foer.)
As of this writing, Portman remains married to a dancer with a name that comes deliciously close to millipede, human civilization is on fire, and the garbage in Jonathan Safran Foer’s neighborhood gets picked up on Thursdays and Sundays.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.