An interview with Nathan Englander, author of the short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Nathan Englander's debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999) met with the kind of success and attention few short story collections receive: a six-figure advance, unfettered acclaim, comparisons to American greats like Roth and Bellow. In a new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Englander returns to the form—and themes—that launched his career.
The title story begins this way: "They're in our house maybe ten minutes and Mark's already lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right."
The collection's central questions are introduced within this first paragraph—what does it mean to be Jewish? What's the best way to keep a cultural heritage alive—firm orthodoxy or pliable moderation? And who gets to say?
Each of the eight stories in Anne Frank use Jewish characters to broach tough questions about how we build and maintain identity under duress. In "Camp Sundown," a group of elderly Jews harass a man they believe was a Nazi prison camp guard (they eventually plant a flaming Star of David in his yard, a Jewish take on the Ku Klux Klan's burning cross). In "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side," an apostate named Nathan discovers that a cherished and oft-repeated family touchstone—a WWII story about his grandfather's brother—is not true.
But the book's central image is an alarming, dangerous children's game played by adults. In the title story, the narrator's wife takes her husband and another couple into the darkened pantry to imagine the unimaginable: a war is on, an extermination campaign targeting Jews. They discuss everyone they know. Who would hide them? Who would risks their lives to take them in? In the dark, identity markers—the Levi's jeans, the Hassidic beard—are stripped away. The couples learn who they really are, and the revelations are surprising, irretractable, and terrifying.
It's been a busy year for Englander, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn. His first play, a Nora Ephron-directed adaptation of his story "The Twenty-Seventh Man," will debut at New York's Public Theatre in November. He'll also publish his translation of the Haggadah, in collaboration with Jonathan Safran Foer. We talked about his midlife anti-crisis, the way stories and memory work together, and the shelf of sacred books in his apartment that no one is allowed to touch.
What's the oldest story in this collection? The newest?
I wrote most of the book this past year. Five new stories over the last year, or a little more than a year. Then I looked back over time and chose three earlier stories to work into the collection—there's one story from three years ago, one from six years ago, one from 12 years ago.
Your novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, took almost a decade to write and went through many rounds of writing and rewriting. You're known to be something of a maniacal rewriter. Yet you wrote five of the stories in this collection inside a single year. Have you reached a place where you can work more quickly and easily?
Yes. Something's snapped in me. Something's changed. This book represents about 300 years of work for me—there's so much time and effort compressed into it—but I had some kind of epiphanic, early-40s change. Ease is a new wild concept for me. An ease of self. A comfortable way of interacting with my own brain. The whole book feels like a giant exhalation, if that makes sense. It's really strange how your pace can change.
How did you decide which stories belonged in this collection?
A collection shouldn't feel like a cobbled-together group of things that you had around the office. The stories can—and should—stand on their own, but taken together, they should read more like a novel. They need to fit together in a thematic, emotional, or spiritual way.
This book is about ownership of history, and these weird ideas about identity.I was living in Germany a couple years ago, on Lake Wannsee—where the Wannsee Conference took place and the Final Solution was put into effect. And living there allowed me to become more comfortable with thematic material that's always interested me—injustice, totalitarianism, unfairness, the idea of Nazism. You see these ideas playing through stories in the collection. Obviously, I've been comfortable with Jewish themes—they're everywhere in my work. But I think there's a new comfort here.
I use the example of Nabokov publishing Lolita—you know, people probably didn't want him to babysit afterwards [laughs]. But you have to be comfortable with wherever your head is at, and own the material you want to work with.
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What's the origin of the pantry game in the title story? Is it a real game people play?
It came from my sister. It's a game that's very much not a game.
I grew up in a community that raised children in the shadow that a second holocaust could happen at any time, anywhere. I was very much raised with this idea and this feeling and this belief—we're nothing if not paranoid. But, of course, it does happen. The Jews were comfortable in Germany. People were comfortable in Rwanda. Look at Iraq—look how, very suddenly, your country can just turn into hellfire. People are always comfortable until they are uncomfortable.
It was 20 years ago, half my life ago, but I remember my sister saying about someone—"he would hide us, and she would turn us in." And it stuck with me for two decades. Because she was right, and I knew it in my heart. This feeling comes through in the ending of the story: the acknowledgment that, if the world changed in a moment, I know someone who would really risk his life to save me. And I know someone who would really turn us in.
The title story overtly references Raymond Carver's classic short work, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." There are clear structural and thematic links between his story and yours, and several implanted allusions. What was your process of using Carver's work as a template?
It's funny, because I couldn't wrap my head around this kind of influence for a large hunk of my life—the gesture of layering one story over another story. How can you write West Side Story when it's Romeo and Juliet? That's not your story to write—that's Romeo and Juliet! And I love West Side Story, but I deeply believe that story is infinite. I'm terrified by people who think otherwise. If you believe everything under the sun has already been written, well—I rarely recommend that you kill yourself [laughs], but if that is truly the world that a person lives in, honestly, life is not worth living.