Writing what he knows

Nathan Englander’s unique voice will make an indelible imprint on American letters.

nathan englander 521 (photo credit: Juliana Sohn)
nathan englander 521
(photo credit: Juliana Sohn)
The stories in Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank left me in awe – of their power and of the enormous talent of their writer.
This new group of eight stories appears 13 years after Englander’s astonishing debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. The long wait, due primarily to Englander’s nearly decade-long process of writing his 2007 novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, however, was worth it .
Englander, 42, has modestly and tactfully batted away comparisons to great American writers of the 20th century like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Raymond Carver, whose short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, inspired the title and certain aspects of the title story of Englander’s new work.
But there is no doubt that, given time, Englander’s own precise and penetrating style and unique voice will make an indelible imprint on American letters.
Englander has been quoted as saying that he simply does what authors are taught to do: he writes what he knows. It comes as no surprise, then, that all of these eight stories by Englander, a self-described “God-fearing atheist” who was brought up Orthodox in suburban New York, have obviously Jewish settings or characters.
Although the author’s familiarity with Jewish and Israeli history, texts, languages and traditions is evident throughout, it is Englander’s strong emotional knowledge and astounding ability to inhabit with both gravity and humor the inner lives of characters so objectively different from him – and from one another – that makes most of these stories so memorable.
This is especially true in Sister Hills, a haunting parable of two women who, with their husbands, found, a hilltop settlement in the West Bank in 1973 and pay very dear prices for decisions and actions they take.
Rena and Yehudit’s tragic and somewhat absurd saga, spanning 38 years in roughly the same number of pages, is rooted very much in historical events, but is given a decidedly surreal feel by Englander.
Intoxicated couples For me Sister Hills stands above the other stories and serves to anchor the collection, but for other readers, this role could very well be played by its title story. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank borrows from Carver the idea of two intoxicated couples sitting around a suburban kitchen table and talking. Only in this case, they are a middle-aged Jewish couple, parents to one teenage boy, living in Florida and some old friends who have come to visit them. These friends, once secular, have become Hassidic and now live with their 10 daughters in Jerusalem.
And the talk is not about love, but rather matters of Jewish identity.
“They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right,” is how the Floridian husband begins his narration. The Anne Frank part comes toward the end, when they play the “Who would let me hide in their attic if there was another Holocaust?” game – one more of us than are probably willing to admit have played at one point or another, if not with others than at least in our own heads.
The Holocaust figures prominently in two other stories, Camp Sundown and Free Fruit for Young Widows. The former tells what happens when a group of Holocaust survivors at a summer camp for the elderly believe that a new arrival was once a guard at a Nazi camp. Picture a John Demjanjuk lookalike showing up at a Catskills bungalow colony.
Free Fruit takes place in Israel, and although it deals with the Holocaust, it is in essence about insight, wisdom, understanding and compassion being passed from one generation to the next.
Englander also reflects on what one generation passes to the next in Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side, the only story in the collection written in an unconventional style. Here, Englander lets the narrative unfold in 63 numbered paragraphs that meander from place to place and back and forth through time until it reaches its emotional resolution.
Despite England’s overall success with this book, there are two stories that don’t quite reach the level of the others. Peep Show is about a young Jewish New York lawyer who, while on his way home to his pregnant Gentile wife, gets drawn into a peep show on 42nd Street. Unfortunately, the author’s attempted meditation on sexual desire and guilt get drowned out by his descent into silly shtick and over-the-top bizarreness.
The Reader is about a nameless formerly famous writer dogged by a single admirer who follows him around the country and forces him to read to empty rooms at every stop on his book tour. It contains some beautifully written passages, but its excess length and premise drags it down.
If there is any story, aside from What We Talk About, that can challenge Sister Hills for the role of anchor for this collection, it is How We Avenged The Blums. This choice becomes obvious once one remembers where Englander is from. Set in a town on Long Island, and focusing on a group of young yeshiva boys resolved to defend themselves against an anti-Semitic bully, this story is one with which the author is right at home.
Although Englander’s prodigious talent can transport him into any place, time or character, there is no denying that he is at his very best when he writes what he knows in the most literal sense.
The Jerusalem Report: It took you the best art of a decade to write your novel The Ministry of Special Cases. How did you write most of these short stories in a year, while concurrently working on The New American Haggadah and adapting The Twenty-Seventh Man for The Public Theater?
Nathan Englander: There was something about being all-consumed and utterly absorbed and fully dedicated to these two massive undertakings that challenged me to the fullest, but really these were not things with which I identified or had any interest in doing initially. The haggada was so overwhelming… it could have been just crippling. For some reason multitasking these projects… while I was working round the clock with the haggada and then the play, jumping back and forth, it freed me up in some different way so that I wrote most of this book in a year.
TJR: So, with all these genres you have been working in, where does fiction stand for you?
NE: We all hold conflicting things in our brain. I will tell you, fiction is the supreme form, and there is nothing more powerful or more challenging or more transcendent when it’s working than a short story. Now that I’m hooked on live theater… when the actors are on fire there is nothing more transcendent and more exhilarating than live theater.
Whatever I’m working on is the greatest and most exciting thing.
TJR: Why couldn’t you sleep after writing the story Sister Hills, about the two founding mothers of a West Bank settlement?
NE: The process of writing is always surely crazy- making and intense. I’m always pulling out handfuls of hair when I’m writing… It was just very intense. It was the first time I’d ever finished something when I literally did not know what I had. It’s really been functioning as a Rorschach test as a story. Sister Hills gets such different reads from different people. It allows people to read themselves into it.
TJR: Why did you dedicate two stories in the collection to the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and even name a character after him?
NE: Both those stories are from the same night when we were in the same city for an event.
Our heads were in the same place. We were just laughing together about a scenario of one writer and one reader and I said, I’m going to make this into a story, The Reader. The basis for Free Fruit for Young Widows was a story that Etgar told me.
I asked him if I could use it as a story, and he just said, “kach” (take). I don’t usually work that way. For someone to just give you a story is such a lovely thing. It really felt like a gift.
TJR: You translated some of the stories in Keret’s Suddenly a Knock at the Door into English and he is translating stories from What We Talk About for a Hebrew edition. How did that happen?
NE: When Etgar spoke about translating his book, I just thought, I love his work in English, but I love it so much in Hebrew. I hear his voice in my head when I hear it in Hebrew. And I thought, I know how this story sounds, and I’d like to let people read it the way it sounds to me in Hebrew… I ended up co-translating his next book… It feels strange to pay a friend to do something like that… our agents were talking…and Etgar called me and said, the best way to do this is that I should translate some of your stories.
TJR: What does the adage “Write what you know” mean to you?
NE: I really believe t hat fiction is truer than truth… I grew up in suburbia in Long Island going to the mall and just watching TV. If I wasn’t at shul or at the yeshiva, I was just watching TV 24 hours a day… What do you write about when you don’t have any experience? “Write what you know” doesn’t mean only dress people in the clothes you’ve worn, and they can only eat the food you have tasted. It’s so misinterpreted about experience. Have you ever known loneliness? Have you every known sadness? You got turned down for the prom or you didn’t make the basketball team in 5th grade… those pains. You can write that sadness into the loss of a nation or the loss of a child. It’s emotional knowing.