Why We Keep Talking About the Holocaust

An interview with Nathan Englander, author of the short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank


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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.

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.

Anyway, there was something about interacting with work in that direct way that was really upsetting to me. And I started to think about people who were comfortable with that, thinking about ownership, and owning material.

The idea of the story first comes from my sister's game—I've been carrying that story in my head for 20 years. And then I suddenly this pictured this pantry, and these couples. As it took form, I started to think: what about laying it over [Carver's] story?

How directly did you work with Carver's original as you wrote?

I didn't reread it for a long time, so I was working with my memory of the story. This is another big theme of the book—the way memories form into stories.

This is something that's particular to fiction. You watch a movie and it becomes a movie in your head, but you don't remember it and mistake it for a memory. Only with writing do people say—when did that happen to me?—and then realize they read it in a book. It's because you construct what you read in your mind, and if a written reality is successful, it becomes a memory. Not remembered, a memory. That's how story functions.

So I was echoing "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," but not the story that you'd find in a bookstore. It was the story as it existed in my memory. I probably hadn't read the original since I was [a fiction student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop] in the middle-90s—it had been 15 years! But I took the basics, as I remembered them—the daylight changing, two couples drinking and arguing around a table.

I love this idea—the way any story is an amalgam between the written version and your own experience. We could have a contest where people draw the kitchen table in my story, or in Carver's, and everyone would depict it differently. The round table you had growing up, or plates on the wall in your grandmother's kitchen—these details work themselves into the way you imagine the story. And that was what I was working with: not Carver's story specifically, but my memory of his story. The story as I own it. My version.

Once it took form, I decided I was really going to own it—I'm going to give it this echo, I'm going to give it an allusive title, I'm going to make this clear. Then I went back to the original, to marry the two to each other and totally weave them.

The characters in the title story debate to what degree the Holocaust acts as a kind of cultural glue—a horrific, but necessary reminder that fosters solidarity and helps Jewish identity persevere. Do you take a position on this?

It's not a book exploring the Holocaust—but for me it's interest in the idea of the Holocaust, how it's harnessed, how it's used, and how it's abused. When people tell you, "that's what our memory means, and you're betraying this idea"—that's the moment I want to explore.

So arguments based upon a rhetoric of ownership especially interest you? I see this in the title story—the two couples argue about how to be Jewish in "the right way."

Oh, absolutely! And you see this everywhere. Look at what's happening in America now. I'm sort of obsessed with it as I watch all the Republican debates—the idea of people making claims about what it means to inhabit an identity. So little of the stuff that's happening here in America doesn't surprise me because I've been there in Israel. [Englander spent many years living in Jerusalem.] I'm really familiar with this kind of politics.

I think, almost to a person, anyone who calls themselves a "patriot" seems to be trying to dismantle the America that the founding fathers were dreaming of. This claim of patriotism seems to be saying that government is a problem, and we should do our best to dismantle government and the services that government provides. Everyone's screaming "I'm an American, I'm an American," but the people screaming it loudest seem to have the weakest grasp of what America is and was intended to be. The claim seems to be: this country's turning socialist, so let's revert to feudalism.

In Israel, I've had this fight a million times. The best part of living in Israel, which has many downsides, is that when you come back to America and you're in some giant argument with a bunch of other Jews, you get to say: I live there. Which loosely translates to "shut the fuck up."

Though Jewish identity is clearly of central importance to your work, you reject the "Jewish writer" designation. Why is that?

I've always felt this way, but I've finally formed a clear answer in my head after 15 years. People always say "you're a Jewish writer," but for me there is no divide. I'm Jewish. And I'm a writer. I talk about this with my writer friends who get different versions of the same thing—"Let's hear the black writer question. Let's hear the gay writer question." Nora [Ephron] says she's been fighting being called a "woman director" her whole career—why not call her what she really is, a badass director?

People always ask me "How did Judiasm work its way into this or that story," that kind of thing. But no one's asking Denis Johnson how being a Christian affected Jesus' Son. "How has Christianity affected the crushing of the little bunnies?" [He's referencing a plot point in Denis Johnson's short story "Emergency."]The real question should be—how does being alive in the world, as a human being, spark your creativity? We talk about the constructs that divide people, but experience is universal.

The point is, these characters aren't "Jewish people" to me. If it's okay with everyone, if we could all just see them as people—that would be great. I understand that some amount of categorization is unavoidable, everyone has to do it. It's how we make order. But don't expect me to represent my work as genre fiction.

Last question. Do you have a favorite bookshelf, and what's on it?

My one beloved shelf that I love to look at has Chris Adrian, Alexander Hemon, [Thomas Mann's] The Magic Mountain, [Isaac Bashevis] Singer, [Bernard Malamud's] The Magic Barrel, Black Boy by Richard Wright, John Cheever, The Brothers Karamazov, the love stories of Yehuda Amachi in Hebrew, Marilynne Robinson's Home in Hebrew. And Marilynne Robinson's copy of the New Testament that she gave me when I left Iowa. It's a crazy shelf!

That's one of the shelves, when you come to the house—don't read the books from that shelf. Those aren't touching books. Go in the bedroom—they're triple-packed in there. Take what you want, you don't need to bring them back.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.