Miriam's Reviews > What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
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Mar 13, 12

Read from January 21 to 25, 2012

If you’re going to judge a book by its cover—or more likely its cover blurbs—there’s no better place to start than with the back of Nathan Englander’s latest. The short story collection boasts accolades from all the usual suspects: Jonathan Safran Foer and fellow Jewish celeb Michael Chabon to Jennifer Egan and new it girl Téa Obreht. It’s a Who’s Who of literary celebrity (though Nicole Krauss’ name will be missed by some). Of course, none of these mini-reviews are particularly enlightening; each is full of clichés that could easily be found on the back of any other book.

Such is the state of the current blurb-osphere. Just ask one of its foremost perpetrators, Gary Shteyngart, whose praise for Englander is reserved for the inside flap. For some reason, publishers feel the need to keep up this charade—the more banal the blurb, the more readers seem to believe it. There’s something about the brevity combined with the celebrity that we find so convincing. But while Englander’s colleagues fail to say anything insightful in the short space allotted to them, in What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank he doesn’t succumb to the same fate. Instead, he returns to form.

Englander’s debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was enthusiastically celebrated when it came out in 1999, the same year he was selected as one of the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 (along with many of the writers now blurbing him). Michiko Kakutani, in her review for the Times, highlighted what is readily apparent after reading an Englander story: he’s a master of the homage and owes much of his style to those great Jewish writers who came before him (Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer), while still making those stories his own.

Following the collection’s success, Englander took almost a decade to write what was a much less successful first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases. Luckily for us, he’s now back to the form that first brought him fame, and, in many ways, these stories pick up where he left off. Raised on Long Island as an orthodox Jew, Englander left that world (he has said he’s “no longer religious because of [his] religious education”) but remains an active “cultural Jew,” and his profound connection to Jewish heritage seeps off each and every page. He mostly stays within the confines of these Jewish themes with which he is familiar and in which he excels. To understand the history and the background of which he speaks will enhance your appreciation, but to come at it with none will not detract from the overall pleasure. (Any fan of Michael Chabon will be familiar with this experience.) Where his first collection often touched on personal, romantic relationships, many of his newer stories deal with family dynamics.

One such story, “Sister Hills” was the first of two occasions Englander made me cry on the subway. As with all of Englander’s stories, there are layers. On face value it is a story about a superstitious woman, Yehudit, who sells her sick baby daughter to her friend, Rena, “to outsmart what’s coming.” The story takes place in a nascent settlement east of Jerusalem and spans from 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War, to the present. We learn of the lives that are lost and the ways in which they are mourned, until ultimately Rena is left with no one, at which point she invokes her claim on the daughter she purchased. Talmudists could spend years discussing the nature of this claim (a small portion of the story does just that) and readers can do the same with almost all of the stories. But when it gets down to it, the character’s struggles, and it seems Englander’s as well, can be summarized by a line that captures the modern Jewish, or modern man’s dilemma: “For a judge can know how his heart would decide, but his obligation is always to the law.”

While not all the stories have such a biblical feel, Englander’s protests at being dubbed a “Jewish writer” fall on deaf ears. Indeed, the only not overtly Jewish-themed story, “The Reader” is the weakest, seeming oddly misplaced among the anti-Semite revenge plots and plot points that hinge on the Holocaust.

It’s no surprise that the Holocaust plays a starring role in the title story, which, like two other stories in the collection, originally appeared in the New Yorker, and is clearly, and overtly, derived from the similarly named Raymond Carver story. Two couples get increasingly drunk and high, yet instead of talking about love, they talk about their Jewish identity, ultimately playing what is called the “Anne Frank game,” where players ask who would hide them should there be another Holocaust. (Englander credits his sister for coming up with the game.)

Another writer with a similar focus on Anne Frank is the far angrier Shalom Auslander, whose recent book, Hope: A Tragedy, also has modern Jews confronting the specter of Anne Frank in the attic. While you may be tempted to connect the two—after all, both authors grew up in Orthodox Jewish communities, only to forsake that background and then write about it—the similarities are only in topic, not execution. Where Auslander rants, Englander analyzes. This is not to say that Auslander isn’t enjoyable, just that Englander is the more thoughtful and more superior writer.

Indeed, all of Englander’s stories are old, remixes of Singer and Malamud and Carver: What distinguishes them is the way in which they are told, or retold as the case might be. This is best demonstrated in the final story of the collection, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” (the second time I cried on the subway, for those keeping score at home). The story within a story here is a familiar one. A man returns home after surviving the Holocaust, only to find that his onetime friends have taken over his house and plan to kill him in the night. Running purely on the will to live, he kills them instead. The morality, the brutality, the sadness of it all is expertly told by a father to his son. As a story about story-telling, the thing Englander does best, it’s perfectly placed as a coda to this inspired collection.
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