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Jewish Journal

What we talk about when we talk about Nathan Englander’s new story collection

by Erika Dreifus

March 30, 2012 | 11:55 am

Thirteen years ago, Nathan Englander’s debut story collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” brought its then twenty-something author his initial fame. Eight years later came the publication of a first novel, “The Ministry of Special Cases.” This year brings multiple achievements: Englander’s play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” will premiere at The Public Theater in New York, his name is listed among the co-translators of Israeli author Etgar Keret’s “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” and he is the sole translator credited on the cover of the recently-released “New American Haggadah” (Little, Brown and Company, $29.99), a work edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with a new translation by Englander. The Haggadah also features commentaries by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Lemony Snicket. Designed by Israeli designer/artist Oded Ezer, it’s quite unlike any Haggadah I’ve ever seen. It may not be the most user-friendly item for the family seder (a hardcover, 8 x 11, 160-page Haggadah?). But as a book, a history, and a product of some high-profile Jewish minds, it merits attention.

As if that weren’t enough, Englander also has a new story collection out: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95).

The title story alludes to short-story master Raymond Carver’s famous “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” a much-anthologized (and for many, a much-beloved) story. In a recent online chat hosted by the Jewish Book Council, Englander noted: “It’s not the Carver story that sparked the idea [for “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank”]. It was the story taking shape that recalled the memory of the Carver.”

The New American Haggadah

Nathan Englander is also in the news this season for New American Haggadah (Little, Brown and Company, $29.99), a work edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with a new translation by Englander. This Haggadah also features commentaries by Nathaniel Deutsch, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Lemony Snicket. Designed by Israeli designer/artist Oded Ezer, it’s quite unlike any Haggadah I’ve ever seen. It may not be the most user-friendly item for the family seder (a hardcover, 8 x 11, 160-page Haggadah?). But as a book, a history, and a product of some high-profile Jewish minds, it merits attention.

But this isn’t the only bit of Englander’s book that might seem like something of a not-so-secret handshake with other literary types. In “The Reader,” the protagonist is named only “Author,” and the story unfolds during Author’s dispiriting book tour, which includes stops at stores that will be familiar to all of Englander’s colleagues: the Brookline Booksmith, Politics and Prose, and Elliott Bay Books among them. (“Author” even ends up scheduled to read at a JCC.) On the other hand, in the stories “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” the book engages with larger themes of storytelling—how histories and tales are transmitted and received over time—in ways that are likely to resonate with all interested readers.

In the end, however, conflict is what drives most compelling stories, and Englander’s tales contain ample helpings of opposing forces. These are perhaps most profound and disturbing as they manifest in tensions between and among Jews themselves. Simply put: Readers won’t find any unifying sense of Klal Yisrael in these pages.

For instance, in “How We Avenged the Blums,” we learn early that the antagonist—known as “the Anti-Semite”—may in fact have a more complicated identity:

“Some whispered that our nemesis was half-Jewish…[T]he ire of the Anti-Semite and his family was said to have been awakened when, after he’d attended kindergarten with us in our yeshiva for some months, and had been welcomed as a little son of Israel, the rabbis discovered that only his father was Jewish. The boy, deemed Gentile, was ejected from the class and led home by his shamefaced mother. Rabbi Federbush latched the back gate behind them as the boy licked at the finger paint, nontoxic and still wet on his hands.”

For the most part, varieties of such intramural discord thread throughout the book. They can be found in the title story, which sets a Jewish couple resident in Boca Raton opposite their counterparts visiting from Jerusalem; between two Israeli settler women in “Sister Hills” who agree that a rabbinical court will settle their shocking dispute; and in “Camp Sundown,” where Holocaust-survivor Elderhostelers are convinced that one among them is an ex-Nazi—and they are equally determined to bring him to justice.

Then, reading “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side,” it becomes impossible not to recall Englander’s own yeshiva past when the narrator reflects: “Now that I’m completely secular, my little niece looks at me—at her uncle—through those old eyes. She asks my brother sweetly, ‘Is Uncle Nathan Jewish?’ Yes, is the answer. Uncle Nathan is Jewish. He’s what we call an apostate. He means you no harm.”

Three of the eight stories in this collection appeared originally in The New Yorker, though I’ll admit that I remembered having read only two, the title story and the powerful closing one, “Free Fruit for War Widows.” It’s possible that not every story in this collection will meet the exceedingly high expectations that readers familiar with Englander’s name and previous work are likely to hold. But some of them certainly will.


Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories”, which was recently named an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. www.erikadreifus.com

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