Don’t Laugh at Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Intense Letters

The Daily Beast

July 15, 2016

There is, inevitably, a fair bit of snarking over the email exchange between Jonathan Safran Foer and Natalie Portman as captured in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

This is, if you believe all the online smart-arsery doing the rounds, the words of pretentious, navel-gazing narcissists with too much time, and a New York Times commission, on their hands—with the added charge of “awkward flirtation” leveled at Foer.

Well, I loved every word between the pair.

In this era of Snapchat, tweets and shrugging LOL sign-offs, it’s truly refreshing—painfully exposing as it seems to have been for some who have read the correspondence—to read two people expressing themselves. Fully. In unapologetically ponderous sentences.

Note history’s best love letters, or even dedicated correspondence from masters of letter-writing like Maurice Sendak and Georgia O’Keefe.

There was a time that sitting down, and writing a letter to another human being was an art in itself, and an expression of trust and intimacy in the other person. The notion that expressing oneself fully and unapologetically in letter form is somehow excruciating and funny, especially as criticized by other writers, must be rooted in a weird self-hatred.

Writers and artists, especially writers and artists who are friends, express themselves fulsomely. They like words, and in Foer’s case a lot: why use one word when 20 are available?

The first wonderful thing of the Foer-Portman letters is that they are ranging, a little scatty and indulgent and with a wonderful wide-ranging subject beam. They are written at odd times of day when one’s mind strays from the profound to the quotidian. And so, while Foer has found himself mocked for his recitation of when the garbage trucks come by in his neighborhood, well I just found it fascinating.

Jonathan Safran Foer on garbage days: bring it on. An essay or novella, if he has the desire.

“It’s Thursday, garbage day,” he writes on May 26. “One of the garbage days, I should say. Thursday and Sunday are garbage days. Tuesday is garbage and recycling day. Monday and Tuesday are alternate-side parking days, which makes Tuesday — parking, garbage and recycling — a very special day, indeed. At 8:30 everyone double-parks, creating two lanes of parking on one side of the street.”

And so on, because as Foer explains, “the garbage and parking are among the many rituals around which my daily life is organized.”

This gives all aspiring men and women of letters a useful life lesson: no matter how famous and legendary you become, no matter how long-winded your book titles, you still have to put the trash out.

There is a mysterious element to the correspondence: the email relationship between Foer and Portman was first formed when Foer wrote Eating Animals, which inspired Portman so much she became a vegan. She also wanted to produce a movie about it.

This email correspondence, and the one-sided passion that allegedly grew from it—Foer (then-married to Nicole Krauss) wanted to get it on with Portman, but Portman did not—is lost forever. Foer is now separated from Krauss, and Portman is still married to her husband.

At the beginning of this round of email correspondence, Foer says his Hotmail went fatally on the blink, meaning all those possibly incriminating emails are (currently at least; surely not forever) lost.

Despite others claiming the opposite, I found nothing that suggestive in this fresh set of letters, except for the pictures of Portman clad sometimes in just underwear (none, sadly, of Foer in the same). The byline is his (and the drive of the questions, but they are respectful, not yearning or flirty), and the interview set up to publicize Portman’s directorial debut, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He saw the lost correspondence as “being somehow replenished with, or redeemed by, a new exchange.”

Portman says she is happy to resume correspondence: “I’m sure at the beginning of our emailing I was trying too hard to be smart and interesting. Now, of course, I’m comfortable enough to send you videos of a sax-playing walrus. But yes, of course we mainly discuss religion and politics. And don’t forget art! We also talk about art!”

Foer rejoins that writer’s block isn’t his greatest impediment, but rather taking care of guinea pigs.

And then this: “Freedom might not be a prerequisite for the expression of passion — it helps, sometimes, not to be able to follow your instincts — but they are strongly intertwined. How do you think about freedom? When do you most strongly wish you had more of it? When do you most strongly wish you had less?”

I mean, come on, discuss people. Take your eyes away from Pokemon Go, and talk about that. Now. All weekend.

Portman continues that Amos Oz’s memoir, from which her movie is derived, fascinated her because its setting, Israel, has long fascinated her. Foer goes off in his garbage van rant, then asks Portman what has passed her ‘wonder line’ recently—that is, an experience which has generated wonder on her part. Portman replies, her son making eye contact with a horse.

At this stage, if you are not wolfing down chocolate cake, or alfalfa salad (you choose), agog, then you have no synapses.

Foer starts mulling about the mysterious magnetism of Gettysburg, which leads Portman to consider the draw of Jerusalem.

“An ex-boyfriend of mine used to call me ‘Moscow,’ because he said I was always looking out the window sadly, like “Moscow,” like some Russian novel or Chekhov play,” she adds.

The speed of time passing, as a parent, is considered next; before a twist: not all of their 2002 correspondence has been lost, says Foer, including Portman’s first email to him, which he prints here and which she wrote to him after hearing him at a reading.

Quite apart from the question of what was in all the emails now lost—and how lost they are—the reader is not left wanting less, than more. Who cares if the concerns of Portman and Foer seem esoteric (they’re really not)? So what if they think about things in a deep way? It says a lot that we mock those who give their time over to consider—in whatever way they choose to—the meaning of life and artistic engagement.

We know why people laugh easily at this stuff. It’s easier to eyeroll, in our Twitter age, at too many words, a surfeit of letters, too many emotions. It’s much easier to mock those who show their feelings, and interrogate those feelings, rather than those with a fast retort and glib surface engagement.

And so, the Portman-Foer letters buck a negative trend: 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.

So, ignore your detractors, Mr Foer and Ms. Portman, and carry on corresponding.