A New York Times Notable Book
An NPR Best Book of 2012
These eight powerful stories, dazzling in their display of language and imagination, show a celebrated short-story writer and novelist grappling with the great questions of modern life.
From the title story, a provocative portrait of two marriages inspired by Raymond Carver’s masterpiece, to “Peep Show” and “How We Avenged the Blums,” two stories that return to the author’s classic themes of sexual longing and ingenuity in the face of adversity, these stories affirm Nathan Englander’s place at the very forefront of contemporary American fiction.
Excerpted from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. Copyright © 2012 by Nathan Englander. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Nathan Englander’s short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander is the author of the novel The Ministry of Special Cases and the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which earned him a PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Q: Your debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was a national bestseller in hardcover and paperback, winner of the PEN/Malamud award, and drew comparisons to Chekhov and Malamud. In 2009 you published a novel, but with WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK you’re back to the short story form. How does it feel?
A: How does it feel to be back to stories? It feels fantastic, is how it feels. I love this form. And I say that, not just because we're talking about a collection, and not only because stories need extra championing for the incomprehensible-to-me fact that there’s a much smaller segment of fiction-reading folk that are willing to give a collection of stories a chance. I say it because, as both reader and writer, I have always had a deep-deep connection to the short story. I could go on pretty endlessly talking about spring-loaded forms, and what it takes to build a complete world in that space, how a story can leave you with that transformative wind-knocked-out-of-you moment if everything is just right (and I say ‘just right’ as the faux-epiphany is a gravely dangerous short-story fallback, and there’s a very thin membrane that separates the two experiences, which is, again, another reason why I love writing them. It’s surgical and delicate and so easy to go wrong). What I’d like to make clear, simply, is that when I fell in love with books, I fell in love with the short story. There are so many great stories that have changed who I am, and how I see the world—that have, at this point, woven themselves into my very being. I don’t know how to explain it better than to say, go read Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” which I reference in the book, or Grace Paley's “Goodbye and Good Luck”, or Cheever's “Goodbye, My Brother”, or Gogol's “The Overcoat” or “The Nose" and you will be changed forever—and then you will know what I mean.
Q: The title story, which was published in The New Yorker on 12/12, is fashioned after Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Can you describe how that story inspired yours?
A: I've had that story in my head for years and years—the image of those two couples, and that dark game. As it took shape in the imagining, as I saw the pantry, say, or the house in which the story is set, I was also quite suddenly interested in ideas of ownership and inspiration and in exploring a different kind of writerly ease or comfort (and, trust me, the ideas of ‘comfort’ and ‘ease’ are groundbreakingly new for me, and of possibly fleeting interest). And I thought, I have two couples coming together in this way, what if I marry it to my own version of Raymond Carver’s very-iconic story. And—it’s important to stress (though I can’t tell you exactly why, except that it feels important)—that I didn’t go back to the Carver book until I was well into the drafting of my story. I think it’s because I’ve become really interested in how we make stories our own, literally how memory forms around them. So it was more, my personal memory of the Carver story—what it had turned to in my brain—that was the inspiration. When the story had taken form, and I felt committed to that literary-echo, I went back and reread the Carver story, and made my quiet links between the two. As for the game in the story—that crazy, who-will-hide-me-game—it’s a real game that, as the story says, is very much not a game. It’s dead serious business. And I've been playing it with my sister for as long as I can remember. And, if you ever try playing it, you'll see. People take the game real seriously. I just saw a friend in from Berlin last night, a friend I hadn't seen in years, and she’d read the story in The New Yorker and she said, do you remember when we played that in Germany? She said, she’d looked at her children and—honestly considering the peril hiding us would put them in—thought, No, I couldn't hide you, it’s too much to ask. And then she said she’d looked at my girlfriend and me, and knew that she would. I had no memory of the evening, or the interaction. But how serious is that? How raw? And, I can trace the kernel of the story to a time my sister and I played that game, now twenty years ago. It stayed in my head from then. And my sister gave me her blessing to acknowledge that she is the one who put it there—that, in our family, it is her game. The only thing she asked that I stop doing is calling her “my older sister” when I discuss it. So, yes, it’s my sister’s game.
Q: You’re a bit of a renaissance man! In addition to the new short story collection, you also have two translations forthcoming (‘The New American Haggadah’ with Jonathan Safran Foer and ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door’ with Etgar Keret) and a play—opening at the Public Theatre in NYC in the fall—based on your story “The Twenty-Seventh Man”. Can you tell us a bit about how translation and playwriting are different from writing fiction? Which do you prefer?
A: Ha! A renaissance man. That’s up there with being a raconteur, but still shy of being a man of letters. I have to say, it’s still strange to answer a question like the one above. I see myself as someone who publishes a book a decade and then heads back down into the salt mines in between. But something snapped a couple of years back. I decided to engage with storytelling differently. And the ability to make that change, or to learn the lessons I’ve learned, is because of the play and the translations. It goes like this: Fiction is my life. My whole sense of self, and self-definition, is as a fiction writer. And that’s why these other projects have been so revolutionary for me. I spent the last several years utterly absorbed in crafts in which I had no experience, and no reference points, where the stakes—the artistic challenges, the demands—were just as high, but around which had not formed any understanding of myself or the world, any sense of expectation or identity. And they simply helped me to explore the psychology of writing—and so much of it is psychological—in a different way. Here I am with two translations coming out, and I’d never call myself a translator. And, when doing things for The Public Theatre, I still stutter when they make me call myself a playwright out loud. I have one rule for writing, and that is, there’s nothing but the story. The other projects helped me to grasp that in a whole new way.
Q: These eight stories draw on a variety of themes from Jewish history and culture. To what extent does your own religion influence your writing?
A: Oh, I’m always getting in trouble with this question. Because, well, how can you have a book that is so chock full of Jews and say what I’m about to say, which is, I don’t see any religious influence at all. If anything, I’d call it a cultural influence. Basically, every fiction writer—every last one—is influenced by his or her culture, whether it’s the embracing of it, the rejection of it, a running toward or a running from. And no matter how distant the setting of a story is from the reality in which a writer lives—say, a science-fiction writer building a futuristic alien society unlike any that has ever been—that creation, too, is deeply influenced by the worlds that he or she has known. How does that relate to your question? I'm Jewish, I was raised religious in a very insular community, I lived in Jerusalem for a bunch of years (after turning secular), and spent nearly my whole life in New York (where we have no shortage of Jews). So to me, the idea of seeing my writing about a Jewish world, or a Jewish character, as being somehow the product of “influence” is basically like asking any other writer across time and space, how has living your life on this earth formed your imagination—which is a very fair and lovely question, but doesn’t need any qualification beyond that. It is not defensively, as a Jewish writer, that I explain this, but as a writer in defense of the universal. What I’m saying is that, yes, these stories may be deeply Jewish in their setting, but all stories must be deeply something if they’re functioning. If they’re not also, at the same time, as truly universal as they are specific, then those stories aren’t functioning at all.
Q: The story “Sister Hills” chronicles the growth of a Jewish settlement at various points in time, from 1973 to 2011. The settlements are a hot topic. What is your opinion on them and what sorts of conversations do you hope people will have after reading this story?
A: I have strong opinions about Israeli politics, the settlements included. And, like anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time living there, I feel sure that I'm right (which, I can’t even let stand as a joke, because half the problem in both Israeli politics and our toxic American political landscape, is this creepy-creepy surety that folks display, an unwillingness to hear, empathize with, or humanize another side—which, if there are actual people on that side, invariably means they must be humans). If you’re starting to sense that I’m not going to take a stand here, you’re right. I'd be happy to in another context. But you’re asking about “Sister Hills,” you're asking about a story. And, in that case, it’s very simple. My obligation, when writing (as I’ve already said above), is always to the story itself. It does not work, in a story like this, if I’m trying to be didactic, or convince, or espouse. My only goal when writing is to, quite literally, turn selfless. To inhabit, fully, those characters. To listen, wholly, to the demands of that world. I have to say, of any story I've ever written, this was the one that felt the most emotionally draining upon finishing. That is, I was truly and honestly rattled. I did not know what I had. I did not know what I’d done. I do remember that I did not sleep that night. As for the conversations folks will have after, I don't have any idea what those will be (and am simply grateful if they take place). I'm fairly nervous to see how this one will be received. I do know, from the few folks who have seen it early, and spoken to me directly, it’s functioned as a sort of West-Bank Rorschach test. One person will say, “You see, this is why Israel needs to get out of the West Bank,” and another will say, “Do you see? This is why Israel must maintain a presence.” You can’t believe it’s the same story being read. Of all the feedback, I've been most thankful for the responses-literary that deal with the story itself.
Q: What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to write each of these stories? How many drafts do you go through?
A: Well, I'm glad you asked me this question and not my friends and my family. As I’d say, my writing process is one of great calm, during which I’m always happy-go-lucky and in good spirits. What I’ve learned over the years is that the specifics of the process are ever changing, and the cycles of the process are always the same. It’s almost a reflex to call myself a compulsive redrafter. With both the novel, and the first collection, I'd rewrite parts endlessly, over a period of years. I had a completely different experience with this book. I held the stories in my head, sometimes for a great long time, waiting, in a way, until the stories were already written. And then I copied them down. As for the cycle part—and this is, really, maybe where you should get my friends on the phone—after I finish writing a piece, I inevitably erase from memory what happened when writing it. I just think, Well that was fun. Or, isn’t it nice to have this finished story? And I forget, say, that every time I start, I feel forlorn, or panicked, or like the world is coming to an end. I forget that there’s always a day that feels painfully lost, or a week where the written page doesn’t yet tune to the emotional frequency in my head. But none of that time is wasted, not a second of it. That is, in fact, how the work gets done. It is a writing process. Which means, by definition, one can’t start at the end. But once I’m in the late stages, the early ones, every time, are totally forgotten. And that’s why experience helps, time passing by. As here I am telling you about that part of the process that I inevitably forget, because I’m already trying to comfort myself for the moment when I’m digging into the next book with great urgency and suddenly feel like the sky is crashing down. I will feel that way—I absolutely will. It’s just part of finding voice, finding traction. And yet, as I write it, I don’t believe it still.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: There’s a novel set in Jerusalem that I've been wanting to write for years (which means I’ve been secretly working on it in my underground lair). And I think, after being back in the States for more than a decade, that maybe it’s time. The distance is there. And, as said, I’ve really been changed by those other projects. So I’ve got another play or two or three that I’d really like to work on, and a bucket of short stories that I’d really like to lock myself in a room and write. I’m excited about a whole lot of things.
“Showcases Mr. Englander’s extraordinary gifts as a writer.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“I’m in love. For evidence that collections can be just as satisfying, read as deep, if not deeper, and beat with as much life and insight as a hulking novel, look no further.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair
Audacious and idiosyncratic, darkly clever and brightly faceted.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Terrific. . . . When is a short story mightier than a novel? When its elisions speak as loudly as its lines. Englander knows where to hold back, a particular gift when writing about and around the martyr of his title, the locked up and locked in. A kind of hard-won wisdom spills out on every page.” —Stacy Schiff, The New York Times Book Review
“Imaginatively powerful. . . . What makes the stories resonate long after their final paragraphs is Englander’s odd coupling of the morally serious and the deliciously comic. . . . His second collection of short stories more than fulfills the large promises of his first. What do we do when we talk about Englander? We talk about how he has become a master storyteller.” —The Miami Herald
“Humane, philosophically provocative. . . . Each story in the book is essentially a parable, and Englander’s special talent is to burnish his parables with a patina of persuasive realism. . . . Characters tell (and re-tell) stories within stories, and seek to understand themselves by means of narrative, in a way that seems quintessentially, satisfyingly Jewish.” —Boston Globe
“Englander is at his best. . . . He never writes less than gorgeously, but when, from narrow confines, he puts his finger on the universal, he’s Shakespeare.” —Bloomberg News
“Nathan Englander is a master at putting remarks into the mouths of ordinary people that distill entire streams of politics and religion. . . . They ring true and are a funny, chilling, joy to read.” —The Plain Dealer
“Profound and magical. . . . These eight masterful stories also continue the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud—authors who mined the Jewish-American experience with tremendous humor, humanity and healthy amounts of guilt.” —USA Today
“What Englander is saying is that we know ourselves, or don’t, on different levels, that we exist individually and as part of a heritage. . . . Who will hide us? Who are we, really? How do ritual and culture intersect? Such questions exist at the heart of this accomplished collection, in which stories are what make us who we are.” —Los Angeles Times
“Nathan Englander writes the stories I am always hoping for, searching for. These are stories that transport you into other lives, other dreams. This is deft, engrossing, deeply satisfying work. Englander is, to me, the modern master of the form. And this collection is the very best.” —Geraldine Brooks
“Grade A. . . . Virtuosic. . . . Each of these meticulously chiseled stories contains a hidden stinger that throws the reader for a wicked loop. . . . These are stories that give you goose bumps.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Englander’s latest short story collection marks him out as one of the finest American writers of his generation.” —Financial Times
“It takes an exceptional combination of moral humility and moral assurance to integrate fine-grained comedy and large-scale tragedy as daringly as Nathan Englander does.” —Jonathan Franzen
“The stories are so tightly wrought, the sentences laid out so cleanly, the dialogue so real and the humor so self-lacerating. . . . If Mr. Englander is in fact the future of Jewish-American prose, then that future looks to be a far more moral and compassionate one than the writing of the recent past. . . . the humor and the brilliance, and the investigation of cultural identity, are all still there.” —The New York Observer
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is Nathan Englander’s wisest, funniest, bravest, and most beautiful book. It overflows with revelations and gems.” —Jonathan Safran Foer
1. The narrator of the title story suggests that his wife’s preoccupation with Holocaust survivors is excessive. “And Deb has what can only be called an unhealthy obsession with the idea of that generation being gone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to me, too. I care, too. All I’m saying is, there’s healthy and unhealthy, and my wife, she gives this subject a lot, a lot, of time.” How do you feel about this? Later, the narrator suggests that Deb was disappointed by the story about the two survivors meeting years later in the locker room in Florida because she was expecting something that would “reconfirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms.” What does it mean to have an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust? How do you feel about Deb as a character?
2. Yerucham and Shoshana used to be called Mark and Lauren, before they became ultra-Orthodox. Early in the title story, though, Shoshana confides, “We still get high. . . . I mean, all the time,” and that, in relation to traveling with drugs, “it’s pretty rare that anyone at customs peeks under the wig.” What do you think Nathan Englander’s point of view is about religious Orthodoxy? What point is he trying to make?
3. Appearance and reality, secrets and hidden truths, are themes in the title story. These are approached comically, at first, when Deb and her husband discuss Trevor, and the discovery Deb had made and kept a secret. “But he’s the son. . . . I’m the father. Even if it’s a secret with him, it should be a double secret between me and you. I should always get to know—but pretend not to know—any secret with him. . . . That’s how it goes. . . . That’s how it’s always been. . . . Hasn’t it?” What is at stake here? Why does the narrator suddenly feel “desperate and unsure”? What fears are gathering force in this moment?
4. The idea above—the possibility that we don’t know our spouses, or even ourselves, and that perhaps our lives are something quite other than what we believe them to be—is echoed with powerful, indeed tragic, implications at the story’s conclusion. Discuss the terrible parlor game the couples play in the story’s final pages. What do the couples learn about one another? About themselves? How does this change your understanding of each character and the portraits the author had painted of them in the story’s opening pages?
5. The story “Sister Hills” is divided into four discrete sections. Why? Discuss how the story’s structure relates to its themes.
6. “Sister Hills” can be read as a political allegory based on the story of a bargain struck in order to save the life of a critically ill child. In this reading, who or what does the child represent, and what meaning can be inferred from the exchange of money? What is the relevance of the two mothers?
7. Rena changes dramatically over the course of “Sister Hills.” Describe her journey and discuss the difference between her true relationship with Aheret and the way the young couple perceive the nature of their relationship at the story’s end. What point is the author trying to make through his use of irony here, and how does this irony relate to the story as a whole?
8. What statement, in “Sister Hills,” is the author trying to make about the history of the Israeli settlements? What do you think the author believes about their cost? About their fate? Look in particular at pages 64 to 66, where Rena discusses with the rabbis the nature of a contract, both symbolic and real, and the nature of justice.
9. How does the story of Masada relate to the story of Zvi Blum and the bully known as the Anti-Semite in “How We Avenged the Blums”?
10. On page 88 of the story above, Englander writes, “We weren’t cohesive. We knew how to move as a group but not as a gang. We needed practice. After two thousand years of being chased, we didn’t have any hunt left in us.” What does he mean? How is he suggesting Jewish history relates to the fate of these neighborhood boys and their plight?
11. “How We Avenged the Blums” concludes with a powerful image of a circle of boys clustered around the Anti-Semite, and the narrator’s unexpected insight about the nature of helplessness and power, dignity and victimhood: “As I watched him, I knew I’d always feel that to be broken was better than to break—my failing.” What does he mean? And why does he consider this his failing?
12. At the start of “Peep Show,” Allen Fein reflects on his transformation. “He had only wanted a peep. He’d gone up the stairs a loyal husband and lover, a working man on his way home to the burbs. And now, minutes later, a different man emerges: a violator of girls and wives and matrimonial bonds.” Then, when the partition rises and unexpectedly reveals a rabbi, Allen muses: “Where the rabbis are involved, there is always a path to be followed. Either you stay on it or you stray into darkness: This is the choice they offer. And, much as Allen feels bitter and lied to for all these years, he half wishes he could live in their realm, where a man is religious or he is not, a good husband or bad.” How are these two moments related? What is the author saying about the nature of identity, morality, and truth?
13. How is “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” different from the other seven stories in this collection, thematically and tonally? Did you feel it was more personal, intimate? Why do you think the author chose to narrate this story in the first person?
14. “Camp Sundown” is a story about vigilante justice undertaken by a group of geriatric campers at a bucolic summer retreat. Discuss the author’s views on guilt and innocence. Look in particular at the passage on page 166, where one of the campers confronts the director and implores, “It’s your choice, Director. You take one crime to bed with you every evening; take a second one tonight.” What is happening in this scene?
15. What do you think the director should have done in “Camp Sundown”? What should the campers have done? Why?
16. “The Reader” is an exploration of the relationship between authors and readers. Is there a social contract between writers and readers? What is an author’s responsibility to his or her reader?
17. Discuss the contrast between the narrative form of “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” in which a father is lovingly recounting a story to his son, and the story’s actual substance. How does this dissonance contribute to the story’s power? What is the significance of the comment Etgar’s father makes when Etgar is twelve: “Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story, there is context. There is always context in life.”
18. In “Free Fruit for Young Widows” Englander distinguishes between two kinds of survival, saying that Professor Tendler “made it through the camps. He walks, he breathes, and he was very close to making it out of Europe alive. But they killed him. After the war, we still lost people. They killed what was left of him in the end.” What does he mean?
19. At the heart of several of these stories is the relationship between religious orthodoxy and contemporary American culture. How do you think the author views religion and issues of faith and belief?
20. The title story, “Sister Hills,” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows” all pivot around incidents within Jewish history, and the question of how essential stories—stories that define us, that shape both our understanding of the past and our vision of the future—are told and retold over the course of many years. What do you think Englander is suggesting about history, tradition, and storytelling itself?
21. Many of the stories in this collection are comic in tone, despite the tragic nature of Englander’s dramatic predicaments. How does humor serve the author’s intentions? How does it express his view of life?